Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Iran and Israel at the Atlantic, Day 5

Patrick Clawson wrote The U.S. and Israel: Same View of Threat, Different View on Force.
it appears that Washington and Jerusalem see eye-to-eye in their assessment of where Iran stands and how quickly it is moving forward. Their common view is the product of an extraordinarily close consultation among their respective intelligence, military, and political leaders. And the degree of their consensus is an important confidence-builder in Israel.
Jeff would still have captured only one of two key reasons for Israeli-American disagreements about the use of force -- namely, the differing threat perception. The other factor, arguably as important, is the differing perception about military force. Americans tend to like and embrace the Powell Doctrine: the overwhelming use of force to achieve decisive results. The view of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is encapsulated in the unfortunate expression "mow the grass"

I am stunned that Mr. Clawson mis-states the Powell Doctrine, even as he's linking to a Wikipedia article that exposes his mistatement.

IMHO what Americans like about the Powell Doctrine is the tests a proposed action must pass, including: Do we have a clear attainable objective? Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted? Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? Do we have genuine broad international support? These tests overlap with traditional "just war" jus ad bellum criteria, especially those specifying a just cause, probability of success, proportionality, and last resort.

It is painfully obvious that Powell's own promotion of the Iraq War violated the Powell Doctrine (not to mention Just War Doctrine, as the Pope pointed out at the time). Nonetheless, the Powell Doctrine -- as I at least understand it -- crucially depends on circumspection, reluctance to use force, and careful planning, before you get to the fun part bit about overwhelming force and decisive results.

I *really hope* that Mr. Clawson's limited understanding of the Powell Doctrine is his alone; I very much fear that he reflects the general consensus of the US policy/security community. This may be due to the extraordinarily close consultation among their respective intelligence, military, and political leaders to which he refers -- Israel, of course, cannot use the Powell Doctrine, because they can't have limited engagements or an exit strategy for their own region.

Yes, I may have been being just a *little* sarcastic there. It's curious, though, that Clawson cites the Powell Doctrine to support his position -- even though it doesn't.

I couldn't bear the thought of reading "Supreme Command", so I'll ask you: does it suggest that American military policy people have picked up the "mow the grass" mindset from the Israelis?

Gary Milhollin replied to Clawson, and to NY Times reporting that U.S. Assures Israel That Iran Threat Is Not Imminent.
the assumption is false. The clock is still ticking, vigorously.
But why quibble about how long the final phase of bomb making might take? Instead, we should keep our eyes on the big fact here, which is that Iran is fast approaching the status of a "virtual" nuclear weapon state -- one with the ability to kick out UN inspectors and build a handful of nuclear warheads. This is not an argument for bombing Iran, by Israel or anyone else. But it is a warning -- a warning that we must confront the growth of Iran's nuclear capability, and not be lulled into imagining that it's not real.

I commented:

[replying to democraticcore:]
Timing is everything. The best way to speed up the clock is to start dropping bombs.
And, as you've pointed out, calmness and a low threat level from the US is at least as important as Israel's belligerence, because the US has far more ability to attack Iran than Israel does.

[replying to skamble, in Gerecht's post]
When Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, more than a million people were killed in the resulting war
A war which continued so long in part because the US provided and enabled financial backing for Saddam.
It also was provoked by the pro-Saddam insurgents and not by Americans
Dude, we *invaded their country*. It doesn't get much more provoking than that.

Elsewhere in this debate, you've made numerous comparisons between the situations under discussion and some aspect or other of WWII. If the US (or Israel) starts a war "pre-emptively", that makes us analogous to, say, the Japanese striking Pearl Harbor pre-emptively. "The war's going to start anyway, we have to make sure that we get the first hit in." Is this *really* the parallel you want to draw?

[continuing discussion with democraticcore, in Burns' post:]

I've been thinking about this some more, and if I were an Iranian leader I'd think of nukes as deterring Russia as well as the US. Iran's relationship with Russia is currently good, but a minimally prudent leader would not count on that long-term.

Batman has a stock of kryptonite -- just in case.

[replying to skamble, also in Burns' post:]
But would there be any aggressive intentions by anyone against Iran if Iran did not try to develop nuclear weapons?

Yes. Because, as you'd know if you had even the most minimal familiarity (=Wikipedia) with Iran, it has oil. And the US has been interfering there since the 1950s.

Iran's nuclear ambitions are a relatively recent development.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Iran and Israel at the Atlantic, Day 4

R. Nicholas Burns, career diplomat, wrote on The Strength of Obama's Long Game With Iran:
I am more convinced than ever that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests. At worst, it could lead to a third war in the greater Middle East without the benefit of stopping Iran's nuclear program. It makes much more sense for Obama to stick to his bet that a combination of diplomacy and toughness might yet compel Tehran to yield.

My comments:

Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability that would destabilize the current fragile pro-American balance of power in the region
Your analysis avoids mentioning that Israel already has nuclear weapons, so "destabilizing the balance of power" translates to "Israel's power is no longer uniquely devastating". You make no argument that having two nuclear states in the region is more unstable than one -- or that Iran would be more likely to use nuclear weapons than Stalin or Mao was.

Logic and experience say that one consequence of multiple nuclear powers in the region should be talks between the powers, to (at the very least) create structures for dealing with nuclear tests, accidents, and the like. I have no idea whether Iran or Israel would be harder to get to the table, but this is an obvious area where US influence would be vital for everybody, including millions of bystanders downwind.

Marc Ambinder reports that
to some in the Obama administration, the "fact" of Iran's eventual nuclear declaration is already priced-in to their Middle East calculus.
They seem to understand your point, as I take it: the long game is the only game.

One question that has not really been addressed in this discussion is, why would Iran want nuclear weapons?
I agree with Mr. Burns that Ahmadinejad is a cynical thug but not messianic or suicidal, and unless the Iranian government is indeed suicidal, it cannot use nuclear weapons offensively against Israel or anyone else in the region.

Nor do I see how a nuclear Iran would somehow indirectly empower Hamas or Hezbollah.
History teaches that nuclear weapons are virtually useless for offensive purposes unless a country has a monopoly on them, as the US did in '45. That's because even in the cases of insane dictators like Stalin and Mao, MAD works. Nuclear weapons are, however, extraordinarily effective as defensive weapons. Nuclear armed nations do not get attacked by other nations (Israel hasn't been attacked by another nation since '73). There has never been a war between nuclear-armed nations (except for a relatively brief war between between India and Pakistan in '99) because of the very logical fear that any war could escalate to a nuclear conflict. A nuclear armed Iran would therefore effectively be impervious to attack.

Against whom is Iran interested in defending itself from an attack? Again, I would submit that the answer is clearly us. Iranian distrust of the US runs very deep, and for good reason.
Your logic is quite persuasive -- if Iran's nuclear weapons program is motivated by logic.

What is curious, though, is that the saber-rattling is between Israel and Iran, even though (a) Israel cannot effectively attack Iran, and (b) Iran needs nukes to defend itself against the US, not Israel. There's definitely a staged quality about this whole thing, but it's really hard to tell who the intended audience is.

It's possible, to my mind, that Iran's nuclear program is only partly logical or "practical", that it is intended more to function as a symbol -- of strength, technological sophistication, and importance on the world stage -- than to be truly strategic. As I've argued repeatedly here, the most important audience for such warlike displays is likely to be local, i.e. domestic. By having a nuclear program, the current Iranian regime is showing its people that it takes their defense very seriously -- attacks and threats from the US, Israel, or other outsiders will make Iranians *more* inclined to believe that only the regime can protect them.

Robin Wright replied to Burns, with What the Successful Containment of Iran Will Look Like:
So what provisions does a viable containment policy need to have? As one of the early steps, for example, should containment include trying to cut off Iranian access to foreign refineries, which Iran needs, given that it doesn't have enough refineries of its own to process oil for its domestic market? Sounds easy, but to work it needs full international cooperation -- in principle at the United Nations, and in practice from countries or companies servicing Iran -- as well as an enforcement mechanism to prevent smuggling. That's only one option of many, and we should imaginatively be thinking through others before racing into military action.

[democraticcore commented:]

I am very skeptical that any of this will work (if "working" is defined solely in terms of causing Iran to abandon a nuclear weapons program), although to the extent that it can buy time by preventing the neocons from taking over and starting a war against Iran, it probably doesn't do any harm. However, it seems to me that "containment" should be viewed as a strategy for dealing with a post-nuclear Iran.
1. Make sure that all countries in the Middle East, not just Israel, have a solid nuclear deterrent, which the US will provide.
2. Forge a military alliance to prevent any military adventurism by Iran, including proxy wars if necessary. The pillars of this alliance would be Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
3. Get widespread international support for the containment strategy. Most importantly, this means looking beyond Europe, and instead looking for diplomatic support from the rising powers of India, China and Brazil, and of course Turkey.

Economic sanctions and direct military action against Iran really would play little role in such a containment strategy, just as they had little to do with the success of the containment strategy in dealing with the Soviet Union.

"Like" is far too mild a term for my emotions toward this comment.
Trade relations would also be very helpful to opening up Iran to soft power influences, which at the end of the day, are what are going to bring down the Iranian regime. Like the Soviet Union, the Iranian regime will be taken down by jeans and hip-hop, not bombs and sanctions.
It seems clear to me that US policy/security circles, at least, have great patience with aggressive approaches even when they fail, and don't see negotiation and "soft" power as worth spending time on. The fact that someone from the "Institute of Peace" can't come up with anything more humane -- and workable -- than "really mean sanctions" is very discouraging. I had hoped that Ms. Wright might be able to think outside the psychological issues of some of the other contributors here, but apparently not.

J.J. Gould, who is editing the debate, highlit our comments exchanges about whether Israel's leaders believe an attack would work. I commented:

Thank you for highlighting this discussion, J.J. Looking it over, I realize I referred to the IDF when I should have said IAF, because clearly this would be an Air Force operation, not Defence Force (=Army).

I would like to add that what I call the Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle predicts that the most important audience for this saber-rattling is other Israelis -- which indeed is sort of what Goldberg suggests page 4 of his article, when he writes about the Israeli people's desire for a sense of safety through nuclear pre-eminence.
Israelis will seriously weigh whether or not an attack is worth it knowing that its enemies on its immediate borders will be poised to strike.
And yet, most Israeli commenters (here and elsewhere) seem to figure that the enemies are poised to strike *anyway*, and need an excuse more than a reason. So Israelis (or a significant segment within the Israeli population) might feel more positive toward their government even after a failed strike, even one with large civilian casualties, even one that alienates the US.

Another way of putting it is that Netanyahu's coalition may feel that their elected mandate entails striking at Iran's nuclear program, regardless of whether it has a realistic chance of operational success. It could be an *operational* failure, but still a (domestic) *political* success.

Basically, I'm with Clausewitz: politics *always* drives policy.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Iran and Israel at the Atlantic, Day 3

My commenting continues at The Atlantic's discussion about Iran, Israel, and the Bomb.

Gary Milhollin wrote about The Futility of an Israeli Air Strike Against Iran's Nuclear Sites.
If Iran truly values its nuclear program, it would play the victim. The attack would give Iran a claim on the sympathy of countries that might otherwise be inclined to shun it, thereby invigorating its campaign to thwart U.S. and Western isolation efforts. But to remain the victim, it would have not to victimize others. Successful victimhood would therefore mean few or no Iranian-sponsored terror attacks against U.S. targets. It would also mean only limited terror attacks against Israel. If victimhood works, and Iran escapes isolation, its current rulers will have fended off one of the main threats to the regime anywhere on the horizon. That benefit would seem to outweigh whatever harm Israeli bombs could do to the nuclear program.

I commented:

If Iran truly values its nuclear program, it would play the victim.
Countries that have been bombed do not have to "play" the victim -- the civilian casualties which you rightly call "inevitable" do that for them.

Furthermore, your "If" calls out for an "If Not". If Iran *doesn't* truly value its nuclear program, then what? Are you suggesting that then it *won't* "play the victim", exhibit those (still inevitable) civilian casualties, ask for and receive sympathy from other nations?

And speaking of inevitable civilian casualties: you ask What would such bombing destroy? without ever mentioning that Iranians (civilian and military) would be killed. How many? Are you estimating casualties in the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, or more? The American (and Israeli) people have proven tolerant of very high casualties on the part of other people, but the rest of the world won't necessarily see things the same way.

[to a commenter talking about Netanyahu's equation of Iran with Amalek]
I don't understand this Biblical reference.
"Amalek" is an existentially threatening foe that toward whom one is *commanded by G-d* to use genocide.
His job is to see that Iran does not destroy Israel, not try to destroy Iran.
If Netanyahu's circle is indeed using "Amalek" as a metaphor for Iran, then they think that Iran can only be prevented from destroying Israel by total war, targetting the civilian population.

Or they're indulging in hyperbole, like when a 12-year-old calls mandatory bedtime "fascism". But it's *really* self-indulgent, politically stupid hyperbole.

[to another commenter]
To me, it’s pretty clear that Israel cannot initiate a strike against Iran, and Israeli policy planners surely know this. They’re just keeping as quiet as possible about it in the hopes that the US decides to conduct the strike on its own.
Thank you very much for your input.

Goldberg reported (p1):
I have interviewed roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike, as well as many American and Arab officials. In most of these interviews, I have asked a simple question: what is the percentage chance that Israel will attack the Iranian nuclear program in the near future? Not everyone would answer this question, but a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.
but he also said (p6):
In my conversations with former Israeli air-force generals and strategists, the prevalent tone was cautious. Many people I interviewed were ready, on condition of anonymity, to say why an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would be difficult for Israel. And some Israeli generals, like their American colleagues, questioned the very idea of an attack.

This supports your contention that the IDF knows an attack would fail; if they thought it was likely to succeed, they would have told Goldberg "it is the proud tradition of the IDF to follow orders and defend our nation successfully and unflinchingly", or words to that effect. Quietly ominous predictions that they could do what needs to be done would be the least enthusiastic way for the military to signal agreement.

Do you think that the Israeli political policymakers are fully aware that the IDF really doesn't think they could strike at Iran effectively? That is, do you think they were deceiving Goldberg, or are they deceiving themselves? The US invasion of Iraq illustrated to me that there is no real limit to the ability of politicians to believe that wishing will make it so in military affairs -- and no significant limit to the military willingness to go along, as long as the political leaders are ones the officer corps voted for.

I'm pretty confident that all of the Israeli policy makers that would be the ones making the decision on whether or not to attack Iran are fully aware of the IDF's limitations and know that a successful attack is not likely. Keep in mind that Netanyahu himself is a military man (coming both from a prominent military family and having served in the special forces) and has a deep respect for the military establishment. If they advise him that an attack is a very bad idea, he'll listen. ... I believe all the saber rattling is an attempt to get the world community more involved in isolating Iran (with the hope of getting them to compromise on their program) or to try and force other players, namely the US, to destroy Iran's nuclear program by force.
The Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle predicts that the most important audience for the saber-rattling is other Israelis -- which indeed is sort of what Goldberg suggests page 4 of his article, when he writes about the Israel people's desire for a sense of safety through nuclear pre-eminence.
Israelis will seriously weigh whether or not an attack is worth it knowing that its enemies on its immediate borders will be poised to strike.
And yet, most Israeli commenters (here and elsewhere) seem to figure that the enemies are poised to strike *anyway*, and need an excuse more than a reason. So Israelis (or a significant segment within the Israeli population) may feel more positive toward their government even after a failed strike, even one with large civilian casualties, even one that alienates the US.

Basically, I'm with Clausewitz: politics *always* drives policy.

Reuel Marc Gerecht replied to Milhollin with Israel's Compelling Reasons to Attack, Despite the Uncertainties.
What the Israelis need to do is change this dynamic. A preventive strike offers them the only conceivable alternative for doing so. Any bombing run will, at least temporarily, shock the international system and rock Iran internally. The Israelis will have shown that they are deadly serious about confronting the Iranian nuclear threat, that they are willing to go on a permanent war-footing with the Islamic Republic and its deadliest ally, the Hizbollah, which will probably unleash rocket hell on Israel in turn. Although President Obama may become (privately) furious with the Israelis, any Israeli strike will make the United States, and probably even the reluctant Europeans, more determined to shut down Iran's program.

James Fallows strongly disagreed. My comment on Gerecht:

Readers should be aware that Mr. Gerecht's deep insight into Iran let him predict, in 2002, that:
If the United States stays in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, and ushers in some type of a federal, democratic system, the repercussions throughout the region could be transformative. Popular discontent in Iran tends to heat up when U.S. soldiers get close to the Islamic Republic. An American invasion could possibly provoke riots in Iran-simultaneous uprisings in major cities that would simply be beyond the scope of regime-loyal specialized riot-control units.

The fact that he is now predicting benefits to Israel from a *failed* mission against Iran indicates that he is still using the same sparkles-and-ponies-enabled crystal ball he used to promote the US invasion of Iraq.

Marc Ambinder wrote What the White House Really Thinks About Bombing Iran.
Importantly, to some in the Obama administration, the "fact" of Iran's eventual nuclear declaration is already priced-in to their Middle East calculus. For them, once such a nuclear declaration becomes a reality, the U.S. won't be forced to change its posture, basing, arms deals, or strategy -- all of which are designed to prevent Iranian (Shiite) hegemony in the region. (An implicit assumption: Iran would never actually use the bomb.) I've also spoken with Obama advisers who believe that breakout Iranian nuclear capacity would instantly create a new existential threat to American national security. But to a person, no one in power now believes that the consequences of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran would be productive, let alone acceptable.
To another commenter, I replied:

I find the notion that MAD won't work against Iran because its government is "crazier" than the Communists governments of the Cold War to be unsupported.... The Iranian regime may well be repressive, but no one has ever suggested that it has engaged in the systematic mass murder of its own people on a scale in anyway comparable to Stalin or Mao. ... Nuclear weapons have been quite effective in focusing people's attention on the desirability of survival.

Exactly. Crazy evil dictators have had nukes *already*, and yet managed not to be crazy enough to use them. And that was when the countries in question were a considerable distance from each other -- in the Middle East, a single nuke could have long-term consequences for quite a few countries who thought they were on the sidelines. Don't they teach kids these days about fallout?

At the Wednesday summary, I commented:

It is either deeply shocking or very characteristic of these experts that they weigh the positive/negative consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran without including civilian casualties in their calculations. Gerecht mentions them as "inevitable" just as he talks about Iran "playing the victim" -- as though hundreds, thousands, or more human beings would be "playing dead".

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Hookups and "Counts As Sex"

Oliver Wang (subbing for Ta-Nehesis Coates) posted about sociological research on hookup culture. I commented:

Thank you for shedding a little clarity and rationality on the topic.

One of the things baffling me, though, is that I don't know what you (or the researchers) mean by "having sex". The article, for instance, includes under "hooking up" activities that in my distant youth were called "making out", which was definitely *not* classified as "having sex".

Similarly, I have a lot of trouble with remembering who is supposed to be "receiving" oral sex, and wish people would just say "fellatio" when that's all they mean. It's extremely difficult, reading this material, to figure out who is actively trying to have an orgasm with whom and how often, which I figured was the Gold Standard of When It Counts, but maybe I'm just a fogey.

In "This Side of Paradise", doesn't Fitzgerald talk about a culture of "petting" and "petting parties" in the 1920s? -- which sounds a lot like hooking up to me, if hooking includes what us fogeys called "second base".

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Israel and Iran, Part 1

The Atlantic is having discussions all week about Jeffrey Goldberg's article on whether Israel will attack Iran for nuclear effrontery. I will update this post with my comments as I make them.

Robin Wright wrote A Long Way From the Point of No Return With Iran. I commented:

Any polity's decision to go to war (or drastic military action) follows what I call the "Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle".

Clausewitz said, "War is the continuation of politics."

Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local."

Clausewitz-O'Neill states: "Wars are a continuation of domestic politics: they are begun for domestic reasons, because they are perceived as the solution to a domestic political issue."

I'll go further and bring in Freud (I hate that): war is often[1] a projection onto an external enemy of internal domestic conflicts, which are thereby repressed. Just as with Freudian repression-projection, though, fighting an outside enemy is more of a distraction than a solution to your inside problems.

Goldberg's article is extremely useful because it implicitly acknowledges Clausewitz-O'Neill. Whether Israel attacks Iran or not will be driven most strongly by Israeli domestic politics, not by some objective measure of the threat.

Goldberg is so far inside Israel psychologically that he doesn't appear to see how limited his analysis of Iran is. Again, Clausewitz-O'Neill predicts that Iranian leaders will do things for their own domestic political reasons. In order for those of us who are neither Iranian nor Israeli to predict what will happen, we need detailed info on what things seem like to the powers in Iran. Goldberg didn't include those kind of sources, but Ms. Wright's sweeping generalizations here don't help. Her CV suggests that she may know what she's talking about, but she isn't *showing* it.

[1] Not always -- sometimes the domestic problem is "we want more stuff", and war is just how you get it. Looting is usually considered an ignoble reason for war, but at least it's honest.

[from an Israeli commenter]
I think I can sum up the Israeli side of domestic politics. It is this: the Israeli voters tell the government, do whatever is needed to keep us safe.

But what counts as "safe"? As someone around here was saying (comments on Ambinder, maybe?), it is much more unsafe to be a Jew in Israel than a Jew in the US ... or in Germany. You might well be safer (=less likely to be blown up on a bus) living next to a Palestinian state, or in a secular, non-Zionist state large enough that Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists *had* to work together, because no one group was dominant.

War is not safety. Peace is not insecurity.

[same Israeli]
The non-Zionist Palestine was tried already, the Jews of Hebron were slaughtered on one day in 1929.
That counts as "tried"?!? In recent years, the Jewish population of Germany has been booming, synagogues are being established and rabbis are being ordained again. People change, and cultures change even more as generations pass away. Letting something that happened in 1929 determine your relationship to your neighbors is refusing to learn.
lacking peace, the other sensible way is not to try to save on defense spending.
My experience living in a country that also refuses to save on defense spending is that the bigger your hammer, the more everything looks like a nail. The more money you spend on defense, the less willing you'll be to put up with the slow, fitful, unmanly process of getting along with people.
Not being a target of nuclear Jihad would be a good start
It's an open secret that the way Israel discourages nuclear Jihad is by already having a bunch of nukes.

I brought in Jewish immigration to Germany not to imply that you could move there, but to point out that events in 1929 don't have to determine what is feasible in 2010. The fact that a non-Zionist Palestine was "tried" in the 20s means little or nothing about whether a secular, non-Zionist state could succeed today.
The last time an Israeli civilian was lynched by Palestinians was just a few years ago.
I am an American. My country could not hold together at all if people couldn't co-exist with potential lynchers. It isn't easy or comfortable or always safe for groups that really hate each other to live under the same political roof, but it *can* be done. It's the difference between a large family where people yell and scream and maybe even hit each other (not good!), and one where they actually kill each other (much worse!).

Patrick Clawson wrote How Much Brinksmanship Will Israel Tolerate?. I commented:

I introduced the "Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle" over at Wright's post, and I'll say it again here:

"War is the continuation of politics" + "All politics is local" = "Wars are a continuation of domestic politics: they are begun for domestic reasons, because they are perceived as the solution to a domestic political issue."

Here is a perfect example:
Israel will act when it perceives a turning point has been reached, even though there is no air of international crisis. In other words, the "forcing event" which precipitates Israeli action is their perception of risk.
Risk to what? The physical security of other Israelis, or the security in power of current leaders?

Saying that "Iran has to be careful not to cross Israel's red line" is making Iran responsible for Israeli domestic politics. Yet to my mind Goldberg makes clear that Israel's internal dynamics are what is driving the confrontation, that's where the energy is coming from. Whether (or when) Israel strikes will depend on whether it seems useful to whoever's in change at the time -- and there are significant elements within Israel pushing in either direction.

The lack of cogent analysis of Iranian politics in his article and elsewhere on this site so far demonstrates IMHO that the problem is not with what Iran is or isn't doing. Whether Iran develops nuclear energy and/or weapons is also going to be driven by domestic politics -- but we haven't seen anything on this site about that.

Elliot Abrams wrote Obama Bombing Iran? Don't Be Surprised. My comment:

I've been pushing the Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle all over this discussion, and here comes Elliot Abrams, Distinguished Warmonger, to illustrate it exactly.
Clausewitz said, "War is the continuation of politics."

Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local."

Clausewitz-O'Neill states: "Wars are a continuation of domestic politics: they are begun for domestic reasons, because they are perceived as the solution to a domestic political issue."
Abrams, as an experienced and successful warmonger, has a thorough grasp of Clausewitz-O'Neill. He knows that the way to promote a war is to present it as the solution to a domestic political problem, and that's what he's doing right here.

The problem, as he frames it, is: the Democrats are facing election problems because they are perceived as weak and submissive. The time-honored way to look strong and dominant? Viagra! War! That's why George H.W.Bush won re-election so easily, of course, after Persian Gulf I.

The value of Abrams' advice is worse than nil, and I won't engage with it further. But his post can be saved as a textbook example of the Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle. I may be the first person to explicitly formulate Clausewitz-O'Neill, but clearly the principle has been grasped -- and used -- by politicians and warmongers for millennia.

Karim Sadjadpour, whose piece is slated to go up later in the week, got pretty ticked at Abrams and posted Attacking Iran: The Last Thing the U.S. Administration Wants to Do. I commented:

Whoops, my original comment disappeared -- probably due to the Urban Dictionary link.

In other words, Sadjadpour is saying that Abrams is what kids these days call a concern troll:
In an argument (usually a political debate), a concern troll is someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with "concerns".
After all, why should we doubt the advice offered Obama by such a staunch Republican? This is what bipartisanship looks like!

On the Monday Round-Up, I commented:

I call the last step that Ezra didn't take the Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle, and I've been pushing it all over this discussion.
Clausewitz said, "War is the continuation of politics."

Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local."

Clausewitz-O'Neill states: "Wars are a continuation of domestic politics: they are begun for domestic reasons, because they are perceived as the solution to a domestic political issue."
This is *precisely* what Ezra is talking about with regard to Israel, as you show here. I actually think Goldberg's article did a pretty good job of showing how Clausewitz-O'Neill is driving Israel's policy toward Iran, though he was not self-reflective enough to say it straight out.

Similarly, though, I do not see the US policy toward either Israel or Iran to be really driven by the realities there, or even
because the US recognizes that is in its strategic interest to ensure that Israel maintains overwhelming military superiority.
Many Americans do not feel as though Israel is a truly foreign, external country -- Goldberg himself is an excellent example, but so is Sarah Palin. The American idea of Israel (largely formed by religion, of course) is a domestic issue, almost without regard to the Israel in the real world.

"Domestic politics" might not be the best way to put it -- "interests that are local to the warmongers" might be better.

I'm talking about things like: the military elite wishing to increase its influence and prestige within the body politic. The desire to offer Lebensraum, a "free" frontier, or just plain loot to elements of the population you want to keep on your side. In feudal societies, the aristocrats may feel as though they are local to aristocrats in other countries, and may use war as tool for personal revenge.
most wars generally start out unpopular or become unpopular if they go on too long
Wars invariably are popular at first with *some* domestic group, or they wouldn't ever get started. They might not be popular with the general population, but they have to have the backing and appear to serve the interests of some powerful constituency. If you throw a war and nobody comes, it's not a war.

Clausewitz-O'Neill explains why wars start, but not why they continue -- I suspect we are excessively patient with force as a solution because of the terrible sunk costs. As the bodies pile up, the ability to recognize that you're doing the wrong thing seems to shrivel in the people who are most responsible.

the decision-making process in the US national security establishment, which I believe is based on an assessment of the US strategic interest in preventing Israel from using or threatening to use its nuclear weapons. It is noteworthy the massive US military support for Israel really began after the '73 war. Eisenhower was not particularly supportive of Israel, castigating Israel for its actions during the Suez War. Johnson started to shift US policy in a more pro-Israel direction, but even as of the time of the '67 war, Israel's primary military supplier was France, not the US.
That is a very interesting take which I have not heard argued in public. I would like to believe it, because I would like to believe that the US national security establishment is that objective (even Machiavellian) about US strategic interests.

However, I don't believe it. I had no inside, specialized, or expert knowledge, yet it was blindingly obvious to me from the get-go that the Iraq War was morally wrong, illegal (as in "war crime"), and would undermine US interests. If the national security establishment could not see that -- or could not act on it -- then why should I assume that they are capable of anything Machiavellian? Why has Israel's nuclear arsenal *never* been a front-burner public issue in the US, if it's a lynchpin of our Middle-Eastern grand strategy? I'd *love* it if you could tell me why I'm wrong.

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Libertopia and The Long Winter

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber continues looking at libertarian utopias, and whether 19th Century America qualifies. I commented:

I find that Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter casts a particularly clear light on the libertarian vision of the American frontier.

There's no doubt that Laura' father thought of himself in libertarian terms. "Free and independent" is his mantra and that of the other settlers: they came west, they say, to be free and self-reliant, proud and independent, owing no man anything.

But if you pay attention to what they actually do and how they actually live, they are completely dependent on the government and the industrial society they claim to be fleeing. Laura's family stakes a claim -- on land expropriated from the Indians not in the misty past but within the past few years.

To hold the claim they have to live on the land, but they can't actually support themselves there -- the ground isn't ready for serious agriculture, even if the climate was suitable. They don't even have a place to live without materials that have to be brought in -- nothing available to them can be used to make a shelter they're willing to live in.

The women and children live on the claim to secure the legal title, but the family's income mostly comes from work on the railroad. Laura's parents talk about self-sufficiency, but at no point in her life do they actually survive on food they produce themselves -- purchased flour, meal, and meat are *always* the backbone of their diet. This food comes on the railroad from the East.

Their dependence is made clear during The Long Winter when the railroad is blocked. The frontier townspeople talk about being free and independent, but they are in fact still completely tied into the industrial economy. Without it, they begin to starve.

They only survive the winter because of collective action. Laura's future husband Almanzo and his brother are fronted money by the general store owner to make a perilous journey to buy wheat for everybody in town. They bring it back at great risk, and the storeman wants to sell it at a monopoly price -- giving the Wilder boys a fee for their efforts, of course. The Wilders, though, say *they didn't do it for money*, and they won't take money from the mouths of the starving. Laura's father tells the storeman that *of course* he's a free man who can do whatever he wants with his property -- but the townspeople will also be perfectly free to ignore him socially and economically after winter is over. It's libertarian rhetoric as a veneer over communitarian actions.

Furthermore, the more I've thought about their situation (while I read and re-read the book to my children), the more I've realized that their libertarian ideals are part of what brings the town to the edge of total disaster. Everyone in town *should* be living together, sharing warmth, food, and company -- not wasting precious fuel trying to heat individual houses. With communal living and eating arrangements, they wouldn't have nearly as much trouble getting through the winter.

lemuel pitkin @55:

I read that New Yorker article, too, and Rose's libertarianism is one factor pushing me to think Laura really did write most of the books. The difficulty with reading the Little House books IMHO is that young!Laura, from whose POV we see the story, is an unreliable narrator. She doesn't lie to us about what she sees -- but she doesn't see everything or understand it on an adult level. Writer!Laura IMHO makes a lot of her points indirectly -- like the fact that Pa Ingalls loves the wilderness, but spends his life destroying it. Young!Laura loves and admires him, but that doesn't mean Writer!Laura shows everything he does as loveable or admirable.

mw @69:

My point is that the cooperation in The Long Winter is not truly private nor voluntary. The wealthy storeman doesn't cooperate voluntarily, but because he is threatened by the public acting together. They *are* the government of the isolated town, and Mr. Wilder later was an elected official.

It's true that this is not state-level government, but it's community-level socialism (or something): Mr. Ingalls is a leader of the community against the wealthiest individual in it.

Gareth Rees @94:

arrgh, yes! the shame, the shame! The problem was that I was mentally translating from "Pa".

mw @95:

I wasn't clear in my retelling of the scene in The Long Winter. The citizens weren't originally "threatening to take their business elsewhere", they were getting ready to use (well-armed) mob violence. Pa Ingalls talked them down to threatening a boycott, and got the storekeeper to agree he didn't want it to come to that -- but the real alternative, not discussed explicitly, was violent robbery and/or lynching. They may not have had *state-level* coercion, but guns there were a-plenty -- courts and prisons would have been much nicer and less bluntly coercive.

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Friday, August 13, 2010


John Quiggin at Crooked Timber asked why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia?. My comments:

I’m surprised that no-one has yet mentioned the factor that jumps out at me.

You can’t have a functioning human society that isn’t at least 1/3 female. Unless the libertopians include a lot of women, they can’t possibly establish anything that isn’t basically a club instead of a society.

More broadly, I think it supports my personal definition: Libertarians don’t believe that humans are social animals. Trying to put together even a small human society that doesn’t take account of our social nature is of course highly problematic. If you think, as many libertarians apparently do, that the foundation of human society is private property, you’ve already turned your back on anything anthropology and the history of religion can teach you about how humans actually operate in small societies.

Brett Bellmore:
What libertarians believe is that social animals can cooperate in non-coercive ways. Trade, and other voluntary forms of interaction.
Libertarians who try to build non-coercive societies are leftists or anarchists, and they don’t think of *trade* as the quintessential non-coercive interaction. Lefty libertopias have often been attempted (with varying degrees of success, of course), but they generally take “family” or indeed “love” as their grounding metaphor. They never (that I know of) are structured around private property as a first principle.

John Protevi:

Your comments clarify for me that the sort of trade Brett is talking about—strictly fair, balanced, and freely-chosen—does not naturally occur inside human communities. Most basically, what I think I’m saying is that under what you might call “natural” conditions humans do not survive on their own. We live with each other because we must, because otherwise we (generally speaking) die.

So on the one hand, we are ecologically coerced to live in groups, that is our niche. On the other hand, our nature is adapted to our natural niche, so we need to live in a group to be happy. We need other people emotionally, in a way that libertarian trade and freely-chosen contracts cannot satisfy; we also ecologically/economically need other people if we are to survive. That’s what I mean by libertarians not believing that humans are social animals.


Thank you for the link, that is extremely well-put.

I think your essay clarifies what right-libertarians like Brett are looking for: market-like social relations, because they simplify cost/benefit calculations, and thus can be more easily extended over a wider range of social contexts. As you say, traditional donation and obligation are both, by comparison, vague, difficult to predict, and prone to the stress of free-riding, for both sides of the exchange.

Now, those of us who’ve read any anthropology know that the description of a culture traditionally begins with a chapter on kinship—relationships that are not freely-chosen, so in libertarian terms they must be coerced. Because Right-Libertopia wants market-like, freely-chosen social relations, I have *no idea* what their kinship system would be. Without a kinship system, is there any surprise that there is no Libertopia?

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Lee and the Custis family slaves

Andy Hall was one of Ta-Nehesis Coates' pinch-hitters this week. Today he wrote about Arlington, Bobby Lee, and the 'Peculiar Institution'. I replied to another commenter, saying:

Lee owned slaves because his wife and her family did. As the original post implies, the slaves in question probably included *her siblings*, and doubtless other relatives as well.

By framing his relationship with the Custis slaves as purely economic, a matter of labor, Lee was wilfully ignoring the fact that the slaves should have been treated as blood relatives, his wife's siblings and his children's cousins. The Custises had "indulged" their slaves because on some level they recognized that they were literally family; Lee was a stern and legalistic master IMHO because he was denying that they were.

Remember, Lee marriage to Mary Custis made many people consider him to be George Washington's heir -- but the Arlington slaves were, by that same count, also Washington's heirs. By treating them rigorously, Lee was making sure that his children had no competition for Washington's legacy.

In Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), Dickens describes the Southern American as a man
who dreamt of freedom in the arms of a slave, and woke to sell her children and his own in the public marketplace.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

More on the Book of Jonah

Mark Kleinman, subbing for Ta-Nehesis Coates, posted a rather serious analysis of the Book of Jonah, but noted that some people read it as comedy or satire. I commented:

I'm glad that I'm not the only one who reads Jonah as comedy -- I think it's *hilarious*, as funny as a well-done megillah. [I then explained my take on the book]

I always assumed that the Hebrew Bible was basically humorless

Are you joking?!? Not only is there Jonah, but also:

- the Golden Hemorrhoids of I Samuel chapters 5 & 6.

- Rachel steals her father's household gods, then when he comes to look for them she sits on them and says she's having her period and doesn't want to get up, so he goes away. Genesis 31:34-35.

- Balaam and his talking ass, Numbers 22:21-38.

That's just off the top of my head. And I don't even know Hebrew, so I can't cite the puns that I'm sure are all through the texts.

I'm kind of boggled to see that you're Orthodox -- I thought not seeing the humor in the Bible was a province of literalist Christians, frankly. Reconstructionist/Renewal rabbis, at least, always are aware of the funny bits, the ha-ha-only-serious. I first became consciously aware of Jonah's humor during a bibliodrama one Yom Kippur afternoon, because it's impossible to act out Jonah's lines without realizing that he's hilariously absurd.

My 4th grade rebbe (who was hands down the greatest teacher I ever had) approached the material in a way that was, in retrospect, reminiscent of the Bible routines of comics like Bill Cosby or David Steinberg, but it felt like his own interpolations, not something inherent in the text itself.

I think I probably looked at it this way until I ran into the Golden Hemorrhoids. I contend that it is impossible for human beings, regardless of cultural background, not to see that story as humor. It *must* have always been intended as funny -- and if there is one instance of deliberate humor in the TaNaKh, there's bound to be others. Once I let myself see them, there they were -- especially when I realized that the Bible was not meant to be read, but to be read *aloud*, with inflection and "doing the voices" and all the other things you do when you're reading for an audience.

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Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic posted about White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs's reflections on his "inartful" comments. I commented:

novel and potentially extra-legal counter-terrorism campaigns overseas
"Extra-legal" is the wrong, mealy-mouthed word, dude. Illegal is the word you're looking for. As in "crime".
has fleshed out assertions of executive power by the previous administration
As in "war crime". As in "unconstitutional".

Maybe the "professional liberals" are mad because they're tough on crime, unlike those of you who are happy to trade away one eternal liberty after another for successive temporary securities. Maybe we're values voters who thought we were voting our values -- *serious* values, freedoms that are actually worth fighting for -- and aren't seeing them displayed.

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The Thunder Rolls

Garland Grey at TigerBeatDown posted about misogyny in music and music videos.
Twenty years ago another music video about intimate partner violence came out, Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls.” CMT and TNN both refused to play it.
I commented:

Not having heard of the Garth Brooks video, I went to YouTube. Whaddaya know, not there — though a bunch of other official Brooks videos are. You have to hit Teh Google and go to MySpace or similar to see the original Thunder Rolls vids.

Once you get past Attack of the 80s Hair, the most interesting thing about the video is that it shows an extra angle to the story. The cheatin’ man is killed because *the two women communicate*. They *both* want him dead.

But that desire isn’t enough. The man comes home, the wife accuses him, and he beats her. Then their daughter (age maybe 8) sees them, stares accusingly, and only *then* does the wife get the gun and kill him.

So it’s not just that the man is killed, he’s killed by a conspiracy of women to stop the cycle of abuse.

So tell me again why they pulled this video?

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On the Book of Jonah

Repost of a comment I made after the High Holy Days *last* year, for reference *this* year.

slacktivist posted on the Book of Jonah and its interpretation, especially in Christianity. In the ensuing long discussion, I wrote:

IMHO Michael Cule's rendition of the Book of Jonah isn't a parody, it's a faithful re-telling: Jonah itself is, originally, a parody or satire, in fact *humor*, one of the longest pieces of humor in the Bible. And it is humor of a very, very Jewish sort: try reading it aloud with a strong Yiddish accent and the cadence of a standup comic in the Catskills.

Look at the beginning. The other (older, more conventional) prophetic books always start with the prophet being called by G-d, and the prophet goes, "who, me? I am not worthy!" The prophet is always reluctant.

Jonah isn't just reluctant, he *runs away*. Jonah doesn't just disagree with G-d a little bit, he sulks and pouts. He predicts the future, all right, and it pisses him off -- he wants to be a fearful Jeremiah, calling destruction down on his enemies, but he knows G-d is too merciful for that. What a bummer!

And then there's the bit with the gourd, and Jonah's self-centered dramatics -- "The gourd died! Kill me now, I've had enough!" And the very ending, which trails off most peculiarly -- IMHO this was a knee-slapper of a joke 2500 years ago, but the reference has been lost so all we have is an inexplicable punch line, ba-dump ching! tip your waitress, I'll be here all week.

The thing about Jewish humor is that it's ha-ha-only-serious. Jacob gets the name Israel because he fights G-d to a draw: why do you think chutzpah is a Yiddish word? And then there's this classic story from the Talmud, which has been summarized as:
Rabbi Eliezar was arguing with three other Rabbis. He said, "if I'm right, the heavens will open up and a voice proclaim it is so!" And the heavens opened up, and a voice intoned, "Rabbi Eliezar is right."


"So," said the other Rabbis, "that makes it two to three."

Now, this is both a joke, *and* an important principle of Talmudic interpretation. The simplistic, literalist readings a lot of you grew up on are incredibly thin gruel, by comparison. *This* is how you can read the Bible for a lifetime, for generations, without getting bored or coming to the end: by arguing with each other and with G-d, by not taking any reading as the final word, by not expecting it to be simple.

A couple pages of comments ago, someone pointed out that for Jews all of Jonah is very familiar, because the book is read in its entirety during day of Yom Kippur when everyone is in services. You might think this undercuts my theory that Jonah is humor, because Yom Kippur is the most solemn of Holy Days. But IMHO it is also characteristically Jewish to not focus on one emotion to the exclusion of all others: over the 27 hours of Yom Kippur the services are fearful and solemn and inward, but there are also stretches of anger, and grief, and some of the most beautiful music in the Jewish liturgy. The humor of Jonah is a slight relief, a lightening for an hour before we head into the final hours of the long fast, which includes the Yitzkor Service memorializing the dead.

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