Obama must not make the same mistakes as Bush

… the claim by the hawks that Iran has enough material for one nuclear bomb is a little misleading: if it spent another year or so feeding its low-enriched uranium through its centrifuges to attain weapons-grade enrichment, it would have enough material for a bomb – but it could only do this by breaking with the NPT, kicking out the IAEA inspectors and unsealing the stored uranium, thereby alerting the world to its intentions. Nothing like this has happened, of course, despite Iran’s defying the demand of the UN Security Council that it halt all uranium enrichment to satisfy concerns over the transparency of its programme: even the enrichment in defiance of UN demands is taking place under the monitoring of the IAEA.

The standoff, then, isn’t so much about what Iran is doing now, as about what Iran could do if it maintains a uranium-enrichment capability on its soil. Iran insists that enrichment is its right under the NPT; the Western response is that Iran can’t be trusted to exercise all the rights it enjoys under the NPT, because this would give its leaders the option of breaking out of the NPT and moving very quickly to assemble a bomb. Amid the deadlock, Iranian negotiators seek mechanisms for reassuring the West of its intentions, and Western negotiators seek to coax the Iranians into refraining from exercising all of its NPT rights in exchange for various economic carrots. But neither side is moving.

Nor is this policy likely to be any more effective in the hands of Mr Obama than it was in the hands of Bush. That is because it is obsessively focused on preventing Iran from obtaining a particular weapons capability, without addressing the circumstances that might provoke it into doing so. The primary problem is not the weapons themselves – after all, the US enjoyed a nuclear monopoly for only three years, and has since learnt to live with at least eight other countries, among them friend and foe, having attained strategic nuclear capability. The problem is the strategic conflict between Iran and the US and its allies, in which such a weapons capability would change the balance of power.

Nations typically pursue nuclear capability as the ultimate guarantor of their survival, because they deter any enemy from using conventional or nuclear military superiority to eliminate a regime. And if Iran were to seek nuclear weapons capability, a sober analysis suggests that its aim would be to assure its own survival rather than to initiate a suicidal exchange with any other nation. [continued…]

Tehran diplomat says nuclear sanctions have united Iran

LAT: What should they have done, what could they have done, to build trust instead of build suspicion?

Ali Asghar Soltanieh: They should have studied Iranian culture. We have maybe five or six types of phrases to tell somebody to sit down. One of them is very friendly. The other one is something unacceptable. . . .

There is a confidence deficit from our side too. We have suspicions too. They should have sat down at the negotiation table, and just reviewed both sides in a very pragmatic, realistic and equal footing.

As soon as they use the notion of preconditions, it’s destined to failure, because we would never accept such preconditions. This is again part of our culture, because it is humiliation. I will never accept the Americans as a superpower. We made a revolution in order not to accept anybody as a superpower; this is the crux of the matter. [continued…]

Report spotlights Iraq rebuilding blunders

An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.

The history, the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag — particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army — the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.

In one passage, for example, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is quoted as saying that in the months after the 2003 invasion, the Defense Department “kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces — the number would jump 20,000 a week! ‘We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000.’ ”

Mr. Powell’s assertion that the Pentagon inflated the number of competent Iraqi security forces is backed up by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of ground troops in Iraq, and L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator until an Iraqi government took over in June 2004.

Among the overarching conclusions of the history is that five years after embarking on its largest foreign reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, the United States government has in place neither the policies and technical capacity nor the organizational structure that would be needed to undertake such a program on anything approaching this scale. [continued…]

The other front

I arrived in Kandahar in December 2001, just days after Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was chased out. After a moment of holding its breath, the city erupted in joy. Kites danced on the air for the first time in six years. Buyers flocked to stalls selling music cassettes. I listened to opium dealers discuss which of them would donate the roof of his house for use as a neighborhood school. I, a barefaced American woman, encountered no hostility at all. Curiosity, plenty. But no hostility. Enthusiasm for the nascent government of Hamid Karzai and its international backers was absolutely universal.

Since then, the hopes expressed by every Afghan I have encountered — to be ruled by a responsive and respectful government run by educated people — have been dashed. Now, Afghans are suffering so acutely that they hardly feel the difference between Taliban depredations and those of their own government. “We’re like a man trying to stand on two watermelons,” one of the women in my cooperative complains. “The Taliban shake us down at night, and the government shakes us down in the daytime.”

I hear from Westerners that corruption is intrinsic to Afghan culture, that we should not hold Afghans up to our standards. I hear that Afghanistan is a tribal place, that it has never been, and can’t be, governed.

But that’s not what I hear from Afghans. [continued…]

Sarah Chayes interview (video)

After reporting for National Public Radio in the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as nearer her base in Paris, Sarah Chayes left journalism in 2002 to help rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime. She has launched a cooperative in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, producing fine skin-care products from local fruits, nuts, and botanicals. ( The aim is to discourage opium production by helping farmers earn a living from licit crops, as well as to encourage collective decision-making. From this position, deeply embedded in Kandahar’s everyday life, Ms. Chayes has gained unparalleled insights into a troubled region.

Beginning in 2002, Ms. Chayes served in Kandahar as Field Director for Afghans for Civil Society, a non-profit group founded by Qayum Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s older brother. Under Ms. Chayes’s leadership, ACS rebuilt a village destroyed during the anti-Taliban conflict, launched a successful income-generation project for Kandahar women, launched the most popular radio station in southern Afghanistan, and conducted a number of policy studies. Later, she ran a dairy cooperative. [continued…]

With house arrest Pakistan curbs, lightly, a leader tied to Mumbai attackers

On a normal Friday afternoon the line of cars and red Honda motorbikes outside the Qadssiya mosque stretches to a gas station a half mile away. Eight thousand worshipers typically come to hear Hafiz Muhammad Saeed preach at the headquarters of the organization he leads, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity that fronts for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. The two-tiered mosque can accommodate only a portion of the crowd, so the remainder spill out onto a broad concrete courtyard.

But this Friday the road outside was clear, and the few thousand who showed up were all able to fit inside. The day before, the Pakistani authorities had put Mr. Saeed under house arrest and closed dozens of the group’s offices across the country. Many followers were unnerved.

“The government has created a panic,” said Mohammed Nawaz, 35, one of the mosque administrators, who estimated that only one in four people came to this week’s services. “Our leader has been arrested, so what happens if they come to prayers? Not a lot of people have come today. People are not certain what will happen next.” [continued…]

9 is not 11

We’ve forfeited the rights to our own tragedies. As the carnage in Mumbai raged on, day after horrible day, our 24-hour news channels informed us that we were watching “India’s 9/11.” And like actors in a Bollywood rip-off of an old Hollywood film, we’re expected to play our parts and say our lines, even though we know it’s all been said and done before.

As tension in the region builds, U.S. Senator John McCain has warned Pakistan that, if it didn’t act fast to arrest the “bad guys,” he had personal information that India would launch air strikes on “terrorist camps” in Pakistan and that Washington could do nothing because Mumbai was India’s 9/11.

But November isn’t September, 2008 isn’t 2001, Pakistan isn’t Afghanistan, and India isn’t America. So perhaps we should reclaim our tragedy and pick through the debris with our own brains and our own broken hearts so that we can arrive at our own conclusions. [continued…]

Media pick up where they left off 8 years ago

To anyone who lived through the media feeding frenzy of the 1990s, during which the nation’s leading news organizations spent the better part of a decade destroying their own credibility by relentlessly hyping a series of non-scandals, the past few days, in which the media have tried to shoehorn Barack Obama into the Rod Blagojevich scandal, have been sickeningly familiar.

Whenever reporters think — or want you to think — they’ve uncovered a presidential scandal, they waste little time in comparing it to previous controversies. Yesterday, CNN’s Rick Sanchez tried desperately to get the phrase “Blagogate” to stick — the latest in a long and overwhelmingly annoying post-Watergate pattern of ham-handed efforts to hype a scandal by appending the suffix “-gate” to the end of a word.

Sanchez’s efforts to create a catchphrase aside, the criminal complaint filed against Blagojevich this week isn’t the Watergate of the 21st century — though it shows signs that it may become this decade’s Whitewater. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The difference between now and eight years ago is that now the media has a powerful co-conspirator in its relentless effort to trivialize public life: the blogosphere. But while journalists are like ticks encourging themselves on the back of the pig of capitalism, bloggers — who by and large gain no personal profit from their petty fascinations — are like rats who enjoy nothing more than breathing in the sweet aroma that wafts out of the pigs’ pen…

I hope I didn’t offend anyone! (Of course I’m not talking about all bloggers and all journalists — just making a point.)

Gore’s great shout out

In front of a capacity crowd in the largest hall available at this year’s UN climate change conference, Al Gore gave a dramatic address on the possibilities and the hurdles before the climate change community. The biggest, longest applause line by far (complete with hoots and whoops) went to his indirect endorsement of Bill McKibben’s 350 campaign inaugurated on the instigation of an argument first floated by NASA’s James Hansen in a paper released shortly after last year’s UN climate change meeting in Bali. According to Hansen, “We need to reduce from today’s atmospheric CO2, about 385 parts per million, to 350ppm. We are already too high to maintain the climate to which humanity, wildlife, and the rest of the biosphere are adapted. (. . .) This target must be pursued on a timescale of decades.” [continued…]

Is the US ready to tackle global warming?

By the time the UN climate conference in Poland wound up on Saturday, expectations that under the incoming Obama administration America will rise to the challenge of tackling climate change, were not as strong as they had been. A prediction that next December’s meeting in Copenhagen might merely lay the groundwork for further talks and not a ratifiable treaty, was met with dismay by many of the conference participants.

Betsy Taylor, an NGO observer at Poznan wrote: “Over the past few days, several US opinion leaders have adopted a very pessimistic stance on the prospects of achieving meaningful federal climate policy in the United States or a deal in Copenhagen. These political insiders allegedly want to help manage expectations for the incoming Obama administration but their ‘we can’t’ attitude is grabbing the headlines here and at home and causing a growing sense of resignation just as hopes had risen with the promise of a new American president.” [continued…]

Palestinian presidential follies

Despite all appearances, the United States only has one president at a time. Come Jan. 9, however, the enigmatic entity known as the Palestinian Authority could have two rival presidents — one in the besieged non-state of Gaza, the other in the fragmented Israeli protectorate in the West Bank. Each will claim to be the sole legitimate leader of the Palestinians. The mutually destructive rift between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-governed territory in the West Bank will deepen and be harder to bridge.

If Barack Obama entertains the notion of pushing for Palestinian-Israeli peace — as I hope he does — he’ll find that the challenge has become even more daunting. George W. Bush, the fading presence still in the White House, won’t do anything to solve the latest Palestinian political crisis. To the extent that the United States has an influence, Obama will need to act — shall we say, pre-presidentially. [continued…]

The changing face of Israel

Avraham Burg obviously believes that the occupation has had a deeply corrupting effect on Israel. But there is something else going on inside Israel that worries him greatly: the changing nature of that society. He says, for example, that “Israeli society is split to its core,” and although he does not detail the specifics of that divide, it is apparent that it has a political and a religious dimension. He believes that the political center of gravity in Israel has shifted markedly to the right. Indeed, he believes that the left has “decreased in numbers and become marginal.” He also sees the balance between secular and religious Israelis shifting in favor of the latter, which is why he writes that “the establishment of a state run by rabbis and generals is not an impossible nightmare.”

I would like to try to buttress Burg’s analysis by pointing out some trends in Israeli society that are having and will continue to have a profound effect on the Jewish state over time, but which are hardly talked about in the mainstream media here in America. Specifically, I would like to focus on the growth of the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi in Israel, and emigration out of Israel, or what one might call “reverse Aliyah.” [continued…]

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