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Sunday, April 30, 2006

In re conflicts of interest 

The New York Times, it seems, can identify, sterilize and apologize for the most trivial conflicts of interest, but can't see a genuine conflict that is staring it in the face.


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I've decided... 


...that I really am a chickenhawk. Notwithstanding my previous griping about the left's "chickenhawk" slur, perhaps we should do as other groups who have been vilified have done and adopt the insult as a badge.




Kudos to Captain Ed.


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You'll be relieved to know... 


...that I have decided against live-blogging my colonoscopy tomorrow morning and the preparation therefore. Blogging the former would be a bit dull, since I expect to be under the influence of memory drugs, and blogging the latter would not be helpful from a public health perspective. Why? Because it would discourage readers who have not already done so from taking an essential exam that absolutely can save their life.

If you are a veteran, then you know that I have had nothing but clear fluids all day, and that I will devote the evening to drinking a gallon of TriLyte. I chose lemon-lime when I mixed it this morning.

Wish me luck.


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Blogging and the new requirement for misdirection 


Much as we bloggers celebrate the enabling power of technology to harness distributed expertise, imagine that we are a "pack, not a herd," and believe deeply in the capacity of "Davids" to mete out truth and justice, the world's ever greater transparency poses new problems. How, for example, will our military keep its operations secret? A story from 1979 poses the problem.

As previously reported, I'm in the middle of Mark "Black Hawk Down" Bowden's new reality-thriller, Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam. It includes an enormous amount of detail about the preparations for the ultimately-failed rescue mission, including the requirement for absolute secrecy. The mission almost leaked:

By the end of the month six Sea Stallion helicopters had been moved on one pretext or another to the Kitty Hawk, where they were now stashed safely belowdecks. Not even the carrier's commander was fully aware of their purpose. An alert reporter for a local newspaper had noticed the choppers being loaded on a giant C-5 Galaxy transport to be ferried to the carrier and speculated in print -- with pictures! -- that they might be on their way to a staging area for a rescue mission in Tehran. Fortunately, no one else picked up on the story. (p. 232)

If such a story ran today, it would be posted on Lucianne.com and other such sites within minutes, and bloggers the world over would be linking to it. The students within the embassy would have known within hours. According to the security requirements that prevailed in 1979, at least, the mission would have been scrapped before it had begun. That might not have been a bad thing, but there would have been no way to have known that in advance.

Now, it may be that the military can still achieve surprise in our transparent world, but it will have to use misdirection to an even greater extent than it has in the past. If every digital camera or cell phone is really a device for distributed surveillance, our military will have to send personnel and equipment to places where they will not be used, and it will have to lie prodigiously about its intentions.

The question is how we will deal with this new requirement in our politics and morality. Are we willing to accept misdirecting lies as necessary and routine, or will we prefer that our soldiers operate truthfully, but without the advantage of surprise?

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Live-blogging the White House correspondents' dinner 

Proving that I am a nerd of the first order, I am actually watching the annual White House correspondents' dinner live on CSPAN while writing a long post for my guest gig over at The Belmont Club. This is not a comprehensive live-blogging, but I will update this post in numbered paragraphs with observations as I have them.

1. The video of the guests arriving was hilarious, and its highlight was the arrival of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. If I work up the energy I'll put up a picture of that travesty later in the evening.

Mark Smith gave the opening remarks, and notwithstanding his pleas it was obvious that he simply could not get the crowd to be quiet. A room full of reporters, Washington heavy-hitters and, *cough*, Hollywood celebrities, simply won't shut up. And why should they?

2. The highlight reels are pretty funny. Chevy Chase's crack to Gerald Ford -- "I'll hope you'll pardon me" -- was hilarious, as was Dana Carvey's riff on Bush 41. The press conference footage with JFK is also interesting, reminding us as it does of his unbelievable charisma.

3. Bush stands up, and in comes an actor make up to look like Bush, speaking as if he were Bush's mind. Bush speaking the canned lines, and the double speaking what Bush really has on his mind. It is going to go down as the funniest presidential speech in history, and some enterprising blogger should get the video up pronto. [UPDATE: Here's a link to the AP story, which gives you some flavor for the dialogue between Bush and, er, his brain.]

4. Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, is dying. He's going to kill the ratings of his show if this doesn't pick up.

5. Colbert continues to suck, and the laughter, such as it is, is almost as embarrassing as it is embarrassed.

UPDATE: Video, commentary and links galore over at Hot Air. CWCID: Joe's Dartblog.

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George Shultz and the origins of the Bush doctrine 


I commend to you Dan Henninger's article this morning on George Shultz, "father of the Bush doctrine." I like to think that he read this post of mine on precisely the same subject.


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The redemption of Abbas Abdi 


I am in the middle of Mark Bowden's excellent new reality thriller, Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam, so I have been thinking a lot about the impact of the Iranian hostage crisis on today's struggle with Iran and the wider war with Islamist extremism. That event led to extraordinary ripples through history, and we do not yet know all their implications.

The New York Times today published an interview with Abbas Abdi, one of the hostage-takers back in 1979. Abdi is surely one of the more nuanced participants in that affair, insofar as he believes it was the right thing to do then, and that the United States is a better country today for having gone through it. Who is to say he is wrong?

Read the whole thing, and please offer your comments below.


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Friday, April 28, 2006

Madeleine Albright speaks at Princeton: Fourteen Points about democratization 


This year, which is the 75th of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, four Secretaries of State have spoken at Princeton, and I have been fortunate to see them all. Condoleezza Rice spoke at the beginning of the academic year, George Shultz and James Baker this winter, and Madeline Albright this afternoon. She gave the keynote address for the annual Princeton Colloquium on Public and International Affairs, this year devoted to "Woodrow Wilson In The Nation's Service." No transcript of the speech is yet available, and I haven't detected any press coverage. Until Princeton posts the video next week, this post seems to be the only coverage.

Secretary Albright was eloquent and charming, and cracked a few to the audience of Princeton faculty, students and alumni. Best non-partisan line: "South Korean intelligence said that Kim Jong-il is crazy and a pervert. He's not crazy." She should know, having been the highest ranking American to have met with Kim.

The topic of the Colloquium being Woodrow Wilson, Albright spoke about the Bush administration's democratization strategy. She referred to Secretary Rice's speech at Princeton last fall, which focused on the progress in that strategy. "At the time, her analysis was only somewhat rosier than reality." Since September, Albright said, the situation has deteriorated considerably, and not just in Iraq. The glimmers of liberalization that we thought we had seen from Egypt to Lebanon to Saudi Arabia have been stamped out, and Iraq is a model that not even the democrats in the region want to emulate.

Secretary Albright's core point was that the Bush administration has done a terrible job of implementing a fundamentally good idea, and that the strategy was failing. These perceived failures are, according to Albright, arming critics who variously argue that we should revert to emphasizing stability or, alternatively, simply decide that democracy in other countries is not a goal worth pursuing. She rejected both these approaches, and instead offered "fourteen points" that should sit at the center of the next administration's strategy for spreading democracy. Most of them are sound, even if platitudinous, and are reproduced below from my notes. My commentary, such as it is at this hour on a Friday night, is in italics.

One, "it is both right and smart to promote democracy around the world."

Two, "democracy must grow from within."

While this may be useful advice for people who live in mildly authoritarian countries because they can loosen their bonds incrementally, this does nothing for the millions who live under ruthless dictators.

Three, we need to "increase support for building democracy around the world, including in Iraq." Albright was sharply critical of the Bush administration's paltry funding for democracy-building efforts in Iraq, claiming that the total funds budgeted for that purpose are equivalent to six hours -- one quarter of one day -- worth of military operations in that country.

This criticism seems correct to me. The federal government seems to lack effective mechanisms for promoting democratic ideals. Even the most obvious ideas have not been implemented. It is astonishing and depressing that, *cough*, Juan Cole had to promote the idea of translating the great works of Enlightenment political philosophy into Arabic (not because I begrudge Juan Cole a good idea, but because the administration didn't have it three years ago).

Four, "democracy building is a team exercise." Secretary Albright called for the United States to work within international organizations, including but not limited to the various agencies of the United Nations.

Five, "democracy building is bottom up, not top down." In the partisan crack of the afternoon, Albright said that "according to President Bush, American has a calling from beyond the stars." [Knowing and scornful laughter all around.]

This is a platitude. Yes, institutions need to be built, and they are probably more durable if built from the bottom up. But there are plenty of examples of effective institutions that were imposed by outsiders, including Japan's constitution. How many of India's basic institutions of civil society were genuinely homegrown, rather than "imposed" by the British?

Six, "in assessing gains, free elections are essential but not sufficient." Long term, it is also necessary that there be equal treatment under law, "for without it democracy will curdle into fascism."

Agreed. Democracy need not be secular, but it must never be dangerous to lose an election.

Seven, "democracy must deliver." Where corrupted versions of capitalism have failed and where the people cannot own and trade their property in an honest system, authoritarians will rise again. The most obvious example of this is in the recent progress of the populist left in Latin America. "A strong economy is built from the ground up, and cannot be assembled from the crumbs of the rich's largesse."

Eight, "we must recognize what democracy can and cannot do. It cannot prevent terror [cites London and Madrid attacks, etc.].... it is a form of government, not a ticket to a fantasy land."

Shorthanded -- or hamhanded -- rhetoric aside, I don't think that even the administration believes that democracy prevents terror per se. The true purpose of the democratization strategy is to offer a coherent ideology that can compete with jihadi ideology, and thereby give ordinary Muslims a reason to fight the extremists. Nobody, even in the Bush administration, seriously believes that democracy is somehow a vaccine against terrorist attacks.

Nine, "democracy should be inclusive." Authoritarian Arab leaders argue that democracy won't work because the Islamists will come to power at the first election. The Arab response has been to ban these parties, when the right approach would be to compete with them. Albright reinforced this point with an argument about the election of Hamas, which "remains a terrorist organization." Hamas, she said, "will be tested as it never has been before. Democracy did not create Hamas, but as the result of democracy Hamas will either moderate in response to it or fail. Either result is an improvement."

Agreed.

Ten, "adopt a global approach." Don't just focus on the key battlegrounds, as the Bush administration seems to have done. We need to return to arguing that human rights are universal. "the Bush administration should push back" against dictators, Albright said, "but instead acts as though international law is a conspiracy to tie us down... If we don't recognize international standards, others will ignore them as well."

There is more to this argument than American hawks are willing to admit. That does not mean that Jacques Chirac gets to sign off on every decision that we make, but I agree with critics of the Bush administration that we send the wrong signal by refusing to engage with international organizations, however flawed.

Eleven, we need to work with non-governmental organizations, who share our interest in openness. Yes, some of them are illegitimate and many of them are very nettlesome, but they give fits to the bad guys and they need our protection. In protecting NGOs, democratic reformers inside authoritarian countries will get needed help from the outside.

Agreed.

Twelve, "we must be true to our own values." Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and warrantless surveillance have undermined our credibility in the Middle East, the "part of the world with the longest memory."

Albright is undoubtedly right, although she would not have been had these stories been reported differently. They are all actually examples of a democracy using its own institutions to redress, or at least examine and adjudicate, alleged crimes by the state. All three of these icons are trivial compared to their counterparts in the Middle East, and all have been exposed by Americans at no small political cost to the leadership. From the perspective of some beaten down guy in an authoritarian country, these "scandals" should be encouraging, rather than discouraging.

Thirteen, "we should support democracy with some degree of introspection." In this, she hinted at -- without acknowledging -- one argument of the Bush administration: that it took the United States an awfully long time to enfranchise its entire population and safeguard their rights in the political process.

Fourteen, "the most important point, that every individual counts."

Not being a liberal, I'm not sure what it means to "count."

The Secretary took three or four questions, including an "excellent question" -- her words, not mine -- from me regarding Iran policy during the Clinton era. I reminded her (politely) of her speech "apologizing" to Iran for past transgressions -- which was greeted with the diplomatic equivalent of a stiff arm -- and the decision not to retaliate for Khobar Towers in the wake of Mohamed Khatami's election in 1997. I observed that the Clinton era policy toward Iran was, in broad brush strokes, somewhat gentler than that of either the preceding or the succeeding administration. My question was, in light of what she knows today, if she had it to do all over again would she advocate a policy toward Iran that was gentler still, or one that was more confrontational? She dodged the question, although she did mount a nuanced defense of the Clinton era policy and further suggested that the Bush administration initiate direct talks with Tehran. Easier said than done, and certainly easier for her to say than do.

[Cross-posted at The Belmont Club.]

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Deploring the English, but only in English 


"The Star Spangled Banner" was written to commemorate a war against the English. Now, our President says that it should be sung in English.

Just sayin', is all. Who would want to hear "La Marseillaise" in any language other than French (MP3)?


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The predictive power of Dr. Strangelove 


Friday night at the TigerHawk household is often for family movies, which have gotten steadily more interesting as our children have grown up. Tonight, in recognition of our son's "Cold War" unit in 9th grade history, we are watching Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a movie made 42 years ago. I hadn't seen it in at least 20 years, perhaps more. What an outstanding, hilarious, instructive movie.

There's all kinds of great stuff in there, and some of it was astonishingly prescient. This bit, in which Soviet Ambassador DeSadeski explains to American President Muffley why the Russians built the "doomsday machine," foretells both the economic supremacy of the United States and the, er, "patriotism" of, er, certain newspapers:

President Muffley:

But this is absolute madness, ambassador. Why should you build such a thing?

Ambassador DeSadeski:

There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we'd been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.

Muffley:

This is preposterous. I've never approved of anything like that.

DeSadeski:

Our source was the New York Times.

If you haven't seen Dr. Strangelove since the end of the Cold War, you need to.

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Friday afternoon gratuitous partisan slam 


This is extremely unfair, and I'm ashamed to be posting it...




...but on the other hand, it is Friday afternoon.


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Lest there is any doubt... 


...The Note this morning explains the attitude of the Washington press corps concerning this year's election:

Most Washington reporters want the Democrats to take control of Congress for various reasons (including that it is a better story than the alternative, and the Waxman leaks are missed), but they are willing to put that desire aside, and at least be semi-neutral, if the President's jokes at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner are funny.

AND if he seems genuinely contrite, and willing to change his ways.

AND if he announces a troop withdrawal, an end to the "domestic" surveillance program (and he must call it that), and that he is putting root beer in the water fountains in the press room.

I'm not counting on semi-neutrality.

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Introduction to stem cells 

The University of Michigan pelts its alumni with email propaganda, and the latest included a link to a useful layman's overview of stem cells, in the form of a Flash video. It is bland as can be, although I'm sure that those who feel passionately about the subject will see things to complain about. If, like me, you don't really understand the basics of the science, it is pretty interesting.


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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Usage notes 

From an otherwise tedious dialogue at The Corner:

Warren Bell: My pet peeve is people who say "pet peeve."

Jonah Goldberg: Isn't the politically correct phrase "companion peeve"?

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Is Russia trying to stabilize the Israeli-Iranian security dilemma? 

At the beginning of a week that will end with Mohamed ElBaradei's report on Iran to the United Nations Security Council, Russia, which has done more than any foreign power to build Iran's nuclear power capability, hired out its launch capability to Iran's now and forever enemy, Israel:
Russia on Tuesday launched a satellite for Israel that the Israelis say will be used to spy on Iran's nuclear program.

The Eros B satellite was launched from a mobile pad at the Svobodny cosmodrome in the Far East, said Alexei Kuznetsov, a spokesman for the Russian military space forces.

About 20 minutes later, the satellite successfully reached orbit, Russian news agencies reported, citing the space forces' news service.

"The Israeli satellite reached its target orbit and has been transferred to the client's control," Kuznetsov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Israel's Channel 10 TV reported that the launch was successful, but the satellite would not deploy its power panels for another day and a half.

The satellite is designed to spot images on the ground as small as 27 1/2 inches, an Israeli defense official said. That level of resolution would allow Israel to gather information on Iran's nuclear program and its long-range missiles, which are capable of striking Israel, he said.

The wire service story does not miss the point that Russia is playing both sides, or at least making money from them:
Russia, which has developed ties with Israel since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is also a major commercial partner of Tehran and is building an $800 million nuclear power station in Bushehr, southern Iran.

But it insists that the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran will not endanger the non-proliferation regime and has rejected U.S. calls to abandon the project as well as halt military sales to Tehran. The Russian defense minister confirmed Monday that Moscow will go ahead and supply Iran with sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.

Today, the day before ElBaradei's report, we have a spate of stories that focus on Russia and Iran. The A.P.'s Steve Gutterman calls Russia's relations with Iran a "delicate balancing act."
As President Vladimir Putin positions Russia as a global power broker, he must maneuver between the nation's interests in Iran and the need to maintain a measure of cooperation with the West.

Exactly a year ago, Putin strongly urged Iran to abandon the pursuit of uranium enrichment — but Tehran has done the opposite, scrapping a moratorium, stepping up enrichment efforts and playing an on-again-off-again game with a Russian proposal to ease the crisis.

The mounting international pressure on Iran, set to tighten with a crucial U.N. nuclear agency report Friday, also deepens the dilemma faced by Moscow.

Russia has increasingly shared U.S. worries that Iran could produce nuclear weapons and has taken some steps to counter the threat — notably by insisting that spent fuel from the atomic power plant it is building for Iran in the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr be returned to Russia.

But with Iran's rejection of a U.N. Security Council demand that it suspend enrichment by Friday a foregone conclusion, the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency risks setting Russia apart from three other veto-wielding council members — the United States, Britain and France — on the need for sanctions against Tehran.

Moscow's opposition to sanctions stems from several sources rooted in a complex web of business, political and security concerns.

The Gutterman article is a good newspaperish overview of Russia's diplomatic dilemma, but if you don't read the whole thing at least consider this:
Falling afoul of Iran could also expose Russia to further trouble in its North Caucasus region, jeopardizing Tehran's position that the Chechnya conflict is an internal matter for Russia and prompting it to support Islamic militant infiltration into the area, said Vladimir Dvorkin, a Russian analyst and arms control expert.

Few TigerHawk readers will need the friendly reminder that the "Islamic militant infiltration" into Chechnya is al Qaeda. American hawks apparently aren't quite the only people in the world who believe that Iran's mullahs would cooperate with Sunni jihadists.

Finally, there are two other stories today that emphasize Russia's commercial ties with Iran. The first, from the Financial Times, reports that Russia and China "warn the UN not to antagonise Iran." This article is interesting not only for its central point but also because it contains a clear statement from Philip Zelikow, Counselor of the Department of State (a senior policy position reporting to Condoleezza Rice), that “Forcible change of the Iranian regime is not the objective of American policy.” Bold emphasis supplied. (But, see the claim to the contrary of Clinton administration advisors Richard Clarke and Steven Simon.)

The other story that focuses on Russia's commercial interests describes an American proposal to, in effect, outbid Iran for Russia's support. The United States has offered Russia a nuclear cooperation deal, apparently in an attempt to tilt it back to the Western side should ElBaradei present evidence that Iran has not complied with the Security Council's demands.

It has been a busy week, and things will heat up tomorrow when ElBaradei reports his findings.

Commentary, and more than a little speculation

Let's center ourselves. The week that will end with ElBaradei's potentially disturbing report began with Russia launching an Israeli spy satellite into geosynchronous orbit [UPDATE: Corrected by various Belmont Club commenters] over Iran and simultaneously declaring that it would sell sophisticated air defense equipment to Iran. In one version of this story, Russia is the ultimate Lord of War, selling Israel the ability to define its target set, and Iran the means to defend itself from an Israeli air raid. The American proposal to enter into a nuclear cooperation program with Russia has any number of objectives, but one of them is clearly to make American business at least as attractive to Russia as Iranian business.

In another version, though, Russia's transactions are arguably stabilizing, and entirely consistent with its geopolitical interests above and beyond their mercantile value.

Russia's non-commercial interests in Iran include, at a minimum, (1) the aforementioned desire to keep Iran from teaming up with the Islamists in its southern provinces, (2) preventing Iran from reverting to a pro-U.S. policy (which, everybody believes, would require "regime change" of the sort that the United States says it will not seek by "force"), and (3) the maintenance of a sufficiently strong government in Tehran that Russia can influence Iran by negotiation, rather than via direct intervention.

In effect, Russia wants an independent Iran with a reasonably strong central government that is not specifically hostile to Russian interests or supportive of separatists within Russia's borders. If that government is specifically hostile to American interests, all the better. Russia does not want to be walled in by American clients from the Balkans to the border with China. If you look at the map, though, Iran is the only meaningful country in that arc that isn't friendly with the United States to the point of hosting our armed forces. From Moscow, it certainly appears as though Russia has a lot more at stake than a few hundred million dollars worth of Iranian business.

From one perspective, the destabilizing "ticking-clock" security dilemma posed by Iran's gestating nuclear weapons program and Israel's status as a "one bomb" target creates the most pressing threat to Russia's interests. Israel and the West really do not know how long it will be before Iran has an operational nuclear capability, but they do know that when it does the risk to Israel and the United States goes up enormously. Iran understands this, so it is combining hostile bluffing to buy time with a mad scramble to shorten the project schedule, both of which only feed Israeli and Western anxiety and intensify the debate over the propriety and utility of punitive measures. The apparently closing window of opportunity to destroy Iran's nuclear capability is setting up a confrontation among Israel, a subset of the West, and Iran that cannot end well for Russia given its interests in the region.

Against this backdrop, it is possible to argue with a straight face that Russia's actions are not purely mercantilist, but also stabilizing. Israel gets its eye in the sky, able to see objects less than three feet across, delivered by Russians who (speculation alert) might even tell Israel where to point it to maximize Tel Aviv's knowledge. In theory, this diminishes Israel's uncertainty about (and perhaps its anxiety over) Iran's nuclear program, and gives it almost real time targeting information in the event that it decides a strike is necessary. In theory, this should extend the period of the "open window" during which Israel has to act (a period that has already once been extended, if last December's report of an attack by March 28 had any credence at all). Meanwhile, Russia's public agreement to supply Iran with advanced anti-aircraft capabilities should lower that country's concern that Israel can penetrate its air defenses. That, in turn, should salve the itchiness of the button fingers in Tehran, even if it doesn't slow down the Iranian weapons development program.

One can imagine Russia balancing through more than one layer of duplicity. The Bear knows that its promised delivery of advanced Tor-M1 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran creates a mini-window that is itself destabilizing: Israel might calculate that it will soon lose its last opportunity to attack Iran's nuclear facilities unmolested. Russia could defuse that risk by withholding from Iran its most advanced features, selling the mullahs, essentially, a degraded system. (Russia has apparently made something of a practice of this. See Cordesman and Al-Rodhan, p. 35) If Russia were going to do that anyway, it might inform Israel in advance and thereby close the mini-window.

Alternatively, Israel may view the deployment of Tor-M1s as immaterial, or even to its advantage. Cordesman and Al-Rodhan are not too worried about the Tor, or imply that their deployment might confer valuable targeting information:
Delivery dates ranging from 2006-2009 have been reported, but the Tor is too range-limited to have a major impact on US stealth attack capability, although its real-world performance against cruise missiles still has to be determined. It might have more point defense lethality against regular Israeli and US strike fighters like the F-15 and F-16 using precision guided-bombs, but would only be lethal against such aircraft with stand-off air-to-surface missiles if it could be deployed in the flight path in ways that were not detected before the attack profile was determined.

In which case, the Tor's highest use might be as a decoy.

Unleash the hounds in the comments.

[Cross-posted at The Belmont Club, where I am honored to be a guest-blogger this weekend while Wretchard walks in the woods.]

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From the jaws of victory? 

I'm not sure that anything reasonably foreseeable can prevent the Democrats from achieving a substantial victory in 2006. But behavior like this gives me some hope.

Link.

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Economic notes of the day 

Yesterday was "tax freedom day," the day on which the Average American stopped "working for the government." Meaning that if we imagine that Average American paid all his taxes for the year up front, he would get his first take-home pay today. Blogger Will Franklin has a don't-miss post on the subject, with nifty tables and such. You can see how early tax freedom day was in previous centuries. Before World War I it landed on January 20, and it moved from roughly February 10 to April 1 under The FDR, peace be upon him. The last big ramp was during the Clinton years.

Blessed as I am with a New Jersey residence and top federal and state marginal rates, my own tax freedom day remains in the future. My top o' the Post-It® Note calculation puts mine at roughly June 10. No wonder I think gasoline remains a great value!

Speaking of which, check out Mr. Franklin's even better post on the question of higher gasoline prices. Rather than merely rant and rave, Will demonstrates with pie charts and stuff that the disposable income of Americans has increased far faster than gasoline prices over time. He also shows that prices for virtually every other important category of consumer purchases, including rent, owned housing, food and medical care, have all increased faster than gasoline over the last 25 years, and that the oil industry is not particularly profitable by the standards of American industry (a point I made a couple of days ago in my hearfelt pean to the oilmen).

Notwithstanding my rants and Will Franklin's graphs, people obviously care a lot about gasoline and that fact has a huge impact on the national mood and therefore the political fortunes of incumbants. Bill Clinton, the last millenium's most attuned American politician, was (supposedly) obsessed with the price of gasoline to the point that he was afraid to press the Saudis to cough up the Khobar Towers suspects for nasty interrogation at the hands of Louis Freeh (thereby preventing us from "proving" what we all suspected and subsequently proved, that Iran sponsored that attack on American servicemen). Supposing for a minute that Bill Clinton understands his own obsessions and that Will Franklin and I are correct that gasoline remains a great value, why do Americans care so much about gasoline prices? If you think you don't know, Megan McCardle has a useful thought or three on that subject. I don't agree with all of it, particularly her claim that "it's very difficult and painful to economize on," which I think is flat wrong, but as usual she makes you think.

Finally, I note that the Euro is moving up against the dollar, having climbed above $1.24 the last couple of days. The dollar remains stronger than it was 390 days ago when The New York Times declared that "the dollar is headed down, no matter what" and blamed that arguably useful condition on the Bush administration, but if there is momentum behind the Euro's current move the Grey Lady may yet be proven right, at least in a "broken clock" sense.

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United Flight 93 

Read this article $ in today's Wall Street Journal, penned by Todd Beamer's father (about the film recounting the events on flight 93). In sum:

This film further reminds us of the nature of the enemy we face. An enemy who will stop at nothing to achieve world domination and force a life devoid of freedom upon all. Their methods are inhumane and their targets are the innocent and unsuspecting. We call this conflict the "War on Terror." This film is a wake-up call. And although we abhor terrorism as a tactic, we are at war with a real enemy and it is personal.

There are those who would hope to escape the pain of war. Can't we just live and let live and pretend every thing is OK? Let's discuss, negotiate, reason together. The film accurately shows an enemy who will stop at nothing in a quest for control. This enemy does not seek our resources, our land or our materials, but rather to alter our very way of life.

I encourage my fellow Americans and free people everywhere to see "United 93."

Be reminded of our very real enemy. Be inspired by a true story of heroic actions taken by ordinary people with victorious consequences. Be thankful for each precious day of life with a loved one and make the most of it. Resolve to take the right action in the situations of life, whatever they may be. Resolve to give thanks and support to those men, women, leaders and commanders who to this day (1,687 days since Sept. 11, 2001) continue the counterattacks on our enemy and in so doing keep us safe and our freedoms intact.

May the taste of freedom for people of the Middle East hasten victory. The enemy we face does not have the word "surrender" in their dictionary. We must not have the word "retreat" in ours. We surely want our troops home as soon as possible. That said, they cannot come home in retreat. They must come home victoriously. Pray for them.


There will be many people of goodwill and spirit who will persistently encourage us to negotiate, to seek peace and to avoid war. Mr. Beamer reminds of us of the implacability of our enemy. As we weigh the severity of the threat posed by an expansionist Islamic totalitarian philosophy, we must remind ourselves that their philosophy is permanently incompatible with our liberty. This suggests that the question relevent to the conflict isn't if, but when.

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The CIA and Iran 

My esteemed co-blogger Cardinalpark observed a couple of days ago that the CIA's quite obvious bureaucratic war against the policies of the elected President of the United States is at least as much the product of that agency's seemingly dismal track record -- particularly with regard to al Qaeda and Iraq -- as its heartfelt belief in truth, justice and the American way. The fact of that history of error and the effort that a certain faction within the Agency seems to have expended to distract our attention from that history causes one to worry about how well we understand Iran. Indeed, the CIA's experience in interpreting threats from that country is none too comforting.

Mark Bowden's excellent new book on Iran, Guests of the Ayatollah : The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam, which I bought in San Francisco's airport this afternoon, contains this bit about the capture of the American embassy in Tehran:
In retrospect, it was all too predictable. An operating American embassy in the heart of revolutionary Iran's capital was too much for Tehran's aroused citizenry to bear. It had to go. It was a symbol of everthing the nascent upheaval hated and feared. Washington's underestimation of the danger was just part of a larger failure; it had not foreseen the gathering threat to its longtime Cold War ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the now reviled, self-exiled shah. A CIA analysis in August 1978, just six months before Pahlavi fled Iran for good, had concluded that the country "is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation." A year and a revolution later America was still underestimating the power and vision of the mullahs behind it. Like most of the great turning points in history, it was obvious and yet no one saw it coming.

Oops.

The point is not so much to bash the CIA -- I appreciate that there are lots of smart analysts whose insight is lost or dulled in the bureaucratic process of developing a consensus intelligence estimate -- but to remember that we have tended to estimate the most important threats in that part of the world incorrectly. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is, well, an estimate of the time it will take for Iran to develop an atomic bomb. The NIE cannot, by definition, tell us what our policy ought to be.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Annals of mosque and state: the brothel shakedown 

From Spiegel Online, we learn that Muslims have threatened a German brothel for flying particular national flags:

A German brothel seeking to drum up business during the World Cup has been forced to remove the national flags of Saudi Arabia and Iran from an array of flags on its facade after threats from Muslims saying it was insulting their faith....

A giant poster covering the side of the seven-story, 126-apartment building showed a friendly-looking blonde woman lifting up her bra above the slogan "A Time to Make Girlfriends", in a play on the World Cup's official slogan "A Time to Make Friends." Right beneath her pink panties were posters of the flags, including those of strictly Islamic Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Pascha's manager Armin Lobscheid had also erected real flags of all the World Cup nations on another side of the building.

The campaign provoked excitement, but not the kind the management was hoping for. Men from the Muslim community came to the door complaining that showing the flags of Saudi Arabia and Iran was an insult to the Prophet Muhammad. Later, some returned in masks.


"On Friday evening we were threatened by 11 masked men who demand that we take down the Saudi Arabian flag," Lobscheid told the Kölner Express, a local newspaper. Not wanting any trouble, the brothel obliged and removed it and the Iranian one. But that still left the flags printed on the poster.

"On Saturday night there were 20 masked men armed with knives and sticks. They threatened to get violent and even bomb the place unless we black out the Iranian and Saudia Arabian flags on the poster as well," said Lobscheid.

We are becoming sadly used to the spectacle of gangs of Muslims threatening violence to demand that non-Muslims retract speech that is otherwise protected under Western law. While Border's, Comedy Central and Jyllands-Posten probably won't appreciate being lumped in with the Pascha brothel in Cologne, they have all confronted and, with the exception of the newspaper, capitulated to the same threat. With each victory the Muslim vigilantes that punish lawful speech will be emboldened, so we must be prepared for this story to repeat itself many times.

There is more here, though, than fodder for another rant about the willingness of Muslim extremists -- if that is what they are -- to threaten speakers. One of the huge differences between Islam and modern Christianity is the former's insistance that the state and the religion should be integrated, or at the very least mutually reinforcing under law. This idea is not only alien to modern Westerners, but most of us (including religious Americans) believe that separation of the state and religion is a fundamental requirement for the liberty of individuals. However similar patriotism and religion may seem in their derivation from faith and emotion, Westerners consider them to be very different. The brothel incident reveals the extent to which even European Muslims disagree.

The "cartoon intifada" fought depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. The masked men behind the brothel shakedown claim that the unflattering deployment of the Saudi and Iranian national flags are tantamount to the same thing. If we imagine that many Muslims (whether or not a small percentage of the whole) share this point of view, the political and policy implications are more than a little troubling. Several come to mind.

First, if it is blasphemous in the minds of Muslims to denigrate the flag of Iran, how will Muslims the world over react to Western criticism of the government of that country? Yes, we have always expected that Muslims will to some degree naturally rally to the side of Muslim governments that stand up to the United States. What will we do if large numbers of Muslims living in the West claim that criticism of Muslim governments is blasphemous? Will that fact undermine the ability of the West to contain Iran and other Muslim powers?

Second, what are the implications of this for the American legal system, particularly civil rights laws? For better or for worse, American law usually defines discrimination according to the sensitivities of the plaintiff. If an employer expresses the political opinion that "We should bomb Iran to kingdom come," has he just created a hostile work environment for his Muslim employees, actionable under U.S. law? Under the logic of the brothel vigilantes, why not?

Third, the German Muslim vigilantes did not seem to care that Iran is Shiite and Saudi Arabia is Sunni. Both national flags were seen as a proxy for Islam the religion. If disaffected European Muslims take this point of view, why should we assume that other radicals won't? Beware the claims of Western analysts that Sunnis and Shiites won't work together, at least in the confronting of non-Muslims.

Fourth, if the perspective of the brothel vigilantes are not uncommon in the Muslim community, what does this say about the claimed distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? If the denigration of the flags of Muslim nations is equivalent to insulting Muslims, how can it be that denigration of Israel is not equivalent to anti-Semitism?

Of course, we might be reading far too much into this incident. It might just be the unreasoned objections of the mob to identification with a house of prostitution. Do we hope that is true and ignore this incident, or do we defend the pimp in order to learn whether the implications of this small story are of political and geopolitical significance?

Please offer your comments below.

[Cross-posted to The Belmont Club.]

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Straits of Hormuz, the "Tanker War," and Iran's geopolitics 

The American Thinker has an excellent short history of the triangular "Tanker War" among Iraq, Iran and the United States in 1988. Most Americans don't remember that the ruinous war between Iraq and Iran ended with the largest naval confrontation since World War II, in which the United States Navy thrashed Iranian warships that had been dispatched to choke off oil coming out of the Strait of Hormuz.

That’s the history the Iranians have to live with. That’s what comes to mind when they consider the United States. And that’s the context in which we must judge current Iranian actions.

Today, the government which created that record of defeat and disgrace finds itself surrounded on all sides, not in control of the waters off its own coast, loathed by its own people, and facing the most powerful and experienced military in the Middle East.

No wonder they’re shaking nukes they don’t have.

The ayatollahs’ behavior is not a product of confidence. There’s no way it could be. The Iranians are in worse shape today than in 1988. Their navy has suffered extreme neglect. Its major vessels are twenty-five to fifty years old, its personnel untrained and inexperienced. The army, with “armored” and “mechanized” divisions with more men than vehicles, is scarcely worth mentioning. So the leadership responds out of fear: shouting to overcome their own misgivings, claiming weapons they have no way of developing, and making premature announcements of “joining the nuclear club.”

All that can be said for this line of behavior is that has succeeded in shaking up a very jittery Western media elite. But that can’t last. The thing about repeated threats is that they tend to grow more comic as they go. The Iranians crossed that line with their Pythonesque “uranium dancers.” It will require a lot of shouting to overcome that image. Ahmadinejad is simply not ferocious enough a figure to do it. You can’t continually scream about “cutting people’s hands off” without eventually cutting off some hands. And if he wants to try that….

Then the 5th Fleet will be waiting.

And then there is this from Wretchard, more than a year ago.
But the bottom line is that an Iranian blockade of the Gulf of Hormuz will probably fail to stop tanker traffic completely, just as it failed in the 1980s. US forces in the region have grown comparatively more capable, with facilities within the Gulf itself, both in Bahrain and in Iraq, for example. An Iranian blockade would however, disrupt tanker sailings, increase insurance premiums and generally drive the cost of crude upwards; it might even sink a number of tankers and naval vessels, but in the end the United States would prevail. Strangely enough, the Iran blockade threat is more powerful "in being" than in actual implementation. While it remains simply a threat, it can be used as a diplomatic lever to extract concessions. If actually carried out, Europe and China, whatever their political inclinations, would be forced by economic necessity to help break the blockade.

The confrontation with Iran is extraordinarily complex, and I am openly wrestling with my own thinking on the subject. There are a lot of little pieces to keep track of, including the possibility that Iran will threaten oil exports from the Gulf. The history of the Tanker War and its aftermath should remind us -- and the Iranians -- that the United States Navy is an extraordinarily formidable power in the region that even the more, er, prudent President Bush did not hesitate to deploy against threats to the oil supply. As Wretchard observed more than a year ago, not only has American military strength in the region increased substantially in the last 18 years, but other great powers are much more aligned with the United States in their national interest in an open Strait. The ironic result is that the greater dependance of China, Europe and the United States on Persian Gulf oil has, in all likelihood, diminished the risk that Iran would try to play the "tanker card."

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Networked warriors 


Strategypage has another story that the mainstream media seems to have missed: the impact of networked rank-and-file soldiers on the military's famously inept bureaucracy. An Army of Davids has come, well, to the Army.

CWCID: Glenn Reynolds, who unaccountably failed to mention the obvious link to his book. He probably assumes that he has saturated the market among his readers.


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The CIA 

There are articles all over the blogosphere regarding the Mary McCarthy leak affair that will do the circumstances far greater justice than I can do. The summary facts will suffice: 1) she was busted leaking classified info after failing a polygraph test. 2) There is crosstalk as to whether she admitted she leaked or not. 3) There is a clear connection between McCarthy and Dana Priest of the Washington Post. 4) McCarthy gave $7,500 to Democratic campaign causes in 2004.

There are other intriguing facts in the case: she was a colleague of Richard Clarke's on Clinton's NSC. She ultimately supported bombing the Al Shifa chemical plant in the Sudan as an agreed nexus between Iraq and Al Qaeda chemical weapons development and training, but only after initially opposing it. Lots of good stuff.

Still -- why is the CIA, or at least a part of it, trying to topple an American Presidential administration? This isn't about partisanship. That's too simple. Between Michael Scheuer (the "Anonymous" author of Imperial Hubris, and the CIA agent formerly responsible for the Bin Laden hunt), and the Plame/Wilson fraud and now the McCarthy leakage, it seems to be the case that the CIA bureaucracy is consistently trying to bring down the government. Why?

Let's see. The CIA was the bureaucracy that is my estimation was most responsible for the astounding intelligence failure which allowed 9/11 to happen. Scheuer was an abject failure. Not only did he fail to reel in Bin Laden, but Bin Laden rose to a level of capability which completely outstripped the CIA's ability to manage his threat. Scheuer is invariably credentialized by the MSM when he seeks to undermine the Presidency as the "agent formerly in charge of the Bin Laden team." They conveniently omit the obvious criticism -- his results stunk. He failed. Why should we trust him and his judgment?

Ok, one step more. The CIA was consistently wrong about Saddam. They underestimated his weapons development program before 1991. They were in the dark after 1998. They were utterly without a clue. They sent Wilson to Niger to "investigate" whether Iraq sought yellowcake there. As it turns out, Wilson said no in the New York Times, but Iraq sent its former nuclear intelligence chief, and former yellowcake buyer, to Niger in 1999. So either Wilson incompetently failed in his mission, drew erroneous conclusions or merely lied about it. Take your pick, CIA fails again.

So - most analysts across the political spectrum ought to be able to agree -- the CIA FAILED IN ITS MISSION WITH RESPECT TO AL QAEDA AND IRAQ. This bit is not speculation, merely opinion. The next bit is pure speculation.

What if Bin Laden and Saddam were both CIA "assets"? Creations developed by the US intelligence community to fight another war? It's not really a huge leap to draw this conclusion. Is there such as thing as a "former asset?" Or just a dead one? Osama certainly played his part helping to undermine the USSR in Afghanistan. The US certainly armed the jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan of which Osama became a key leader. Similarly, Saddam was aided by the US in his war with Iran. He was supported overtly by France during the height of the Cold War, to the extent that his run for the nuclear roses was humorously called O-chirac (rather than Osirak).

That might help further explain a certain bureaucratic tenacity against the current administration. I mean, let's face it. The CIA owns the 9/11 failure. Nobody has really rubbed their noses in it, but they should. You could argue that the administration, the press and other government bureaucracies might have been well served to drag the CIA through the mud on it. They didn't, and as a consequence the owners of this failure lived to wage a bureaucratic jihad against the administration, aided and abetted by (of all things) the liberal press. Think about it, every one of these so-called experts -- Scheuer, Clarke, Wilson, Plame, McCarthy -- these are the clowns on the watch as Osama grew in power, grew his network, and ultimately wreaked havoc on the US. They are losers, failures, jokers -- each one. But further -- did they have an allegiance, a stake in preserving the status quo in Iraq, in the Middle East more broadly, in keeping alive the Islamic jihad? If so, why? Can Porter Goss clean this mess up, or will the bureaucratic losers try to consume him in the same way the military bureaucrats are going after Rumsfeld? And with the MSM's help to boot.

Story of the year, missed by your local and national paper.

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Forging forgeries 


A forger becomes so famous that his forgeries achieve their own value to collectors. His great-niece then forges the genuine forger's name in order to increase the value of second-derivative forgeries.

No, really.


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America's absurd "energy policy" and the bashing of the oil companies 


Regular readers know that I think that even at $3 to the gallon, gasoline remains a great value. But, if you are one of those who purports to be outraged by high gasoline prices, this editorial from Tuesday's Wall Street Journal quite specifically fingers the guilty.

There's been unconscionable behavior all right, most of it on Capitol Hill. A decent portion of the latest run-up in gas prices--and the entire cause of recent spot shortages--is the direct result of the energy bill Congress passed last summer. That self-serving legislation handed Congress's friends in the ethanol lobby a mandate that forces drivers to use 7.5 billion gallons annually of that oxygenate by 2012.

At the same time, Congress refused to provide liability protection to the makers of MTBE, a rival oxygenate getting hit with lawsuits. So MTBE makers are leaving the market in a rush, while overstretched ethanol producers (despite their promises) are in no way equipped to compensate for the loss of MTBE in the fuel supply. Ethanol is also difficult to ship and store outside of the Midwest, which is causing supply headaches and spot gas shortages along the East Coast and Texas.

These columns warned Republicans this would happen. As recently as last year, ethanol was selling for $1.45 a gallon. By December it had reached $2 and is now going for $2.77. So refiners are now having to buy both oil and ethanol at sky-high prices. In short, the only market manipulation has been by politicians.

There's more where that came from.

In related news, George Bush has ordered an investigation into whether the oil industry has been fixing prices. This is absurd pandering, the demon spawn of Bush's abysmal political position and the American voter's belief that gasoline should be a negligible expense. The oil industry -- at least that part of it downstream from OPEC -- cannot be conspiring to fix prices. It is way too fragmented. A conspiracy like that would require far more people than the usual cabal, probably thousands, and it would be in the interests of any number of the participants to break it. As the WSJ pointed out,
the FTC has an entire crew that pores over weekly average gas prices in hundreds of cities, looking for evidence of gouging--to no avail. Perhaps this is because no oil company controls enough of the market to exercise enough power to raise prices. The Hastert-Frist call for an investigation is nothing but short-attention-span political theater.

It was even less defensible for the President, who knows that such a conspiracy is impossible, to order an investigation into it. Not only is he wasting taxpayer dollars and reinforcing the ludicrous idea that American consumers have anybody to blame other than themselves and their government for high oil prices, but he is bashing an industry that should earn our praise, not our scorn. The accomplishments of the oil industry in the years since the Arab oil embargo are absolutely astonishing. It has run tremendous financial and human risk, probably more than any other industry, to bring a constant flow of oil into the United States. This oil usually comes from the most politically, geographically and climatically dangerous places on Earth, and it has flowed -- so far -- in ever greater quantities. The oil is then refined under staggeringly complex regulatory requirements for a fragmented internal market (what other product has to be manufactured differently for sale in different states?). What does the oil industry get for this? Profits, yes, but not particularly high ones over long periods of time. Mostly, though, the petroleum industry gets the scorn of the American people, who refuse to see the great gift that its ingenuous engineers, workers, and, yes, executives have given to the American economy and its ungrateful consumers these last sixty years.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Regime change and the Iran crisis 

Amir Taheri published an article in the Arab News a couple of days ago that addresses the relevance of "regime change" in the Iran crisis.

Now let us have a look at the view from Tehran.

The Islamic republic is surrounded by regimes that feel closer to Washington than Tehran, to say the least.

What would happen when, say 10 years from now, the whole of the region is pro-American, included in the mainstream of globalization, and more or less prosperous and more or less democratic? Wouldn't an anti-American, isolated, more or less poverty-stricken, and openly undemocratic Islamic republic look like out of place in this new jigsaw?

One law of history, inasmuch as history does have any laws, is that no nation can play the odd-man out in its region for long. You cannot, for example, have a military regime in France when the whole of Europe lives in democracy.

So, if the US is allowed to create the kind of the Middle East with which it feels comfortable, it is obvious that the Islamic republic, as the odd man out, will feel uncomfortable, not to say threatened.

This is why the Islamic republic is determined not to allow the US to succeed in the region.

In every single country of the region — from Pakistan to Morocco — the US and the Islamic republic are engaged in almost daily political, diplomatic and, at times, even proxy military, combat, with varying degrees of intensity. The Islamic republic is actively engaged in sabotaging US plans for Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and has revived its dormant networks in more than a dozen Arab countries. It has to do so because the emergence of a pro-American Middle East would mean the death of the Khomeinist ideology and its global ambitions.

There are only two ways to end this undeclared war between US and the Islamic republic....

Read the whole thing.

I'm not sure I agree with Taheri, but his argument demands a response from those who would say that regime change should be "off the table."

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My whereabouts, bin Laden's tape, and an apology 

For the few of you who care, I'm in San Francisco attending the annual meeting of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Not that I'm a brain surgeon, or anything.

I flew out last night, after having put up the ill-fated post on bin Laden's new tape. The news accounts and other available analysis yesterday afternoon omitted any references to bin Laden's discussion of Iraq, which omission I thought very interesting. While I was in the air, however, Al Jazeera put up excerpts of the transcript, which did include a couple of paragraphs on Iraq, now quoted in the revised post below. I tried correcting the post about 5 a.m. PDT, but Blogger wouldn't publish to this blog for at least six critical hours today. I think I finally got it up around noon PDT today. Sorry about the screw-up, especially to all those who linked.

There is plenty of much more, er, correct analysis out there. The new Counterterrorism Blog has been non-stop excellent on both the bin Laden tape and today's attacks in Egypt. Go to the top and scroll like a blog reader possessed.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Bin Laden changes the subject 

[UPDATED Monday morning: Transcript posted today reveals that bin Laden did, in fact, talk about Iraq -- see below]

Osama Bin Laden has opened his pie hole again via Al Jazz. Walid Phares of the newly re-launched Counterterrorism Blog has summarized bin Laden's key points, at least as revealed in the fragments broadcast on al Jazeera, to wit:
1. Hamas: Despite the fact that we (including Ayman Zawahiri) warned (Muslim Palestinians) not to take part in elections in general, the victory of Hamas shows that there is a "Crusader Zionist War against Islam." Cutting foreign aid to the Palestinians because of Hamas victory proves that war.

2. The public (in the West and the US), despite our warnings, continues to reelect these Governments, pay taxes to these Governments, and send their children to fight against us. They (civilians) are therefore part of the war against us. They are responsible for any harm that would be caused to them.

3. Sudan: The Bashir Government is failing in stopping the Crusader War in Sudan. The Crusaders (Britain) has pushed the southerners (Blacks) to separate. The US has armed them and is supporting them. And now, because of tribal tensions in Darfour, the Crusaders are planning on intervening there. We are calling on the Jihadists to fight them in Darfour and Southern Sudan.

4. Long War: We're calling on all Jihadists, particularly in Sudan and the Arabian Peninsula to prepare themselves for a long war.

5. Danish Cartoons: We are asking the Danish Government to remit the Cartoonists to al Qaida.

6. Saudis: We criticize the Saudi Monarch for refuting the idea of Clash of civilization. There is a clash led by the West against Islam.

7. Arab Liberals: Jihadists must silence the Arab and Muslim liberals. (A list has been established, but it wasn't aired).

8. Education: We warn from any change that would affect the educational curriculum in the Arab and Muslim world.

9. Arab TV: We warn against those TV stations airing into the region and propagating Crusader propaganda.

10: Truce: We offered a truce to the West (US and Europe) but their public refused to accept it. They will only blame themselves.

Apart from the list's comic aspects, it is fascinating for its omissions. Why didn't bin Laden talk about Iraq?

Less than 2 1/2 years ago, al Qaeda broke the news to the Taliban that it was diverting resources to Iraq so as to humiliate the American "Crusaders."
All this was on the orders of bin Laden himself, the sources said. Why? Because the terror chieftain and his top lieutenants see a great opportunity for killing Americans and their allies in Iraq and neighboring countries such as Turkey, according to Taliban sources who complain that their own movement will suffer... Bin Laden believes that Iraq is becoming the perfect battlefield to fight the “American crusaders” and that the Iraqi insurgency has been “100 percent successful so far,” according to a Taliban participant at the mid-November meeting who goes by the nom de guerre Sharafullah.

Al Qaeda drew a line in the sands of the Sunni Triangle, and the United States Army and Marines walked right across it. First, al Qaeda tried to kill Americans, per bin Laden's orders. It largely failed. Then al Qaeda went after America's allies, and succeeded only in turning public opinion against itself in every Muslim country it attacked. After thirty months of battlefield defeats and political embarrassments, bin Laden won't even mention Iraq in one of his rare public utterances, and he rallies his troops to fight a war where American soldiers aren't. How humiliating. How delightful.

Al Qaeda has lost in Iraq, and bin Laden is desperate to change the subject. He and his organization are at grave risk of being discredited, and when that happens it will be much harder for al Qaeda to attract recruits, raise money, or deal with governments.

UPDATE (9:00 EDT Monday): A commenter provided a link to Al Jazz's transcript of the tape, which was not up yesterday afternoon when I wrote my post (or if it was, I couldn't find it). In that transcript, it is obvious that bin Laden did talk about Iraq:
Despite the numerous Crusader attacks against our Muslim nation in military, economic, cultural and moral aspects, but the gravest of them all is the attack against our religion, our prophet and the our Sharia tenets. The epicentre of these wars is Baghdad, the seat of the khalifate rule. They keep reiterating that success in Baghdad will be success for the US, failure in Iraq the failure of the US.

Their defeat in Iraq will mean defeat in all their wars and a beginning to the receding of their Zionist-Crusader tide against us. Your mujahidin sons and brothers in Iraq have taught the US a hard lesson while in the fourth year of the Crusaders' invasion, they are steadfast and patient and keep killing and wounding enemy soldiers every day.

Walid Phares has a complete analysis up on the new Counterterrorism Blog:
In two decades of Salafi and Khumeini rhetoric monitoring, I haven’t heard or seen a cross-infidel speech as the one aired by al Jazeera on April 23, 2006. There will be lots of ink and mega bites spent on its analysis for months and years to come, but here are the main points. Al Jazeera dubbed them: “The main axis of the speech.” المحاور الأساسية في خطاب بن لادن

Twenty" marching orders"

* One a long attack on the Cartoons crisis: Blood is needed to cleanse the matter.
* Two, there is a Western war on Muslims and Islam.
*Three, Western policy towards Hamas proves this aggression.
* Four, the United Nations is an infidel and criminal institution.
* Five, there is a Western-infidel aggression against Muslim Sudan. The Black southerners are bandits and the Darfur Blacks are agents of the infidels
* Six, Iraq’s Jihad is to stop future US military bases
* Seven, a cultural invasion is underway: Arab TVs are to be stopped, Muslim liberals to be killed
* Eight, France is to be punished for the female Hijab affair
* Nine, Bosnia’s Muslims were not salvaged by the West
* Ten, The independence of East Timor is a defeat to the Muslims
* Eleven, India and the Hindus are the enemies in Kashmir
* Twelve, Pakistan’s Musharraf is to be killed
* Thirteen, Russia must be punished
* Fourteen: Salman Rushdie is not to be forgotten
* Fifteen: The masses in the infidel lands think like their leaders. Their public (enemies) is responsible
* Sixteen: Calls for Dialogue with the West are to be rejected
* Seventeen: Do not trust the “traitors” including Muftis and moderate clerics
* Eighteen: King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia ignores world realities
* Nineteen: (Western) civilization is attacking ours
* Twenty: It is of the duty of all members of the Umma to offer everything for Jihad, including their lives.

Throughout the day I analyzed most of these "axis" on MSNBC, but I was able to observe the airing process on al Jazeera as well.

Imagine yourself as an Arab viewer: The speech was repeated endlessly throughout the day. Bin Laden didn't have his 20 minutes of shine, but 24 hours at least. The Bin Laden audiotape wasn't played one or two times but until every word was sinking deep in the minds of the attentive viewers. However the most powerful part of the speech wasn't restricted to its content: Al Jazeera lined up the best of its "experts on Islamist groups" to react instantly to the audiotape and throughout the day, and add "more details and substance."

Read the whole thing.

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Bad math at the New York Times 


This is a pretty amazing screw-up.

If you think this error is not a function of the political attitude of most of the NYT's reporters and editors, try to imagine the Times making a mathematical mistake like this that favors the performance of the Bush administration. Sort of like imagining monkeys flying out of your butt.

Via Glenn.


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Beware 19th century Nazis 


Reluctant as I am to mock an otherwise serious article about the renaissance of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," I wonder whether it behooves us to teach that any "Nazi propaganda" is "century old."



Apart from its rank stupidity, I have at least two objections to this headline. First, it implies that anti-Semitism of the poisonous, murderous, paranoid variety is a Nazi invention. False. The Nazis simply deployed German industrial efficiency to the slaughter of Jews, something that all sorts of people around the world wish that they had thought of, or were capable of bringing about. Second, people have a hard enough time remembering that the Nazis were the parents and grandparents of people living today. Time is eroding the memory of the Holocaust, as the revolting head of state of at least one troublesome nation reminds us at every opportunity. Let's not imagine that the Nazis were further in Europe's barbaric past than they in fact were.

Meanwhile, the article itself refers to an early believer in "fake, but accurate":

The exhibit cites a quote from Joseph Goebbels, a decade before he became Adolf Hitler's propaganda minister:

"I believe that `The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion' are a forgery. (However) I believe in the intrinsic but not in the factual truth of the `Protocols.'"

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Mary McCarthy leak affair... 

...stinks to high heaven.

Meanwhile, the left doesn't seem to think there is anything wrong with the CIA subverting the policies of the elected President of the United States. Or, perhaps, that there is a moral and legal equivalence between the President or his staff "leaking" information and career CIA agents doing so. Either way, who would have thought we would live to see the left holding up the freakin' CIA as an appropriate check on the power of the President?

UPDATE (Sunday afternoon): Ouch. And don't miss The Belmont Club on Mary McCarthy's acknowledgement that there were operational ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, repudiated since the end of the Clinton administration. One needs to forget a lot, including $7700 in campaign contributions to Democrats (on a government salary, no less), in order to hold one's head up in today's Washington.


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Answer the call, John! 

A few scattered chants of "run" and "2008" were heard both before and after the speech. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, has not announced whether he would run in 2008.

Please, Lord, may the Senator from Massachussetts heed the "few scattered chants". Politics should be fun, and nothing would be more fun than Kerry in Oughty-Eight!

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Gasoline remains a great value 

There are times when I enjoy Bill O'Reilly, and times when I can't take him anymore. Last night was one of the latter.

O'Reilly has been on a tear about gasoline prices, blowing a lot of populist mouth flatulance about how they are high because the oil companies have manipulated them. He has accused the oil industry of the crime of price-fixing without the slightest shred of evidence. There is so much that is asinine in O'Reilly's accusation that I'm not going to dignify it with a response. The interesting question is, why does O'Reilly think he can make hay complaining about gasoline prices?

People are evidently outraged over "high" gasoline prices -- otherwise television personalities like O'Reilly and out-of-office politicians wouldn't be beating the tom-toms about them. Who has not seen the tedious local news programs with stories about people pawning their heirlooms to buy gasoline? But isn't this all so much idiocy? My assertion is this: however "high" gasoline prices may be by historical standards, gasoline remains a fantastic value. If it weren't, then people would take obvious and simple steps to curtail their gasoline consumption. They don't, because even at $3 per gallon they would rather burn gas than bear some other burden. Gas is so cheap that most Americans won't do anything to conserve it.

Now, I'm not talking about lifestyle altering steps like turning in the SUV for a Toyota Corolla, or riding a bicycle, or -- Allah forfend -- walking. Nor am I suggesting that we should in any way, shape or form deny our children their every transportation requirement, even though "in my day" we would have travelled through quiet college town streets on our own power. And I'm certainly not talking about anything so radical as permitting businesses to operate near housing developments. God forbid we should be able to walk down the road for a quart of milk and a pound of hamburger.

No, I'm talking about easy stuff. Like driving more slowly. I drive on New Jersey's highways. I have always driven at about the 70th percentile, passing roughly twice as many cars as pass me. I see no evidence that anybody is slowing down to save gasoline, even though many (but not all) cars consume significantly less fuel at lower speeds. Everybody knows this. American drivers don't slow down, because gasoline remains such a good value that they would rather burn more of it to get where they are going faster than save a few dollars at the cost of more windshield time. Gas may be more expensive than it was, but even at current prices people are willing to trade it for less travel time.

It isn't just speed. Americans don't turn off their engines at long stop lights. They did that during the oil price shocks of the 1970s, and drivers still do it in countries where gasoline prices are much higher than they are in the United States. Americans don't do it, though, and didn't even during the Katrina shock in September. Why? Because they would rather burn gasoline than turn off their radio, air conditioner, and DVD entertainment system. Gasoline is still such a good value, we would rather consume it than turn our cars off and on, even at four-minute stop lights.

But wait, there's more. Like many Americans, I work in a suburban corporate office park along with hundreds of other people who travel great distances every day. While many of our employees are scattered, most live pretty near at least one other person, or along the same route to the office. I don't know of a single pair of employees who share their ride to work in order to save money. Do you? Until we see workers spontaneously organizing carpools, we can safely conclude that gasoline remains such a good value that people will not bear even the slightest inconvenience in order to use less of it.

Now, I don't doubt that there are some people who live in rural areas and have to drive great distances to do anything, or whose incomes are so low that they can barely afford to run their automobiles at $2 a gallon. But most Americans don't live in rural areas -- they can, in fact, take public transportation to work, or ride bicycles, or share a ride with their neighbor, or walk more. Indeed, it is a strange circumstance of American residential life that the poorer people in the shabbier housing live closer to businesses where they might work or buy necessities than more affluent people who can choose where they live.

The ugly truth is, the whining about high gasoline prices is just that: whining. It reflects poorly on the American character, insofar as our massive appetite for petroleum comes at a very high cost that is not reflected in the price at the pump. Is there any doubt that most middle class suburban families could cut their gasoline consumption by 10%-20% by making the tiniest adjustments in their habits and bearing the slightest of inconveniences? They don't, because gasoline remains such a great value -- a gallon of it still costs less than the same amount of milk, Coca-Cola, or bottled water pumped out of some spring in the woods, and none of those will carry you and your possessions 25 miles at high speed -- that people will not change one iota in order to save a drop of it. I know I haven't. But I also know that it is absurd to complain that gasoline has recently become a slightly less outstanding bargain. Moreover, it is downright unseemly for politicians and self-proclaimed bloviators to pander to those complaints by accusing the people who do the dangerous work of pumping, transporting and refining oil of being criminals.

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The Iraqis make a deal 

The Iraqi Shiites have settled on a new prime minister who is much more acceptable to the Sunnis and the Kurds. The new guy, Jawad al-Maliki, is thought to be more competent than his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and less tight with Iran. He is also uncompromising in his attitude toward the insurgency, and yet has earned the endorsement of leading Sunni leaders. How did this come to pass? Perhaps because we Americans have increasingly mumbled about imposing our deadline. In this regard, it seems that John Hinderaker and John Kerry agree! Partisan politics, it seems, has finally retreated to the water's edge....

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Free speech in schools and the "disruption veto" 

Last weekend I wrote about various cases of self-censorship, and the implicit veto that this grants to people who threaten violence in response to speech. As upsetting as it may be that the possibility of the threat of violence moved Comedy Central, Border's Books, and most of the nation's newspapers to censor stories or other speech, we received news yesterday of a far more dangerous restriction on freedom of speech. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that schools can ban T-shirts with expressions that are "hurtful," which they took to include the expression "Homosexuality is shameful."

Eugene Volokh, who has long worried about the impact of diversity considerations on freedom of speech, has a thoughtful response:
This is a very bad ruling, I think. It's a dangerous retreat from our tradition that the First Amendment is viewpoint-neutral. It's an opening to a First Amendment limited by rights to be free from offensive viewpoints. It's a tool for suppression of one side of public debates (about same-sex marriage, about Islam, quite likely about illegal immigration, and more) while the other side remains constitutionally protected and even encouraged by the government.

I do not have the time this morning to read the opinions of the court and Judge Kozinski in dissent. From the news accounts, though, it will be interesting to see whether the Ninth Circuit's opinion can stand without a reversal of Tinker v. Des Moines School District. That case, which involved students who wore black armbands in opposition to the Vietnam war, held, in pertinant part:
1. In wearing armbands, the petitioners were quiet and passive. They were not disruptive and did not impinge upon the rights of others. In these circumstances, their conduct was within the protection of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth.

2. First Amendment rights are available to teachers and students, subject to application in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.

3. A prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In his otherwise praiseworthy post, Professor Volokh suggests that the risk of "disruption" might provide grounds under Tinker for some restrictions on the speech of students in public schools, as long as those restrictions were not content-based:
The Supreme Court has indeed recognized that speech in K-12 public schools must be somewhat more restrictable than speech on the street. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969) made clear that student speech might be restricted when it's likely to substantially disrupt the educational process. And sometimes speech that's hostile based on race, religion, or sexual orientation -- as well as speech that offends people for a wide variety of other reasons -- might indeed lead to substantial disruption.

But this is at least a facially viewpoint-neutral standard that potentially applies to speech on all perspectives, and doesn't categorically cast out certain student viewpoints from First Amendment protection. While the standard isn't without its problems, it is at least basically consistent with the First Amendment principle of "equality of status in the field of ideas." (bold emphasis added)

May I suggest most gently to Professor Volokh, who has surely forgotten more about the First Amendment than I have ever known, that the bolded text opens a door that we do not want opened, to wit: that the potential for disruptive conduct by the audience of speech can ever circumscribe the right of the speakers. In suggesting that the behavior of the audience might constitute the disruption that might permit restrictions on the speech of students under Tinker, Professor Volokh at least implicitly reads Tinker much more narrowly than it needs or ought to be read. Yes, Tinker hints that the behavior of others might be taken into account ("the record does not demonstrate any facts which might reasonably have led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities, and no disturbances or disorders on the school premises in fact occurred"), but the heart of the case focuses on the fact that the students who wore the armbands were not acting disruptively:
The school officials banned and sought to punish petitioners for a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance on the part of petitioners. There is here no evidence whatever of petitioners' interference, actual or nascent, with the schools' work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone. Accordingly, this case does not concern speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students.

In fact, the Tinker court was brutally clear that high schools had no authority to regulate the content of otherwise protected speech:
In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are "persons" under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views. As Judge Gewin, speaking for the Fifth Circuit, said, school officials cannot suppress "expressions of feelings with which they do not wish to contend." Burnside v. Byars.

If, as Professor Volokh said, it is possible for putatively offended students to abolish the opinions of other students by threatening to be "disruptive," then Tinker is a guarantee of nothing. If Tinker is indeed that narrow, then any controversial opinion of any student -- no matter how passively communicated -- can be vetoed by the threat of "disruption" so long as the offended and disruptive students can secure an alliance with the school administration.

It is the job of schools to protect students who do nothing more than express their opinions, whether in published pamphlets, on blogs, on t-shirts or by the wearing of armbands, and to punish students who behave "disruptively," no matter how insulted or offended those students may purport to be. The remedy for speech is more speech, and the remedy for bad behavior must be punishment. Any court that determines otherwise is in violation of the only reading of Tinker that makes any sense at all.

CWCID: Volokh link via Glenn.

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