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.
  • The Case for Democrats Skipping the Netanyahu Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    On the "informational" value of the appearance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

  • What Did Obama Really Say About the Crusades?

    "Muslims truly sympathetic to terrorism break down into two groups. The first are people who know the Islamic political narrative much better than Barack Obama does..."

    Crusades art, "Saladin and Guy" by Said Tahsine (1904-1985 Syria) ( Wikimedia )

    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.

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.

  • On Risk Assessment, in an Unforgettable Traffic-Safety Ad

    Public-safety campaigns don't often break through our shell of indifference. This one, from New Zealand, broke through the shell for me.

    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.

    * * *

    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.

  • A Calculated Risk I Decided Not to Take

    "Here we were doing what was a 'strafing run' down the highway and talking to Snake Eye and looking for the craters at the south end of the corridor." Why we made this last leg of the journey by car.

    We decided not to challenge the Warthogs for airspace above this road in Arizona. ( Airman 1st Class Sivan Veazie/ U.S. Air Force )

    As we've been traveling around by small plane for our American Futures reports in the past 18 months, one of our guiding policies has been No Difficult Flying. Takeoffs and landings during daylight hours only. Keep up instrument-flight proficiency, but avoid having to fly in "actual instrument conditions," which means through clouds or when ceilings are low. Find comfortable-sized runways rather than tricky smaller ones. When in doubt, wait until the next day.

    People who fly light airplanes rationalize away the inherent riskiness of the activity. People who don't know about aviation often do not realize how many large categories of risk turn on the decision whether to make a flight at all, rather than on anything you do or don't do once aloft.

    More than a year ago, we faced one of these decisions when I was supposed to take the Marketplace radio team back from Eastport, Maine to the commercial airport in Portland. It would have been less than a one-hour flight by Cirrus SR-22, versus nearly a five-hour drive. But the weather was bad and worsening; on takeoff from Eastport we would have had to fly for some time before making radio contact with the nearest air-traffic controllers, in Bangor; and I didn't have good answers to various "well, what if this happens... " questions. So the plane stayed on the ground, and they made the long drive.

    Ajo last night (Deborah Fallows)

    My wife Deb and I had another such moment yesterday. We were flying from the Phoenix area to Ajo, Arizona, a small ex-mining town trying to re-invent itself as an arts and nature travel destination, about which you'll hear more. Ajo has a small airport, which is unusual in being almost entirely surrounded by various forms of  "Restricted" airspace. The most restricted of these, to the city's north, is known as R-2305, the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range, where A-10s, F-16s, and other aircraft conduct day-and-night bombing and strafing drills.

    OK: Much of the West is covered by military airspace, and you talk with the air-traffic controllers to figure out when and how you can cross. But this one on the way to Ajo was more stringent than usual. I called a couple of flight-service briefers and asked how to make the transit; they all said they didn't know.

    Then I prowled around online and found accounts like this, from someone who had flown into into Ajo a few years ago. The punchline of the account is that you can fly to the airport, as long as you follow a narrow state highway that edges along the Air Force range — and while over the road stay exactly 500 feet above the ground, which is lower than most people have ever seen an airplane. (Usually you're supposed to stay at least 1,000 feet up; typically the "traffic pattern" around an airport, as planes set themselves up to land, is about 1,000 feet above ground level.)

    The details of the Low Road to Ajo, as reported by Warren McIlvoy:

    On this day, the bombing and gunnery ranges on either side of the highway were active which required you to get clearance from Gila Bend Range Control [a military ATC site] and then fly down State Rte 85 at 500' agl. [above ground level]...

    I did notice a rather large white building just to the east of a south heading highway and Range Control confirmed would be the highway that I was looking for. They reminded me of the 500' agl altitude restriction and I promptly inquired as to the altitude of the highway. Range Control responded that it was "866' msl" [mean sea level—ie, the elevation of the road was 866 feet]. I informed them I would remain at 1400' msl while over the highway. Range Control also requested that I report reaching "Black Gap" which was a prominent landmark that was really a gap between two mountain tops.

    I reported "Black Gap" and Range Control instructed me to contact "Snake Eye" on another frequency. Snake Eye reiterated the 500' restriction over the highway and report reaching the "craters"; It almost seemed surreal.

    Here we were doing what was a "strafing run" down the highway and talking to Snake Eye and looking for the craters at the south end of the corridor. I believed that I would be looking for bomb craters on either side of the highway but in reality, this was an area of cone-like rock formations that straddled the highway.

    The terrain also begins to rise at this point so I initiated a slow climb to about 1700' and reported to Snake Eye that I was about 4.5-miles south of Ajo airport.

    Contact Snake Eye? Follow a road for 40 miles, over terrain I've never seen before (and where jagged formations pop up all over), at 500 feet above the ground? Report passing between two peaks, at an altitude below their summits? All the while with A-10s roaring around?

    Warren McIlvoy was exhilarated by his trip: "It was a beautiful day for flying and I had an opportunity to experience the St Rte 85 corridor with an active restricted area and a strafing run down the highway. It does not get much better than this."

    But on the whole, I decided it would be better to land at the last little airport outside the bombing zone, Gila Bend Municipal—it's in the far left distance of the shot below—and see how the road to Ajo looked from ground level. This we did courtesy of Tracy Taft of Ajo and the International Sonoran Desert Alliance. We'll try the fly-in another time—and probably I will go ahead and do so, now that I've seen what the whole passage looks like.

    Deborah Fallows

    Here is Ajo in the morning, with its historic downtown plaza and spectacular desert all around. I will study up about Snake Eye and reflect on future possibilities.

    James Fallows

    Attentive readers will have noticed a connection between this report, featuring the plucky but bureaucratically endangered A-10, and the ongoing Chickenhawk chronicles. More on the latter next.

  • The Netanyahu Speech Drama Goes On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sign me up.

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

    Haaretz

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

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

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

    Israel to Iran, 1000 miles.

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

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

    4A) From another:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The 'Most Offensive' Comments a President Has Ever Made

    Many of today's conservatives are on the warpath about President Obama's latest speech. Conservative thinkers of other eras might have seen it differently.

    St. Augustine, here in a 16th-century portrayal by Philippe de Champaigne, would have had some thoughts about President Obama's National Prayer Breakfast speech (Wikimedia)

    Barack Obama has gotten himself in trouble again, with people who generally find him troublesome, for a National Prayer Breakfast speech in which he made two non-pablum points. One is that down through time nearly every faith has at some stage been associated with violence and brutality. That is, it's not just today's Islam. His other point was that an essential ingredient of faith is, paradoxically, doubt.

    For a sample of the balanced and level-headed response:

    “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

    Further notes:

    1) Please read Ta-Nehisi Coates's full-throated response to Obama's critics. He concentrates on the historical role of Christian faith in justifying racist violence in the United States. Also please read Ed Kilgore's post in The Washington Monthly.

    2) A few weeks ago I wrote a NY Times Book Review item on Karen Armstrong's book Fields of Blood. Her book makes an extremely detailed historic case for a view that is different from Obama's (or Coates's) but complementary to theirs. In short, she says that religion has often been associated with violence, from long before the Crusades until this very week. But she argues that the underlying sources of violence are almost always political, and sometimes ethnic, with religion as an excuse or overlay rather than being the underlying cause. You can read more about the book in my review, and a lot more about this case in the book itself.

    3) After Mario Cuomo died last month, I did two items about the power of his rhetoric, especially his ability to "think in public." The first was here and the second here. Cuomo's most famous speech, his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention, was a rousing partisan presentation but not a particularly "thoughtful" one.

    His best speech, in my view, was by contrast all about wrestling with complexities. It was "Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective," delivered at Notre Dame also in 1984. Its subject was the tension between faith and doubt, between private convictions and public acts. For instance, about abortion:

    I can offer you no final truths, complete and unchallengeable. But it's possible this one effort will provoke other efforts—both in support and contradiction of my position—that will help all of us understand our differences and perhaps even discover some basic agreement.

    In the end, I'm convinced we will all benefit if suspicion is replaced by discussion, innuendo by dialogue; if the emphasis in our debate turns from a search for talismanic criteria and neat but simplistic answers to an honest—more intelligent—attempt at describing the role religion has in our public affairs, and the limits placed on that role.

    And if we do it right—if we're not afraid of the truth even when the truth is complex—this debate, by clarification, can bring relief to untold numbers of confused—even anguished—Catholics, as well as to many others who want only to make our already great democracy even stronger than it is.

    You can read the speech here or watch it here. It is in keeping with the efforts of Obama or any other serious person to recognize that doubt is an inseparable element of faith.

    4) Or, if you're looking for a more prominent Catholic authority on the question of doubt, I give you: Pope Francis himself, Bishop of Rome. In a recent interview in The National Catholic Review he said:

    "The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

    “The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: ‘God is here.’ We will find only a god that fits our measure. The correct attitude is that of St. Augustine: Seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever."

    So maybe the Pope has these issues in perspective; or maybe Jim Gilmore does. We'll keep searching for the truth.

  • Brian Williams and the 'Guitar Hero Syndrome'

    An officer serving in Afghanistan on why a newsman's mis-recollection matters: "I actually think it's worse if it WAS inadvertent, as that would confirm what we all suspect that America really does believe that it is more involved in the military's travails than is reality."

    The song "Rebel Yell" from the game Guitar Hero World Tour (Wikimedia)

    A U.S. Army captain now serving in Afghanistan writes about the Williams case. He is responding to my argument that whatever Williams's accounts reveal about the oddities of human memory, they also say something about the political climate of the chickenhawk era.

    What this reader writes is long, but I think you'll find it worth reading in full. He writes:

    Your recent post on the Brian Williams "adventure" on a helicopter brought to mind a parallel that might be accurate; the "Guitar Hero syndrome." I could also throw in pre-ripped, stone-washed jeans for good measure into the stew of things that seem to indicate a psychology dominating the American scene whereby people want to appear as if they are more involved in something than they really are (or actually care to be).

    Why practice a musical instrument when you can simply pick up the video game and within a few days, tada! You are now a guitar hero. Don't want to actually get your hands dirty moving dirt around the yard or climbing rocks or building roads but nevertheless want to appear as if you haven't been laying on the couch all day playing video games (guitar hero, maybe)? No problem; simply head on down to your local clothing outlet of choice for a wide selection of (what used to be considered) work pants that now come in all varieties of ripped, scratched, and discolored to make it appear as if you're "street-wise."

    Hell, you can even buy pseudo-military themed clothing if you want to go ahead and completely usurp the image of those who have volunteered to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat (at risk to themselves of beheading and, lately, immolation).

    Some may find my connection with pre-ripped jeans a far fetched corollary, however I believe that the psychology at work in our society has happened without anyone really even noticing. Why would people think that clothes that have been specifically designed to appear dirty or used are fashionable and hip? Because, somewhere inside our minds, we all share an admiration of "work" as a noble thing that helps make the world a better place. It's how we developed into who we are as humans, building cities and nations and civilizations out of the things we find around us, rather than simply laying out under the trees all day looking for the most easily accessible piece of fruit to grab.

    Brian Williams, bless his mostly-honest little patriotic heart (really, I do tend to like the guy), has either inadvertently or purposely pulled a complete guitar hero on the U.S. military with his little faux pas of journalistic integrity. I actually think it's worse if it WAS inadvertent, as that would confirm what we all suspect (those of us who are concerned about this subject), that America really does believe that it is/has been more involved in the military's travails than is reality.

    Probably, though, he just wanted to sell his brand so he went ahead and popped himself ahead in time temporarily and retroactively in order to be able to say that "he was there" when relating his "war experience" at all the dinners with his journalist buddies.

    I'm not trying to be cynical, just simply stating things without the normal deference that is given to "important people" simply because they did something with the right intentions. In this case, Williams spun it as a story about how great the guys were who came and helped him after the crash, so kudos to the military, right? What's not to like about that? Who cares if it wasn't exactly true?

    I care. Because I've actually been there. Some of us have actually put our lives on the line for real and take great offense when others try to gain street-cred by associating themselves with us. Nobody likes a moocher, especially not one who tries to mooch off the ONLY lasting and noble thing to come out of years of hardship and pain that are what Soldiers refer to as "life." I hate to say it but my own family sometimes annoys me in this way.

    My mom is a school teacher and has asked me on multiple occasions if I would mind coming to her school on Veterans Day to be "the Soldier" that all the kids get to talk to and what not. It may sound harsh, but I have told my own mother no every time (at least three that I can remember) to such requests (the latest of which was not helped by the fact that I am in Afghanistan and she thought maybe we could Skype it).

    I could go on ranting about how nobody "gets it" and the military is being "used" (in an involuntary way) for more than just ensuring access to resources and contracts for big U.S. companies, but I won't... for now.

    * * *

    In my "Tragedy of the American Military" article I wrote about the natural if unconscious attraction that many of the people covering today's soldiers come to feel toward the institutional military:

    Some of [the improving press image of the military] is anthropological. Most reporters who cover politics are fascinated by the process and enjoy practitioners who love it too, which is one reason most were (like the rest of the country) more forgiving of the happy warrior Bill Clinton than they have been of the “cold” and “aloof” Barack Obama. But political reporters are always hunting for the gaffe or scandal that could bring a target down, and feel they’re acting in the public interest in doing so.

    Most reporters who cover the military are also fascinated by its processes and cannot help liking or at least respecting their subjects: physically fit, trained to say “sir” and “ma’am,” often tested in a way most civilians will never be, part of a disciplined and selfless-seeming culture that naturally draws respect.

    Respect for individual brave, disciplined members of the military is natural and appropriate. It can spill over to a less proper suspension of critical judgment about the institutional military and the uses to which it is being put.

    More »

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Amb. Dermer (Reuters)

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

    As Greenhouse writes:

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

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

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

  • The Brian Williams Story as Emblem of the Chickenhawk Era

    What it means that a public figure "misremembered" events in this particular way

    Brian Williams interviewing General David Petraeus at our First Draft of History conference in 2009 (Reuters)

    I know Brian Williams slightly; have always liked his on-air presence; am glad he has participated in Atlantic events, like the one shown above; and am sorry for his current "our helicopter was hit" difficulties.

    I don't mean to compound them, but I want to explain why I find the episode mystifying when it comes to human nature, and revealing about our current politics.

    Mystifying: Memory is tricky. So is presentation-of-self—as David Graham explains in an item just now.

    But with all such allowances, I still find it just about incomprehensible that someone: (a) whose professional background involves observing and reporting events, (b) who holds one of the handful of jobs in the world most reliant on trustworthiness, and (c) who knew he was talking to an audience of millions of people that would (d) include others with first-hand knowledge of the incident, would nonetheless (e) "misremember" what must have been one of the most dramatic and traumatic moments of his life, after (f) accurately reporting the event for the first few years after it took place, and (g) when the whole thing is only a dozen years in the past, not somewhere in the fog of distant childhood memory.

    Again, narrative and recollection are strange. I think I clearly recall vivid or traumatic episodes in my life, starting with the time a pickup truck rammed the car in which I was riding with my mom as a pre-schooler in Jackson, Mississippi. I believe I'm sure that I was sitting in the front seat, in that era before seat belts or child safety-seats, and just missed hitting the windshield, being stopped by the padded dash. But maybe, this many years later, I'm fooling myself. There is no one else around who was there. Three or four times in the past 20 years, I've been in uncomfortable situations while flying an airplane. I think I could recount those episodes in second-by-second slo-mo detail. But I can't be absolutely sure.

    What I find hard to imagine is telling a story I wasn't 100 percent sure of, in public, with the detail, drama, and certainty Williams used in his famous session with David Letterman less than two years ago. The relevant part starts at around time 3:40. It is worth watching the few minutes that follow, knowing what we do now. (This video has the bonus of Italian subtitles.)

    I try to put myself in this situation, and I can't. Like every person I have misremembered things, and like many people I often exaggerate them. But in circumstances like this? Where you know that other witnesses could be listening in? (To spell it out: Everything that appears in our magazine is super-fact-checked, and any residual errors are despite our best efforts. Things I put on this web site are not checked the same way, but I know that anything I write is subject to someone writing in and reporting, "Hey, I also know about that episode, and it didn't happen the way you say.")

    * * *

    Revealing. Of the various commentaries on this issue I particularly recommend today's note by Andrew Tyndall, at his Tyndall Report. He says, as I would, that the misremembering is strange but not of huge consequence in itself, especially after Williams's apology. Then he makes the political point. He mentions my Chickenhawk article, but I would agree with him even if he hadn't. I've added the emphasis:

    This particular fib that Williams chose to tell—to identify himself all the more closely with the perils soldiers face in battle—derives from his underlying editorial judgment to offer instinctive support to the members of the uniformed armed forces ... And it is not only journalists that exhibit such "instinctive support," which is in truth a mere euphemism for "kneejerk adulation." Anyone who attends a major league baseball game observes the same unquestioning endorsement of the uniform and those who wear it.

    Jim Fallows of The Atlantic recently observed that such "reverent" solidarity with our troops acts as a ring-fence that protects the entire military-industrial complex from the scrutiny it deserves. So the editorial importance of the fib Williams told is not only that it displays a reflexive desire toward identification with the military; it also represents his own newscast's self-disqualification as a dispassionate journalistic observer of the Pentagon's role in the domestic body politic and the nation's foreign policy.

    I don't know what more Brian Williams can or will say about his own re-rendering of history. I do think, with Tyndall, that the particular way he re-presented himself says something about our times.

  • Ask and Ye Shall Be Told, Mystery Airplane Edition

    Sometimes crowdsourcing pays off.

    The Darth Vader-looking aircraft, in flight ( Brian Lockett for Air-and-Space.com )

    Yesterday I mentioned that I had innocently rolled up in a benign-looking puffy little white airplane and found myself sitting next to what looked like Darth Vader's personal jet. This was on the ramp outside the elegant Luxivair terminal at San Bernardino airport in California. Here was the scene yesterday:

    What was this all-black airplane? Which even though it had Air Force insignia on the side didn't look like anything I was used to seeing?

    Thank you, Internet! Readers pour in with answers. For instance, from a former Air Force officer:

    The picture you posted of the black T-38 is a companion trainer from Beale AFB. U-2 pilots don't get enough flight hours to keep all their currencies up, so they fly around in those black T-38s to stay proficient.

    And from another Air Force veteran who looked at the photo very closely:

    The BB tail code on the bad-ass looking T-38 you parked on the ramp next to signifies Beale AFB. The U-2 squadron up there uses them to keep the pilots that are still flying the U-2 current for basic airmanship, since U-2 sorties are relatively few and far between and a pilot needs to fly a certain number of hours each month to be safe in the air, as you know.

    Here's what the U-2 itself looks like, so you can see the similarity in paint scheme if little else:

    U-2 in flight, US Air Force via Wikipedia

    And, from a fellow small-plane pilot:

    A little googling (search on: black T-38) suggests that the black-with-red-trim T-38's are unique to Beale AFB and are flown by the U-2 pilots based there for currency. Given where you met one, that fits.

    For good measure, here is one of the U-2s shown coming in over Beale itself, which is north of Sacramento:

    From StrategicAirCommand.com

    Now I know. Thanks to all.

    * * *

    Update From another pilot:

    The aircraft you posted a picture of is a T-38, and the BB on the tail flash denotes it is from Beale Air Force base.  The U-2 pilots stationed there use the T-38s to maintain some of their flying currencies, I assume due to lower operating costs.  The black color and lettering is the same scheme as their primary aircraft.  They probably have requirements for off-station instrument approaches and landings, which may be why you saw one at San Bernardino.  The B-2 pilots from Whiteman Air Force base also fly matching colored T-38s for the same reasons.

    The T-38 is a great aircraft.  I flew more than 1200 hours in it, but in many ways I would rather have the means to own a Cirrus (yours looks great, by the way).  I have shared several moments of mutual admiration at FBOs like the photo you posted.  Different shades of grass, I suppose.

  • When I Grow Up ...

    Darth Vader vs. Casper the Friendly Ghost, on an airport tarmac

    The flight line this afternoon at KSBD, San Bernardino International Airport (James Fallows)

    I was traveling by small airplane in Southern California today, in preparation for an upcoming series of reports in our American Futures project. I was feeling like Mr. Cool as I brought in my beloved Cirrus SR-22, after a landing, toward the elegant Luxivair terminal at the former Norton Air Force Base, now San Bernardino International.

    And then I pulled up next to ... this craft, the Darth Vader-looking thing above. (Next to which mine looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost. I will have to paint some shark teeth on it.) This ominous other plane said "U.S. Air Force" on the side, yet in hipster black-on-black lettering that made me wonder.

    That is all. Tomorrow back to "Chickenhawk" updates from the news and from reader mail.

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Nixon goes to China, in 1972. (Wikipedia)

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

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

    * * *

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

  • This Is Getting Serious: Intellectual Self-Isolation in China

    Let's hope that some day we'll look back on the current crackdown as an unfortunate phase.

    Ah, the good old days: Bill Clinton, in an Internet cafe in Shanghai on a presidential visit in 1998, back when the Net was going to connect China with the world. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, then a representative, looks on. (Reuters)

    Back in 2008, when I had been in China for a couple of years, I wrote an Atlantic article about the repressive shrewdness of the "Great Firewall," the Chinese government's system for censoring the Internet. The Firewall was repressive in that it tried to eliminate any site or discussion the ruling Chinese Communist Party found inconvenient. But it was shrewd, even brilliant, in that it applied an amazingly light touch.

    Anyone inside China who really cared about reaching forbidden zones of online discussion could do so easily enough, by paying a few dollars a month for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or using a free-though-slow anonymizing service like Tor. But most of the Chinese public was not likely to go to the expense or bother just to reach outside sites, most of which were not in the Chinese language anyway. So in those good old days the Great Firewall found a sweet spot, effecting nearly as much censorship as a complete ban might have, while generating a minimum of disgruntled protest.

    That was then. In the last few months, Internet censorship has clamped way down. "Is This North Korea?" was the title of a good Washington Post story yesterday. The NYT also had one yesterday, to similar effect.

    But if you want to consider the whole implications for China, I encourage you to read this multi-part exchange in ChinaFile, from the Asia Society, about both the technical underpinnings and the political ramifications of the current, much more draconian crackdown. For instance, from a lawyer named Steve Dickinson:

    From my perspective, the recent moves shutting down VPN services are a natural product of the desire of the [Chinese] regulators to create an entirely closed Internet system. It appears to me that they have largely succeeded. The effect is quite remarkable. I am writing now from a hotel in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. From this small hotel I can access the Internet with no restrictions of any kind and with uninterrupted, fast service. I will return to China next week and settle down to an Internet that simply does not work.

    He is describing a contender to be a "leading" economy and civilizational force in the world. To mention one of countless implications: How many first-rate international scientists will want to move to Chinese universities if the Internet "simply does not work" there?

    Back in the good old days of the porous Great Firewall, Chinese authorities also practiced what I thought of as a principle of "minimum surplus repression." They would strike without compunction against any person or group they considered threatening, but otherwise seemed inclined to let the normal ferment of life churn on. Now we're seeing surplus, gratuitous repression as well. I have no idea where this trend ends, but at the moment it doesn't seem to lead anyplace promising.

    I'll have a chance to try the new firewall myself pretty soon—if I can get a visa.  

    More resources: GreatFire.org, which monitors censored and blocked sites in real time; an NYT profile of Lu Wei, head of the Great Firewall censor team; GreatFirewallOfChina.org, another monitoring site; and a WSJ report by Te-Ping Chen on how the Great Firewall has been an odd kind of industrial policy for China. (The author is an in-law of mine.)   

    I'd like to find a bright side in this news, but I can't.

  • Updates: Airplane-Parachute Selfie, the Immortal Boiling Frog, Community College

    Ever wonder how it looks if you're inside a plane headed toward the ocean? Wonder no more. Plus: policy news, both bad and good.

    The view from inside a plane as it headed toward the Pacific ( ABC News, via The Flight Academy )

    Over the weekend a Cirrus SR-22 airplane, the same kind that Deb and I have been flying around the country on our American Futures travels, made an unplanned descent into the Pacific. The extra fuel tanks for the long ferry flight from California to Hawaii developed some kind of valve problem; the pilot realized that without that extra gas he couldn't make it all the way; so in coordination with the Coast Guard, he picked out a site in the vicinity of a cruise ship. Then he used the Cirrus's unique whole-airplane parachute to lower the plane to the water and crawl into his rescue raft. I told the story here.

    Now the pilot, 25-year-old Lue Morton, has gone on Good Morning America to describe the experience—and share a GoPro video he shot from inside the plane as it was coming down. You can see the remarkable footage here or below (after pre-roll ad):


    World News Videos | ABC World News

    Good for Cirrus, the Coast Guard, Lue Morton and his colleagues at The Flight Academy, the Holland America cruise ship Veendam, and all others involved.

    * * *

    On a less upbeat note, Andrew Jacobs of the NYT has an update on the darkening saga of Chinese authorities intensifying their effort to cut China's people off from the international Internet. I also had a note about this over the weekend.

    One of Jacobs's ways of making the point:

    “I need to stay tuned into the rest of the world,” said Henry Yang, 25, the international news editor of a state-owned media company who uses Facebook to follow broadcasters like Diane Sawyer, Ann Curry and Anderson Cooper. “I feel like we’re like frogs being slowly boiled in a pot.”

    Sigh. Seriously, the Chinese internal squeeze-down is bad news. And among its less-serious consequences is that people in China are walled off from the knowledge that they need to add "apocryphal" before "boiled frog." Or else "decerebrated," since frogs only behave this way if their brains have been removed. (You can check it out.)

    * * *

    In San Francisco today I gave a speech at a League of California Cities convention, telling city managers from across the state what we'd discovered about "successful" cities and regions in our travels through the past year-plus. I had a list of ten markers of places-on-the-rise—not counting, of course, the presence of start-up craft breweries. No. 7 on the real list was an active, creative, and effective community college system. This report from Mississippi will give an idea why, plus this one from Georgia on high school counterparts.

    California, at one time a leader in public higher education, has in recent years been a laggard on the community-college front. We'll be saying more on this front. Thus I was glad to see in this morning's news that Jerry Brown, beginning his fourth and final term as governor, has proposed a boost in state efforts here. According to EdSource:

    The governor’s budget proposal for 2015-16 includes $876 million for career technical education and other job training initiatives at K-12 schools and community colleges – welcome news for programs that saw course offerings cut and enrollments decrease over the past several years.

    The governor identifies the programs as a key part of a larger, $1.2 billion statewide effort aimed at “reinvesting and reshaping California’s workforce preparation systems.” The effort aims to get students into training programs that are more closely linked to regional workforce needs and to better coordinate job training programs at colleges and schools.

    * * *

    Good news from aviation, bad news from the most populous country, good news from our most populous state. We muddle ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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