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.
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.
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.
I hope you will read it. When you're done, I invite you to head back here.
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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.
"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."
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.
I have received a foreseeable flood of mail in response to the collection of Israel-and-Iran letters posted three days ago. I am not going to quote any more of it. As has been evident for many years, there is an unbridgeable chasm in outlooks on this topic. Having offered a sample of the current state of that divide, I'll say Enough for now.
This makes me all the more admiring of diplomats who try to find ways across the chasm, starting with what I saw from Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and Jimmy Carter at Camp David long ago (as dramatized in Lawrence Wright's play Camp David).
* * *
But I will weigh in on one more aspect of the Netanyahu-Obama-Iran controversy, namely the language with which we describe it. If you’d like background on how Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu came to this impasse, please read two reports by David Ignatius, here and here. If you’d like to consider some of the long-term ramifications of Israel’s leader saying that he is the “true” voice of Jews worldwide, including American Jews, please read M.J. Rosenberg in The Nation, or former Congressman Mel Levine and former Israeli Ambassador Oded Eran in Politico.
From Levine and Eran: “[The U.S.-Israel relationship] is especially threatened when an Israeli Prime Minister is seen as openly challenging the U.S president, asking the country and the Congress to side with a foreign Prime Minister over America’s President on an issue which potentially involves war and peace, a question about which the American public is anguished and divided.”
From Rosenberg: “Netanyahu’s action, in challenging the American president and claiming to speak for all Jews when he does so, suggests that it is Israel and not the country in which Jews live and vote that is their homeland. This idea is anathema to the overwhelming majority of American Jews. … He is coming to the US Capitol to tell Congress that it should not support a president who is working to secure an agreement that president believes serves national interests, among which he has repeatedly said is the security of Israel.”
* * *
On language: We've reached the stage where a particular word obscures more than it clarifies about Iran and its nuclear prospects. That word is "existential," as in this now-standard formulation from Prime Minister Netanyahu: "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on Israel and also on the rest of the world."
I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word “existential,” I know 90 percent of what will come next. In this context an existential threat, literally a challenge to continued existence, means implicitly likening Iran to Nazi Germany—or explicitly equating it, as Netanyahu has done for many years.
By definition an existential threat justifies any action that might forestall it, from preemptive military strikes to efforts at torpedoing an “unacceptable” diplomatic deal. It makes all compromises suspect. And it means that opinions from other countries lack moral standing, because after all their existence is not on the line.
In most of Netanyahu’s speeches, as in most of the angry mail I receive, you can find each of those elements. Look for them in the next editorial you read in the WSJ or Commentary. Whenever you see an argument that could be paraphrased as “it’s 1938 again,” you’ve found the real thing. But let’s stop and think about this concept of existential threats.
Is there an existential threat from nuclear weapons? Of course there is. Throughout my Cold War childhood, families in the United States and the Soviet Union were constantly reminded of the danger that we could all be incinerated in a second. My parents sanely refused to build a fallout shelter, but many neighbors gave in to the fears. On the Beach and Fail-Safe were hugely popular novels because of exactly this danger. Soon after the first use of atomic weapons, Albert Einstein wrote in The Atlantic about the danger to all of humanity. Enough nuclear warheads remain to kill everyone on Earth many times over. I support the Global Zero drive to eliminate them.
Is nuclear proliferation a problem, wherever it occurs? Of course, yes as well. Each new nuclear power makes the emergence of further powers more likely. This domino effect on other Middle Eastern countries is a very strong reason to oppose Iran's getting a bomb.
Is there a state that faces a specific existential threat right now? Yes again. That state is South Korea.
South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own, though the U.S. has extended its "nuclear umbrella." Its immediate neighbor, North Korea, does have nukes, which it tested and developed while the U.S. was distracted in Iraq. North Korea’s leaders are peculiar, to put it mildly, and have repeatedly promised / threatened to destroy South Korea in a "sea of fire" in rhetoric as blood-curdling as any anti-Israel rant from Iran. South Korea's population center is practically on the border with the North, rather than several time zones away as with Iran relative to Israel.
It would be better for everyone except North Korea if it had no nukes, but the South Korean president was not invited to address Congress during the GW Bush years to demand tougher action against North Korea.
Is Israel's situation comparable to that on the Korean peninsula—or, to use the more familiar parallel, to that of European Jews menaced by Hitler in 1938? It most emphatically is not, if you pay any attention to the underlying facts.
The most obvious difference is that Israel is the incumbent (if unacknowledged) nuclear power in the region, with the universally understood ability to annihilate any attacker in a retaliatory raid. The only similarity between this power balance and the predicament of European Jewry in 1938 is the anti-Semitism. In 1938 the Jews of Germany, Poland, France, and Russia were a stateless minority with no military force of their own to protect them and no foreign power (including the U.S.) willing to step in. In 2015 Israel is a powerful independent state, more heavily armed than any adversary.
Think of this parallel: The full-tilt U.S. slave economy of the 1850s and the police-shooting abuses of 2015 have in common racist anti-black prejudice, but they are not the same situations. One was resolved only by cataclysmic war. The other is very serious but not the prelude to north-versus-south combat. The Iranian rhetoric of 2015 and the Nazi death machine of the Reich have in common anti-Semitic hate-mongering. But the differences between them are far more obvious than the similarities.
And is the Iran of 2015 like the Germany of 1938? Oh, please. In 1938, Germany had the strongest military in the world, and the second-largest economy (behind only the United States). Its economy was bigger than France's and England's combined. Today's Iran, by contrast, doesn't even have the strongest military in its region, and its economy is not in the world's top 25. Hitler's Germany was an expansionist force that would grow until it was crushed. Iran makes enormous trouble for the U.S. and others, but no one serious can be proposing that it must be crushed.
I lay this out not imagining that it might change a single word in Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, nor the fervor of those who support him (and will soon tell me so). And of course Israel will decide for itself whether it feels "existentially" threatened. I am writing to an American audience that must assess our next steps and long-term goals toward Iran. When we call this situation "existential," we’re either saying something that is true for everyone—in the age of nuclear weapons all of humanity is at risk—or we’re making a specific observation that is far less applicable in Israel than in many other places, starting with South Korea. It's a slogan that has replaced thought.
* * *
After the jump I have a reader's note marveling at the way we've agreed to discuss Iran as a bottomless evil, rather than as a state with whom we should look for diplomatic ways to manage conflicts, as we have with China and the old Soviet Union—and as Begin did with Sadat.
“There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure.” Jeb Bush, yesterday, in his foreign policy speech. Nearly all of which, by the way, could have been delivered by his elder brother—which is as it should be, given how many members of the Bush #45-aspirant brain trust have Bush #43 or Bush #41 experience.
Previously in this ignoble series:
1973: "Mistakes were made in terms of comments." Richard Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler, on the lies he had told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate stories.
1986: "Mistakes were made." Then-VP George H.W. Bush on the Iran-Contra scandal and the administration's lying about it.
1987: "Serious mistakes were made." Ronald Reagan, on the same topic in his State of the Union address.
1991: "Some mistakes were made." White House chief of staff John Sununu on his abuse of travel policies.
1997: "Mistakes were made." Bill Clinton not on the topic you might guess but on administration officials discussing banking policy in front of fund-raisers.
2002: "It is quite possible that mistakes were made." Henry Kissinger, on human-rights complaints about U.S. intelligence activities in South America.
2006: "The biggest mistake that's happened so far," George W. Bush on the Abu Ghraib torture scandals. "That's happened" is a nice variation on "was made."
Various 30-something readers are grumpy that I mentionedThe Kids in the Hall as if some people might not already know about them.
Welcome to the march of time, 30-something kiddos! About one third of the current U.S. population, something like 100+ million people, is not old enough to have seen KitH when it was on TV through 1995. (If you'd like an extra little jolt, consider that today's first- and second-year college students can't really remember the 9/11 attacks.) Trust me, more of these little surprises lie ahead.
On the other hand, other 30-something readers were glad to have one of their era's gems be remembered. They passed along a few other routines I hadn't seen:
"Gavin in the Butcher Shop." This is remarkable, and I'm not sure it would be allowed on television in the US. Those wild Canadians.
"Grizzly Bear Attack." Deliverance goes north.
"Head Crusher." A recurring bit popular with many readers.
"I Sell Shoes." Satan waits on you.
A few other points before we turn the page. First, about the great opening-credit music:
Thanks for the post about Kids in the Hall. Just for fun, listen to the music intro for The Daily Show, then the one for KitH. Second cousins (maybe even first), wouldn't you think?
Agree. And about the other other show by Lorne Michaels, this note from a reader in Canada:
Lorne Michaels also had a Laugh In-style show called the Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour that ran for one season [1970-1971] on CBC in Canada. As I recall it was cancelled for being "too urban". The Hart half of the duo was Hart Pomerantz who went on to become on of Ontario's top criminal defense lawyers.
Here are some clips from the show:
Ah, the lost territory of the past, circa 1970 and also 1995. Thanks to readers north and south of the US-Canadian border, and now we move on.
The National Journal, which is part of our same Atlantic Media empire, has a new cover story by Bob Moser on Jim Webb's possible campaign for the presidency.
I've known Webb for a long time, and I am quoted several times about his personality and possible effect on the race. The direct quotes are all accurate, but unfortunately (if inadvertently) they're presented in a context I did not intend.
The story says that I do not think Webb should run. Thus the specific observations on which I'm quoted—about his temperamental difference from run-of-the-mill politicians, about the long-shot prospects he or anyone else would seem to have versus Hillary Clinton—seem to be reasons for opposing his candidacy.
For example, Moser writes:
That's exactly why he shouldn't run, says Fallows. Rather than the-hell-for leather, 2006-style adventure that Saunders and other Webb loyalists hope for, Fallows envisions a Webb candidacy—and, even more, a Webb presidency—as another joyless Senate-style slog. "I've spoken with him about the presidential possibility," Fallows says. "My own view is that he has an extremely remote chance of winning the nomination, which might be harder than winning a general ... "
Actually, I hope Jim Webb does run. Two of the issues on which he has based his political career—economic inequality, and the risks of chickenhawk militarism—are absolutely crucial issues for the Democratic party and the country. Realistically the 2016 Democratic race seems more sewn up than any other nomination race I can recall. Anyone running against Hillary Clinton faces very steep odds. But there's still a long time to go, anything can happen, and the country and the party can only benefit from having a candidate like Webb make the case he would make. For similar reasons, I said nine years ago that I was glad Webb was beginning his (long-shot) run for the Senate in Virginia.
Want to hear how Jim Webb sounds when he talks about economic and social justice? I wrote about this during the 2012 presidential campaign, and I give you the video below. It came during the controversy over whether 47 percent of Americans were "takers," and in it Webb talks both about moral issues and about things he accomplished in the Senate.
This was an unintentional misrepresentation on National Journal's part, which I believe it will correct in the online version of the story. The National Journal has corrected this in the online version of the story. But it is important enough (to me) that I want to make this point myself.
I was on the road during the SNL 40th Anniversary celebration and will have to dig it up online some time.
Meanwhile, here is the Lorne Michaels-backed show I wish had lasted for 40 years, or at least more years than it did: the Toronto-based Kids in the Hall. For these reasons.
First, a way better opening-credits sequence than SNL ever had. The videos for the opening changed a little bit during each of their (sigh!) 5 seasons, and you can see a compilation of intros from all the seasons here. But the music was always the great "Having an Average Weekend" by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and you can see and hear an example below:
The comedy was much meaner than SNL's, and campy in a literal sense, much like Monty Python's. Also as with Monty Python, many skits featured one or more of the five cast members in drag. To the best of my knowledge, only Scott Thompson, later familiar on TheColbert Report as the flamboyant Buddy Cole, was openly gay.
If you've seen the show, you know what I'm talking about—but because it sadly ended its brief run 20 years ago, many people might not. A few samples:
"Chicken Lady." This is genuinely disturbing.
"Girl Drink Drunk." This is a sustained sketch of a kind SNL has a harder time pulling off.
"The Daves I Know." Idiotic yet somehow brilliant. I think the appeal involves Bruce McCulloch's attire and stride, starting about one minute in.
"The Ham of Truth." Rebellious youth.
"The Beard." Also fairly disturbing.
"My Horrible Secret." This is just surreal.
"Buddy Cole and his Softball Sluggers." A prequel to the Colbert appearances.
There are a lot more. SNL had been going for nearly 15 years when Kids in the Hall made its U.S. debut. But because Kids ended its regular run 20 years ago, it seems more a glimpse into a lost world. Spare a thought for KITH as SNL rolls on.
And here's another, mainly B-and-W version of the opening.
A word of background: Over the past week, I've argued that Prime Minister Netanyahu's upcoming speech to a joint meeting of Congress is destructive as a matter of procedure and misguided as a matter of policy. For previous installments please see: why the speech itself is unprecedented; why I think Netanyahu's case about Iran is wrong on the merits; more about why he is wrong on Iran; and why it would make sense for congressional Democrats to follow VP Joe Biden's (and Representative John Yarmuth's) example and skip the speech.
A full roster of Iran-related posts is here. And the distillation of why I care about the episode at all is in this post, ending with:
Here's why I care. I am deadset against my country drifting into further needless unwinnable wars. I view Netanyahu's arguments on Iran, however sincerely held on his side, as being wrong and unhelpfully warmongering from a U.S. perspective ...
In my view, and as I've argued in my book Blind Into Baghdad and in many articles including "Bush's Lost Year," the decision to invade Iraq was the worst American foreign-policy mistake of my lifetime ...
The arguments made to promote the Iraq war—we must strike before it's too late; diplomacy is a ruse and has run its course; the regime is irrational and can only be crushed rather than reasoned with; military "solutions" will in fact solve the problem—very closely parallel those now being made about Iran. And they are being made by many of the same people, notably including Benjamin Netanyahu ...
Before the Iraq war, I admired State Senator Barack Obama's judgment in opposing it. I admire President Obama's judgment now in pushing hard for a diplomatic solution with Iran, despite huffing about "weakness" from the same people who rushed us into war with Iraq. Many people are doing the huffing, but only one of them has been asked to address a joint meeting of Congress. That's why I'm talking about him.
I understand that people disagree about this. Today, as promised, a sample of opposing views.
What you see below, mainly from readers who identify themselves as Jews living in North America or Israel, comes in response to the reader I quoted here, on the question of "dual loyalty," a hoary slur against Jewish Americans. That reader, a Jewish American with family members who had died in the Holocaust, said that he didn't like "loyalty" labels. But he said that if anyone could be suspected of "dual loyalty" in this episode, it would be the (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) Republican politicians who had invited Netanyahu as a way to embarrass the Obama administration and make policy toward Israel a partisan issue.
You can agree with that or not. Unfortunately, many readers saw the words "dual loyalty" and immediately imagined, incorrectly, that the reader must have been advocating rather than rejecting the standard slur. This is life on the Internet I suppose; yet each time I encounter it I'm taken aback. With all that throat-clearing, here goes:
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1) "So utterly offensive." From an American rabbi:
America's closest ally in the Middle East is Israel. Israel is the region's only true democracy. It is a nation with which we Americans share many western values. Like our democracy, Israel's is imperfect. But like our democracy, it aspires to fulfill the values enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. Israel and the United States share a strong strategic/defense/security relationship. It is because of these and many more core reasons that Prime Minister Netanyahu received sustained applause and standing ovations during his last speech before a joint session of Congress. The thesis presented by your previous commentator does nothing but promote the disgusting canard of Jewish dual loyalty. [JF note: although of course he was writing about non-Jewish "dual loyalty." But I'll stop with the comments now.]
As an American, a Jew and a religious leader I found the comments related to the charge of dual loyalty and your willingness to publish them so utterly offensive that I've decided to discontinue receiving blog posts.
2) "Clean hands." From another reader in the United States:
So you finish up your Bibi-bashing series by posting the opinion of a Liberal American Jew telling you how right you are about everything. Just the person to help you trot out the old dual loyalty canard with clean hands.
You used to be better than this.
3) "Support Israel against Iran or risk nuclear contamination of the planet." From a reader in New York, who didn't get into "dual loyalty":
Netanyahu is not coming to speak to Congress for the sake of the United States, but for the sake of Israel. Let us understand clearly that Israel is being surrounded by Iran and the US is meddling by assisting those who could thwart those developments: Hizb'Allah in Lebanon, Iranian and Hizb'Allah troops on the Syrian-Israel border in the Golan; Shi'a Iranian support of Sunni Hamas; and most recently Iranian support of Yemeni Shi'ites. If the Houthi in Yemen reach Bab el-Mandeb they could blockade Israeli shipping from the Israeli port of Eilat...
The consequences, if you are wrong about the intentions of Iran to wipe Israel off the map, will be a nuclear confrontation. One generally weighs costs versus benefits in serious matters. The survival of Israel for Israelis is a benefit. The cost of going nuclear, when that scenario could have been prevented, not only by past actions but by present actions as well, is far higher than political and military support for Israel before that terrible mushroom cloud materializes.
The bottom line: Support Israel against Iran politically and militarily or risk nuclear contamination of the planet. The very idea of pushing Israel into a weakened position in an attempt to control it is a fools errand given the duplicitous nature of Iranian chess playing on an international scale.
I wrote back to the reader acknowledging his note and saying that I disagreed with some of the factual claims made in parts I'm not quoting here. He replied:
Mr modest recommendation to you is to visit a classic Eastern European Yeshivah for one hour. Without the process in which the students engage each other nothing real ever happens - not in their world or in ours.
I replied saying: Yes, I think I've seen the same process at work in Jesuit high schools and some nondenominational debate courses, small-group tutorials, and Socratic-method classes. He wrote back saying, No, it's special to Yeshivahs.
4) "If you are anti-Zionism then you are anti-Semitic." From another reader I believe to be in Israel. I have somewhat condensed what was a very long and detailed note:
There is not a single column you write that I agree with. But with this piece I had to email you and completely tear apart your shallow anti-Israel screed.
As for your reader, I have the same creds as your so-called Jewish reader. But what he established as creds does not provide him automatic entitlement as a Jew. In fact this person is the typical secular American who happened to be born Jewish.
Based on his comments he long ago traded in his belief in his religion and heritage for the belief in a false idol called left wing socialism which is the new liberalism. That is irrefutable. Every Jewish service prays for the homeland of Jews of Jerusalem and Israel. There is no air between being Jewish and supporting Israel. If you are anti-Zionism then you are anti-Semitic. Martin Luther King Jr. said that once.
But the anti-Semitic left have created a false narrative to give cover to these fake Jews to separate themselves from Israel.
Your friend says:
“I remain utterly baffled by the obeisance American politicians pay to a country that, due to the disproportionate influence of fanatic religious parties in the coalition, sometimes borders on the theocratic.”
Maybe he missed this, but Israel IS a Jewish state and the U.N. mandate stated as such. A reason for such a state is to prevent another holocaust and that came to use with Jews leaving the USSR and now from Europe. Also his characterization of the political parties shows he has no clue what Israel is or what actually happens there but is simply picking up the narrative of the anti-Semitic left
“Israel's policies towards the occupied territories are in conflict with international law and US policy, yet we turn a blind eye.”
What policies are those? He does not say but once again gratuitously parrots the anti-Semitic left. [Much detail on occupation and settlements.]... .
There is nothing illegal about what Israel is doing in the West Bank and your so-called Jewish friend simply uses radical Islamic and left wing anti-Semitic propaganda – and not facts.
“Israel is America's ally when it serves Israel's interest”
Another shallow anti-Semitic claim and he provides no support for. The fact is that Israel has done a lot for the U.S. even when it was not in their interest.
“Jewish senators and congressmen, who supposedly place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US because of their religion, threatened with being viewed as anti-Israel for not attending Netanyahu's circus”
Again your so-called Jewish friend provides zero evidence which is what people on the left do. They demagogue without support. And to call Netanyahu’s (the leader of Israel) speech to a joint session of Congress a “circus” pretty much disqualifies this abhorrent person as a Jew. That is the view being perpetrated by Obama.
“Netanyahu's interests and Israel's interests are not even the same thing.”
Really? Why because Obama and his left wing anti-Semitic thugs say so? Try the rest of the country who disagree with you and most are not Jews.
Here is the real issues for someone who claims to be an American Jew.
Why was every one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers while he was a candidate in 2008 all with anti-Israel credentials which made him different than the other Democratic candidates?
Why was Obama’s first call in the oval office to the head of the PLO?
Why did Obama’s first trip to the Middle East include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and intentionally skipped over Israel?
Why did Obama feel it necessary to embarrass and personally denigrate Netanyahu publicly and treat him like a junk yard dog?
Why did Obama call the Paris deli attack “an act of random violence” and intentionally ignore that it was an anti-Semitic attack?
Why has anti-Semitism risen dramatically here and around the world coincidentally while Obama has been President?
Why is Obama the first American President to be overwhelmingly disliked and not trusted by Israelis?
Your so-called Jewish friend likely voted for Obama twice and ignored that he spent 20 years in the most anti-Semitic church in the country and considered its pastor his spiritual mentor. He ignored the fact that among Obama’s other mentors were Rashif Khalidi and Khalid Al Mansour. Your friend is typical of far too many American Jews who have capitulated to the socialist left and traded in their religion and heritage for loyalty to enemies of their religion and heritage.
Because you happened to be born Jewish does not mean you are.
5) "You are wrong." From a reader in Israel:
1. Your analogy of China/Nixon and Iran/Obama is wrong. China was not planning to destroy Taiwan and murder all is citizens. As Obama begged/demanded that Israel not take military action when it was possible, there is an obligation to make Israel part of the decision process today. The current perception in Israel is that Obama will throw us under the bus for the sake of his "legacy".
2. Why do American journalists insist on quoting Haaretz; it is read by less than 5% of the population, the extreme left wing anti-zionists. It is not representative of mainstream thinking and never had anything good to say about the country, it's leaders, it's people or its religion. Quoting it reduces your credibility outside of that small elitist community.
6) Maybe you are right. Just to mix things up, and as a reminder of the heated debate within Israel, a note on this same point from a reader in Jerusalem:
I wholly agree with both your analysis and comparisons. The Nixon-Taiwan reference is truly illuminating for me.
My reservation, though, is that your accounts advocating to let Bibi come and speak in Congress neglects to take into account the ways in which American politics play a direct role in our national politics, particularly the coming general elections.
Bibi has contributed more than any other leader on both sides of the ocean to transforming Israel from a bi-partisan issue to one of great contention. He actively interfered in the 2012 presidential campaign in favor of Mitt Romney. He also managed to hold a joint event with John Hagee on the eve of VP Biden's visit to Jerusalem (a tactic he already used back in 98, when participating in a Jerry Falwell event before coming to Clinton's White House). All of this is happens while Netanyahu remains extremely reluctant to respond positively to most foreign policy initiatives coming from the Administration.
You write: "let's think carefully about American national interests". I urge you to do exactly that, and remember that unlike Nixon and Taiwan, the US has other interests down here in our neighborhood - the issue of Palestine and its contribution to instability; Jordan's refugee problem and the counter-IS coalition more generally; Egypt's delicate post-Mubarak politics. These interests are compromised by letting Bibi use the Congress podium as the ideal setting for his campaign ads.
All call, in other words, for a less tolerant approach to Israel's contemporary Chang Kai Shek.
After the jump is another long note from a reader in the United States who professes herself (understandably) sick of all sides in this discussion.
The video below is all over the China-related community but may not have attracted the general awareness it deserves.
I'm tempted to make a joke about the video, because it is preposterous in 16 obvious ways. But as I watched it again, the humor started to drain away. It really is depressing to have officials in China trying to shut off the country this way, and defending it with Onion-esque agitprop. "We are unified in the center of the universe!" etc.
Thanks to ProPublica for retrieving the video, translating and subtitling it, and providing an informative background item. Sisi Wei and Yue Qiu of ProPublica, who did the translation, know a million times more about the Chinese language than I ever will, but I thought I'd underscore one point about the translation for the fellow native English speakers in the crowd.
Time and again, the song's refrain mentions 网络强国, wangluo qiangguo, which the subtitles translate as "Internet power." E.g.:
English speakers might think of "Internet power" as comparable to "soft power" or "girl power" or "people power." But to my amateur eye there is a more explicit connotation of China's becoming a national power in cyberspace. I'm sure Chinese speakers will tell me if I'm wrong to read 强国 as meaning a powerful country, as in "rise and fall of the great powers" etc. Thus the refrain would emphasize "a powerful Internet country." The impression I got from this was of a strongly nationalistic message about a supposedly borderless medium.
Overall the video is funny. And not.
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Many people have sent links to an item in The Guardian about the surprisingly selective and light hand of Chinese net censors. Unfortunately, this analysis seems to me significantly out of date, e.g., similar to what prevailed back in the palmy pre-Xi Jinping era. I would prefer to be proven wrong. Meanwhile, check out the video.
"I have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to this issue that can be generated by the U.S. But I believe there is a political solution." How to think about the next war, as we consider getting into it.
Through the past 13+ years, the United States has fought a war of choice in Iraq, and has extended its original, fully justified punitive mission in Afghanistan into a war of choice (including a "surge") there. It has the world's most powerful and most expensive military and has won nearly every tactical engagement in each country. Yet in a strategic sense it has lost both wars.
Now it faces the challenge of the indisputably evil and brutal ISIS. Of the desirability of crushing ISIS there is no doubt. But after the previous commitments led to grief, people have looked back and asked, 'How could we ever have thought that [Tactic X] would have worked?'
It's worth trying to ask that question ahead of time with ISIS, as it was worth doing with Iraq. The cover story of our brand-new issue [Subscribe!] is a tremendous, thoroughly reported, vividly told analysis by Graeme Wood of the history, ambitions, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the Islamic State movement. I urge you to read it and think about its implications.
Along with Graeme Wood's story, please consider this shorter assessment by Kenneth S. Brower, a longtime defense analyst. He doesn't agree with Wood on everything, but in the areas both of overlap and of differences I think you'll find these essays clarifying and valuable.
Some Thoughts About Our So-Called "War" on ISIS
By Kenneth S. Brower
As I see it the Sunni minority in Iraq and the Sunni majority in Syria are under siege by Shia. ISIS is the one successful Sunni group opposing the Shia. A very large portion of Arab Sunnis at least passively support ISIS, not because they support its extreme ideology but because they want the Sunnis to emerge victorious. A subset of the pro-ISIS Sunnis actually support their extreme ideology. What we call the Iraqi military is seen by almost all Arab Sunnis as a Shia army under the influence, if not the control, of Iran. This explains why Turkey maintains open borders, as well as the policy of Jordan, Saudi, and the Emirates.
I simply do not understand our strategy, assuming we really have one. If our goal is defeating ISIS's ideology and its support of international terrorism this cannot be done by indirect fire, PERIOD! If [conclusive defeat] is our objective we only have limited choices: either military control of 25 million Syrian/Iraqi Sunnis, which will require a sustained force of 500,000 for decades; or creating conditions whereby the majority of Sunni Arabs will see it in their self interest to subjugate the ideological minority.
If our objective is simply to maintain the borders set by colonial powers in 1919, then air power alone will suffice. But the inevitable result will be Shia control of Syria and Iraq and a strengthening of ISIS ideology and terrorism.
The use of air power is our only feasible military option, but using air power to liberate urban areas, like Mosul means destroying them! That will only create more enemies.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to this issue that can be generated by the U.S. But I believe there is a political solution.
We have to give the Sunnis reason to reject ISIS. That would entail having the U.S. come out against the Sykes-Picot borders, supporting a break-up of Iraq into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni countries, incorporating most of Syria, while simultaneously and carefully decimating ISIS leadership. I simply cannot understand why it is in the strategic interest of the U.S. to maintain current Middle Eastern borders, which are unsustainable. I see our current approach as guaranteed to fail.
Terrorism is murder, whether it is in Paris, Copenhagen, or any U.S. town. Every day about 70 Americans are murdered, most by guns. Unless the victims are famous or cute most are ignored by the media. But a minor terrorist attack gets headlines. A YouTube video of a beheading forces the U.S. president to go to " war" in order to avoid being called weak by his domestic political opposition. That's not leadership! Worse, the so-called hawks push for deeper involvement irrespective of military reality. They live in a fantasy world of U.S. military exceptionalism.
To me the issue is not whether we would be better served if the A-10 were being properly employed. Obviously we would be! Ditto [other military-reform concepts], which have always made sense to me. To me the issue is strategy ... and as I see it our use of force is currently counterproductive.
In Gaza the IDF has been able to assassinate Hamas leaders sometimes layers deep. So what! The occupants of Gaza have seen their society all but ripped apart, and they continue to support Hamas. If 125,000 were still employed in Israel instead of Asians I wonder how much support Hamas would have?
If I were a Sunni Arab I would know that when the Syrian Alawite (Shia) used poison gas the U.S. did nothing although thousands were massacred. Yet when two Americans were murdered we bombed Sunnis ... and then we expect Sunnis to love the U.S.
We have got caught up in tactics, and strategy has been caught up in domestic politics. Military reality is nowhere to be found.
I am profoundly worried.
A central argument of my "Tragedy of the American Military" article was that because Americans "honor" their military but don't really take it seriously, we repeatedly send our forces on missions at which they're destined to fail.
The "easy" part of dealing with ISIS is agreeing on its horror. The difficult part is thinking ahead five steps, about what the use of military power can and cannot do. Wood's reporting and Brower's military analysis are valuable steps in that direction.
I intend to give the Netanyahu speech situation a rest after this, though there will be more to say on the risks and merits of the underlying negotiations with Iran. (For past items on the speech controversy, follow the links in this post.) But here is one last reader message on the speech itself. It's from someone whose real identity I know but am not using here. He lives in the western U.S.
Let's get the disclaimers out of the way right from the start: I'm Jewish, or at least I was raised Jewish, had a bar mitzvah, and continue to consider myself culturally Jewish.
A substantial portion of my parents' families died in the Holocaust. One branch survived because they emigrated to Palestine in the early twentieth century. That branch still lives in Israel and they have all served in the Army and many have fought during the numerous wars, starting with independence. My father's family spent a year as refugees in France until a miracle yielded entry visas to the US. My mother's family evacuated at Dunkirk. I've visited family in Israel twice as an adult. So, if you wonder if I appreciate the importance of Israel to Jews around the world, my credentials are solid.
That said, I remain utterly baffled by the obeisance American politicians pay to a country that, due to the disproportionate influence of fanatic religious parties in the coalition, sometimes borders on the theocratic. Israel's policies towards the occupied territories are in conflict with international law and US policy, yet we turn a blind eye. Israel is America's ally when it serves Israel's interest (which of course is how any rational country behaves, putting its own interests first.)
Perhaps all the more ironic, a frequent anti-Semitic (or at least anti-American Jew) canard is that American Jews place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US (a claim one doesn't hear applied to western European immigrants, like the Irish, in spite of decades of support for IRA terrorists).
So here we have Jewish senators and congressmen, who supposedly place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US because of their religion, threatened with being viewed as anti-Israel for not attending Netanyahu's circus, yet the Republicans behind this spectacle are not being questioned about their loyalty to the US for apparently placing Israel's interests ahead of the US. And of course, Netanyahu's interests and Israel's interests are not even the same thing.
So, when the cameras show who attends and who doesn't, who applauds and who doesn't, let's not think about who is pro-Israel or anti-Israel, let's ask who is pro-American or anti-American.
I know from other correspondence with this reader that his aim is not to launch some different sort of re-directed loyalty witch-hunt. Rather it is to ridicule or challenge the general idea of "loyalty tests" and instead to concentrate on the sanest long-run pursuit of U.S. national interests.
To my mind those interests lie with seeing if an acceptable deal with Iran can be found—a prospect that cannot possibly be helped by the spectacle of a foreign leader addressing Congress to criticize the administration's approach to negotiations, while those talks are still underway. Again, imagine Congress inviting Chaing Kai-shek to address a joint meeting on the problems with the Nixon opening to China, while the negotiations that would lead to the Shanghai Communique were still going on. No American strategist would have thought that was a good idea at the time, and similar logic applies now. But I've made this point already and will move on.
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Time for the periodic housekeeping note about reader mail. Unless specified otherwise, I consider any incoming message to be available for quotation here. I don't have an open-comments section, because I don't want to commit the time necessary to moderate and tend it (as Ta-Nehisi Coates has so impressively done). But I try to give an idea of the range of response by quoting samples of what's come in.
I generally want/need to know a reader's real name before quoting a message. That's to avoid trolling, phony claims about background or identity, false-flag-style arguments, etc. But I don't ever use a reader's real name on our site unless agreed in advance.
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Update: I've gotten some querulous traffic to the effect of, What's it to you? Why are you singling out Netanyahu? Etc.
The obvious first-stage answer is of course that John Boehner and Ron Dermer are the ones who have singled out Benjamin Netanyahu, by setting him up for an unprecedented appearance. But beyond that, why do I care?
Here's why. I am deadset against my country drifting into further needless unwinnable wars. I view Netanyahu's arguments on Iran, however sincerely held on his side, as being wrong and unhelpfully warmongering from a U.S. perspective. Or at least from my U.S. perspective, as developed over the years:
In my view, and as I've argued in my book Blind Into Baghdad and in many articles including "Bush's Lost Year," the decision to invade Iraq was the worst American foreign-policy mistake of my lifetime. The Vietnam War was more damaging overall, but also more understandable. As laid out by Les Gelb and Richard Betts in The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked and by other authors elsewhere, the eventual calamity of the Vietnam war was the result of step-by-step decisions each of which seemed "rational" at the time. Iraq, by contrast, was a wholly unnecessary self-inflicted wound.
The arguments made to promote the Iraq war—we must strike before it's too late; diplomacy is a ruse and has run its course; the regime is irrational and can only be crushed rather than reasoned with; military "solutions" will in fact solve the problem—very closely parallel those now being made about Iran. And they are being made by many of the same people, notably including Benjamin Netanyahu. Read this astonishing Haaretz story for more on that front.
Before the Iraq war, I admired State Senator Barack Obama's judgment in opposing it. I admire President Obama's judgment now in pushing hard for a diplomatic solution with Iran, despite huffing about "weakness" from the same people who rushed us into war with Iraq. Many people are doing the huffing, but only one of them has been asked to address a joint meeting of Congress. That's why I'm talking about him.
So when the Middle East is not my beat, why do I care about this episode? Because we can't stand to drift into another of these wars.
(b) the specific critique Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to advance in this setting, which, based on his statements over the past decade, is likely to involve such impossible conditions and strictures for an "acceptable" deal with Iran as to torpedo the negotiations. Not to mention ...
(c) the idea that a military strike on Iran's nuclear installations merits serious consideration for either the U.S. or Israel.
So, factor that in as you will. A recent crop of developments:
1) A Congressional statement you really should read. Vice President Biden showed one way of distancing himself from this spectacle, through the super-important though not-yet-specified "foreign trip" he'll need to make just when Netanyahu is here.
Seriously, this is worth reading, for what it says both about the specifics of U.S.-Israeli relations and about larger institutional dangers in the conduct of foreign policy as a whole. Here are a few samples.
On the conversion of a "policy" speech into a political and lobbying stunt, with emphasis added:
It is both sad and ridiculous that attending this speech will be used as a litmus test for support of Israel. In short, roll will be taken, and some outside organizations have even threatened potential absentees with electoral repercussions ...
It will become a matter of score-keeping as to who stands up and applauds and who doesn't. Having visited Israel only months after Netanyahu addressed Congress in 2011, I know how much political impact these scenes have in that country. There is pressure to join the applause even if a member does not agree with statements made.
On the "informational" value of the appearance:
We know what he is going to say. Netanyahu’s position on the ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program is not a secret. Like many other members, I have been visited by the Israeli ambassador and understand what they want and how that differs from what U.S. negotiators are attempting to accomplish.
The Prime Minister has plenty of other places to express his opinions. In fact he has done so many times.
On interference in U.S. policy-making by a foreign leader:
Speaker Boehner invited the Prime Minister to address Congress specifically to refute President Obama’s position. I will not contribute to the impression that this body does not support the President of the United States in foreign affairs.
Congress has a broader responsibility than the security interests of Israel. While it certainly is important that we understand the Israeli perspective, the American people will hear only Netanyahu’s perspective, creating a public perception that could undermine a broadly supported resolution to the Iranian nuclear situation.
This is as gutsy and non-boilerplate a statement as you're going to see from any congressional office. The way to encourage more such behavior by elected officials is to recognize it when it occurs.
2) Why the obligatory applause lines can be the most damaging parts of the speech. From a reader who makes a point parallel to Yarmuth's:
I just had a flash of what that address to a joint Congress will look like. All members must attend, lest they be branded anti-Israel. And, in the fashion of a State of the Union address, Netanyahu will deliver his speech with the intention to evoke applause. And, like the State of the Union address, the cameras will pan, and if a member is seen not applauding to a key policy point, he/she will be branded anti-Israel. Netanyahu will have been given an extreme American political power, given only to one other person on earth: the President of the United States ...
This, for me, brings into clear focus the patent harm caused by Citizens United: The ability of money to highjack [sic] American political processes is a dangerous thing. And the, shall I say, chutzpah of Israel, a foreign power, to inject itself (with disrespectful swagger) into the heart of the American political process should be seen as a real harbinger of those dangers. How much of the dark money being invested into 501(c)(4)'s has its origins in foreign treasuries? Israel is a potent example of how a savvy foreign power can, with careful political management and financial investment, hijack American politics. The analogy to a virus or a cancer springs to mind. And the vector is money. And its ability to neutralize our own self-protective evaluative and deliberative mechanisms very directly resembles an auto-immune disorder ...
And I must make what seems to have become the obligatory disclaimer: I must clarify that I am not anti-Israel, anti-Jew, anti-semite [sic]; I'm actually part Jewish by culture, though not by faith. And I do think that the interests of the Jewish state are very important. But that should never displace a clear-headed perspective on what American interests are, and an independent evaluation of Israel's policies and actions, on our terms.
As the doubly partisan nature of this spectacle becomes more obvious—partisan in U.S. terms, as part of the struggle between Obama and the Republicans, partisan in Israel as its own election nears—the case for Democrats simply absenting themselves becomes more powerful.
As an intellectual matter, there is nothing they will learn by attending the speech that they haven't already heard. As a matter of short-term politics, they put themselves and their president in a no-win situation just by showing up. (If they don't applaud, they "lose." If they do applaud, they "don't win.") And as a question of long-term governance, everything about the situation is bad. As Josh Marshall argued two days ago, emphasis in original:
The idea of a foreign head of state appearing before Congress as an advocate in a debate that is a matter of great controversy within the United States is basically without precedent. This is quite apart from the equally unprecedented idea of a foreign head of state addressing Congress to advocate against a sitting President. Mainly this is because foreign heads of state or government are by definition not American.
Why enable any of this? Why agree to serve as props for what has become a GOP-Likud stunt? If Vice President Biden and Representative Yarmuth can stay away, so can the rest of you.
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3) I've also received a lot of mail on the merits of the Iran negotiations. More about that shortly. For now, one more reader note on an under-covered aspect of the situation:
I'm not as bothered by Netanyahu's speech as you are, but I am disgusted more generally by the ongoing efforts to sabotage negotiations and I don't see it covered much elsewhere in my media universe. Anyway, my point is below:
It seems to me that Israel's chest thumping about war has moved the center of the Iran debate into such extreme territory that crippling economic sanctions are treated as merely symbolic. Many of the same politicians who take sanctions so lightly talk a lot about the suffering in America caused by the Great Recession (and rightly so). Well, we've done much worse things to Iran's economy than the recession did to ours. We've caused immense human misery in the Iranian population. Is economic suffering only real when it happens in America?
Maybe after weighing the risks and benefits, sanctions were indeed the right thing to do (particularly if these negotiations succeed). I'm skeptical but uncertain. But I am fairly certain that the sanctions aren't weighing on the consciences of those who are inflicting them to the degree that they should.
In the realpolitik of this moment, sanctions seem the only plausible alternative to talk of outright military confrontation. Thus for me they are clearly the lesser evil. But the reader rightly points out how taken-for-granted they have become.
Last week President Obama spoke about faith, doubt, violence, and extremism, and was roundly criticized by many conservatives for what they saw as the "anti-Christian" tone of his remarks. In an earlier item I explained why I thought Obama was being historically realistic rather than anti-anything in talking about the violence carried out in the name of the Inquisition and the Crusades. In a series of posts, most recently here, Ta-Nehisi Coates has gone into the speech controversy in detail.
Now three reader responses. First, from Joseph Britt in Wisconsin, who argues that in one way the speech was more effective than generally noticed, and less so in another.
Did you notice the reference to India, in the same paragraph as the now-famous invocation of the Crusades? I wonder if that was not so subtle that its import might be missed by everyone -- which of course would make it not subtle but merely obscure.
[JF note — here is that passage:
"And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation." ]
One of the most important and dynamic relationships the United States has in the world today is the one with India, and some of that dynamism derives from the still-new Modi government and its policy agenda, thought to promise accelerated economic growth in this enormous country.
I don't think Obama or John Kerry have forgotten the dark stain on Modi's political resume: the horrifying Hindu assault on Muslims in Gujarat scarcely a decade ago, in which Modi was (at a minimum) an unhelpful figure and very likely complicit. This could not have been a mere academic point Obama was making -- a Modi government that allowed (or incited) from New Delhi anything like what Modi's government did in Gujarat would create more problems for us than we can even think of right now.
The second note is about the consistency of Obama's musings on the Crusades with past efforts he and his predecessor have made to signal that American opposition to terrorism does not mean opposition to Islam. The Crusades, of course, are an important part of the Muslim Arab political narrative, and on this point Obama was anything but obscure. The problem with his signal, I think, is not that it does violence to history but rather that it will almost certainly prove ineffective.
Muslims truly sympathetic to terrorism -- which, practically speaking, means a subset of Arabs, West and East Africans, Pakistanis, Afghans and Central Asians -- break down into two groups. The first are people who know the Islamic political narrative much better than Barack Obama does, and will not be impressed by one sympathetic reference to one part of it in a speech in Washington unless they can turn it to their advantage. The other are young Muslims whose ear Obama does not have; they will get their interpretation of historic narratives from people who share their faith....
So the Crusades are all very well, but in the here and now Islam as a religion certainly does have a problem with terrorism. Obama does no good by fudging this, and allowing (for example) those Pakistanis Husain Haqqani is always writing about or Gulf Arabs who embrace the world economy while slipping money to ISIS under the table to cite the American President's agreement with a historic narrative about "Crusader" crimes against Muslims.
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Second, from a reader in Seattle, responding to a quote from a comment by Jim Gilmore, former Republican governor of Virginia, that Obama “has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”
I am always interested when someone (usually a man) claims to be speaking for all Christians.
Mr. Gilmore is entitled to his opinions about his faith, and entitled to his opinions as to what constitutes defamation.
He is simply not entitled to include anyone else in his opinion as to what Christians feel about Mr. Obama's statements, and he's not entitled to include anyone else as to what Christians think about defamation.
I've been a believing Christian for decades. Part of my Christian faith includes knowing about my faith and knowing about the history of my faith.
It has not been uniformly representative of the Kingdom of Heaven as wished for by my Lord Jesus. Where we ask daily for His will to be done and his Kingdom to come, Christians throughout history have done reprehensible things that are more reflective of the great satan himself, from the religious wars in the early centuries down to the Holocaust, slavery, and even homegrown Jim Crow.
Yes, Christians have done good deeds as well. We can acknowledge both--Christians have done good things and have also done evil, both in the name of Jesus.
There is nothing unChristian or defamatory towards Christians and Christianity in admitting our past. It is what it is. It can teach us that people will use anything to justify their evil actions, and the more holy the reasoning, the more likely it will be used.
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Now, from a reader who I think is based in Europe, on how I am missing the point:
I much appreciate your defense of what President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast, as well as your support for leaders who remind us of such truths and complexities, which are of actual and substantial practical value in the real world....
However, I feel you skirt, perhaps by design and intent, a significant aspect of these attacks on President Obama. Is not saying “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States” not really, primarily, of a piece with the never-ending right-whinge effort to cast President Obama as “the other?”
You are a model of measured decorum (I often wonder if this is simply your natural state, a habit acquired through practice, or if you actually have to continuously work at achieving this, because you find it never gets easier.) on subjects I myself am much prone to wax on passionately. I admire, even occasionally envy, you, for that.
But I wonder if there is not, in fact, a time and a place for the ad hominem attack, when it is not only deserved, but also effective, perhaps more so than the measured response? When even the response of a “leading conservative intellectual” (Who, I’m resigned to conceding, from all evidence, is actually a leading conservative intellectual.) amounts to ... “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” And I find myself wanting to respond all the more vehemently for its “intellectualism.”
Do you believe that decorum is always the best and most effective form in debate, Mr. Fallows, when debate has consequences in the real world, and perspective dictates actions which have material effect on actual human beings?
That's not a question to be dealt with right now. Or rather, that I've been trying to deal with in 40 years of writing for this magazine. More anon.
This week I am mainly out of Internet range. In the interim, I share this incredible traffic-safety video from New Zealand, courtesy of charter-sailboat captain and onetime guest blogger here David Ryan.
He writes in response to my previous post, on how I decided not to make a certain flight for our American Futures travels. I said that while people who fly light planes rationalize away the inherent risks, people who don't know about aviation generally don't understand how much of the risk is tied up in the basic go/no-go decision for any given flight.
David Ryan quoted his safety and maritime mentor Mario Vittone, who has flown numerous helicopter-rescue missions for the Coast Guard and has emphasized, similarly, that all of them "could have been avoided before the boat left the dock." Ryan adds:
Here's a brilliant, painful New Zealand driver safety PSA. What I like about it is it takes [a Mario Vittone-style] opening up of the accident timeline, and through a good script and special effects, inserts the prior "decision to have an accident" within the moment of the accident itself.
"Please, I've got my boy in the back …"
I've watched it about 20 times now and it sets my lip a'quivering every time.
I've watched it twice and think that's as much as I can take. It is incredibly powerful, and is one of those short bits of media with the potential to stick in people's minds and thus change their behavior. The U.S. version should prominently feature texting-while-driving, our modern curse.
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The version of this awareness in the tiny portion of my life I spend flying begins with the question, "How would this look in an accident report?" This mainly means the decision to undertake a certain flight—when the weather was deteriorating, when a piece of equipment was giving failure signs, when the destination airport had a tricky or high-altitude location, or when (as two days ago) I would have had to fly an unfamiliar route unusually close to the ground, so as to avoid the A-10s roaring overhead. The accident report is the unsparing narrative by the NTSB or the general pilot community on how an "accident chain" began, and why a pilot did not take one of many opportunities to break the links in that chain. Usually no one thing causes an airplane crash. It's a sequence of things, and avoiding any one of them would have usually prevented the harm.
In the much greater share of our lives that most of us spend driving, we're much less conscious of these accident chains, because our risk perception is so different. We know, on the one hand, that nearly 100 Americans will die today in car accidents. We also know that we're not likely to be one of those. So we come to think of driving as presumptively safe, rather than as potentially catastrophic. I could imagine a campaign based on the New Zealand ad building in more of the "how would this look?" consciousness, especially when it comes to texting.