Archives for March 2009

EDITORIAL: Super top-secret scoop by an American magazine whose name can be revealed

Super top-secret scoop by an American magazine whose name can be revealed

If Deep Throat had been as paranoid as the Israelis maybe Richard Nixon would have managed to serve out his second term. Maybe the name “Watergate” would have never become infamous.

The Sudan raid story has been dribbling out over the last few days, a rumor here, a rumor there.

Apparently the Israelis got tired of the story getting so tangled.

Enough is enough, they said. We will have to provide a definitive account to an authoritative outlet.

I can now reveal that Israel’s most trusted messenger (at least at this moment) is Time magazine.

Humbled and honored that highly-placed Israeli security sources would provide Time with “exclusive details,” the magazine apparently went one step further than promising the standard anonymity to sources whose names can’t be revealed for the standard reasons. In this case the Israelis apparently needed to be so guarded that not only could they not reveal their own names, but (sources might have told me) they insisted that the journalists they were speaking to would also have to wrap themselves in the same cloak of anonymity.

Unnamed sources talk to unnamed journalists. There’s no risk that “TIME STAFF” will ever get a subpoena!

On the other hand, there’s not much chance we can expect tenacious investigative reporting from journalists who don’t get a byline.

How long would Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have toiled for if they had to work under the selfless byline of “Washington Post Staff Writers”?

As for the Big Story, did it contain any major revelations?

The official motive for the attack — and I’ll take this as official even though it doesn’t come in quotes but it does come as the second sentence, immediately after we’ve been told that we’re getting the straight dope from “two highly-placed Israeli security sources” — (drumroll):

The attack was a warning to Iran and other adversaries, showing Israel’s intelligence capability and its willingness to mount operations far beyond its borders in order to defend itself from gathering threats.

So there you have it. Iran now knows that any time it sends a small convoy of trucks through an isolated desert in north-east Africa, the trucks, drivers and cargo might get wiped out by a long-range stealth attack by Israeli fighter bombers.

Does this have implications for the security of Iran’s nuclear facilities?

Israel can knock out a convoy in Sudan, so, who knows what else it could do?

Knock out another convoy?

As for the question I raised yesterday, what did the Americans know and when did they know it?

Here’s the partial answer: “The Americans were notified that Israel was going to conduct an air operation in Sudan, but they were not involved.” And that’s a direct quote from… “a source.” Would that source be one of the highly-placed Israeli security sources? Maybe. Maybe not.

If the Americans got the heads-up from the Israelis that an operation was just about to take place in Sudan, did the Israelis know that the Americans had just or were just about to talk to the Sudanese?

It’s clearly in Israel’s interests to put out the message that Israel and the US see eye to eye at all times, but maybe someone at Time needs to track down an anonymous American source who’s willing to tell an anonymous reporter the American side of the story. Is that too much to ask?



Israel’s covert war on Iran faces disapproving White House

Facing mounting U.S. opposition behind the scenes, Israel still plans to continue a covert operation to delay Iran’s nuclear program by assassinating key Iranian scientists, U.S. officials said.

The Israeli program which has been in place for almost a decade, involves not only targeted killings of key Iranian assets but also disrupting and sabotaging Iran’s nuclear technology purchasing network abroad, these sources said.

Reva Bhalla, a senior analyst for Stratfor, a U.S. private intelligence company, commented publicly that key Iranian nuclear scientists were the targets of the strategy.

“With cooperation from the United States, Israeli covert operations have focused both on eliminating key [Iranian] assets involved in the nuclear program and the sabotaging of the Iranian nuclear supply chain,” he said.

But U.S. opposition to the program has intensified as U.S. President Barack Obama makes overtures aimed at thawing 30 years of tension between the two countries. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — At least one reader doubts the credibility of this story. All I can say is that this isn’t the first time it’s been reported. The February Telegraph report appears to have been based on some of the same sources.

Big sigh of relief in the White House: Israel’s Netanyahu says he can work with Obama

In the weeks since he was chosen to form Israel’s next government, Benjamin Netanyahu has labored to dispel the perception that he’s on a collision course with the country’s most powerful ally.

Never mind his history of spats with Washington, or that he refuses to embrace the goal of an independent Palestinian state, a cornerstone of American policy reaffirmed by President Obama last week.

And never mind that religious parties in his coalition call for expanding the Jewish settlements in the West Bank that Obama has criticized. Or that his foreign minister lives in one.

Netanyahu, expected to be sworn in as prime minister today, speaks with utter confidence that none of this record matters. He claims that Obama, with whom he has met twice, is “open to new ideas” — including his ideas — on how to address the region’s conflicts. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — No doubt Obama’s been sweating it out for the last few weeks wondering whether Netanyahu really likes him and wondering whether Israel’s next prime minister will be gracious enough to accept an invitation to the White House.

Thank goodness! The suspense is over. All that anguish can be set aside. It’s time to roll out the red carpet.

Israel’s moment of decision

Israel’s formation of a national unity government, a common strategy by parliamentary governments in times of war or national emergencies, is a move to gird the Jewish state for an impending crisis involving Iran’s nuclear program.

Though it could have formed a free-standing right-leaning coalition, Likud last week concluded an agreement with Israel’s Labor Party for a national unity government, with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. After February’s elections, it had seemed the differences between Likud, the leading right-leaning party, and Labor, the leading left-leaning party, were too great to permit unity.

Later it looked as if Labor would split and just half of its members join with Likud. But Israel’s dire security situation, particularly over Iran’s nuclear program, drove Mr. Netanyahu and Labor’s Ehud Barak, who still disagree on the peace process, to overlook their differences. Iran is at the top of the agenda for the incoming Israeli administration, with the peace process lower down. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Likudnik Meyrav Wurmser makes a fairly persuasive argument — except for one detail. If Ehud Barak joined Netanyahu’s government for the sake of Israel and because the threat from Iran trumps all other political considerations, why wasn’t Tzipi Livni moved by the same argument? After all, a Likud-Kadima coalition would have diminished Avigdor Lieberman’s strength and given Netanyahu an easier working majority and more international appeal. Does Wurmser view Livni as less of a patriotic Israeli than Barak or does this have more to do burnishing the “national unity” image of Israel’s new government?

National unity’s the thing — forget about ultra-nationalist fanatics.

Israeli military investigates itself and discovers that it’s squeaky clean

The Israeli military’s top lawyer on Monday closed an investigation into alleged misconduct by soldiers who took part in Israel’s recent three-week assault on the Gaza Strip, concluding that accusations made by graduates of a military preparatory school were “based on hearsay.”

In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces said that Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, the IDF’s advocate general, found no evidence to support the most serious accusations, including alleged instances in which civilians were shot without cause.

Israeli human rights groups including B’Tselem and Yesh Din said they still want a broad, independent investigation of the Gaza operation because they don’t trust the Israeli military to police itself. [continued…]

What it means to talk with Hamas

March 2009 may come to be seen as a critical month in the ending of the international community’s isolation of Hamas. Finally engaging Hamas would spell the end of hypocritical Western policy and bring the peace process in line with the realities of the Middle East.

First, a group of high-level US foreign policy officials, past and present, went public with their recommendation that the Obama administration talk to Hamas. Coincidentally, European politicians who visited Hamas officials in Syria about the same time echoed that view.

Typically, meetings between European lawmakers and Hamas leaders are conducted discretely, if not entirely in secret. Now, the trips have begun to be publicized: In March there were trips by a cross-party group of British and Irish members of parliaments, as well as their counterparts from Greece and Italy. [continued…]

Hezbollah says not to carry out operation outside Lebanon

Lebanese Shiite armed group Hezbollah has vowed Monday that it will deter possible Israeli aggressions but will not carry out any military operation outside the country, local Elnashra website reported.

“We will not carry out any operation outside our Lebanese territories, but we will not accept after today that the enemy (Israel) stages any assault against our land,” head of Hezbollah’s members of parliament bloc Mouhamad Raad said at a funeral. [continued…]

Bush’s torture rationale debunked

Abu Zubaida was the alpha and omega of the Bush administration’s argument for torture.

That’s why Sunday’s front-page Washington Post story by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick is such a blow to the last remaining torture apologists.

Finn and Warrick reported that “not a single significant plot was foiled” as a result of Zubaida’s brutal treatment — and that, quite to the contrary, his false confessions “triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms.”

Zubaida was the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House. Then he was President George W. Bush’s Exhibit A in defense of the “enhanced interrogation” procedures that constituted torture. And he continues to be held up as a justification for torture by its most ardent defenders.

But as author Ron Suskind reported almost three years ago — and as The Post now confirms — almost all the key assertions the Bush administration made about Zubaida were wrong.

Zubaida wasn’t a major al Qaeda figure. He wasn’t holding back critical information. His torture didn’t produce valuable intelligence — and it certainly didn’t save lives.

All the calculations the Bush White House claims to have made in its decision to abandon long-held moral and legal strictures against abusive interrogation turn out to have been profoundly flawed, not just on a moral basis but on a coldly practical one as well. [continued…]



Report: U.S. warned Sudan before attack on Gaza convoy

The U.S. warned the Sudanese government that weapons were being smuggled into the Gaza Strip through its territory ahead of a recent attack on a Gaza-bound arms convoy, which foreign media has attributed to the Israel Air Force, the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported Monday.

On Friday, the American network ABC reported that the IAF had targeted a convoy of trucks in Sudan carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza in January. According to the report, 39 people riding in 17 trucks were killed, and civilians in the area sustained injuries. The network later reported that the IAF had carried out three such strikes since the beginning of the year.

According to the report in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, which quotes reliable sources, a senior American official transferred a message to a Sudanese government official and asked him to make sure that the message makes its way to Sudan’s leaders in Khartoum so that immediate steps can be taken to put a stop to the smuggling of weapons. The sources said that the Sudanese security establishment declared that the issue would be investigated, shortly before the first attack.

In light of the fact that the attacks occurred in such close proximity to the American warning, Sudanese officials initially assumed that it was the U.S. that was behind the bombings. However, when the U.S. denied involvement, the accusations were pointed at Israel, which has yet to confirm or deny the reports. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — When Condoleezza Rice and Tzipi Livni signed a Memorandum of Understanding on January 16 whose aim was to combat weapons smuggling into Gaza, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the agreement had been reached in consultation with the incoming administration. The implication was that the Bush administration and the Obama administration were on exactly the same page on this issue.

So now we learn that US officials warned the Sudanese just before the Israelis reportedly sent in drones to destroy an alleged weapons convoy. What’s going on here?

This could be a good cop/bad cop routine. Or it could have been a way of attempting to disassociate the US from the operation, or it could mean that the US didn’t know what the Israelis were about to do.

Since it’s hard to imagine that the Israelis would want to give the Sudanese or anyone else advance warning of a risky long-range operation of this nature, my guess is that the US was outside the loop. Intelligence was being shared by the US but the Israelis gave no prior notice on how they were going to use it — at least that’s my best guess in interpreting the latest wrinkle in a many-wrinkled story.

Assad: Israel not a true peace partner

Syrian President Bashar Assad spoke Monday at the opening of the Arab League summit in Doha, Qatar, and said that peace between Arab nations and Israel could not be reached without willingness on the part of the Jewish state.

“Israel killed the initiative, not the Doha summit,” he said, referring to a 2002 Arab initiative that offered Israel normal ties in return for its withdrawal from Arab land seized in 1967.

Arab countries “have no real partner in the peace process. The arrival of a Rightist government makes no difference, because in Israel, the Right, the Left and the Center… all reflect a reality which is that Israeli society is not ready for peace,” said Assad. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Assad is really stating the obvious yet American discourse on the conflict continues to treat Israel as though it is the bride of peace that got jilted at the altar.

Israel can learn from ‘The Troubles’

Upon the arrival of Sinn Fein President and Northern Irish Republican leader Gerry Adams into the Middle East, Israeli officials will give him the cold shoulder – “We expect all dignitaries who come here to make it clear that they will not dignify Hamas with a meeting,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

On Adams’s previous 2006 trip, he met with Hamas officials, and during his stay he advocated dialogue between the group and Israel, even without the precondition of Hamas’s recognition of the Jewish state. Israel should not set as a prerequisite for official engagement a refusal to see Hamas officials.

As a foreign observer, and one bringing with him a breadth of knowledge from a lifetime of dealing with the complexities of Northern Ireland’s ethnic and religious conflict, Adams has every right, and indeed he should meet with Hamas; likewise, official Israel should not shun him for so doing. [continued…]

Turkey’s fallout with Israel deals blow to settlers

A legal battle being waged by Palestinian families to stop the takeover of their neighbourhood in East Jerusalem by Jewish settlers has received a major fillip from the recent souring of relations between Israel and Turkey.

After the Israeli army’s assault on the Gaza Strip in January, lawyers for the families were given access to Ottoman land registry archives in Ankara for the first time, providing what they say is proof that title deeds produced by the settlers are forged.

On Monday, Palestinian lawyers presented the Ottoman documents to an Israeli court, which is expected to assess their validity over the next few weeks. The lawyers hope that proceedings to evict about 500 residents from Sheikh Jarrah will be halted.

The families’ unprecedented access to the Turkish archives may mark a watershed, paving the way for successful appeals by other Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank caught in legal disputes with settlers and the Israeli government over land ownership. [continued…]

The truth about Abu Zubaydah

This article was submitted to the CIA prior to publication. Passages redacted by the CIA are marked […].

Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, more commonly known as Abu Zubaydah, is my client. After being extensively tortured by the CIA and imprisoned in various black sites around the world, Zayn may finally be approaching his day in court. I and my co-counsel welcome that day. But what if we are successful and establish that Zayn is not an enemy combatant? Would any country agree to take our client? The Bush administration’s misrepresentations about Zayn make that virtually impossible unless I am allowed to tell his side of the story. This article is the first step in that reclamation process.

For many years, Abu Zubaydah’s name has been synonymous with the war on terror because of repeated false statements made by the Bush administration, the majority of which were known to be false when uttered. On 17 April 2002, […] President Bush publicly announced that Zayn had been captured: “We recently apprehended one of al-Qaida’s top leaders, a man named Abu Zubaydah. He was spending a lot of time as one of the top operating officials of al-Qaida, plotting and planning murder.”

Zayn’s capture and imprisonment were touted as a great achievement in the fight against terrorism and al-Qaida. There was just one minor problem: the man described by President Bush and others within his administration as a “top operative”, the “number three person” in al-Qaida, and al-Qaida’s “chief of operations” was never even a member of al-Qaida, much less an individual who was among its “inner circle”. The Bush administration had made another mistake. [continued…]

Obama will face a defiant world on foreign visit

President Obama is facing challenges to American power on multiple fronts as he prepares for his first trip overseas since taking office, with the nation’s economic woes emboldening allies and adversaries alike.

Despite his immense popularity around the world, Mr. Obama will confront resentment over American-style capitalism and resistance to his economic prescriptions when he lands in London on Tuesday for the Group of 20 summit meeting of industrial and emerging market nations plus the European Union.

The president will not even try to overcome NATO’s unwillingness to provide more troops in Afghanistan when he goes on later in the week to meet with the military alliance.

He seems unlikely to return home with any more to show for his attempts to open a dialogue with Iran’s leaders, who have, so far, responded with tough words, albeit not tough enough to persuade Russia to support the United States in tougher sanctions against Tehran. And he will be tested in face-to-face meetings by the leaders of China and Russia, who have been pondering the degree to which the power of the United States to dominate global affairs may be ebbing. [continued…]

Sons of Iraq movement suffers another blow

A moderate Sunni paramilitary leader allied with the Americans was detained by Iraqi forces, his deputies said Sunday, in an illustration of how the Shiite-led government has humbled a nationwide movement that emerged two years ago to help end the Iraqi insurgency.

Iraqi authorities also continued their drive against supporters of another paramilitary leader, arresting at least seven of his backers and taking away their weapons. Those fighters were loyal to Adel Mashadani, the fiery leader of the Sons of Iraq group in Baghdad’s Fadhil neighborhood, who was detained Saturday.

The arrest of Raad Ali, who helped the Americans stabilize the west Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya, came to light Sunday, five days after the Iraqi army picked him up in a midnight raid, his aides said. [continued…]

US opens route to Afghanistan through Russia’s backyard

The road passes a shimmering green mountain pasture, then dips steeply to a new US-built bridge. Across the languid Panj river is Afghanistan and the dusty northern town of Kunduz. On this side is Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s impoverished Central Asian neighbour.

It is here, at what used to be the far boundary of the Soviet empire, that the US and Nato are planning a new operation. Soon, Nato trucks loaded with non-military supplies will start rolling into Afghanistan along this northern route, avoiding Pakistan’s perilous tribal areas and the ambush-prone Khyber Pass.

This northern corridor is essential if Barack Obama’s Afghan-Pakistan strategy is to work. With convoys supplying US and Nato forces regularly attacked by the Taliban on the Pakistan route, the US is again courting the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. [continued…]


EDITORIAL: The missing Mandela

The missing Mandela

When the long sought solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being trumpeted from the cover of The Weekly Standard there’s every reason to scoff. Middle East peace has thus far not appeared high up on the neoconservative agenda and I really doubt that Bill Kristol and his cronies suddenly had some extraordinary change of heart.

What’s sad is that Gershom Gorenberg, who is clearly a man of integrity, chose to lend his support to the Israel apologists who happily massage their consciences by pretending that Palestinian violence is the one insurmountable obstacle to ending the conflict.

In a celebration of Israeli impotence we are presented with a mirage of peace in the form of an unfound Palestinian Mahatma. If only a Palestinian Gandhi emerged, anything would be possible.

It’s not that the appeal of a saintly leader of a non-violent resistance movement is lost on me, but the parallels between British India and Israel are beyond tenuous.

Gandhi’s resistance to British rule galvanized the support of a massive population governed by a tiny colonial elite who never had the pretense that Britain was reclaiming a long-lost homeland. To the British, India was a land brimming with resources that could be shipped back to the actual homeland and traded for handsome profits. By the end of World War Two, Britain was bankrupt and in a rush to free itself of what had become its colonial burdens. With or without a gentle shove from the Mahatma, the sun had already set on the British Empire.

As for Gandhi’s nominal success in non-violently waving goodbye to colonial rule, we should not forget that it was accompanied by the horrific failure of partition and a bloodbath in which as many as a million people died.

Another model of non-violent leadership that Gorenberg could have considered is that of the Dalai Lama.

After fifty years of principled resistance to Chinese rule, Tibetans are still no closer to winning autonomy. Thus far, the majority of the Dalai Lama’s followers remain loyal to the religious values that he practices and advocates, yet many are starting to wonder whether it is their pacifism that enables China to retain its firm grip on Tibet.

Of course the most obvious model of political leadership that Gorenberg should have mentioned is that of Nelson Mandela.

The problem is — at least from Gorenberg and The Weekly Standard‘s point of view — Mandela resolutely refused to renounce armed resistance. Apartheid didn’t end because its opponents adopted a spiritually enlightened non-violent perspective. It ended because white South Africans were forced to recognize they were clinging on to a politically unsustainable system.

Israelis still cling on to a politically unsustainable situation, but unlike white South Africans, they are still able to hold on to a security blanket stitched together by American military and economic aid and political protection.

President Obama might say that for Palestinians and Israelis “the status quo is unsustainable”, but unless the US takes away the security blanket, Israel will remain in its manipulatively infantile condition: vacillating between a manicured helplessness that occasionally gets punctuated by a violent tantrum.

Must Israel and its friends wait in frustration for an elusive Palestinian Mahatma or instead might an earnest search for an Israeli FW de Klerk be long overdue?



Israeli drones destroy rocket-smuggling convoys in Sudan

Israel used unmanned drones to attack secret Iranian convoys in Sudan that were trying to smuggle rockets into Gaza. The missiles have the range to strike Tel Aviv and Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona, defence sources said.

The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) attacked two convoys, killing at least 50 smugglers and their Iranian escorts. All the lorries carrying the long-range rockets were destroyed. Had the rockets been delivered to Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, they would have dramatically raised the stakes in the conflict, enabling Palestinians to wreak terror on Tel Aviv.

According to western diplomats, Israel attacked the Iranian convoys at the end of January and in the first week of February in the remote Sudan desert, just outside Port Sudan. The convoys had been tracked down by agents from Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence agency.

The raids were carried out by Hermes 450 drones. One source claimed they were accompanied by giant Eitan UAVs, which have a 110ft wingspan, similar to that of a Boeing 737. The drones, controlled via satellite, can hover over a target for 24 hours. The Hermes 450 squadron is based at the Palmahim air base, south of Tel Aviv, but it remains unclear from which airfield they took off. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — If this report is accurate (not that it’s coming from a particularly reliable source), the Sudan attack would appear to say nothing about Israel’s capacity to strike Iran. UAVs can’t carry the weaponry for attacking nuclear installations.

So, disregard suggestions by other unreliable sources (like me) that this attack necessarily had huge strategic significance. Far-reaching unmanned aerial attacks are changing the nature of warfare in disturbing ways as the physical and psychological gap between killers and the killed gets wider and wider, but I don’t think the Israeli air strikes in Sudan necessarily brought war with Iran any closer.

The Obama Administration’s chance to engage in a Middle East peace

When the Israelis’ controversial twenty-two-day military campaign in Gaza ended, on January 18th, it also seemed to end the promising peace talks between Israel and Syria. The two countries had been engaged for almost a year in negotiations through intermediaries in Istanbul. Many complicated technical matters had been resolved, and there were agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations. The consensus, as an ambassador now serving in Tel Aviv put it, was that the two sides had been “a lot closer than you might think.”

At an Arab summit in Qatar in mid-January, however, Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, angrily declared that Israel’s bombing of Gaza and the resulting civilian deaths showed that the Israelis spoke only “the language of blood.” He called on the Arab world to boycott Israel, close any Israeli embassies in the region, and sever all “direct or indirect ties with Israel.” Syria, Assad said, had ended its talks over the Golan Heights.

Nonetheless, a few days after the Israeli ceasefire in Gaza, Assad said in an e-mail to me that although Israel was “doing everything possible to undermine the prospects for peace,” he was still very interested in closing the deal. “We have to wait a little while to see how things will evolve and how the situation will change,” Assad said. “We still believe that we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace.” [continued…]

From Obama, a guide for avoiding defeat in Afghanistan

The keyword of US President Barack Obama’s new Afghanistan plan didn’t make it into the text of the speech in which he announced it on Friday. That would be “exit strategy”. This was how Obama, in a TV interview a week earlier, had defined his administration’s goal in rethinking Washington’s approach to Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

The US is in no position to leave Afghanistan any time soon, but nor is it likely in the same time frame to achieve its original objective of stabilising a pro-western democratic government. Obama may be reluctant to face the US electorate three years from now with an open-ended commitment of blood and treasure to Afghanistan, but his immediate problem is not that progress there is slow; it’s that the situation is quickly deteriorating. [continued…]

Some strategists cast doubt on Afghan war rationale

The argument for deeper U.S. military commitment to the Afghan War invoked by President Barack Obama in his first major policy statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan Friday – that al Qaeda must be denied a safe haven in Afghanistan – has been not been subjected to public debate in Washington.

A few influential strategists here have been arguing, however, that this official rationale misstates the al Qaeda problem and ignores the serious risk that an escalating U.S. war poses to Pakistan.

Those strategists doubt that al Qaeda would seek to move into Afghanistan as long as they are ensconced in Pakistan and argue that escalating U.S. drone airstrikes or Special Operations raids on Taliban targets in Pakistan will actually strengthen radical jihadi groups in the country and weaken the Pakistani government’s ability to resist them. [continued…]

Detainee’s harsh treatment foiled no plots

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said. [continued…]

Spanish court weighs inquiry on torture for 6 Bush-era officials

A Spanish court has taken the first steps toward opening a criminal investigation into allegations that six former high-level Bush administration officials violated international law by providing the legal framework to justify the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an official close to the case said.

The case, against former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and others, was sent to the prosecutor’s office for review by Baltasar Garzón, the crusading investigative judge who ordered the arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The official said that it was “highly probable” that the case would go forward and that it could lead to arrest warrants.

The move represents a step toward ascertaining the legal accountability of top Bush administration officials for allegations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in the campaign against terrorism. But some American experts said that even if warrants were issued their significance could be more symbolic than practical, and that it was a near certainty that the warrants would not lead to arrests if the officials did not leave the United States. [continued…]

You can’t go home (to Yemen) again

Omar Fawza can’t find a wife. The 20-something Yemeni reveals his bachelor status with a sigh that suggests it’s the most painful experience of his life — worse even than the five years he spent in U.S. captivity at Guantánamo Bay and in Afghanistan, where he says he was treated “like a dog.”

For Fawza, thwarted marital bliss has become the symbol of his rotten existence since U.S. forces scooped him up in Pakistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Fawza, who had gone to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against their domestic rivals long before 9/11 but never saw combat, was locked up by the Americans as part of “the worst of the worst,” and then abruptly sent back to Yemen in 2006. Like most of the 14 Yemenis shipped home from Guantánamo so far, he’s been stigmatized in his own country as a terrorist ever since, though he was never charged with a crime.

“Guantánamo has destroyed a big part of my life,” he told me in a soft voice over cups of syrupy tea in an office in Yemen. (I have given Fawza a pseudonym and kept our exact meeting place secret to spare him additional grief.) “But I have done nothing wrong.” [continued…]

Obama’s Nobel headache

Traditionally, punditry in Washington has been a cozy business. To get the inside scoop, big-time columnists sometimes befriend top policymakers and offer informal advice over lunch or drinks. Naturally, lines can blur. The most noted pundit of mid-20th-century Washington, Walter Lippmann, was known to help a president write a speech—and then to write a newspaper column praising the speech.

Paul Krugman has all the credentials of a ranking member of the East Coast liberal establishment: a column in The New York Times, a professorship at Princeton, a Nobel Prize in economics. He is the type you might expect to find holding forth at a Georgetown cocktail party or chumming around in the White House Mess of a Democratic administration. But in his published opinions, and perhaps in his very being, he is anti-establishment. Though he was a scourge of the Bush administration, he has been critical, if not hostile, to the Obama White House.

In his twice-a-week column and his blog, Conscience of a Liberal, he criticizes the Obamaites for trying to prop up a financial system that he regards as essentially a dead man walking. In conversation, he portrays Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and other top officials as, in effect, tools of Wall Street (a ridiculous charge, say Geithner defenders). These men and women have “no venality,” Krugman hastened to say in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But they are suffering from “osmosis,” from simply spending too much time around investment bankers and the like. In his Times column the day Geithner announced the details of the administration’s bank-rescue plan, Krugman described his “despair” that Obama “has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they’re doing. It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street.”

If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he’s wrong, and you sense he’s being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking. [continued…]


Israel targets Sudan — and Tehran or Washington?

Three Israeli airstrikes against Sudan

Israel has conducted three military strikes against targets in Sudan since January in an effort to prevent what were believed to be Iranian weapons shipments from reaching Hamas in the Gaza Strip, ABC News has learned.

Earlier this week, was the first to report that Israel had conducted an airstrike in January against a convoy carrying weapons north into Egypt to be smuggled into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

But actually, since January, Israel has conducted a total of three military strikes against smugglers transporting what were believed to be Iranian weapons shipments destined for Gaza, a U.S. official told ABC News. [continued…]

Israel carried out 3 attacks on Sudan arms smugglers

Ehud Olmert hinted on Thursday at Israel’s suspected role in the reported air-strike.

“We operate everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure – in close places, in places further away, everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure, we hit them and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence,” said Olmert, speaking at a conference in Herzliya.

“It was true in the north in a series of incidents and it was true in the south, in a series of incidents,” he added. “There is no point in going into detail, and everybody can use their imagination. Those who need to know, know. And those who need to know, know that there is no place where Israel cannot operate. There is no such place.” [continued…]

Military clash with Iran

Iran is in fact forcing a direct military confrontation upon Israel. We are not only talking about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s exaggerated verbal passion or the Iranian nuclear project.

Thus far, Iran conducted a war of attrition against Israel via its emissaries: Hizbullah, Hamas, and other Palestinian groups. At this time, the war is reaching new peaks; it will be impossible to continue ignoring them while only engaging with the emissaries.

Based on foreign reports, the Air Force bombed about two months ago, in Sudan, a shipment of medium-range rockets with a range of 70 kilometers (roughly 40 miles,) apparently the Fajar 3 model.

This is not a small missile. In fact, it is a missile that the Iranians are manufacturing especially for the Gaza Strip, so that it can be dismantled to several pieces and smuggled in through the Gaza tunnels. This is also the way they produced the special Grad rockets for Gaza: Disassembled models, made in Iran, and designated for smuggling. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — I’m in no position to judge the credibility of the claims being made about an arms smuggling route through Sudan or the type of rockets said to be destined for Gaza. However, these air strikes do seem to signal a strategic escalation in hostilities between Israel and Iran.

Israeli commentator, Alex Fishman says:

    The “tight grip theory,” namely, clasping the State of Israel from both the north and south, turns Iran into a concrete enemy, rather than a theoretical one.

This is a significant shift in Israeli rhetoric. Instead of hyperventilating about the threat that Iran will pose if it acquires the ability to construct nuclear weapons, the Iranian threat is now being shunted into the present with the effect that intelligence assessments about Iran’s nuclear status become irrelevant.

Iran is being cast as posing a clear and present danger to Israel. In other words, for those who hold this position, nothing more needs to happen for Israel to justify an attack on Iran.

The question, as always, is this: where is Israel more intent on exerting pressure? In Tehran or Washington?

Is this about threatening Iran, or is it about undermining US-Iranian diplomacy?

An open hand and a fist

We should not underestimate the courage and self-confidence it took for Obama to make several gestures toward Iran since taking office. He reflects real strength, political realism and much humility in being able to reverse many aspects of the belligerent Bush approach.

Yet the flaw in the Obama approach is a lingering streak of arrogance that is reflected in both the tone and the substance of his messages.

This is most obvious in his insistence — after telling the Iranians that they are a great culture with proud traditions, which presumably they already knew — on lecturing Iran about the responsibilities that come with the right to assume its place in the “community of nations,” and then linking Iran’s behavior with “terror of arms” and a “capacity to destroy.”

It is difficult to see how Washington feels the positive gestures of reaching out can be reconciled with an irrepressible need to lecture others about the rules of righteous nationhood. [continued…]


Is it too late for peace?

The fierce urgency of peace

Pressure on President Obama to recast the failed American approach to Israel-Palestine is building from former senior officials whose counsel he respects.

Following up on a letter dated Nov. 6, 2008, that was handed to Obama late last year by Paul Volcker, now a senior economic adviser to the president, these foreign policy mandarins have concluded a “Bipartisan Statement on U.S. Middle East Peacemaking” [PDF] that should become an essential template.

Deploring “seven years of absenteeism” under the Bush administration, they call for intense American mediation in pursuit of a two-state solution, “a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas,” and eventual U.S. leadership of a multinational force to police transitional security between Israel and Palestine. [continued…]

Israel’s step back from peace

Emphasizing diplomacy and engagement over isolation and confrontation, President Obama has spoken eloquently of a new era of American leadership. Of the changes he has promised, the most important to Palestinians is his commitment to reinvigorating the Middle East peace process.

Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains crucial to achieving stability and peace in the Middle East as well as to advancing vital U.S. interests. The Obama administration clearly understands this, prioritizing the peace process as part of a more integrated approach to U.S. policy in the region. America’s renewed commitment to brokering a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis offers a measure of hope to Palestinians living under the weight of occupation. But it also comes at a time when Israel’s own commitment to peace is in doubt after the formation of a right-wing coalition government.

Peace is not a word that sits comfortably with the Israeli right, which will dominate Israel’s new government, even with Labor’s decision this week to join it. Among its ranks are those who have long opposed peace with Palestinians, no matter the cost; who use the cover of religion to advocate extremist views; and who have supported the expulsion of Palestinians or now devise loyalty tests designed to achieve the same result. [continued…]

A tax break fuels Middle East friction

For many years, the United States has had a policy against spending aid money to fund Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which successive administrations have regarded as an obstacle to peace. Yet private organizations in the United States continue to raise tax-exempt contributions for the very activities that the government opposes.

There’s nothing illegal about the charitable contributions to pro-settlement organizations, which are documented in filings with the Internal Revenue Service. They’re similar to tax-exempt donations made to thousands of foreign organizations around the world through groups that are often described as “American friends of” the recipient.

But critics of Israeli settlements question why American taxpayers are supporting indirectly, through the exempt contributions, a process that the government condemns. A search of IRS records identified 28 U.S. charitable groups that made a total of $33.4 million in tax-exempt contributions to settlements and related organizations between 2004 and 2007. [continued…]


Re-dismantling the terrorist infrastructure again

White House debate led to plan to widen Afghan effort

President Obama’s plan to widen United States involvement in Afghanistan came after an internal debate in which Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. warned against getting into a political and military quagmire, while military advisers argued that the Afghanistan war effort could be imperiled without even more troops.

All of the president’s advisers agreed that the primary goal in the region should be narrow — taking aim at Al Qaeda, as opposed to the vast attempt at nation-building the Bush administration had sought in Iraq. The question was how to get there. [continued…]

Obama outlines Afghan strategy

President Obama introduced his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan yesterday with a threat assessment familiar from the Bush administration. “The terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks,” he said, are continuing to devise plots designed to “kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”

Elements of the Obama plan to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda in Pakistan and vanquish its Taliban allies in Afghanistan also struck notes from the past. More U.S. troops, civilian officials and money will be needed, he said. Allies will be asked for additional help, and local forces will be trained to eventually take over the fight. Benchmarks will be set to measure progress. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — By basing a war strategy on the objective of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, Obama is resting on solid political ground.

The question that everyone resolutely refuses to address is this: where’s the evidence that al Qaeda’s capacity to operate is bound together with its ability to maintain some sort of infrastructure in north western Pakistan? Why should we not assume that if another 9/11 type attack is being planned that it may well emanate from a location far removed from al Qaeda’s historical base? In terms of the threat of attacks on the US, what’s happening in some discreet enclave in Karachi or Manila or Melbourne or Toronto or London or even New York may matter much more than the tribal territories.

At the same time, what happens to Pakistan and Afghanistan will certainly be affected by the extent to which the West provides jihadists, insurgents and tribal fighters the foundation for coming together to combat a common enemy.

Pakistan and Afghan Taliban close ranks

After agreeing to bury their differences and unite forces, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have closed ranks with their Afghan comrades to ready a new offensive in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to send 17,000 more troops there this year.

In interviews, several Taliban fighters based in the border region said preparations for the anticipated influx of American troops were already being made. A number of new, younger commanders have been preparing to step up a campaign of roadside bombings and suicide attacks to greet the Americans, the fighters said.

The refortified alliance was forged after the reclusive Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, sent emissaries to persuade Pakistani Taliban leaders to join forces and turn their attention to Afghanistan, Pakistani officials and Taliban members said. [continued…]

Afghan strikes by Taliban get Pakistan help, U.S. aides say

The Taliban’s widening campaign in southern Afghanistan is made possible in part by direct support from operatives in Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, despite Pakistani government promises to sever ties to militant groups fighting in Afghanistan, according to American government officials.

The support consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders who are gearing up to confront the international force in Afghanistan that will soon include some 17,000 American reinforcements.

Support for the Taliban, as well as other militant groups, is coordinated by operatives inside the shadowy S Wing of Pakistan’s spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the officials said. There is even evidence that ISI operatives meet regularly with Taliban commanders to discuss whether to intensify or scale back violence before the Afghan elections. [continued…]

White House won’t rule out troops for Pakistan war

President Obama has just laid out his new war strategy. And he’s made it clear that the fight is both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So I asked Dennis McDonough, with the National Security Council: Does that mean U.S. ground forces in Pakistan? Or more drone attacks? “I’m not going to comment on the notions you laid out there,” he answered, during a White House conference call with bloggers.

But during a separate press conference, Bruce Reidel, who recently completed a strategy review of the region for the White House, offered some hints. “Thus far, our policy sees Afghanistan and Pakistan as two countries, but one theater of operations for our diplomacy, and one challenge for our overall policy,” he said. “We have very concrete proposals for increasing economic assistance to Pakistan, proposals that have already been put forward by the Congress. We’re also looking at what we can do on the military side.” [continued…]

Bomber strikes in Pakistani mosque, killing dozens during prayers

A suicide bomber attacked a crowded mosque in northwest Pakistan on Friday, setting off explosives as a cleric intoned the holy prayers, bringing the roof crashing down and killing scores of people in what was the bloodiest attack this year.

The attack was unleashed in an area where there has been intense activity by Pakistani security forces aimed at protecting the critical Khyber Pass supply route for American forces in Afghanistan. Occurring only hours before President Obama unveiled a new strategy against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it raised questions about Pakistan’s ability to counter the threat from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. [continued…]

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen

An American patrol ambushed by the Taliban in Uruzgan province on May 19, 2006 found its foes growing in number as the firefight continued. Local farmers working in nearby fields rushed home to get their weapons and join in. In Afghanistan, young men like doing that sort of thing.

The episode exemplifies David Kilcullen’s thesis: that many Muslims who take up arms against the West in Iraq, Afghanistan and indeed Europe are not committed ideologues. Instead, they are young men alienated variously by foreign intrusion, corrupt government, local factionalism and grievances, bitterness about globalisation; or simply enthused by a belief in the dignity of combat.

At the heart of this significant book is the author’s declaration that terrorism cannot be addressed by military means alone; that for American or British soldiers merely to kill insurgents is meaningless. He urges policies based upon securing and succouring populations, not on enemy body counts. [continued…]

A conversation with David Kilcullen

Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn’t control. The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don’t follow the civilian government; they are essentially a rogue state within a state. We’re now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state, also because of the global financial crisis, which just exacerbates all these problems. . . . The collapse of Pakistan, al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover — that would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today. [continued…]


Britain’s police state

Police identify 200 children as potential terrorists

Two hundred schoolchildren in Britain, some as young as 13, have been identified as potential terrorists by a police scheme that aims to spot youngsters who are “vulnerable” to Islamic radicalisation.

The number was revealed to The Independent by Sir Norman Bettison, the chief constable of West Yorkshire Police and Britain’s most senior officer in charge of terror prevention.

He said the “Channel project” had intervened in the cases of at least 200 children who were thought to be at risk of extremism, since it began 18 months ago. The number has leapt from 10 children identified by June 2008. [continued…]

London cops reach new heights of anti-terror poster stupidity

The London police have bested their own impressive record for insane and stupid anti-terrorism posters with a new range of signs advising Londoners to go through each others’ trash-bins looking for “suspicious” chemical bottles, and to report on one another for “studying CCTV cameras.”

It’s hard to imagine a worse, more socially corrosive campaign. Telling people to rummage in one another’s trash and report on anything they don’t understand is a recipe for flooding the police with bad reports from ignorant people who end up bringing down anti-terror cops on their neighbors who keep tropical fish, paint in oils, are amateur chemists, or who just do something outside of the narrow experience of the least adventurous person on their street. Essentially, this redefines “suspicious” as anything outside of the direct experience of the most frightened, ignorant and foolish people in any neighborhood. [continued…]


EDITORIAL: The rise of Israeli extremism

The rise of Israeli extremism

The cartoonist, Pat Oliphant, caused a stir this week with a cartoon (below) which Anti-Defamation League director, Abraham Foxman, said: “employs Nazi imagery by portraying Israel as a jack-booted, goose-stepping headless apparition. The implication is of an Israeli policy without a head or a heart.”

Did Oliphant go too far? Or was he merely using incendiary symbolism to draw attention to the ruthlessness of the Zionist war machine?

The role of the Israeli Defense Forces chief rabbi in portraying the war on Gaza as a religious war has been widely reported. Brig Gen Avichai Rontzki used a line from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a war slogan: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

Another rabbi, David Bar Hayim, conveyed a similar message in a broadcast on Israel National News TV where he cited scriptural authority when saying: “In a time of war, one does not distinguish between the different individuals on the enemy side of the fence, of the conflict. One has to fight the enemy … without any thought for such distinctions.” (A statement interestingly reminiscent of the Bush doctrine.) The rabbi also said: “I don’t believe that there are any innocent [Palestinian] civilians in this situation.”

Christopher Hitchens observes:

Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it’s fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order. Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs. The dress rehearsals for this have already taken place, with the religious excuses given for Baruch Goldstein’s rampage and the Talmudic evasions concerning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Once considered highly extreme, such biblical exegeses are moving ever closer to the mainstream.

The extremists are already on the march — literally. And they are being provided with the full support of the state of Israel.

Earlier this week, supporters of Rabbi Meir Kahane descended on the Israeli-Palestinian town of Umm al-Fahm (which was established in 1265).

A hundred militant Zionists, each protected by 25 Israeli police officers, had a simple message for the residents.

“We are going to conquer back Umm al-Fahm” and tell its residents that it is part of Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel) and that “we are the owners of Eretz Yisrael.”

Just to be clear: Umm al-Fahm is within the 1967 borders of Israel and is populated by Arab Israeli citizens.

The demonstration was also reported by Al Jazeera:

Ynet later reported:

After deeming the Umm al-Fahm march a success, Israel’s extreme right announced it plans to publish regular reports on activities in Arab towns and villages.

“We intend on forming a monitoring committee to counter any infringements of the law in the Arab sector. The committee will be headed by Knesset Member Michael Ben Ari (National Union) and other right-wing activists will serve as members as well,” a rightist source told Ynet Tuesday.

Radical right-wing activist Itamar Ben Gvir explained: “The committee will be made up of subsections, with each section in charge of different things, like building violations, affiliation with terror groups, and infringing on Jewish freedom of movement.” The Right, he added, is now contemplating holding processions in other Arab towns as well.

While the majority of Israelis might identify themselves as secular, with militant nationalism on the rise, religious zealotry and military power have become fused together in the conception of an embattled state that needs show little restraint in its efforts to defend itself.

The spirit of Israel’s indomitable military might is captured in the video below: “Don’t Mess With The IDF.”

It’s tone might seem adolescent, yet it is adolescents and young adults who fill the ranks of the IDF and who celebrated the war in Gaza by adorning themselves with T-shirts that advocate shooting pregnant Muslim women. (Anyone seeing this video who understands Hebrew is welcome to explain the lyrics in a comment. The passage in English comes from The Matrix: Reloaded, which an Israeli reviewer said: “intentionally or not, is the most powerful pro-Israel movie since Cast a Giant Shadow — the story of the Independence War — and Operation Thunderbolt — the story of the Entebbe rescue.”)

Update: The soundtrack for this video combines “The Last Zionist” by Israeli rappers Subliminal and Hazel, followed by “We Are Still Here” by the Dutch DJ Korsakoff.



The “war on terror”, RIP

Have you heard? The war is over! The “Global War on Terror,” that is. At least for speechwriters at the Defense Department:

    The end of the Global War on Terror — or at least the use of that phrase — has been codified at the Pentagon. Reports that the phrase was being retired have been circulating for some time amongst senior administration officials, and this morning speechwriters and other staff were notified via this e-mail to use “Overseas Contingency Operation” instead.

[Read more…]



Guardian investigation uncovers evidence of alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza

The Guardian has compiled detailed evidence of alleged war crimes committed by Israel during the 23-day offensive in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, involving the use of Palestinian children as human shields and the targeting of medics and hospitals. [Read more…]



Israel says car bomb defused at shopping mall

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday an explosives-laden car parked at a shopping mall in northern Israel, and defused by police, was an attempted Arab attack aimed at causing mass casualties. [Read more…]


GUEST CONTRIBUTOR – John Robertson: Obama’s outreach and the hierarchy of ‘enlightened nations’

Obama’s outreach and the hierarchy of ‘enlightened nations’

John Mearsheimer (of the University of Chicago, and co-author with Stephen Walt of the much-touted/much-reviled The Israel Lobby) has an important essay in the latest London Review of Books, in which he argues (as has Walt) that the Charles Freeman affair has exposed the Israel Lobby and created some new space for public debate about its excessive and harmful impact on the making of US foreign policy. [Read more…]


NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: The rise of Israeli religious nationalism

Worried about apartheid? Too late, Mr Olmert, it’s already here

In one of her last acts as US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice had Nelson Mandela’s name removed from America’s terrorist watch list. Many Americans were shocked to learn that their favourite former political prisoner had ever been deemed a terrorist. That is because they had forgotten, or were too young to know, that the US under Ronald Reagan – like Britain under Margaret Thatcher – had backed the apartheid regime in South Africa as a Cold War ally. [Read more…]


EDITORIAL: YouTube diplomacy

YouTube diplomacy

President Obama in an historic address reaches out to Iran. It has to be a good thing. Right? I’m far from sure.

This is what Obama said in his Nowruz (new year) address:

Obama said: “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.”

Oh, and here comes Israeli President Shimon Peres with a similar message: “On the eve of the new year, I appeal to the noble Iranian people on behalf of the ancient Jewish people and urge them to reclaim their worthy place among the nations of the enlightened world.”

So, it turns out that the Iranian people and their leaders are being targeted by a joint US-Israeli appeal. How’s that going to go down?

Let’s see. Israel’s prime minister to-be Benjamin Netanyahu has likened Iran to Germany in 1938, meaning Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is like Hitler and Iran is on a path aimed at global domination.

Does the US really want to be perceived as making its diplomatic moves towards Iran as a coordinated US-Israeli effort? That might please the Israelis but it doesn’t seem like a smart way of advancing America’s diplomatic interests.

The fundamental problem with turning diplomacy into this kind of public spectacle is that it can promote more confusion than clarity. Before the message can be articulated, every target audience has to be taken into consideration. In this case it means that the White House needed tailor the words, the tone, and the medium of delivery so that something approximating the desired response could be registered in the following audiences (and I won’t even attempt to guess the order):

  • Iran’s leaders
  • the Iranian people
  • Israel’s leaders
  • the Israeli people
  • the Israel lobby
  • the EU
  • Russia
  • China
  • US Gulf allies
  • Congress
  • commentators who are promoting engagement
  • commentators who warn about “appeasement”
  • Democrats
  • Republicans
  • the Iraqi government
  • Muslims
  • Iranian expatriates
  • Syria
  • Iranian non-state allies

OK. If anyone in the White House is reading this, they’re probably thinking “if only we could be that thorough. We actually only ran it by Hillary, Dennis and Rahm and they seemed to like it.”

Still, I’m really just trying to make a point. That is, when you’re crafting a message and trying to find a way of making it play with a multitude of audiences who have conflicting agendas, it’s really difficult to say anything with substance. It ends up coming out like… a presidential statement.

What will the outcome be? Maybe we can expect an Ahadinejad YouTube in the next few weeks.

Is this what we really need — more YouTube diplomacy? Or is it time for serious, substantive talks behind closed doors where the focus is on results — not public diplomatic flourishes.

And let’s not forget that it was only two weeks ago that Obama’s secretary of state was reported as saying that she was “very doubtful” that a US diplomatic overture would be successful in persuading Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Who are the Iranians supposed to be paying attention to? The US president or his chief diplomat?

(And another reminder: Iranians are quite used to serenades from American presidents: “We respect your country. We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture and your many contributions to civilization.” That was George Bush in 2006.)


Israel’s cloak of democracy is falling away

An Israeli foreign minister who won’t wear velvet gloves

Lieberman is not a passing phenomenon. He represents the integration into Israeli politics of the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These new immigrants have displaced the old Labour party, once the elite of the country and the so-called party of peace. In every Labour voter there was a sepia-tinted memory of a kibbutznik taking his horse to be shod in an Arab village. If this fantasy of Jewish-Arab co-operation was ever true, it stopped being so in the 1920s. But the Labour party has always felt that somehow the Arabs can be forced to love, or just get along with, Zionism – a viewpoint which used to sell easily in Europe and the US, even if it never corresponded with facts on the ground. [Read more…]


Israel’s moral autocracy

After Gaza, Israel grapples with crisis of isolation

Israel, whose founding idea was branded as racism by the United Nations General Assembly in 1975 and which faced an Arab boycott for decades, is no stranger to isolation. But in the weeks since its Gaza war, and as it prepares to inaugurate a hawkish right-wing government, it is facing its worst diplomatic crisis in two decades. [Read more…]