2009 08 03
Recently read: Sowing Crisis

Rashid Khalidi. Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East

I read and enjoyed Khalidi’s The Iron Cage back in January, and so got this, Khalidi’s latest book, out of the library shortly afterwards (I’m only getting around to writing about it now). Sowing Crisis is a more sharply polemical book than The Iron Cage and I liked it a bit less, partly because I have a limited appetite for polemic and partly because Khalidi isn’t really great at it. (He’s not awful; just not great.) Nevertheless, there is a lot in this wide-ranging review of American foreign policy to learn from and by stimulated by. Khalidi’s main objective seems to be to try to get Americans to understand how non-Americans see American foreign policy. This is a worthwhile project, and Sowing Crisis is a worthwhile book.

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2007 11 22
Getting ready to pressure Iran or getting ready to bomb it?

Commenter Spaz sends me this today, which certainly looks ominous.

Massive, devastating air strikes, a full dose of “shock and awe” with hundreds of bunker-busting bombs slicing through concrete at more than a dozen nuclear sites across Iran is no longer just the idle musing of military planners and uber-hawks.

Although air strikes don’t seem imminent as the U.S.-Iranian drama unfolds, planning for a bombing campaign and preparing for the geopolitical blowback has preoccupied military and political councils for months.

No one is predicting a full-blown ground war with Iran. The likeliest scenario, a blistering air war that could last as little as one night or as long as two weeks, would be designed to avoid the quagmire of invasion and regime change that now characterizes Iraq. But skepticism remains about whether any amount of bombing can substantially delay Iran’s entry into the nuclear-weapons club.

Well, I certainly hope not, since among other awful consequences, it would make me look bad: I’ve staked the reputation of this august blog on the U.S. not bombing Iran any time during Bush’s second term.

I think I’ll stick with my original predictions, though with slightly furrowed brows. I think it’s good evidence that the U.S. wants to try to pressure Iran and U.S. allies into making some sort of progress in talks, not that the U.S. is actually going to bomb Iran. I think there’s a lot of resistance to that course of action in the military, and more resistance to it among America’s political class than you might guess on first encountering the perverse incentives in American political culture to err on the side of bellicose rhetoric. Also, this is nonsense:

Attacked and humiliated, Iran might be tempted, as Mr. Ahmadinejad has suggested, to strike back, although Iran has limited military options.

Not just nonsense, but, even more important, widely understood to be nonsense. Iran has the ability to make the U.S. much more miserable in Iraq than it currently is, and probably has the ability to hit U.S. targets all over the world if it really comes down to it. Indeed, I think I would be somewhat less safe personally in New York if Bush ever did get it into his fool head to do something as rash as order a bombing campaign of Iran.

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 04 21
What you have to understand about Jeter is that he plays the game using all of his limbs.

Posted by in: Baseball, Iran

Ah baseball season. The Red Sox are playing their first series against the Yankees this weekend, and we’re getting the intolerable national/New York announcers (Joe Buck and Tim McCarver) rather than Boston’s own loveable Orsino Orsillo and Remy. Which means that the ritual refrain is upon us – from the other room, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Tim McCarver.”

Here are two things I liked:
Remy cracking up when one fan throws a slice of pizza at another fan.

A nice non-baseball bit about the thing you have to understand about Iranians. The same point goes double, I often have reason to observe, for statements about The Difference Between Women and Men, or Why Women are Like That.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2007 04 04
Iran predictions, again

If true, this would provide some nice support for 1 on my list of Iran predictions from almost exactly a year ago.

Revisiting the list, I think recent moves by Russia and China provide some possible evidence against 2, but not nearly enough for me to take it back. 3 is looking a bit rough in light of the last resolution the U.S. managed to get through the security council. I didn’t really regard that resolution as terribly meaningful, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone if they felt that I was stretching it a bit here. 4 through 7 are holding up just fine.

Howls of outrage (6)

2007 03 28
“Iranian general warns enemy not to make any crazy moves”

I notice that AOTW there appears to be absolutely nothing in the state-run Tehran Times about the British sailors recently captured by Iran. (There is, however, an awesome headline that I have used as the title of this post.) Perhaps that’s some evidence that no one on that side has figured out what the fuck they’re trying to accomplish here, or, relatedly, how to spin what has already happened.

Notice that if Iran had simply released the sailors two days ago, they would have made their point brilliantly. By forcing Britain to talk tough, they’ve now maneuvered themselves into a corner, since the tough talk from Britain means that concessions from Iran at this point will make Iran look weak. Can’t have that, can we?

Anyway, all of this is just another excuse for me to observe that in both private life and international diplomacy, one of the most valuable skills is knowing how to push back without escalating.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 03 26
Iran and Britain

Regardless of whether the British sailors were in Iraqi waters or not, I think Iran has now made its point. Unless the sailors were up to some very serious monkey business – or perhaps even if they were – continuing to hold them while threatening charges for them makes it extremely difficult for the British to find a decent face-saving solution to the impasse. This is all just bonkers, and very alarming. What the fuck kind of game is Iran playing here?

Howls of outrage (4)

2007 02 26
U.S. backs terror groups to sow chaos in Iran

It would surprise me very much if this story weren’t somewhere in the vicinity of the truth (via).

I wonder what the Iranian version of Fox News thinks is the appropriate response to this sort of thing.

Anyway, as the Scallywag-in-Chief of a Very Important Blog, I call on all parties to cut the nonsense and calm the fuck down.

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2007 02 12
What to do about Iran

Spencer Ackerman is losing arguments:

A few weeks ago, I found myself drunkenly arguing with a conservative journalist about the wisdom of a war with Iran. It didn’t go well for me. The unshakable response went roughly as follows: It’s not us declaring war on them. They have declared war on us. They attack our troops. Your position amounts to requiring soldiers in a firefight to check the nationalities of their assailants before returning fire; and so you have reached absurdity. Victory is mine.

I’m not convinced Ackerman needed to lose that argument. The clever who-started-it rhetorical strategy looks great until you figure that the U.S. has been more provocative with Iran than Iran is accused of being with the U.S. so far.* But set that aside for a moment. The fact is this: Regardless of who started it, the U.S. simply can’t afford a conflict with Iran now. It just can’t. An invasion isn’t on the table, and even if the U.S. bombs the shit out of Iran, the best case scenario is a diplomatic disaster for the U.S. and a major set back in its anti-nuclear proliferation — excuse me, anti-bad-country nuclear proliferation — initiatives. The worst case is that Iran actually does get serious about meddling in Iraq and gets many U.S. soldiers killed there.

No. There’s nothing to do but diplomacy, even if everything alleged about Iran is true. And if not diplomacy, here’s some advice for U.S. policymakers: Just shut the fuck up about Iran. Since you really have your hands tied, and you don’t want to look weak, the best thing to do is to pretend that Iran isn’t supplying arms to insurgent groups in Iraq, since making a big stink about it and then getting nowhere makes you look even weaker than you otherwise would. So shut the fuck up. This is, by the way, what the rest of the world does in the face of provocations it can’t afford to respond to. Welcome to weakness, U.S. pundits and politicians. I know, it sucks.

Ackerman describes his debating partner as a conservative, but I take it that that’s a misleading label for “militarist,” since there’s absolutely nothing conservative about pushing for war with Iran. I think the appropriate response to a militarist who thinks that Iran has given the U.S. a clear casus belli is to say that it’s too bad then that the President has maneuvered the country into a strategic position so dire that it can’t afford to respond to a clear casus belli. But that’s how bad things are now. This is what serious strategic defeat looks like. So it’s time to make the best of it and shut the fuck up. Also crucial at this juncture: shutting the fuck up. In conclusion, pretty please shut the fuck up.

*Prediction: The next ten years will see a trickle of news reports about various naughty U.S. doings in Iran, including covert operations and support for groups opposed to the government. This will confirm and extend the impression created by the trickle of news reports to this effect which have come out over the last few years.

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2007 01 31
Iran may be behind all evil in world

This piece in the NYT today is pretty irresponsible: Iran May Have Trained Attackers That Killed 5 American Soldiers, U.S. and Iraqis Say. Yes, indeed. It may have done so. But good golly the evidence for that right now is thin. The authors of the piece – two of them beavering away at the story! – are unable to come up with very much to support the theory. The idea seems to be that the attack was pretty sophisticated, and Iran is sophisticated. Just put two and two together! I think this is my favourite part:

The officials said the sophistication of the attack astonished investigators, who doubt that Iraqis could have carried it out on their own — one reason a connection to Iran is being closely examined. Officials cautioned that no firm conclusions had been drawn and did not reveal any direct evidence of a connection.

The last sentence gives everyone involved – from the officials to the reporters to the bloggers who pick it up and move the story along without the qualifications – a cover if it turns out to be nothing.

This isn’t just idle speculation. The Bush administration very much wants to broaden the confrontation with Iran. I’ve put my money on covert operations against Iran, but no actual bombing of the country. But the plan is to be much more aggressive in the future, and an important contribution to that effort is to convince the public that Iran is the source of all evil in the world. In that context, it’s not right for the NYT to amplify and transmit the administration’s messages about Iran’s evil, evil doings without having solid, independent reasons for thinking that they’re true. And putting in a weasel sentence admitting that the piece is a baseless speculation doesn’t really get them off the hook for doing it.

Howls of outrage (15)

2006 11 28
A Middle East Pony Conference

Obviously Iran is up to a bit of monkey business in Iraq now, and I’m willing to believe that Syria is not being 100% helpful. Still, I never bought the hysterical versions of these claims, pushed most often on the right. The violence and chaos in Iraq seems mostly a mix of homegrown dysfunction and foreign occupation, into which have also stepped various foreign radical groups who are often fiercely opposed to both Syria and Iran. That’s why I have so little faith in the idea that a regional conference with Iraq’s neighbours, in particular Syria and Iran, will help much. They’re not really where the trouble begins, and they’re hardly likely to be able to end it. I do hope that no one is seriously putting a lot of faith in the idea: it seems almost as desperate as staying the course.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 08 28

Posted by in: Iran, Political issues

Henley has a post up outlining what he thinks the game plan will be for U.S.-Iran relations over the next while. It includes a bombing campaign, thus conflicting with my own forecast from last April.

I think Henley’s post is a very nice description of how things would go if the situation in Iraq weren’t so dire. But it is dire – very much so. Even if the Bush administration were gung-ho to march – excuse me, fly – onward into Iran, I think they know damn well that the resistance to it in the military and at home would be too stiff. We can probably expect to learn about some seriously dicey covert stuff at some point in the future, but for now I’m standing by my predictions: No war. No air campaign. Not even surgical strikes on military or nuclear research installations.

Howls of outrage (12)

2006 06 01
Rhetoric and Sympathy

I think Yglesias makes a point in this post that could also be directed at the Euston Manifesto folks. The latter tend to treat left-wing rhetoric as though it were issued into a vacuum, free of any particular political context. I’ve complained about this before.

Update: Many thanks to Norm for his comments.

Let me try to clarify, since this was an awfully brief post. I’m not trying to say that we ought to refrain from all criticism of Iran simply because the Bush administration would love the chance to attack it. And I’m also (obviously?) not trying to say that we should limit our criticisms to our own governments. As a Canadian living the States, I’ve been both very critical of the U.S. government, and also of a lot of other countries (including Iran) in the course of my blogging. And rightly so.

Rather, I meant to make the modest point that context really does matter sometimes. It does matter that the U.S. would love a war with Iran now, that if war gets closer there will be a mounting propaganda campaign to highlight abuses in Iran, that the abuses will be cited as reasons in favour of war. In such a political context, statements about the badness of the regime in Iran will tend to play a role in political discourse that they would not otherwise play.

Now, Norm points out that they needn’t play that role. He’s right. Part of my point was simply that a responsible critic will want to be careful about this.

So if you want to slag Iran, by all means, go ahead. In case anyone is wondering what a secular, atheist, hedonist, feminist like myself thinks of Iran, well, I think it sounds like a horrifying place to live. From the start the regime has been bent on imposing a lifestyle which is, I think, objectively inferior to the one I prefer. It is as a feminist that I find the set of values imposed especially revolting. And anyway, even if the values imposed were reasonable, the manner in which they’re imposed on Iranian citizens seems to me to treat adults as if they were children.

Fair enough. So slag away, with no more than a gentle reminder from me about the political context in which you’re doing it. Let me just insist a bit more firmly on a distinct point, and one which I was really aiming at the Euston Manifesto folks. Remember that lots of people (especially on the left) will be nervous about the possibility of a war with Iran, and they will be especially sensitive to the kinds of considerations I mentioned above about political context. They have good reason to be sensitive, especially after the cynical use the Bush administration made of humanitarian concerns about Iraq. If war with Iran becomes more likely, they may reasonably consider that their hands are already full trying to prevent the war – too full to go on and on about the wretchedness of the regime. If you actually want to understand, engage with, and learn from these people, you’ll do well to consider that their silence or relative silence on the barbarities of the Iranian regime stems from these sorts of reasonable anxieties, rather than from indifference, parochialism, anti-American hysteria, self-hatred, or moral relativism.

I aimed this point at the EM folks not because I wanted them to stop talking about evil regimes that the U.S. also considers evil so much as that I think that as a group they tend to systematically misinterpret a lot of left wing discourse. They’ve done this repeatedly in the case of the debate over Iraq, so I thought it would be nice to avoid it if we’re going to have a debate over Iran. That’s really the point I was trying to make: I’ve nothing against slagging Iran. It’s all the inevitable pissing and moaning about how evil [edited: large parts of] the rest of the left is for not joining in that gets my back up.

Hope that’s clearer that what I originally wrote.

Howls of outrage (6)

2006 04 18
North Korea, Iran

I’m busy but I do hate to disappoint my many fans. So, quick post, in the form of a question or two: What’s the deal with North Korea these days? When the administration was last starting to sound serious about North Korea, you could hardly hear a peep about Iran from anyone (except Michael Leeden, crying in the wilderness). Now Iran’s all the rage and you’d think that raising the North Korea issue would get you nothing but yawns and blank stares. What gives? Has the administration simply thrown in the towel on North Korea? Or is the next stage to turn away from Iran and start sounding all Churchillian about North Korea again? Granted, this might confuse the hell out of both North Korea and Iran. But what’s going on? Have I missed something? I had the impression earlier that the President was trying to mediate between competing factions in an administration divided between a party that wanted to engage North Korea and a party that wanted to get serious about military action. Did he forget to decide?

For the record, I think that a North Korea with nukes is a bit more terrifying than an Iran with nukes and that military action against either would be insane. It’s a tough call, but my vote for the crazier course of action goes to military action against North Korea.

Howls of outrage (10)

2006 04 17
Round up (risen from the dead edition)

Have I mentioned that the stomach flu isn’t any fun? I’m getting better, but I still feel like I have a shot put in my stomach after eating even the blandest foods. Luckily I can make a fine feast of self-pity in any situation. Anyway . . .

— Make sure to update your Mozilla products. Now.

— I used the time I was vomiting and then recovering from vomiting to reflect on my recent Iran predictions. One thing missing from it is a sense of grim foreboding, which I somehow neglected to include. You might get the false impression from my predictions that I’m more or less sanguine about the Iran situation, since I don’t think the U.S. is going to do the stupidest thing possible out of the range of alternatives they’re considering (tactical nuclear strikes, or even air strikes). But no. Of course it sucks that Iran will get nuclear weapons sooner or later, and U.S. bungling on the issue probably makes it sooner. Also, although I strongly suspect that Hersh makes too much of the contingency plans being drawn up by the U.S., if the plans do include a tactical nuclear strike, the wisest words I’ve read so far will have to be Henley’s:

Whether or not nukes get used, the whispering campaign still tends to normalize discourse advocating the first use of tactical nuclear weapons as a policy option.

That is a tremendous cost, a cost already incurred as a result of the debate so far. Matters aren’t helped when supposedly centrist commentators like Joe Klein speed that process along. A serious counterproliferation efforts requires, among many other things the U.S. has failed to do, a principled and highly public commitment to refrain from first-strike use of nuclear weapons.

— Speaking of that Hersh article, I think Umansky has the right instincts. It’s far too much “I spoke with the friend of a first cousin of a civilian who lives next door to a retired general who once met Bush at a luncheon when he was governor who has a great intuitive sense of the man’s next move, and he gave me this awesome tough guy quote that I pull out whenever I drink whiskey with someone I’m trying to impress about Bush thinking the stakes are really high on this one.” E.g.,

A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was �absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb� if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do �what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,� and �that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.�

How the fuck does he know? What, did he have a heart-to-heart with the Prez? Or with someone who had a heart-to-heart with the Prez? How many heart-to-hearts, exactly, is he removed from this insight? And how do the various and conflicting interests hidden in these hearts twist the original message? After all, in Washington, power is often very much a function of proximity to the President, and influence is very much a matter of how that proximity is represented to others. I know Hersh does some great reporting, but he also does lousy reporting. I just don’t know. But neither do you, chump.

— A lot of the British lefties have their knickers in a knot over the Euston Manifesto. It’s a pity I’m really fucking busy over the next month. It’s just the sort of thing I used to love to blog about.

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2006 04 13
Iran Predictions

OK, how about some predictions? That way, if there’s a nuclear strike, at least you’ll be able to look back and have a laugh at my bad pseudo-punditry. Here goes:

1. The Bush administration will step up all kinds of covert silliness in Iran. This will include sabotage, along with support for various disaffected minority groups within Iran in the attempt to instigate a crackdown by the regime. In hindsight, this strategy will end up looking even stupider than it does now – and boy does it ever look stupid now.

2. The Bush administration will try, unsuccessfully, to get other countries signed on to its Iran Vilification Program. However freaked out these countries are by the thought of a nuclear Iran, they’ll be more freaked out by what the U.S. might do.

3. The Bush administration will never get anything meaningful through the Security Council regarding Iran. Note, however, that it is in Russia’s and China’s bests respective interests to pursue this route as long as possible because it increases Russian and Chinese bargaining power in their own respective bilateral dealings with Iran.

4. The U.S. will not be able to reach a deal with Iran that stops it from developing nuclear weapons. At best, there will be a face-saving deal, but it will be transparently ineffective. [Update: Of course, Iran is probably 5 to 10 years away from success on this front. So I don’t mean that Iran will develop nuclear weapons while the Bush admin is still around.]

5. The U.S. will NOT attempt to destroy Iranian nuclear sites with air strikes.

6. Israel will NOT attempt to destroy Iranian nuclear sites with air strikes.

7. The U.S. will most certainly NOT use (tactical, bunker-busting) nuclear weapons against Iran.

Alright, take it away, Reality! Show me I’m a perfect ass. And I’m sure readers will remind me as each of these predictions is overturned by events.

Howls of outrage (9)