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.
  • Next Up From Fresno: High School for Overlooked 'Kids in the Middle'

    Public schools often end up concentrating on students with obvious promise at the very top, and with obvious problems at the bottom. Here is one designed to foster opportunities for everyone else.

    After the Vietnam War, the Fresno area was a major relocation site for Hmong refugees and immigrants. A statue honoring their service is near the county courthouse. Fresno is a heavily "majority minority" community training a diverse population for the future. (James Fallows)

    We kicked off our new season of American Futures reports this week with a look at the people trying to remake the much-in-need-of-remaking city of Fresno, California.

    Today Deb Fallows has the next installment, on an innovative high school called CART, or the Center for Advanced Research and Technology. It's a public charter high school that students attend for half of each school day, spending the other half at their regular high school. While at CART they get an immersion in a variety of career skills. You can read more in Deb's report here.

    As Deb points out in this item, innovations in "career technical education" have been a recurring and positive theme through our travels around the country. This is the field that was once dismissively called "vocational ed" or even "trade school." Now it seems increasingly promising as a way to connect students not immediately bound for four-year colleges—because they can't afford it, because of family obligations, whatever reason—with the higher-skilled, higher-wage technical jobs today's economy is opening up, and that are vastly better than the minimum-wage retail/food-service alternative.

    Here are some examples from Georgia, northern California, and Mississippi to go alongside this one in Fresno. And as I'll discuss further in our next installment, these developments are a natural complement to the Opportunity@Work initiative that the New America Foundation announced yesterday. (For the record: I've been involved with New America from its start, originally as its board chairman.)

  • Welcome to American Futures 3.0

    A new season of reports on a renewing America

    Bitwise headquarters in the Mural District of Fresno (James Fallows)

    Welcome to the third season of our  American Futures series, which kicked off here in the summer of 2013 and is being relaunched with reports from around the country through the rest of this year. Philip Sopher and our other colleagues at The Atlantic have prepared the reference map you see at the top of our new homepage for our project, showing places we've visited, often with our partners from Marketplace radio and with maps from our partners at the Esri mapping firm. If you click on any city's "pin," it will take you to the posts we've done about that site. You can also track posts through the category list you see on the right-hand side of that home page.

    Our reporting colleague John Tierney has prepared a brief introductory video to help launch our new season. There's no sound (tranquil!) but lots of pictures. It describes what we're doing with this reporting series. I invite you to take two or three minutes to look at it (YouTube version here), then I'll preview some of the themes and topics we're going to explore through this coming week, in Fresno, California.


    ***

    Welcome back from the video. Now it's time for two maps, and a couple of photos, that set the stage for our reports about Fresno.

    If California were split into six states, which isn't going to
    happen but is often discussed, Central California would
    be the bluish one shown by the arrow. It would also
    be the poorest state in America. (Wikipedia)

    Fresno is the biggest city in California's Central Valley, which is simultaneously one of America's richest and poorest areas.

    It is rich in its agricultural output and potential; you name the high-value crop (other than corn or wheat), and farms through the Central Valley are likely to play a major role in world supply.

    It is poor in the usual sense: by far the highest unemployment rates in the state, lowest median incomes, highest rates of poverty, worst remaining consequences of the financial crash of 2008, most serious pollution and public-health challenges. By many calculations, if California were indeed broken into six states, as the venture capitalist Tim Draper has proposed (hint: this won't happen), the resulting state of Central California would be the poorest in the country.

    Fresno shares its region's strengths, as an agricultural center, and its challenges, of poverty and pollution. It also shares a trait with other places where we've spent time, notably the Golden Triangle of Mississippi (as explained via Joe Max Higgins here and the Mississippi School of Math and Science here) or much of the state of West Virginia (as explained by Larry Groce)or parts of South Dakota or South Carolina or Georgia or rural Maine or the Rustbelt generally.

    That trait is an acute awareness of being looked down on or condescended to by big-city fashionable America. I feel entitled to say that, both because it's true and because I grew up in, and still think of myself as being "from," a place in the same situation: the unloved "Inland Empire" of semi-desert Southern California. (The locus classicus of my home town as loser-land is of course Joan Didion's "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which came out when I was in high school.) That awarenessthe realization of connoting the opposite of "the Bay Area" or "Cambridge" or "Westside LA"plays a part in the drama of these areas, and, as we'll show, in their efforts at turnaround.

    ***

    Now the two maps that set up the story of Fresno. I'm not counting the "six Californias" map, since that's imaginary. The two below, which we saw in the office of Fresno's popular Republican mayor, Ashley Swearingen.

    The first is where Fresno's richer people, and its many very poor people, live. The triangular area near the bottom, where the shading is darkest and where 40 percent or more of the people are impoverished, is where all the buildings of the historic downtown are located.


    The darker the map shading, the poorer the population (City of Fresno)

    The second is where the city has grown in the 70 years since the end of World War II. The blue area shows the city's concentrated downtown growth through the end of World War II. The red is where development—mainly suburban sprawl and malls—has happened since then.


    Blue: Fresno's development up to 1945. Red: everything since then. (City of Fresno)

    "Fresno is famous as a victim of sprawl ... " I said last week when beginning a question to Mayor Swearingen; in her six years in office, she has been a big booster of downtown renewal efforts. "I'm not sure I'd use the word victim," she broke in to say. "We were the perpetrators!" She was referring to a build-toward-the-horizon policy through much of the postwar era.

    The results in the red-zone Fresno on the map above are familiar to anyone who has seen mall-and-tract-development sprawl anywhere else in America. The results in blue-zone Fresno are sobering, to put it politely. Here is a snapshot view of what was in the 1960s the pride of Fresno's commercial ambitions, the Fulton Street mall, at lunchtime on a weekday:

    Another view, during what should be prime shopping hours.

    This looks, and seems, pretty bleak. And that is why the people and groups we'll be chronicling in coming days were both surprising and impressive in their determination that downtown Fresno would be the place where they would start their companies, realize their ambitions, and help rebuild a community. This is the hardest-hit area in a hard-pressed town in a region the rest of the state relies on but generally ignores. (For instance: The opening leg of California's much-discussed High Speed Railroad, which will begin in Fresno, is referred to in coastal California as "the train to nowhere.")

    The next installment will begin with a look at Bitwise Industries, which advertises itself as the Mothership of Technology in the Fresno area — and which, over the past year in which we've been following it, has done a lot to back up that claim.


    One of Bitwise's graphics for its Fresno Tech revolution

    One of Bitwise's founders, Jake Soberal (the other was Irma Ogluin) grew up in nearby Clovis, went East for college, worked as a big-city lawyer—and then decided to come back and try to be part of an entrepreneurial revival in Fresno. He told a local business magazine that when he gave a commencement address at Clovis High, “I can distinctly remember sitting up there, this arrogant 18-year-old thinking, you know, these folks really ought to enjoy this speech because
    they’ll never see me here again.” He told us recently, "Solving problems in any place is valiant, but if you can solve them in Fresno, you can solve them anywhere." As we'll explain, he's now part of a combined effort to develop Fresno's own technology businesses, and crucially also to train its community-college, non-college, and non-high-school-degree populations with better opportunities in the tech world. "If this project can work right here, in the middle of a lot of the biggest challenges facing American cities, what might it do elsewhere?"

    Local boosterism is a familiar part of the American fabric, from the days of Mark Twain or Babbitt to Waiting for Guffman and beyond. But we think this is something different—more than just faith, as in the Fulton Street mall show below— and we'll explain why in days to come.


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  • Interesting Software Update: Tinderbox How-To, Jerry's Brain

    New looks from two old favorites

    From the new guide to Tinderbox software (Mark Bernstein, Eastgate Systems)

    It's been a while since the latest update on this front, so here is a quick mention of developments in two programs I've followed over the years.

    1) "Getting Started With Tinderbox." For the past few years, my go-to workhorse program for data organizing/software-for-thinking has been the Mac-only program Tinderbox, from Eastgate Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts. (My program for writing, as I can't mention often enough, is the absolutely unparalleled Scrivener, from Literature and Latte software in Cornwall, England.) I still love the idea-organizing program Zoot, which I first wrote about in this magazine back in the mid-1990s. But Zoot is Windows-only, and since I made the switch to the Mac world six years ago, fleeing the nightmare that was Windows Vista, I've mainly had to admire Zoot from afar.

    In an age of ubiquitous free apps, Tinderbox can seem pricey. It's $249 for initial purchase and updates for a year, and then $98 a year for ongoing updated releases. The new releases are frequent and valuable (as are those that Zoot's creator, Tom Davis, keeps issuing for his program). But if you don't care about them you can use the original program as long as you want. Tinderbox's creator, Mark Bernstein, has justified his business approach as part of a new wave of "artisanal software" or Neo-Victorian computing. You pay more for craft beer than for the cheapest swill; you may choose to pay more for organic food than the very cheapest source of calories. So too with certain kinds of software.

    The way I think about it is this: $98 a year is much less than I'd pay for one standard day of business travel, and this program's value to me through every day of the year is greater than what I gain on the standard day on the road. Judge for yourself, but I've found the investment very much worthwhile.

    The real obstacle to wider adoption of Tinderbox has been the difficulty in getting started with the program. If someone hands you a sledgehammer, you have an idea of what you might do with it. But the first time you're handed a pencil, you have no idea of the million possibilities it opens up. To help potential users over this hurdler, Bernstein has created a carefully annotated step-by-step guide, available as a PDF for download here. Worth checking out.

    2) Jerry Michalski's Brain. For years I've also loved the innovative, multi-platform program TheBrain, from TheBrain software in Los Angeles. I wrote about it in the New York Times 10 years ago, and then in the Atlantic in 2009 and 2012. It has various free or very low-cost versions; the full-strength desktop edition, for Mac or Windows, starts at $219.  

    The very most ambitious and creative user of TheBrain has long been the tech-world figure Jerry Michalski. He has been chronicling his life and thoughts via this software for 18 years now and has posted his results on the web. Now he's created an iOS app, called JerrysBrain. He sends some notes about what he's doing:

    My Brain has been openly available on the Web for many years and will remain so, at JerrysBrain.com. Now a Jerry's Brain app is available for iOS and costs a buck. Here's the direct link to it in the app store.

    It's easy for me to create permalinks to specific thoughts in my online Brain, though not to the iOS app. Here are a few useful and interesting direct links:

    I started this Brain in December 1997. It has over 257K thoughts, all put in by hand. I just ran the numbers and it's a span of 6300 days, or 40 thoughts a day.

    The top insight from 17+ years of using TheBrain is that we're an amnesic society. We have little context or memory available. A huge causal force is the business model of the media businesses, which historically needed us to watch the ads scattered in the content, so it kept the content from us.

    For further exploration, here's a screenshot from Jerry's Brain and then three posts and screencasts from Jerry Michalski on how and why he works this way:

    • Early post with 8-min screencast introduction to my Brain, the best intro
    • Post for anyone wanting to dive deeper, after a 30-min talk I gave at the Personal Digital Archiving conference.
    • Most recent post, pointing to the newly available Jerry's Brain app.

    For the record, I have no relationship with any of the companies here except as a (full-freight) paying customer. In that capacity I say: Check them out!

  • Finally I Hear a Politician Explain My Country Just the Way I Understand It

    "America is not some fragile thing." Words to live by.

    Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years later (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

    I've been in transit or offline all of today and didn't see President Obama's Selma speech in real time. I'm catching up with it now, very late at night, and had a reaction different from the good job/bad job assessment I can't help giving (as a one-time speechwriter) to most political discourse.

    I thought this was a very good job, in written presentation and in delivery, as far as I can judge via YouTube. But for me that takes second place to my overwhelming reaction of gratitude: for once, a public figure expressing exactly how I feel.

    I think this speech (official text here) will move to the front of the public statements by which Obama hopes to be remembered in the long run. Of course I'm biased because I agree with him, but the case would be this:

    Obama's career-making speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, which I happened to be in the hall to witness, was unforgettable political theater, the obvious arrival of a star, but its text is not, in fact, that impressive on re-reading. It assured Americans that they could easily move past Red/Blue tribal divisions. Isn't it pretty to think so.

    Obama's speech on race relations in America, in Philadelphia seven years ago, saved his campaign and thus was again a history-changing performance. Before that speech, it seemed possible that he would be forced from the race by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright "God damn America!" furore. But I don't think its actual discussion of race relations will be studied for enlightenment in years to come.

    Obama's speech today, again declaring my bias in agreeing with him, differs from those of most other national figures, most of the time, in stating with concise complexity what is indeed exceptional about this American experiment.

    I first lived outside my native country at age 21, when I went to graduate school in the superficially similar setting of England. Those next few years began for me the process that has continued ever since, when living in the U.S. or abroad: that of recognizing how exceptional the American ambition is, and how much my own tribal identities start with being American.

    These are the parts of Obama's speech that rang truest to me, after spending much of my life thinking about the country from afar, with emphasis added:

    And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? ...

    What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

    And:

    The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny....

    It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.  

    That’s what makes us unique.

    And the riff near the end, with its artful repeated emphasis on we:

    We were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights....

    Look at our history.  We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters.  That’s our spirit.  That’s who we are.

    We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some.  And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth.  That is our character.

    We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free –- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan.  We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be.  

    We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.   We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

    We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent.  And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

    We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

    We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

    We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

    Political speeches are masterworks of base-touching references to different icons and interest groups. This list in this speech is different from what most politicians would offer — you'll know that the GOP is serious about competing for non-white votes and thus for the presidency when you can imagine one of its candidates presenting a similar list — and it is one that matches my sense of what I love about my country. That is who we are. That is our character. That is how we came to be.

    Obama is obviously not the first person to formulate this thought. The continual re-making of America was a central theme for Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and also Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the founders of our magazine. Twenty-five years ago, I even wrote what is essentially a book-length version of this speech, called More Like Us. And when our American Futures series re-launches on Monday, similar themes will be central to it. But the appeal to American exceptionalism via embracing our capacity for renewal, self-criticism, and inclusiveness is one I haven't heard this clearly from a public figure in many years. (See the Atlantic's Matt Ford on these themes.)

    And near the end:

    That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.

    We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.

    The political tribalism of this moment means that Democrats are mostly welcoming today's speech, and Republicans and Fox News mostly condemning it. But these days Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted respectfully even at right-wing gatherings. When the political passions of our time have passed, people of all parties will quote this speech as expressing an essence of our American creed.

  • Could This Video Save China?

    "I just don't want to live like this," a prominent Chinese journalist says about the environmental hell that her country has become. We are witnessing a very important moment for China's future, and for its effect on the world.

    Chinese journalist Chai Jing, in her runaway Internet success "Under the Dome," about the pollution catastrophe in China ( YouTube )

    Hundreds of millions of people in China have watched this 103-minute-long video just in the past week. There's never been anything close to its success in the English-language Internet world. Everyone in the China-policy community is aware of it and discussing it. I'm mentioning it here for several reasons.

    First, it's just now available in a version with English subtitles for the whole length. The crowd-sourced translation effort is its own fascinating tale—you can see the crowd-sourcing page, mainly in Chinese, here—but for the moment the point is that English speakers can follow the whole thing, below.

    Beyond that, this documentary, an expose of China's profound pollution problems by prominent journalist Chai Jing, has the potential to be one of those creations that serves as a before-and-after marker in a society's development. For America, before-and-after Uncle Tom's Cabin or How the Other Half Lives or The Feminine Mystique or Silent Spring. For France, before-and-after J'accuse. For China, potentially, before-and-after Chai Jing's 穹顶之下, Under the Dome.

    Sustainability it all forms is the greatest threat to China's own continued growth, and the greatest challenge China's emergence presents to the world. That's according to me (and here), but if you look at this video, or consider Alan Taylor's stunning series of photos on our site yesterday (and two years ago), you'll see that it's not some oddball conceit. Here, for instance, is Alan's comparison of the exact same view in Beijing on a clear day and a smoggy one in the past few weeks.

    The way it often looks

    Versus

    The way it sometimes looks—this is the exact same view as above.

    I stress the potential effect of Under the Dome because how the Chinese government will continue to treat it is of enormous importance, and is in real-time flux. Through the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government still seemed to be in denial about the country's pollution problems. The opaque skies that persisted until the very day of the opening ceremony were described in the government-controlled press as "mist." But within two or three years, the problems had become so undeniable that the government repositioned itself as the champion of public health and a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable China. Thus its allowing this documentary to be seen at all.

    How will it react, now that this documentary has become the most widely viewed "serious" program in the nation's history? You can see a fascinating back-and-forth about the implications from a range of China experts here, on ChinaFile. If you're interested in the politics of environmental protection, or in China, or in both, I cannot recommend this exchange highly enough. Adam Minter of Bloomberg, my onetime comrade in Shanghai who now lives in my other former home of Kuala Lumpur, makes a positive case about China's ability to wrestle with its problems. Michael Zhao, also in ChinaFile, argues that the air-quality disaster has reached a tipping point at which clean-up can no longer be deferred.  

    Here's one other implication. Spend a minute or two looking at the passage in the video starting at around time 18:00, when Chai Jing talks about how her own awareness of pollution problems emerged. Or the part just after that, when she explains why the desperately poor China of the 1960s and 1970s welcomed every new smokestack. Or in most concentrated form just the passage from time 21:08 to 22:20. Or the passage an hour later, starting around around 01:20:00, when Chai Jing interviews British coal miners about their country's shift away from coal.

    Watch any of these and then join me in wondering about this: Modern China is full of the kind of people you see in this video—the ones who researched and produced this program, the ones listening in the audience, the ones who have so avidly sought it out online. How can the leaders of a country such as this, full of hundreds of millions of people eager for information about their futures, imagine that they will survive or their people will prosper if the current effort to wall China off from the world's information flow goes on?

  • How Air-Traffic Controllers Sound When They Have to Close the Airport

    Since most things about the modern airline experience are so unpleasant for most of the traveling public most of the time, it's worth noticing how smoothly these professionals do their work.

    The path of Delta 1086 this morning ( FlightAware )

    It's obviously good news that no one appears to have been hurt when a Delta Air Lines flight skidded off a runway this morning at LaGuardia airport. Here's an aspect of the whole process I find enlightening:

    Reader and aviation buff Ari Ofsevit sent a link to the LiveAtc.net recording of transmissions from the LaGuardia control tower while the episode was underway. It's not embeddable, but you can listen to an MP3 of the recording here. A listener's guide to what you'll hear:

    At about time 2:15, the tower controller clears a different Delta flight, number 1999, to land on Runway 13. The controller also reports that there is a noticeable but by no means hazardous 12-knot crosswind on landing, and that after a recent landing another airliner had reported "braking action good." Getting the wind report is a routine part of the landing process; the "braking action" information would be added only in slippery conditions like these.

    Here's the FAA plate showing LaGuardia's layout, with arrows added by me. The red arrow shows the landing path to Runway 13. The blue arrow shows the approximate direction of the wind.

    At around time 2:40, the controller starts calling for the airliner that ran into trouble, Delta 1086, which presumably had just landed. He doesn't get any answer.

    About 30 seconds after that, the shift into emergency mode begins. A ground vehicle, "Car 100," checks in with the tower to say that there's a problem. By time 4:00, or barely one minute after the controller was calmly sequencing planes in for landing, one of the busiest airports in North America, with dozens of airplanes inbound for landing, is immediately ordered closed, as the ground crews try to assess how bad the problems are.

    Over the next few minutes, the tower controller first tells planes in the landing process to "go around," that is to abort their approach and climb away from the airport, and then sequences them to ... wherever else they will end up. The bad weather and flight cancellations today meant that the New York-area airspace was less jammed than normal. Even so, fitting extra traffic, at one minute's notice, into the flow for JFK and Newark (or airports farther away) is no simple feat.

    FlightAware's depiction of airline traffic shortly after LaGuardia was closed today. Compared with normal days, there are fewer planes overall, because of the bad weather—and none are headed into the usually very busy LGA airport in the center of the screen.

    This action continues with some intensity for the next few minutes. You can get a sample starting at 4:45, when another Delta crew checks in with everything-is-normal calmness only to hear that they are not allowed to land.

    At about 5:40, another air crew reports that the disabled Delta 1086 is leaking fuel. The tower controller passes on that info. After that come long periods of radio silence, when the controllers are on the telephones or talking with people other than air crews, and then bursts of instructions to airplanes that were about to take off but can't (for instance, around time 15:00 and 20:45), sending inbound airplanes somewhere else (and out of one another's way), and managing the turn-on-a-dime closure of this normally very busy terminal.

    ***

    Why do I mention this? One reason is that real-time responses to crisis are just plain interesting—and you can enjoy the drama with clear conscience in a case like this, in which (apparently) no one was hurt. But the major reason is to emphasize a point that my wife Deb wrote about here, and that most air travelers never get a chance to witness. That is the remarkable unflappability of air-traffic controllers in circumstances that would leave most people very flapped.

    When this LaGuardia controller first hears that the active runway is closed, and then that the entire airport has been closed, his voice rises in pitch. But at that moment he has no way of knowing whether this was a minor mishap or whether a planeload of people had just died on impact. He goes on to juggle a complete re-ordering of plans very quickly and in relative calm. Compared with the way most people in most roles handle the unexpected, air-traffic controllers are amazingly steady—as are the flight crews too. Since most things about modern airline travel are unpleasant for most of the traveling public in most circumstances, it's worth being reminded of how these professionals do their work.

    ***

    Update: here is further relevant info from Ofsevit, which explains what you see below in the FlightAware track of Delta 1999, the plane just about to land when the airport is closed. The loops in its flight path are holding patterns and other delaying turns it had been instructed to make.

    One other thing to note: disaster was averted by under a minute.

    DL1999 reported an altitude of 700 feet when it was told to go around. It's possible it went even lower. At that time, it was going 139 knots (160 mph), and located at 40.8000, -73.9167. (And, no, the lack of more decimal places here is irrelevant, a plane's length and wingspan is 0.0003 degrees.) It was about 2.25 miles from the threshold of runway 13, and would have touched down 50 seconds later. Had it landed, it would have been a very close call whether it would have clipped the skidded plane, or the evacuees, or rescue equipment, which given the visibility it would not have seen until close in. And that's why we have specific landing slots at airports like LGA.

    The pilots must have executed the operation cleanly, too; it's impressive how quickly they responded and changed course (they may have heard the previous chatter on the channel and been prepared). Considering that DL1999 had made four loops circling west of LGA, the passengers probably weren't happy about a go around at the time. But it certainly was the only option.

  • On the Use and Misuse of History: The Netanyahu Case

    "I take the Iranian threat seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpfuland if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.
" A historian on the current state of debate.

    Elie Wiesel, next to Sara Netanyahu, being introduced to receive an ovation at Tuesday's speech (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

    Previously in this series on Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech: "Is It 1938?", "The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster," "The 'Existential' Chronicles Go On," "On Existential Threats," and yesterday's roundup of reader mail.

    1) "The historical equivalent of hollering." From a history professor at a university in the Southwest:

    I am no fan of Bibi's, but I'd also like to note that this ahistorical use of the past makes historians' teeth itch. (I'll just blithely speak for the whole profession.) More centrally, both our political leadership and Israel's desperately need to develop a wider grasp of that past.

    History offers up a depressingly vast number of small states perceiving danger from larger, well-armed, unpredictable neighbors. It provides at least that many examples of threats to continued Jewish existence in a given region. The constant reiteration of this particular event [the Nazi-era Holocaust] achieves little more than dumbing down the discourse: it's the historical equivalent of hollering.

    To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the Holocaust is not particularly good to think with. Its extremity serves as a bludgeon. Its use is nearly always intended to cut off debate or critique, to seize the moral high ground, and ideally to incite panic. I don't know the best response to the Iranian threat, which I take seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpfuland if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.


    
Ask your average historian whether the past repeats itself. She'll tell you it doesn't -- only that it sometimes rhymes. The past can be a rich source of insight, surely. But much of what we ask our students to do centers around analyzing the complex causes of immensely complicated events. There are almost always at least three solid ways to interpret any given historical question. In short, the past is not a simplistic instruction manual for the present. It almost never provides any kind of predictive template. 


    
There are other good reasons to argue with Binyamin Netanyahu beyond his misuse of the past. But since his perception of Iran is based at least in part on that misuse, I stand by my reason. 


    2) The modern history that got left out of the speech. Gary Sick, of Columbia University, has studied Iranian politics and policy for more than 40 years. After Netanyahu's speech he wrote an assessment, including its strength as a "barn burner of a campaign speech" for the Israeli elections, but also its weakness as a studiously misleading description of the real state of negotiations with Iran.

    You don’t want to include anything that will detract from your central purpose [of campaigning in Israel, where the speech came on at 6pm local time]. So, what did Netanyahu leave out of his speech?

    1.       Iran has dramatically reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium. Remember Bibi’s cartoon bomb that was going to go off last summer? Well, it has been drained of fuel, and that will probably continue to be true indefinitely. No mention.

    2.       Inspections will continue long after the nominal 10-year point, contrary to his claim that everything expires in ten years. No mention.

    3.       The heavy water reactor at Arak will be permanently modified, so it produces near zero plutonium. Not only did he not mention it, but he listed the reactor and plutonium as one of his threats.

    4.       His repeated assertion that Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons ignores the judgment “with high confidence” of both American and Israeli intelligence that Iran has taken no decision to build nuclear weapons. It also contradicts the repeated findings of the IAEA that no materials have been diverted for military purposes.

    5.       All the major countries of the world are co-negotiators with the United States, so a U.S. congressional intervention that killed the deal will not only affect us but all of our major allies. If we stiff them, there is no reason to believe the international sanctions will hold for long. No mention.

    Are these simply oversights in the interests of time? Why did he leave out only the facts that cast doubt on his central thesis?

    Read all of Gary Sick's piece; compare it with Netanyahu's end-days warnings about the emerging "bad deal"; and while you're at it think back to people who were telling you in 2002 and early 2003 to be skeptical of the end-days warnings about Saddam Hussein's imminent and existential threat to the world.

    3) "It will always be 1938." From a reader in Massachusetts who identifies himself as Jewish:

    Here is a simpler answer to your "Central Question" [of whether it's 1938 again] Bibi is basically stating that it will always be 1938 for Israel and the Jews of the world.

    Here's the thing:  I cannot but see that Rabin understood this when it came to the relationship of Israel with its neighbors, while Sharon came to appreciate it in terms of internal demographics, so each took tremendous risks to rebalance these unsustainable circumstances in a meaningful and durable way. Just to be clear, I don't think that Sharon was as constructive as Rabin, but he was probably sincere in his calculus.

    When has Netanyahu ever done anything that comes close to this?

    In Bibi's mind, does Israeland do the Jewish peoplelose a significant aspect of their ("our") place in the world if the threat of annihilation is not present?  He can say that "they" would like to live in peace with all the other peoples of the world, but what would it take from Iranor Egypt (or Russia, for that matter)in order to permanently eliminate the sense that Israel is potentially facing an Existential Threat?  In my humble opinion, nothing could.

    4) This note comes from a reader in Germany, and I am presenting it with original spelling. In context it's relevant to point out that Germany has wrestled with its own cataclysmic Nazi-era history much more earnestly than Japan has dealt with its Imperial-era record, China with its Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, or the United States with its treatment of Native American populations and its ongoing racial injustices.  He writes:

    I want to add the following thought:

    (I am German)

    What does the Netanyahu statement(s) about the possible prospect of Iran developing a nuclear military capability tell us? I understand, that the ruling political elite of Israel can’t imagine to live peacefully with it’s neighbours, including Iran, Iraque, if Israel does not have the military dominance including the option to annihilate a perceived opponent. If there might develop a situation in which a country, f.e. Iran, has the same nuclear option against Israel, this would be seen as inacceptable and an existential threat.

    Even if the picture of Nazi-Germany in 1938 obviously does not apply, one might be inclined to look for some parallel in history. With my limited knowledge, I can only find the late 1940s and the political and military opposition of USA and the Sowjet Union. There was a time where the USA had a –proven- nuclear capability and the SU did not. Yet it did not immediately blow the world to pieces, when the Sowjets also developed the nuclear option. The military capabilities were just leveled.  Cold war started and more than once came very close to become a hot onebut both learned and knew to avoid it, finally.

    A leveled military stand-off is unacceptable for Israel? Well, then what? To my knowledge, there is not a single serious analyst, who would state, that a nuclear Iran immediately will start a lot of missiles to destroy Israel completely. Israel (and Iran) would “only” have to adopt a similar political process at eye-level – that would be the “unacceptable” new experience.

    This view of Israel’s relationship to it’s neighbouring countries by the present political leadership is deeply troubling. South Korea is accepting the situation of a nuclear threat certainly for the sole reason of the nuclear umbrella provided by the United Statesotherwise I would guess it would take long for South Korea to establish some nuclear option as well.

    Why should the nations around Israel permanently accept the nuclear threat of Israel with no option on their sidesince there certainly is no nuclear umbrella whatsoever for them, neither by USA, Russia, China, India nor Pakistan ?

  • Readers on Netanyahu, Iran, and Existential Threats

    A powerful speech, received in very different ways by different audiences

    The campaign goes on in Israel, as the campaigner comes to the United States (Reuters)

    These responses follow these recent pieces about Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech: "Is it 1938?", "The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster," "The 'Existential' Chronicles Go On," and "On Existential Threats."

    1) "What kind of existential threat is this, if it won't change policy on the West Bank?" From a reader at a U.S. defense-related organization:

    Let me add a couple more thoughts on Iran as an existential threat to Israel, or to be more precise, whether Netanyahu thinks Iran is an existential threat to Israel.  I say, no he does not.  Obviously, no one can read his mind, but we can see how he acts, and he does not act like a national leader possessed by such a belief.

    A leader who truly believes there is an existential threat to his nation organizes his actions to counter that threat.  In particular, he prioritizes his goals.  Things which would otherwise be valuable to him have to take a backseat, and maybe even be dispatched with, if it harms or insufficiently aids him in countering the existential threat.

    In Netanyahu’s case, what would that include?

    It would mean forming stronger alliances against Iran that would buttress Israel’s position against their nuclear program, even at the cost of harming other interests close to Netanyahu’s heart.  Principally, that would mean being more accommodating towards the Palestinian Authority (even if not Hamas).  This would serve to remove an unnecessary irritant with the Obama administration, conceivably even with the European states imposing sanction on Iran.  It would help open doors to the Sunni Arab states that Israel desperately needs to be publicly on its side on the Iran issue, and not just expressing their agreement in private.  (Indeed, reports are that Israel wooed these states’ ambassadors to attend Netanyahu’s speech, but was turned down.

    Does Netanyahu want to thwart development of an Iranian bomb?  Surely.  Is it worth any concessions on the West Bank?  Apparently not.  What kind of existential threat is it when maintaining Israel’s position on the West Bank supersedes rational actions to counter Iran?

    So indeed let’s compare Netanyahu to Churchill.  We can just mention briefly that Churchill’s main goal from at least May 1940 on was to stay on the best possible terms with the American president, which obviously could serve as a lesson to Netanyahu.  But that was an easy one for him.  Other things were a lot harder.  Selling off parts of the British Empire to the Americans.  Making deals with the devil named Stalin, allying himself with any and all partners to defeat Hitler and Germany.  *That’s* what you do when you face a true existential threat.

    I didn’t know Churchill and he wasn’t a friend of mine, but Netanyahu sure as hell isn’t a Churchill.

    2) "This is where we disagree." A reader responds to this line from me, contrasting 1938 and 2015: "Nazi Germany had a world-beating military, and unarmed Jewish minorities within its immediate control. Iran is far away and militarily no match for Israel." The reader replies:

    This is where we disagree. Iran is close and militarily strong, much stronger than any military Israel has faced before. Iran is as far away as Syria and Lebanon. In other words, on the Israeli border. Iran is much larger than Israel and has much larger manpower. While Israel spends more and has more military equipment, it is not that much more and, as stated before, Iran is likely stronger than any military Israel has ever faced before. Hezbollah did very well in its recent wars with Israel.

    A war against Iran would be devastating for Israel, or at least that is what many Israelis believe. There is no handwaving "we'll crush them" belief, as you try to portray it.

    3) "If it's really 1938 ..." That is the subject line on this reader's note:

    The expanding empire that blames a minority  (gays) for its problems is Russia, not Iran.

    Iran is just a buffer state to Putin.  See also Syria.

    The best hope for world peace and nuclear proliferation would be joint US and Iranian military operations against ISIS.  Second best is a good nuclear deal.

    Instead of attacking Iran, we should be quietly moving tens of thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft to all three Baltic countries and Poland.

    Even if Iran gets nukes it lacks the air force or navy to invade and hold a country.  The same can't be said about Russia.

    Several other readers wrote to say that they would have liked the speech better if it were about Putin and Russia.

    4) A political shift. From a lawyer on the East Coast:

    Netanyahu’s choice to embrace the Republican Party offers what may be a historic opportunity.  Henceforth we will have one party, the Republican, asserting as it has for some time that the United States must follow the lead of Israel in all things—the “no daylight” cliché that has become Republican orthodoxy.

    This creates an opportunity for the Democratic Party to tell voters something different.  How about this: “We wish the people of Israel well.  On many issues the interests of Israel and the United States are the same, and we will work together to advance those interests.  But there may be times when we conclude, even after honest dialogue with Israel, that the interests of our two countries diverge.  When that happens we will work to advance the interests of the United States rather than the differing interests of Israel.”

    In the context of U.S.-Israel relations this sounds like a radical idea, but it expresses our view of every other country in the world, and there is no reason Israel should be different.  This would perhaps put Democrats out of the running for Sheldon Adelson’s money, but they’re not likely to get any of that anyway.

    5) "You are wrong." From a reader I know in the tech industry:

    Unfortunately, you're wrong about Bib's fighting words.

    You may or may not be right that Iran is fundamentally unlike Nazi Germany or that Iran's leaders are not suicidal. In the spectrum of risks, it's a big chance to take. Israel's population is 8.3M vs Iran's 77.2M vs USA 320.2M, so your statement "any attack on Israel would ensure countless more Iranian deaths" isn't all that reassuring. Is it possible that you do not appreciate the thinking of suicide bombers or Jihadis.

    More importantly, Iran neither has to actually use the bomb nor use it directly to intimidate the free world. There are plenty of anonymous popular fronts who unfortunately would happily deliver an atomic suitcase to downtown DC. Oops. What are you going to do? Start a war?

    I personally did not support Netanyahu's speaking to Congress, but the scariest quote in the 3rd Jeffrey Goldberg piece you linked to: "The deal that seems to be taking shape right now does not fill me—or many others who support a diplomatic solution to this crisis—with confidence." David Horovitz, the thoughtful editor of [The Times of Israel], put it this way: "Netanyahu so wrong in confronting Obama, so right on Iran".

    It's not about preventing any deal. Deep down, doubt it though you may, Netanyahu actually does go to sleep and wake up "genuinely believing that this is a life-or-death existential issue because of a suicidal Iranian leadership." And many many Israelis share what you must consider his "paranoia."

    My Dad's [a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald] quote still stands, "When someone threatens to kill you, just believe him." Americans may find this hard to appreciate because of (1) superpower strength, (2) strategic size and depth, and (3) the doctrine of M.A.D. [Mutually Assured Destruction, a.k.a. nuclear deterrence] with relatively rational adversaries for the last 70 years.

    I envy your inability to consider the E-word. [Existential]

    6) What about the speech, as a speech? From another lawyer on the East Coast:

    We can agree to disagree about 1938, protocols, etc., but given your role as former speechwriter, I was really more interested to read what you thought of the speech in terms of delivery, language, rhetoric, structure, etc.

    I wasn't listening to it so much in those terms, or taking notes on phrasing and stagecraft. But overall as a speech, I thought it was very good. (Transcript from WaPo here.)

    It was crystal-clear: "My friends, for over a year, we've been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It's a very bad deal. We're better off without it."

    It was well and powerfully delivered, by someone who knows how to wait for and ride crowd approval, of which there was a lot.

    It had a number of noticeable phrases that stayed just on the effective side of the effective-verging-toward-cutesy continuum. (I.e., I thought these were good, not too cute.)  For instance, "It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's path to the bomb." And "Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. ... In this deadly game of thrones, there's no place for America or for Israel." And "when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy."

    When listening to Ronald Reagan, I often disagreed with the policies he was presenting but respected his skill in presenting them. Same with Benjamin Netanyahu today.

  • The Central Question: Is It 1938?

    If today's world resembles Europe on the eve of invasion, carnage, and the Holocaust, then Netanyahu's warnings are prudent and wise. But what if the analogy is wrong?

    Prime Minister Netanyahu is no slave to the TelePrompTer (Reuters)

    After Benjamin Netanyahu's speech let me point you toward Jeffrey Goldberg's analysis. Let me also suggest, again, that differences on Iran policy correspond to answers to this one question: Whether the world of 2015 is fundamentally similar to, or different from, the world of 1938.

    I've gone into the 1938 question before, here and here, but in light of the theme's centrality to this speech I'll do so one more time. No parallel from history is ever perfect, as Ernest May and Richard Neustadt so memorably argued in Thinking in Time. But as that book also demonstrated, the idea of recurring historic episodes has a powerful effect on decision-making in the here and now. Disagreements over policy often come down to the search for the right historic pattern to apply.

    Over the years Benjamin Netanyahu has very explicitly said, "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany." For instance, see the the first minute of the clip below. Netanyahu said he was asked to give a young man a one-sentence summary of the world situation. Netanyahu answered with those six words.

    In less explicit form, the idea that Europe on the eve of the Holocaust is the most useful guide to the world in 2015 runs through arguments about Iran policy. (Ted Cruz made the explicit comparison after the speech.) And if that is the correct model to apply, the right "picture in our heads" as Walter Lippmann put it in Public Opinion, then these conclusions naturally follow:

    The threatening power of the time—Nazi Germany then, the Islamists' Iran now—is a force of unalloyed evil whose very existence threatens decent life everywhere.

    That emerging power cannot be reasoned or bargained with but must ultimately be stopped and broken.

    "Compromisers" are in fact appeasers who are deluding themselves about these realities—Neville Chamberlain then, Barack Obama now—and increase danger for the world by wasting time before the inevitable showdown. The tellers of harsh truths—Winston Churchill then, Benjamin Netanyahu now—are trying to spare the world far greater dangers by encouraging action before it's too late.

    1938, the first time around (Wikimedia)

    • The appeasers' blindness endangers people all around the world but poses an especially intolerable threat to Jews. Six million of them were slaughtered because Britain, France, and especially the United States took too long to confront Hitler or even open their doors to refugees. Today's 8 million residents of Israel could be at existential risk if a mad regime, committed to their destruction, gains nuclear weapons. If a national leader says he intends to kill you, you take that seriously.

    • As a result of all these factors, no deal with such an implacable enemy is preferable to an inevitably flawed and Munich-like false-hope deal.

    That's what follows if the most relevant history is pre-Holocaust, pre-World War II Europe, and nearly everything in Netanyahu's speech can be read in this light. Also, and crucially, it means that the most obvious criticism of the speech—what's Netanyahu's plan for getting Iran to agree?—is irrelevant. What was the Allies' "plan" for getting Hitler to agree? The plan was to destroy his regime.

    * * *

    If, on the other hand, you think that the contrasts with 1938 are more striking than the similarities, you see things differently. As a brief reminder of the contrasts: The Germany of 1938 was much richer and more powerful than the Iran of today. Germany was rapidly expansionist; Iran, despite its terrorist work through proxies, has not been. The Nazi leaders had engulfed the world in war less than a decade after taking power. Iran's leaders, oppressive and destructive, have not shown similar suicidal recklessness. European Jews of 1938 were stateless, unarmed, and vulnerable. Modern Israel is a powerful, nuclear-armed force. Moreover, the world after the first wartime use of nuclear weapons, of course by the United States, is different from the world before that point. That is, all of humanity has faced an existential threat from nuclear warfare through the past 60 years. Eliminating the weapons is the only lasting protection; while they exist, deterrence has been the only way to keep them from being used.

    So if it's not 1938, then other models of negotiation can apply, like those the United States used with the Soviet Union through the decades of the Cold War, or with China from the 1970s onward. Iran is then another problematic state, rather than a uniquely Nazi-style menace. (Recall that before the Iraq War Netanyahu made similarly absolutist claims about the undeterrable threat of Saddam Hussein.) Negotiations will therefore include, as they have with other states, a combination of carrots and sticks; a recognition of interests on all sides; and an understanding that negotiated progress is long, halting, and imperfect, but better than the alternative of no progress at all.

    And if it's not 1938, analyses like this one, from the Arms Control Association after today's speech, have weight:

    [Netanyahu] argues that the agreement-in-the-making would make it a near "certainty" that Iran pursues nuclear weapons because it would retain a nuclear program. This is just plain wrong.

    The reality is that the agreement the P5+1 are pursuing would increase Iran's theoretical "breakout" time to amass enough enriched uranium gas enriched to bomb grade from today's 2-3 months to more than 12 months, and it would do so for over a decade. It would block the plutonium path to weapons.

    * * *

    Here's what I understand the more clearly after these past few weeks' drama over Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech. These differences in historic model are deep and powerful, and people with one model in mind are not going to convince people with the other mental picture. (Indeed after I rashly used the "is it 1938?" theme in a tweet, there was a little storm of responses in this vein: "@trueholygoat Serious question: Why do you hate Jews so much? ")

    Unless Iran's behavior worsens in ways we have not yet seen, to me and others in the not-1938 crowd it will seem more comparable to other difficult states, for instance the old Soviet Union, than to Hitler's Germany. And unless its behavior improves in ways we have not yet seen, to Netanyahu and many others it will seem like the old threat in a new form, all the worse because of the nuclear element.

    That is one more reality for negotiators to deal with. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes at the end of his post-speech report, Obama's task in trying to broker a deal is hard in the best of circumstances, and there's a reasonable chance that after this speech it has become harder.

  • The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster, and a Possible Explanation

    At face value, this speech makes no sense. But there may be a deeper logic to the Israeli prime minister's determination to speak to Congress.

    Benjamin Netanyahu at AIPAC (Reuters)

    Why is Benjamin Netanyahu going ahead with his speech to Congress in a few hours' time, despite complaints from all quarters about the damage it is causing? It's a trickier question than it seems.

    Was it simple tin ear on his side, and Ambassador Ron Dermer's? Based on the idea, as Netanyahu has preposterously claimed, that he "didn't intend" any affront to the sitting U.S. president and was surprised by all the ruckus? Were they that ill-informed, naive, trapped in a bubble, or plain dumb?

    I find that hard to believe, from a leader who prides himself on his U.S. connections and an ambassador born and raised in the U.S. and schooled by Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz. If Barack Obama addressed the Knesset and said he had a "moral obligation" to criticize Netanyahu's policies, would he then say he "didn't intend" any offense? Please.

    Was it crass election-year politicking on Netanyahu's part, based on the need to get through this month's election in Israel and the faith that eventually things would sort themselves back out with the United States? All politicians know that if they don't hold office their platforms don't matter, and most convince themselves that what is good for them is good for their country. So maybe he rationalized that getting through this election was worth whatever bruised feelings it might cause.

    On this I defer to the reporting of The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, here, here, and here about the tensions between Netanyahu's electoral incentives and long-term U.S.-Israeli relations. From my point of view, this would be the most benign explanation. Countries act in their own self-interest, and so do politicians.

    Was it because Netanyahu has been such a prescient, confirmed-by-reality judge of real-world threats that he feels moral passion about making sure his views are heard?

    Hardly. I can't believe that he's fooled even himself into thinking that his egging-on of war with Iraq looks good in retrospect. And for nearly two decades Netanyahu has been arguing that Iran was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. When you're proven right, you trumpet that fact—and when you're proven wrong, you usually have the sense to change the topic. Usually.   

    Was it because Netanyahu has a better plan that he wants Congress or the United States to adopt in dealing with Iran? No. His alternative plan for Iran is like the Republican critics' alternative to the Obama healthcare or immigration policies. That is: It's not a plan, it's dislike of what Obama is doing. And if the current negotiations break down, Iran could move more quickly toward nuclear capacity than it is doing now—barring the fantasy of a preemptive military strike by Israel or the U.S. As Michael Tomasky put it in the Daily Beast:

    Netanyahu is creating a much bigger problem here. Ultimately, he wants war with Iran. And American neoconservatives want it, too. ... Think about it. What is the alternative to negotiating with Iran? Well, there is only one: not negotiating with Iran. And what are the possible courses of action under that option? At the end of the day, there are two. Number one, let Iran do what it wants. Number two, ultimately, be willing to start a war to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.


    Was it because Netanyahu actually believes what he is about to tell Congress: that his country faces an "existential threat" if Iran develops a nuclear weapon? These are fighting words on my part, but: I don't really believe this can be so.

    Let me explain. No person, nation, or community can define what some other person (etc) "should" consider threatening. And after I argued last month that a nuclear-armed Iran would be undesirable for the world but not an "existential" threat to an Israel with its own large nuclear-weapons arsenal, I received a flood of mail summed up by one message from a man in Connecticut: "If you were a Jew, you would understand."

    There is no answer to an identity-based argument; no one can completely stand in someone else's shoes; and the Holocaust is obviously the memory that trumps all others in discussing Israel's security. So if the voters of Israel want to define Iran's ambitions not as a problem but as an "existential threat," that's up to them.

    But from the U.S. perspective I can say that the "existential" concept rests on two utterly unsupportable premises. One is that Iran is fundamentally like Nazi Germany, and the world situation of 2015 is fundamentally like that of 1938. Emotionally you can say "never forget!" Rationally these situations have nothing in common—apart from the anti-Semitic rhetoric. (To begin with: Nazi Germany had a world-beating military and unarmed Jewish minorities within its immediate control. Iran is far away and militarily no match for Israel.) The other premise is that Iran's leaders are literally suicidal. That is, they care more about destroying Israel than they care about their country's survival. Remember, Israel has bombs of its own with which to retaliate, so that any attack on Israel would ensure countless more Iranian deaths. As another reader, who also identified himself as Jewish, wrote:

    Questions for Prime Minister Netanyahu (and his supporters)

    Question 1: How does Iran survive the consequences of a nuclear attack of any scale on Israel?
    Question 2: There is no question 2.

    That Iran's current leaders are zealots is easy to demonstrate. That they are suicidal? For that premise there is literally zero evidence, as Peter Beinart recently wrote and as Israel's own security-services report.

    * * *

    Maybe I am giving Netanyahu too much credit. Maybe he genuinely believes everything listed above—that he's been right all along, that we need to hear his message, that Obama and his administration will take no offense, and that this is a life-or-death existential issue because of a suicidal Iranian leadership.

    Maybe. But I think he is smarter than any of that. And thus the explanation that rings truest to me is one offered in The National Interest by Paul Pillar, a veteran of the CIA. It's relevant to note that Pillar was as presciently right about Iraq, concerning both the hyped nature of the threat and the disastrous consequences of the invasion, as Netanyahu was spectacularly wrong.

    Pillar's assessment is that the ramped-up "existential" rhetoric is a screen for the real issue, which is a flat contradiction between long-term U.S. and Israeli national interests as regards Iran. It is in American interests (as I have argued) to find some way to end Iran's excluded status and re-integrate it with the world, as happened with China in the 1970s. And it is in Israel's interests, at least as defined by Netanyahu for regional-power reasons, that this not occur. As Pillar writes:

    The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all. Netanyahu's defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government's objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.

    That is, as long as Netanyahu keeps the attention on nukes and "existential" threats, he's talking about an area where the U.S. and Israel might differ on tactics but agree on ultimate goals. Inflammatory as that topic is, it's safer than talking about re-integrating Iran as a legitimate power, where U.S. and Israeli interests may ultimately differ. As George Friedman wrote in a Stratfor analysis just now:

    This is the heart of Israel's problem. ... Israel does not want to be considered by the United States as one power among many. It is focused on the issue of a nuclear Iran, but it knows that there is no certainty that Iran's nuclear facilities can be destroyed or that sanctions will cause the Iranians to abandon the nuclear program. What Israel fears is an entente between the United States and Iran and a system of relations in which U.S. support will not be automatic.

    From this perspective, Netanyahu's bull-headedness makes sense, even beyond its short-term electoral value back home. He can be willing to endure complaints about breach of protocol and partisan alignment, if in so doing he can prevent the deeper divergence in national interests from becoming apparent. And if this episode has any value on the American side, it may be to promote freer discussion of the many areas where U.S. interests align with Israel's, and those where they diverge. We'll see if that starts with the planned response by a number of Democratic representatives just after the speech.

  • Talking With Dan Richard About High-Speed Rail

    The chairman of California's costly and controversial infrastructure project explains why (in his view) it actually will get built—and whether its champion, 77-year-old Governor Jerry Brown, is likely to be able to take a ride.

    What California is planning to build (UC Davis and Esri)

    For the past 10 days my wife Deb and I have been mainly on the road in California, visiting cities for the new season of American Futures that launches in this space a week from today.

    But last Wednesday, in Sacramento, I had a chance to interview Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, about what I keep calling the most significant infrastructure project underway anyplace in America. This was part of a "Bold Bets" conference on transportation challenges, which was run by AtlanticLIVE and underwritten by Siemens.

    You can see an index to the past year's High-Speed Rail series here, and again in this post after the jump. It included two installments, No. 3 and No. 9, in which Dan Richard responded to financial, technical, and environmental criticisms of the project. My approach for the interview below was to say: Obviously you (Dan Richard) are in favor of this project. And over the months, as I've written, I've become a supporter too. So instead of talking about the pluses I'm going to take you through the major criticisms and complaints about the project, to hear how you address them. Then if I have left out any complaints, I'll give members of the audience their turn.

    You can see the results in the video above. (Video from the conference as a whole is here.) You'll see Richard talking about specific complaints—cost overruns, potentially outdated technology, inefficient routing, "last mile" challenges of connecting with local transport networks—and also larger political and philosophical questions of how to assess investment in costly civilian infrastructure. I thought this was an interesting and instructive half hour and hope you find it worthwhile as well.

    More »

  • Sobering News Out of China, Part 4 Million

    "Pinging Baidu without a VPN takes 17ms on average with 0% loss; pinging the Atlantic without a VPN takes 350ms and about 40% loss." Chronicles of a country walling itself off

    Getting through the Chinese Internet firewall is something like getting through this gate into the Forbidden City (Wikimedia )

    Last week I mentioned the latest chapter in the Chinese government's efforts to seal the country off from the rest of the Internet—and what I considered an out-of-date report in The Guardian about the situation. The Guardian report was based on the palmy-in-retrospect era a few years ago when the government censored attempts to organize protests, but otherwise let people have their say.

    No more. From a foreign reader in Shanghai:  

    The Guardian article you linked to cited some interesting research, but they're pretty out of date, and they missed the point/reality of the firewall pretty badly for an article claiming to tell us the "fascinating truth" about the situation here. ...

    I've been living in Shanghai for almost two years, so the censorship started tightening not long after I got here. It was ironic because right after I arrived I read a newsletter from the American consulate here saying that the local government was considering lightening the firewall in Shanghai as a "special zone" style experiment, including unblocking Facebook. Obviously, that report was either false or else the plan got shot down by hardliners higher up the food chain.

    But things have definitely gotten worse lately. The Guardian didn't mention the self-censorship that most media companies have to go through, but I recently sent a WeChat message to a friend (in English) that was mildly critical of the government. The message didn't go through, and for the first and only time in more than a year of constant use I was booted from the system on all my devices. This is just an anecdote, and it could be a coincidence, but it definitely goes against the "criticism is ok as long as you don't try to mobilize" philosophy.

    The other thing they're missing, and that doesn't get discussed enough, is the social engineering part of the Party's censorship project. Just because a website isn't "blocked" doesn't mean they want you to use it. Part of this is their war on Google: many (maybe most) websites these days use Google Fonts. In practice, this means that millions of websites include a call to Google's servers when you try to load their page. I've noticed that this call hangs a lot of the time, causing the page to load excruciatingly slowly. Again, I can't prove this, but I've noticed it with many sites that are completely non-political and technically unblocked.

    Even without Google, they throttle their international connections here. I play around a lot with Ping, and as a totally non-scientific example, pinging Baidu without a VPN takes 17ms on average with 0% loss; pinging the Atlantic without a VPN takes 350ms and about 40% loss. With a VPN, both are about 250ms with 0% loss. This is why I often need to use a VPN even for sites like xkcd, which has nothing to do with anything that the Party cares about but which is so slow it doesn't render properly.

    The goal of this is obviously to nudge (maybe too gentle a word) people towards the Chinese internet/intranet. I'm sure you had this experience here as well: Youku loads like a dream here, and it's the best streaming video site in the world as far as I'm concerned (and mostly free!). Baidu, QQ Music, WeChat, Taobao ... everything the government wants you to use is fast, free, and for the most part beautifully designed.

    One of your earlier posts quoted a businessman in China pointing out that the internet in China just "doesn't work." This isn't quite true. The Chinese part works very, very well ... it's only when you try to access overseas content, no matter how innocuous, that you start tearing your hair out.

    Further in this vein: A report from WantChinaTimes.com—which, bear in mind, is based in Taiwan—about foreign-owned businesses finding it harder to do business in China. And a valuable discussion in ChinaFile on "Is Mao Still Dead?" Spoiler: maybe not.

    As I've written a million times, I'm overall a big fan of China and hope for its continued emergence. But as I've written almost as often, these past two years of crackdown under hoped-for "reformer" Xi Jinping have been discouraging to put it mildly, and we'll hope that at some point we can look back on them as a nasty phase.

  • Welcome Eleanor Fallows

    Now there are three.

    There has been a lot of heavy weather in this space recently. Herewith a spot of wonderful cheer.

    Please welcome Eleanor Rose Fallows, who made her debut on February 11 in Newport Beach, California.

    This is young Eleanor as she looked this past weekend, when we had the joy of visiting her parents Tad and Annie Fallows, and her big brother Jack, at their home in Corona del Mar. Her parents, like all parents of young children, are exhausted but happy. Or happy but exhausted. We, like most grandparents, are just happy.

    Previously in this series: Welcome Jack Fallows, and Welcome Tide Fallows. The center of gravity in the family has changed in noticeable ways. Now seven members—our sons, their wives, a total of three children—are living in the original homeland of California. And after presiding over the tumult of an all-boy household, we are looking forward to seeing little girls grow up.

    Congratulations to mother, father, big brother, aunts and uncle, cousin, other grandparents, great-grandparents, and lovely little Eleanor.

  • Sebastian Junger on Chickenhawk Nation

    In today's formless, open-ended wars, it can be hard to know what "victory" would mean. It's much easier to identify defeat. A response to Sebastian Junger.

    The Atlantic

    Sebastian Junger, who has produced moving accounts of the human face of combat in Afghanistan and elsewhere (to say nothing of the narrative mastery of The Perfect Storm), and whose war movie Restrepo I recommended a few years ago, has written what he presents as a counter or critique to my "Tragedy of the American Military" article.

    I hope you will read it. When you're done, I invite you to head back here.

    * * *

    The overwhelming majority of the (overwhelming) response I've gotten to this article has impressed me by engaging with the case I actually made. I mention this because so frequently that does not happen on controversial topics. You can see an example in the reader letters I quote here on a different subject: Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming speech to Congress. In that case the angriest messages came from people reacting to exactly the opposite of what a previous correspondent was trying to say. Readers of a certain age, who have heard of Gilda Radner's performances in the early days of SNL, will recognize this as the "Miss Emily Litella" syndrome, a heated denunciation of views you misheard or misunderstood.

    Unfortunately I feel that Junger's heartfelt arguments are the exception to most of the response to this piece, in their misalignment with the thrust of my article. Here are some examples.

    Democratic feedback system. Early on Junger makes this point:

    Fallows takes this idea [of civic disengagment] and puts a particularly sharp edge on it: “Because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action,” he writes, “the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.”

    It’s an appealing theory that persists despite the fact that it’s demonstrably untrue. By the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of Americans were on active military duty. That should have resulted in massive public resistance to the war, but it was exactly the opposite.

    It appears that Junger understood me to be saying something as over-simple as "the bigger the military, the more unpopular the war." Thus World War II would seem to be a powerful counterexample: big army, but broad public support. He could have gone on to mention the Civil War in the same vein: very broad participation, very broad support. Therefore my point, as he understood it, must be demonstrably untrue.

    But of course the argument in the article was not that at all. In simplest form it was: The broader the civic engagement and exposure to the consequences of military action, the greater the chance that the public will take its military seriously. And the less the engagement, the more likely a nation will be careless and sloppy in how it applies military force. As the article put it, "A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness." That is not quite the same as "big army = unpopular wars."

    What would be the signs that the country was taking its military seriously? They would include thinking carefully about the causes to which we commit troops, holding military leaders accountable for tactical and strategic competence, holding political leaders accountable for their judgment in military matters, being close enough to the realities of military operations to understand that some spending is crucial and other is sheer porkbarreling waste.

    All of those traits describe the fully committed America of the World War II era and its aftermath, when it was first fighting the Nazis and Imperial Japanese and then digging in against Stalin's Soviet Union. None of them (I contend) apply to the America of the chickenhawk era. Thus for the point the article was actually making, World War II is strong evidence that the argument is "demonstrably true" rather than the reverse. Why do you think I wrote about World War II and its aftermath so much?

    As Andrew Bacevich wrote, in a quote I used in the piece, “A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it.” During and after World War II most Americans were touched by war, and cared about it. During today’s long wars most Americans aren’t, and don’t.

    The 1 percent problem. Several times in the piece, I emphasize how small a share of the American public is involved in the military or has served in our recent wars. For instance, Americans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan at any point since 2001 make up three-fourths of 1 percent of the population.

    Junger imagines that I am presenting the small size of today’s military as a problem to be solved in itself, rather than as both symptom and cause of the real disorder I am discussing: the estrangement of the military from most of society. Therefore he wonders how much bigger I would like the military to be and whether I would like a draft:

    But what’s the solution? Saying that 1 percent is too low implies that the figure should be higher. But how high? Five percent? Ten? Does the United States really need an army of 5 million people? Do Americans really want to pay for that?

    Maybe when people get upset about the 1-percent figure, what they’re really getting upset about is the lack of a military draft.

    These would be strong points if I had said that the military needs to be bigger, which I didn't, or if I thought the draft would return, which it won't.

    Thirty-five years ago, when the volunteer army had been running for only a few years and the (then) Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, Jim Webb and I co-wrote a feature for The Atlantic arguing that the United States would be better off in the long run if it brought the draft back. That was a different world. Barring changed circumstances no one can foresee, there is zero likelihood that the U.S. will bring conscription back. Similarly, I don't think, and didn't say, that the United States needs more people in uniform. In fact I quoted retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on why we should have a smaller military, to make it harder to drift into "casual" wars.

    To spell it out again: A smaller army is not itself the problem. It's a symptom of America's inattention to its military, which is the real challenge to address.

    Sebastian Junger says that if you're not willing to expand the army or reinstitute the draft, there's no point in talking about this 1-percent problem. Obviously I disagree and feel that we are in terrain similar to what William James explored long ago with that most American of all meaning-of-America essays, "The Moral Equivalent of War." Its premise was that the Civil War, for all its horrors, had evoked a kind of nobility in individual and collective purpose. The question was how a nation could evoke some of that nobility without all the carnage. In my own more limited sphere I was asking how we could repair the civic-military connection without having a huge military or restoring the draft.

    Winning and losing. Sebastian Junger says that it can be difficult to know whether you have "won" in today's open-ended combat. I agree.

    He says that therefore you can't know if you have "lost." I disagree completely.

    Here is how he frames his point:

    "One of the most powerful arguments against the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan has been that it lacked any clear definition of “winning.” But if we accept the premise that there’s no definition of winning, then there’s no definition of losing, either, and we forfeit the right to use either word. You can’t “lose” a race that has no finish line."

    I don't think Junger himself would agree with this if he thought about it for a minute. Here is what it means to “lose” a modern war:

    You spend several trillion dollars—at least 10 times more than a figure the Bush administration dismissed as impossibly high before the Iraq War began. (Paul Wolfowitz, of course, predicted that the Iraq War would be self-financing, from local oil.)

    You sacrifice thousands of American lives, to speak only of the losses on our nation's side, and shatter tens of thousands of families through disability and long-term trauma. What everyone considers a left-wing film, The Hurt Locker, and what everyone considers a right-wing film, American Sniper, are to my mind essentially the same film, showing brave young Americans placed in impossible circumstances in unwinnable wars and suffering long-term consequences. Reduced to a message, Restrepo can be seen the same way.

    As I said in my piece, the U.S. scored one big success in killing Osama bin Laden, and another in the initial campaign to drive the Taliban from Afghanistan—before troops and attention were diverted to Iraq. Yet nothing in the circumstances of either Iraq or Afghanistan after 13 years of war resembles what any U.S. leader would have called “successful” before the wars began. For a truly sobering look at the situation in Iraq, please see this new analysis from Chuck Spinney.

    You know you have lost when you have done those things—and when you have left the United States in worse shape with nearly all allies, done profound damage to its moral standing, and exposed the limits rather than the extent of its military reach.

    That is defeat. That is what we have suffered. And the real point of my article was that the fault lies with our nation as a whole, for thinking that calling our troops "heroes" makes up for thoughtlessness in this gravest of national decisions.

    I am glad that Sebastian Junger took the time to read and write about my article. I do hope you'll read his essay for the good points he makes. But I am sorry that he seems not to have registered what my article said.

    More »

  • 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.  

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