Thursday, April 29, 2010

NPT Review Conference: Can Ahmadinejad Seize the Moment?

The NPT review conference only occurs once every five years. This is Ahmadinejad’s chance. Will he blow it?
When Ahmadinejad arrives at the U.N. for May's month-long NPT review conference, will he come with hubris and defiance or a skillful diplomatic effort to portray Iran as part of a moderate, reasoned global movement to create a nuclear-free Mideast?

Brasilia and Ankara are positively pleading with Tehran to give them something to justify a lowering of tensions, and that would probably please
Moscow and Beijing as well. Even Cairo is now at least temporarily on Tehran's side on this issue (perhaps fearing that more one-sided Western pressure will only serve to make Iranian acquisition of nuclear arms all the more likely).
Hypothesis: If Ahmadinejad takes a moderate pose and offers concessions, he will win big.
Supporting argument: Iran has pushed in-your-face confrontation pretty far; the elite has got to realize that Tehran is playing a very dangerous game…mostly to benefit Ahmadinejad’s career. Now Tehran has a marvelous opportunity to look good in a very high-profile context and right in Obama’s back yard. Countries are lining up to offer Iran support if only it will make some gesture to give them justification. A government would have to be truly inept to miss this chance. Ahmadinejad should thank Erdogan and Lula for their courage, thank Moscow and Beijing for their support, welcome “partnership” with Cairo to make the Mideast a safer place, and put something on the table that will get the attention of the IAEA.
Negating argument: Whatever Iran does will make absolutely no difference. The U.S. will continue bowing to the Israeli right, which pursues war fever for many reasons, only one of which is obsession with preventing any other country from defying Israel. Obama feels the need to play nice with conservatives on this emotional issue to protect his freedom to do liberal things on the medical and financial fronts. He is by nature not confrontational and will never take a stand on something this risky.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Failure of Imagination about the Mideast: Pt. 1. Nuclear Transparency

U.S. freedom of maneuver toward the Mideast is crippled by failure of imagination. What would happen if American decision-makers actually starting considering "all options?"

As the world's only superpower in an environment of great instability but no overwhelming immediate threat, the U.S. has, in principle, enormous freedom of action to implement an effective Mideast policy. Yet, its Mideast policy is an unmitigated disaster, a constant drain on U.S. blood and treasure and a humiliating demonstration of American incompetence that leaves even its favored client Israel feeling insecure and moving steadily away from democracy toward racism and authoritarianism. American weakness derives from Washington's failure of imagination. American leaders simply do not see the selections on the vast buffet table of policy options.

To address this failure of imagination, some fundamental questions that Washington decision-makers appear not to have even asked will be considered in a series of essays. The first question concerns nuclear transparency:

What would happen if Washington endorsed international calls for a nuclear-free Mideast and called on Israel and Iran jointly to adopt a policy of nuclear transparency? 

The most immediate change would be to demonstrate that the world's most powerful country was now thinking creatively and taking charge. That in and of itself would enhance Washington's influence by giving it the leadership position that it has increasingly been ceding to Ankara. The whole rest of the world would immediately start playing catch-up.

Such a policy announcement would also enhance Washington's tattered reputation as the world's moral leader. 

A call for nuclear transparency would surely be attacked by Israeli rightwingers but would also empower Israeli liberals, both those concerned about proliferation and those concerned about the state of Israeli democracy. The result would probably be a healthy domestic Israeli debate about the merits of its nuclear policy. It would be difficult for Israeli rightwingers to make a serious case that Israel was being harmed since calling for transparency would have no immediate or obvious impact on actual power relationships: no change would occur in the possession of actual military hardware.

In Iran as well a debate over nuclear strategy would probably be stimulated, though it would perhaps be closely held within the national security community. Calling on both Iran and Israel to accept the same standard would surely open the door to the argument that Iran could benefit by cooperating more with the international community.

Transparency should in the end be easy for Israel to accept since it would retain its nuclear monopoly. Transparency should also be easy in the end for Iran to accept since it already claims to support such a policy and would now see a benefit to adhering more carefully to the spirit of that policy. With the US in the lead, promotion of nuclear transparency would give momentum to Obama's anti-proliferation policy. Transparency would serve as an easy first step toward the much more challenging goals of preventing proliferation, cutting back stockpiles of nuclear arms, but the mere fact of the international community taking a first step that applied to all would at least minimally reassure everyone, thus cutting tensions somewhat and thereby facilitating the next step. It could thus, at little if any cost, turn into an historic opening.  

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

American Double Standards on the Mideast

To protect national security, policy must be based on reality, not lies we tell ourselves.

Double standards plague the U.S. national dialogue about policy toward the Mideast. They are so pervasive that media editors consistently publish articles whose bias would get them a scornful F in any decent university. More seriously, this bias leads to a self-defeating groupthink that prevents even the imagining of the actual range of policy options. 

It is time for a zero-based review of U.S. Mideast policy. 
  • Step 1. Identify desired standards.
  • Step 2. See which countries adhere to these standards and which do not.
  • Step 3. Hand out approval, support, and aid accordingly.

Here are a few standards, for those who think we are being too rough on that poor little pioneer nuclear power that believes security is a zero-sum game:
  1. does the state in question sail nuclear-capable submarines close enough to an adversary's shoreline to constitute a military threat?
  2. does the state in question practice collective punishment in a period of relative peace (as opposed to during full-scale war) against an ethnic minority under its control?
  3. does the state in question have colonies deemed illegal by the U.N.?
  4. does the state in question enforce apartheid in such colonies?
  5. has the state in question invaded any of its neighbors recently?
  6. does the state in question stockpile nuclear weapons and at the same time reject nuclear transparency?

If so, that state is a force for long-term instability and therefore a threat to U.S. national security. Act accordingly.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Positive-Sum Mideast Strategy

What would happen in the Mideast if the U.S. replaced its zero-sum view of security with a positive-sum view?*

As tempting as it may be to conceive of an opponent as "evil" and oneself as "good," the truth is seldom so clear-cut: something happened, someone felt boxed in, someone misunderstood someone else's intentions, one thing led to another. But humans can't know everything and will always search for a neat mental model. Rather than "good vs. evil," try "zero-sum vs. positive sum." Instead of trying to distinguish "good" from "evil" as a route to understanding Mideast politics, try distinguishing those who view regional political affairs as a zero-sum game from those who view the world as a positive-sum game.

Positive Sum History
"Positive-sum history" is the optimistic view that history shows the development of human civilization in the direction of an ever-broader definition of the common good. The optimist sees history as progress, believing that as education spreads it also deepens, so we can learn from history. According to this view (which one may call a "religion," since it must be taken mostly on faith), the barbarism of the 20th century will teach us the value of international law and democracy, with both institutions used for the good not of a class or ethnic group but of mankind.

Zero-Sum History
"Zero-sum history" pessimistically interprets history as always adding up to the same thing; it's either them or us. The pessimist sees history as repeating old mistakes since human DNA preordains that hubris will trump humility. According to this view (which may be called "realism" because most historical evidence supports it), all issues are zero-sum and all goals are short-term.
The Power of a Mental Model
Positive-sum history and negative-sum history are alternative mental models, gross simplifications designed to provide first steps toward organizing the clutter of information into meaningful categories. Neither, by definition, is "true," any more than it is "true" that a rainbow is green. A rainbow may contain green, and history may contain positive-sum examples (international law) and zero-sum examples (Hitler, Israel's Sampson Option). When a decision-maker mistakes either of these constructs for organizing one's thinking as a description of reality in global affairs, disaster should be anticipated.
Using the Models to Guide Mideast Policy
According to this optimistic view, Obama means what he says and will in the end support peace and justice in the Mideast, believing that while "peace" via totalitarian control may have worked rather well for extended periods in the past, mankind has today matured and the world has shrunk to the point of putting Orwell's 1984 behind us. Obama will thus further understand that peace between Israel and Palestine is one side of a many-sided coin that certainly includes peace between Iran and the West and that the most reliable route to the one is to move simultaneously toward the other. Hence, the U.S. will grope its way toward a position of supporting Israeli security not because of some "chosen people" myth, "end of days" fundamentalism, guilt over Nazi atrocities unhindered, or the short-term convenience of an "unsinkable aircraft carrier," but simply because Israelis are human and deserve security just as much as Palestinians do. Obama will also understand that Iran deserves an active part in Mideast affairs not because of its Israeli-style nuclear ambiguity but because of its intrinsic importance and originality of thought. Washington will therefore offer genuine compromise to Iran, and Tehran will find the maturity and vision to meet it halfway. Washington will curb Israeli militarists and support the maintenance of beleaguered Israeli democracy even while helping to construct Palestinian democracy. Washington will realize that the road to peace is the right road and that the question is not about which ethnic group to support but whether to support fascism or democracy. Then Washington will, as a superpower should, change the world.
According to this pessimistic view, if oil is running out, then Washington will use a good bit of what is left in military adventures to seize the last drop. If a corrupt regime offers support, Washington will greedily accept. Obama, being black and having what has now become an extremely sensitive Islamic name, is nothing more than an extraordinarily fortunate cover behind which the conservative military/financial elite can hide their manipulation of the world in a way they never could under Bush/Cheney. The Palestinians will be bulldozed into oblivion under the cover of beautiful rhetoric delivered with winks and endless talks about talks. The eager Israeli militarists will get everything they want, but the price will be Israeli descent into fascism under the management of a garrison state that can survive only amidst perpetual war, moving smoothly from the West Bank to Iran, joining the region of Muslim unrest in the Mideast with the region of Muslim unrest in Central Asia. The superpower, focused on power instead of governing for the people, will turn into a new Weimar Republic and very likely catch the fascist disease as its uneducated population rightfully becomes angrier and angrier but sadly without understanding cause and effect. And thus, in a different way, the superpower will change the world anyway.
Zero-sum Dynamics
Of course, neither of the above scenarios is likely to occur; reality will be a confusion of the two and perhaps much else. The point of the scenarios is that each worldview--that world affairs is zero-sum and that world affairs is (or at least might be) positive-sum--in practice amounts to an exponential spiral with the dynamics of a whirlpool or an avalanche. A step in either direction just makes the next step all the easier.
As soon as it became fashionable to make war on terrorists, as though they could be defeated by charging through the gates of their fortress and demanding their surrender, it became much easier to start wars for other purposes. If a superpower could invade a country to catch a gang of terrorists, then it could invade a country to get its oil or prevent it from posing some theoretical future threat. All constraints were removed.
Once invasion became acceptable to defeat a subnational actor, it was an easy step to collective punishment. After all, if the subnational actors in fact represented social movements, then perhaps "society" was to blame and deserved to be punished. When down-on-its-heels Russia was allowed to get away with the collective punishment of Grozniy, al Qua'ida's slaughter of civilians in New York and the U.S. attack on Fallujah became all the easier, and then who was pure enough to criticize Israel's destruction of Gaza?
As soon as it became fashionable to toss around the idea that "all options" were on the table, it became easier to imply with a smirk that "all options" really meant the military option and that the military option really meant nuclear war. The ultimate threat became common parlance; civil discourse began sounding like the sneer of a bully in a dark alley. The ultimate threat became commonplace and began to be used thoughtlessly and in a way that had become demeaning and counterproductive. 
A striking recent example was the unseemly rush of the Pentagon to contradict a now rare example of Washington reasonableness, when U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy stated that all options toward Iran were "off the table in the near term" [AP 4/21/10]. Although still falling far short of what would have seemed the only rational statement in past decades, i.e., that nuclear attack against a non-nuclear power is always off the table (in order thereby to encourage countries to forego the development of nuclear weapons), Flournoy's remark was still too much for the new, post-Cold War Washington to tolerate, so the Pentagon immediately reminded the world that nuclear attack by the world's only superpower remained on the table [Reuters 4/21/10].

Then Washington went further down this slippery slope, making the incredible statement that "all options" would be on the table against Syria if it turned out that Syria had sent Scuds--an absurdly primitive weapon with which to balance Israeli military might--to helpless Lebanon's Hezbollah. Are we to believe that Washington decision-makers have floated so far into the Twilight Zone that they would launch nuclear war against everyone who talks back? Or have "all options" suddenly metamorphasized into a code word, as I have advocated regarding Israel [OpEd News 3/16/10] and Iran [Foreign Policy comment 3/7/10], for"ah""all" options, including sympathy and compromise? Perhaps they have, but somehow I doubt it.

The rising acceptance of invasion, the collective punishment of civilians, and the use of nuclear weapons illustrates the perilous dynamics of a zero-sum view of history.
Positive-Sum Dynamics
Positive-sum dynamics are harder to get started because they suffer from the reputation of being "dangerous," as though the events of the last 15 years in Grozniy, New York, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon were somehow "not dangerous." The very actors who implement these zero-sum policies are the first to warn of the dangers, citing Hezbollah rockets or Pakistani rebels or Iranian nuclear infrastructure, yet they persist in employing the very tactics that push the world further toward realization of the extreme zero-sum mental model.
Yet the trend toward a zero-sum world took place one step at a time. Public rhetoric only slowly lost its sense of morality. War on cities only slowly became commonplace. What might have happened if the West had seriously condemned Russia's flattening of Grozniy? What would have happened if Washington, basking in the glow of global sympathy on 9/11, had called for an international police action to arrest and bring to trial international terrorists? What would have happened after Israel's retreat from Lebanon in 2000 if Lebanon's security had been guaranteed? What would have happened if Israel's attack on Jenin had been used by the West as evidence that Palestinians must be given justice? What would have happened if the legally elected Hamas administration of Palestine in 2006 had been supported rather than overthrown?
What would happen if...
  1. What would happen if the West now recognized the right of all countries to obtain medical-grade uranium for whatever medical use that those countries would open to full international inspection? 
  2. What would happen if Washington endorsed international calls for a nuclear-free Mideast and called on Israel and Iran jointly to adopt a policy of nuclear transparency? 
  3. What would happen if Washington guaranteed the integrity of Lebanon's borders
  4. What would happen if Washington stated that it favored the security of all Mideast societies and that it was replacing its Israeli-centric strategy with a strategy of Mideast multipolarity, in which Washington would work closely with all regional powers that were willing to work with it, without requiring that they accept all of Washington's policies?
None of these actions would instantly transform the balance of power. None of these actions would irretrievably imperil any country's security. Each would be just a step that could be reversed, slowed, or redirected.
These questions point out the many opportunities for reversing the cycle of violence and suggest that the sparking of a benign dynamic founded on a perception of history as positive-sum might not only be possible but might increase the security of all.
*Thanks to OpEd News for publishing on 4/25/10 the initial version of this essay and to Online Journal for publishing on 3/16/10 an earlier paper, Mideast Peace or Fascism?, on which this essay expands.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Israel vs. the U.S.

By fighting the U.S., Israel undermines not only the U.S., but also itself.

The United States is not a neutral mediator that supplies the parties with its good services, a table to negotiate on, some snacks and muzak. The United States is an interested party, a superpower whose position in the Middle East and around the globe is based on its economic and military strength. It's also based on the Americans' ability to leverage those advantages for political action, to set the world's agenda and win legitimacy for waging wars and making peace….

On the face of it, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a strategic threat. More Israelis or Palestinians dying, or more Qasams in the south or Katyushas in the north won't bring down any state - most certainly not the United States. Solving the conflict won't stop the Iranian nuclear race and won't persuade India or Pakistan to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Syria won't cut ties with Tehran even if Israel recognizes Hamas.

But the conflict becomes a strategic threat when it endangers
America's stature on the global stage….

Israel is challenging the United States' strategic status. This provocation goes beyond the question of Israeli sovereignty versus American might. Idiotically, Israel is competing against itself because U.S. status is a fundamental part of Israel's strength. And when Israel is ready to demolish this foundation for the benefit of the bullies in East Jerusalem and the West Bank outposts, Israel puts its own citizens at risk. [Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz 4/25/10]

I certainly appreciate hearing this argument, with its balanced concern for both Israeli and American security, from an Israeli, and I suspect that it would be food for thought to most Americans, but unfortunately it is highly unlikely that more than a handful of Americans will ever know that any Israelis think like this.

If this argument represents the views of a significant body of Israeli public opinion, then that group needs to do much more to communicate its message to Americans. Despite the month-long debate in the U.S. questioning at long last the impact of the U.S.-Israeli alliance on U.S. national security, the debate remains superficial, members of Congress almost to a person appear to have cotton in their ears, and most Americans seem still to be under the delusion that protecting Israel means bowing down to the Israeli right wing’s imperial pretensions. As for those few American who have started to question that mantra, can they be criticized for believing that most Israelis have absolutely no interest in the U.S. except as a tool to further Israeli appetites to cleanse Palestine of the Palestinians and be the Mideast hegemon?

If Israeli militarism undermines U.S. national security, the other side of the coin is that an American perception of Israel as dangerous to U.S. national security would undermine Israeli security.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mideast Security for All (notes)

A practical plan for enhancing the security of all Mideast states is possible.
Notes on Mideast security plan:

1. US guarantees Lebanese security -
  • arm Lebanese Army with defensive missiles
  • forbid Israel to use US technology vs. Lebanon
  • US offers to discuss Lebanese security with Syria, Iran
2. Russia, China, and US guarantee Iranian security -
  • Russia sells defensive missiles China & Russia offer token troop forces
  • Tehran provides total nuclear transparency
  • Tehran receives medical-grade uranium, sanctions end
  • US demands total Israeli nuclear transparency, backed up by suspension of military cooperation
  • Israeli nuclear-capable submarines put under international supervision
3. Golan Heights to Syria -
  • U.S. guarantees Israeli security 
  • Israel returns Golan
4. U.S. Encourages Multilateralism With U.S. Backing -
  • U.S. supports Turkish emergence as moderate consensus-builder
  • U.S. encourages self-started regional interaction including Iran and Israel

    So far, has any state's national security failed to improve?

    Nuclear-Free Mideast and Israeli Security

    The concept of a nuclear-free Mideast is typically discussed on the basis of an unfortunate assumption: that, since Israel is the only regional nuclear power, a nuclear-free Mideast would necessarily harm Israeli security. This is a very short-term perspective. Even over the short term, Israel's nuclear monopoly harms its security, and the harm is even greater over the long term.

    Israeli decision-makers should consider the national security benefits of a common regional standard of nuclear behavior. Israel's long-standing policy of nuclear ambiguity today serves as cover and justification for Iran's copycat policy. Over the long term, Israel will be more secure in a region that accepts the concept of nuclear transparency than it will under the current circumstances, in which Israeli nuclear rogue status stimulates others to behave the same, with results that are clear to all - an Iran obeying the letter of the NPT but scorning the spirit, a Syria with a hidden nuclear installation, and who knows what next! Short-sighted Israeli insistence on a mythical "exceptionalism" is no service to the security of the Israeli people.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    Nuclear-Free Mideast: Walk the Talk

    Suddenly, the whole world wants a nuclear-free Mideast. OK. A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step...

    In 2007, while the neo-cons reigned supreme and when Iran had just a bit of uranium refining going on and when Turkey was firmly embedded in the Israeli sphere of influence, Cairo called for a nuclear-free Mideast [Spacewar 10/21/07]. The West, firmly behind Israeli regional nuclear hegemony, slapped Egypt down. Now Egypt is renewing its call [Global Security Newswire 4/20/10].

    Having lost three years in its hubris, the West now finds Iran’s refinement industry booming, Turkey leading the way toward a conciliatory central position, and Obama taking a high-profile anti-proliferation stance that puts Israel firmly on the spot.

    For six months, amid rising tension fueled by Iranian games and American threats, the Iranian nuclear issue has been sidetracked in a trivial argument over medical-grade uranium. Using medical-grade uranium as a proxy for a deadly serious competition over Iran’s role in the Mideast is a sad and expensive diversion. If resolution of this issue achieves a “ping-pong diplomacy” breakthrough by warming the Washington-Tehran tone, then it will have been worthwhile, but it works for now as yet another set of blinders obscuring the realities of the struggle for regional influence.

    The rising chorus of calls for a nuclear-free Mideast, however, adds an interesting wrinkle. As Gates evidently pointed out to Obama in January, the U.S. has no satisfactory long-term strategy for dealing with Iran. Common acceptance of the vision of a nuclear-free Mideast as a long-term goal could provide a key element of such a strategy by defining an end-point on which all responsible statesmen could agree to talk. A strategy may have blunt power at its core and yet find its success promoted by a goal that all can honestly cooperate to achieve.

    Once representatives from everywhere sit down and agree that, “Gee, in a perfect world…,” then the pressure to actually accomplish something will subtly rise, and folks will start asking questions that currently do not occur to a lot of world figures:

    What might a joint first step look like?

    Is there something Israel and Iran can trade off that will harm the security of neither?

    Would the ground open and Israel be sucked out of sight were it to admit its holdings, affirm it wished they could be destroyed, and offer just a teeny bit of transparency?

    There is a real danger that the distant vision of a nuclear-free Mideast might serve simply to conceal the struggle for regional influence under yet another layer of propaganda. If, for example, all sides just say they like it but don’t trust anyone else, then it won’t go anywhere. If Cairo proposes real steps forward and Tehran does the same but they carefully each propose steps they know the other will immediately reject, it won’t go anywhere either.

    But what if they don’t? What if Cairo and Tehran had chats with Ankara and came up with a joint list of small initial steps that all three could support? What if Obama received an unofficial copy and held a quiet luncheon with representatives of Israeli civil society concerned about Israeli national security and obtained their approval for a subset of those steps?

    Cairo has started off on the right foot:
    "We want the Israelis to sit at a table and negotiate," Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations Maged Abdelaziz said, stressing the importance of Jerusalem's participation in the talks. "We're flexible on the location and the format of the conference," he said [GSN, op cit].

    Now, what about Iran? Is Cairo going to let this degenerate into an anti-Iranian campaign in order to score petty points in its own bilateral competition for regional influence or is Cairo going to think more boldly and try to lead the region by inviting everyone to the table?

    Monday, April 19, 2010

    Sudden Mideast Signs of Moderation

    Without warning, Mideast politicians are suddenly promote moderation.

    What is happening in the Mideast?

    Iran announces a campaign of diplomacy with the U.N. to curb nuclear proliferation and moderately proposes that Israel join the NPT. Israeli Defense Minister Barak notes that Iran poses no existential threat to Israel. Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee has found in its annual poll that over half of American Jews approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations (Haaretz 4/19/10).

    What, I wonder, might Iran be willing to offer in return for Israel’s agreement to renounce nuclear rogue status, confess, and sign up to the NPT requirements for transparency? This would not impact military isssues – Iran would still be nonnuclear and Israel would still dominate the Mideast with its nuclear strike force. But if Israeli and Iranian officials could meet face-to-face at IAEA meetings for technical discussions of how their respective nuclear establishments could be managed in a way that would reassure the world of their good intentions…

    As a consistent voice of Mideast doom I frankly don’t know what to make of this, except that it underscores that amid all the hypocrisy and hysteria and special pleading, room for rational thought does indeed still exist. Of course, rational thought has existed all along among thinkers, but signs such as these from officials are something new.

    The Nuclear Dance

    Many reputations on the line with this week’s diplomacy surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue.

    After a year of much talk about Mideast reconciliation but little publicly known substance to back it up, Turkey is now taking the next step.

    First, in Washington Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated Turkey’s willingness to accept Iranian uranium even though it is not clear that such a move would be acceptable to Tehran. Next, Davutoglu visited Brazil to discuss Iranian nukes [Hurriyet, 4/18/10] and will take the results of that effort at a joint position to Tehran this week.

    Tehran’s reaction will offer transparency into Tehran’s true motivations (either to solve the crisis or to promote its apparent Israeli-style policy of nuclear ambiguity). Steve Clemmons has an interesting write-up on The Washington Note [4/15/10] about Davutoglu’s justification for Turkish opposition to sanctions against Iran, including a revealing remark about how U.S. sanctions against Saddam harmed Turkey from which U.S. decision makers should learn a lesson about downstream impact of heavy-handed U.S. policies.

    Davutoglu, who visits Tehran regularly, told reporters in Washington last week that there has been a “change of approach” in Tehran recently resulting in acceptance “in principle” of a deal that would remove most of its enriched uranium from Iran [Zaman 4/19/10]. This would appear to meet the public terms set by Washington, but the longer the dispute lasts, the more Iran’s nuclear infrastructure advances and therefore the less technical significance the specific issue of medical-grade uranium has. It seems increasingly apparent that the real stumbling block lies over the political question of whether or not the two sides wish to achieve progress. At the moment, Tehran appears to find progress on the specific issue useful, while Washington does not. State Department spokesman Crowley dismissively remarked, “when you, you know, look behind the curtain, there's really nothing there,” a statement that appears to go out of its way to cast Iran in a negative light. Indeed, Crowley made it clear that Washington’s goal was not the specific issue of a trade of types of refined uranium but the broader issue of curbing Iran’s overall nuclear program.

    Tehran’s Chance on Sanctions
    Given the global sensitivity of sanctions imposed by the rich on the poor, Tehran now has a golden opportunity to undermine Washington’s campaign by being forthcoming with Turkey and Brazil. Its failure to do so will greatly strengthen Washington’s position, putting particular pressure on China and Turkey to accept strengthened sanctions, and will embolden Westerners looking for a military solution.

    Washington Reaction Will Offer Transparency into Washington’s Goals
    If Turkey and Brazil manage to get Tehran on board and Obama reacts, this would constitute evidence for the hypothesis that he is looking for a compromise solution to the nuclear issue. On the other hand, if he rejects their move, it will lend credence to the hypothesis that the nuclear debate is primarily a cover for a U.S. effort to subordinate Iran to U.S.-Israeli hegemony over the Mideast. JCS Chairman Mullen's recent equating of an attack on Iran with an Iranian development of nuclear weapons as equally destabilizing suggests strong opposition to war but does not speak to the hypothesis that Washington may truly be maneuvering to leave Iran marginalized and alienated rather than an integrated member of the international community but still independent and possessing rising influence.

    Turkish Credibility
    Meanwhile, as we await the details of the Turkish-Brazilian proposal that is evidently being formed, Erdogan’s credibility as the leader of a new Mideast moderate movement is very much on the line. He has clearly articulated his position; it remains to be seen if he can put deliver.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010

    Distorting Iranian Nuclear Behavior

    Media distortion of Iranian behavior and subsequent Republican hysteria risk provocation of U.S. or Israeli attack on false pretenses.

    In a critically important analysis of Iran’s nuclear status in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 3/19/10, Ivan Oelrich and Ivanka Barzashka expose a U.S. media bias that could provoke yet another U.S. war of aggression on false pretenses, stating flatly in regards to the IAEA’s February report:

    the media has seriously misrepresented the actual contents of the report. In fact, no new information has been revealed.

    The authors go on to illustrate the seriousness of the misinformation, which has led to hysterical [my word] public reactions by various Republican Congressmen:

    Pete Hoekstra of Michigan has insisted that the IAEA report is an "indictment" of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which claimed Iran had ceased its weapons work back in 2003. Indiana Republican Cong. Dan Coats told the conservative magazine Human Events that "the only option now is . . . military action."

    Oelrich and Barzashka continue:

    1. First, there is no independent assessment that Iran is engaged in weapons work….
    2. More importantly, the report doesn't contain any evidence that the public hasn't already seen.

    They present no pro-Iran case, instead noting severely:

    The regime seems to positively savor making it as difficult as possible to give it the benefit of the doubt. Alleged weapon research has no innocent justification and, if real, would make a damning case against the regime. That said, an already dangerous standoff is being made worse by the distortion of this recent IAEA report.

    As the American public attempts to judge the Obama Administration’s failure to invite Iran to its recent nonproliferation conference, its threatening language shifts in the new Nuclear Posture Review, and its refusal so far to settle the issue of delivering medical-grade uranium to Iran, the background provided in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is essential reading.

    Iran Strategy: Charge of the Light Brigade

    Attack is only half of a rational strategy, and the lesser half at that.
    Defense Secretary Gates has evidently accused the White House of failing to develop a strategy on Iran. (He’s wrong; the strategy was to beat on them until they cry for mercy.) In that context, National Security Advisor Jim Jones said [New York Times, 4/18/10]:

    The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy for the world to see doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies — we do.

    That, General Jones, does not answer the question. The job of national security officials is, I am aware, all too often perceived as anticipating “the full range of contingencies.” But that is the fireman’s attitude: be ready for whatever happens. The national security job goes far beyond passive preparation. The phrase itself implies that we are just sitting here – “we” being the most powerful and aggressive and intrusive nation on earth!

    First of all, the U.S. is not just sitting – it is patrolling the Persian Gulf, madly arming Israel beyond any conceivable defensive need, constantly threatening Iran for thinking about doing things we don’t like, actively working to marginalize Iran from world affairs, and conducting economic warfare against Iran.

    Second, the job of national security officials should include proactive steps to improve national security. Therefore, what the U.S. should have is not just plans for all contingencies but plans to create a better environment. And of course General Jones would claim that the steps I listed in the previous paragraph entail just that.

    My objection is that the steps Washington is taking publicly suggest that Washington is not even thinking about ideas to deal with Iran that are not negative. Like a novice judo fighter who never feints or throws his weight backward, Washington indeed has a strategy toward Iran and that strategy is to charge straight ahead as hard as possible without ever looking to either side. (One could write a poem…sorry, already done.)

    The clue lies in Washington’s favorite 21st century phrase: “all options.” All options…not just the nasty ones. Details on request.

    Further reading:

    To entice Iran, Washington must ‘get real’MCW 2/4/10
    Smarter Iran Policy begins with new attitudeAntiwar 5/27/09

    Saturday, April 17, 2010

    Nuclear Common Ground

    Using nuclear nonproliferation as a cudgel to beat up those we dislike for other reasons is a dangerous and irresponsible game.

    The politicization of non-proliferation may contain the seeds of a healthy awakening of concern and questioning of what politicians really mean when they use the term, but at least for now it seems a true tragedy. Competition to see who can do it best is fine, but competition reduced to ostracizing and insulting the other camp sadly weakens momentum of a crucial vision always more honored than observed. All rational humans can agree that, whether or not total nonproliferation (given the availability of nuclear knowledge) is practical, at least management of nukes is essential. And this is the common ground for Iran, which calls on Israel to accept inspections, and Israel, which calls on Iran to accept inspections, to meet in mutual self-interest to negotiate.

    Unless Obama is about to pull some sort of diplomatic magic out of his hat, history will condemn him for a huge failure in missing the opportunity to lead the way. First, he should be criticized for failing to use his recent Washington conference as a means of bringing Iranian and Israeli representatives to the table together to discuss the obvious common concern of nuclear transparency. Second is a developing failure-not responding positively to signals from Iran’s counter-conference.

    At that meeting, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mahmanparast told Reuters on 4/17/10:

    We want to exchange 3.5 percent enriched uranium, 1 tonne, for 100 kg (220 lb) of 20 percent enriched nuclear fuel inside Iran under the supervision of the IAEA and we are ready for interaction.

    This sort of Iranian statement is hardly new but in the midst of a torrent of aggressive behavior out of Washington in recent days, it constitutes a remarkably conciliatory and reasonable step. After all, the issue here concerns medical-grade uranium that the West long ago agreed to provide to Iran and to which Iran is legally and morally entitled. To argue over this is unseemly and only weakens the Western case against Iran.

    The issue of medical-grade uranium is not a step on the path toward militarization; on the contrary, it is a step on the road toward treating Iran as a normal state. Suddenly withholding medical-grade uranium, which has long been provided to Iran by the West, is punishment for the unrelated issue of transparency on militarization. That is an important issue, and Washington should stop confusing it with everything else.

    Whatever Ahmadinejad’s intentions, and at a minimum they obviously including playing up anti-Iranian discrimination by the U.S. to buttress his career, Obama is playing into his hands by denying medical-grade uranium, respect, invitations to international conferences to Iran on the apparent pretense that such spanking of Iran will protect the world from nuclear nonproliferation. As long as Ahmadinejad can persuasively claim he is being bullied, he will have a great career and any Iranian national security official tempted to speak in favor of a conciliatory foreign policy will be undercut.

    The attitude of Ahmadinejad or any other Iranian official is really not the issue here. The point is that Obama is continuing the discredited (!?!) and failed neo-con policy of one-sided reliance on force, making the West look bad and empowering zenophobia in Iran. If the real game Washington wants to play is all about power politics, fine. It can contest control of the Mideast with Iran all it wants. But nuclear proliferation is too dangerous a trend to be subordinated to competition over the Mideast. Steps to reduce the likelihood of Iran militarizing exist and should be taken. The power game can be played either way but much more responsibly—and possibly a good deal more effectively—if Washington recognizes and publicly articulates the common interest of Americans, Iranians, Israelis, and everyone else in improving the international management of nuclear capabilities. That is not properly a cudgel with which to beat those we dislike; it is one of the most important goals of international affairs that exists.
    More details on the Medical-Grade Uranium Issue:

    1. Comment 4/16/10 by Arnold Evans on Race For Iran providing a detailed analysis of the presumed logic of a U.S. position that remains partly unrevealed by authorities

    Recession Update: Tracking the Guilty

    The spotlight is now shining on both the guilty of Wall Street and the guilty of official Washington.

    Don’t have time to spend hours a day tracking the nefarious schemes by Wall Street and mortgage companies to defraud the American people? Need a quick way to decide whether the Democratic calls for financial system reform or the Republican calls for letting the rich get richer are the best way to build the country’s future? Try this money quote from Joe Nocera’s 4/17/10 New York Times article “A Wall Street Invention Let the Crisis Mutate” on for size:

    At the peak [of the subprime mortgage crisis] there were well over $1 trillion in subprime and Alt-A mortgages that were securitized on Wall Street. That’s a lot, to be sure — but it was a finite number. You could have only as much exposure as there were bonds in existence.

    The introduction of synthetic C.D.O.’s changed all that. Unlike a “normal” collateralized debt obligation, which contained the bonds themselves, the synthetic version contained credit-default swaps — derivatives that “referenced” a particular group of mortgage bonds. Once synthetic C.D.O.’s became popular, Wall Street no longer needed to feed the beast with new subprime loans. It could make an infinite number of bets on the bonds that already existed.

    The people on the short side of those trades were truly savvy investors, who, unlike so many others, did their homework and had insights that made them a great deal of money. But the rise of synthetic C.D.O.’s that they pushed for — and their ability to use credit-default swaps to short subprime mortgage bonds — took an already bad situation and made it worse.

    That should be enoughfor you to identify the bad guys and teach you that democracy is only as good as the integrity of the layers of government regulation. And there need to be layers – regulators to prevent commercial crime and regulators to prevent government crime. Today’s story is about commercial crime. The true story of how the U.S. Federal Government’s complicity aided and abetted this crime is only hinted at by remarks such as Senator Carl Levin’s 4/16/10 characterization of the years of toleration of Washington Mutual problems by the Federal regulatory body the Office of Thrift Supervision as “pitiful enforcement.”

    It is hard for the government to regulate industry, especially when the ruling elite jumps effortlessly from one side to the other; it is even harder for it to regulate itself when official Washington essentially has only one party composed of two conservative wings. That old remark remains essentially true today, as the continuation of neo-con foreign policy with a human face and the recent consolidation of the principle of health care for profit rather than as a right both demonstrate. Nevertheless, glimmers of interest in reform are showing through the Washington dark, and the sudden willingness to countenance not only regulation of Wall Street but legal action against Wall Street and official condemnation of government failure are three encouraging examples.

    Friday, April 16, 2010

    American Blood and Treasure

    That conflict, and specifically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, endangers U.S. national security is now official, albeit still delicately spelled out. If Obama still gives little indication of having thought the implications through, the issue is nonetheless now squarely on the agenda for public debate.

    A pernicious set of blinders has been ripped off the eyes of the American thinking public over recent weeks, bringing to the fore a long-overdue discussion of the impact of the U.S. “blank check alliance”* with Israel on U.S. national security. This issue is now quite clearly simply not going to go away. Petraeus, who kicked things off, may be correct that bloggers are partially responsible [Shadowed Forest 3/27/10] for this, and once again I thank him for his kind recognition of this democratic action. But we are now well past Petraeus. Obama himself, albeit still mired in pretense, has now said enough for all but the most prejudiced special pleaders for Israeli supremacy to read between the lines:

    …we can’t want it more than they do.

    But what we can make sure of is, is that we are constantly present, constantly engaged, and setting out very clearly to both sides our belief that not only is it in the interests of each party to resolve these conflicts but it’s also in the interest of the United States. It is a vital national security interest of the
    United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure. [As quoted by Laura Rozen on Politico.]

    Still timid this may be, but Obama is no revolutionary, and his hold on power is tenuous. His statement contains much to criticize, but that’s OK. The bottom line is that he has now established a bottom line, and it is a very different one (despite an old and similar remark by Secretary of State Rice) from that of the Bush Administration. Obama is no foreign policy analyst, but he has—oh, so demurely, like a blushing maiden--made the link between U.S. “blood and treasure” and Israeli behavior. As the blood continues to spread on the ground of Islamic lands and the treasure chest slowly empties, this issue, now officially certified as a proper subject for polite conversation, will come back to haunt all those who see fit to place the private agendas of rightwing Israeli expansionists and Israeli fundamentalists ahead of U.S. national security.

    As for the specific content of Obama’s remarks, they illustrate that this debate, like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, is just getting off the ground.

    • The canard about not “wanting it more than they do,” while theoretically accurate regarding an “honest broker” situation, is patently ridiculous in light of the fire hose of American weaponry with which Washington feeds the Israeli rightwing addiction to violence.

    • Obama’s gentle reference to the U.S. “one way or another” getting “pulled into” conflicts is also a bit too cute. Was he, perhaps, referring to getting pulled in by looking the other way while a former U.S. candidate for president was being denied entrance to Gaza or to getting pulled in by pretending that it would be Iran who would introduce nuclear arms to the Mideast or by rushing jet fuel to Israel so it could bomb out of existence the civilian infrastructure of southern Lebanon? Yes, indeed, with all the pulling here and there, running a superpower is a thankless job.

    But these criticisms pale before the bottom line: free speech on this issue is now authorized. And, sure enough, the debate goes on…

    Head of the Center for Middle East Peace and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler was quoted in the New York Times on 4/15/10 as follows:

    “I don’t think that anybody believes American lives are endangered or materially affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Mr. Wexler, who has close ties to administration officials. “That’s an oversimplification. However, you’d have to have blinders on not to recognize that there are issues in one arena that affect other arenas.”

    Not to quibble with Mr. Wexler’s wording, but because this is a crucial point in the new debate over Israel’s impact on U.S. national security, here are some ways that “American lives” can be “endangered or materially affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:”

    1. A Palestinian outraged by Israeli repression that is supported by the U.S. might join an anti-U.S. terrorist movement or provide material support to such a movement;

    1. A Muslim from any part of the world might be similarly motivated out of sympathy for the unjust treatment of Palestinians, knowing that it is only U.S. support that enables Israel to behave this way;

    1. A radical group might be motivated in part by the repression of Palestinians;

    1. A radical group might exploit the repression of Palestinians whether it sincerely cared about them or not;

    1. Americans might become confused into equating the protection of Israel with fighting a war against Islam, i.e., come to view the whole complex set of linkages between the West and Islam through simplistic zero-sum glasses;

    1. Israeli militarists might exploit the conflict to suck the U.S. into an unnecessary war with an opponent of Israel that could, were it not for Israeli extremism, otherwise have cooperated to mutual benefit with the U.S. [See, for example, Orly Halpern's revealing account of official Israeli hypocrisy on Iran 3/24/10 on the Foreign Policy Mideast Channel.]

    Of all these highly possible ways in which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict might harm American lives, the last is probably the most dangerous of all.

    *By "blank check alliance" I intent to distinguish the unique U.S. alliance with Israel, which has essentially been posited on the assumption that Israel can do no wrong, and all other U.S. alliances, which allow for disagreement and are maintained because desirable for national purposes.