National Security

Bomb Me, Big Sheldon

AP Photo/Stanley Troutman, File

The world is full of crazy old men. America has its share. But most of those crazy old men don’t go out in public to advocate America nuking other countries. And most of them aren’t major donors to right-wing American and Israeli politicians and think tanks.

Eric Schlosser, Bard of Folly

AP Images/John S. Zeedick

It took decades after the invention of nuclear weapons for today’s taboos against them to take hold. Some witnesses to the first nuclear explosions apprehended their horror immediately. Some planners, civilian and military, fell in love. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. built nuclear reactors in Iran, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries; in the 1960s and 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission made plans to use nuclear explosions to dig a canal in Nicaragua and carve a pass-through in the California mountains for Interstate 40. Influential strategists like Herman Kahn were enthralled by the potential of nuclear weapons to reshape the world. On Thermo-nuclear War, Kahn’s best-known book, contains scenarios not only for how nuclear weapons would work in World War III but also in World Wars IV, V, VI, and VII.

Dick Cheney Still Thinks He Was a Character on "24"

One of these two is not a real person.

Dick Cheney felt moved to write an entire book about the heart troubles he's had over the years, which I can understand. After all, we all find our particular maladies fascinating. What I don't get is why anybody else would care, since we don't tend to find other people's maladies interesting in the least. If you'd let me, I'd love nothing more than to blather on about my various knee injuries, but since I'm not RGIII, I have the sense to know that you really don't give a crap. Nevertheless, there's apparently an interesting tidbit or two in Cheney's book, including this, which may validate what you already thought about him:

Cheney had [his defibrillator] replaced in 2007 and his doctor, cardiologist Jonathan Reiner, with whom he wrote the book, had the device's wireless function disabled so a terrorist couldn't send his heart a fatal shock. Some years later, Cheney was watching an episode of the SHOWTIME hit "Homeland," in which that terrorist scenario was woven into the plot. "I was aware of the danger...that existed...I found it credible," he responds to Gupta when asked what went through his mind. "I know from the experience we had and the necessity for adjusting my own device, that it was an accurate portrayal of what was possible," says Cheney.

Did he also avoid sea travel, since the terrorists could use their nuclear-powered subs to send microwaves at him and fry his brains? What world was he living in?

Are Hawks in Congress Trying to Scuttle Iran Talks?

Negotations over the county's nuclear program have been deemed fruitful by both sides, so why are GOP hardliners making trouble just when things seem to be going well?

AP Images

For the first time in a long time, the news out of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which took place Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, was extremely positive. 

Hawks at Home—Obama and Rohani's Shared Obstacle

Unless you’re someone who relishes the prospect of U.S.-Iran conflict, President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday didn’t disappoint. Recognizing the opportunity presented by the new Iranian president, the speech marked a return to the conciliation of Obama’s first term, only this time backed up by several years’ worth of economic sanctions.

Obama’s Foreign-Policy Realism

AP Images/Meisam Hosseini

President Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Iran and Syria takes him full circle, back to the Obama of the 2008 campaign and the Obama who was (prematurely) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Evidently the U.S. is now willing to foreswear the use of force if these still-nasty regimes will give up weapons of mass destruction. It’s both a remarkable shift, and a low bar.

Me, Myself, and Netanyahu

AP Photo/Ammar Awad, Pool

When Barack Obama looks at the White House appointment book and sees that Benjamin Netanyahu will come calling next Monday, I doubt he'll smile. Past meetings between the president and the Israeli prime minister have come in two types: ones in which they publicly displayed the mutual distaste of brothers-in-law who wish they weren't in business together and ones in which they pretended for the cameras that they get along.

Netanyahu's political soul is a hybrid of an early 21st-century Republican and a mid-20th-century Central European. In a certain place inside him, every day is September 30, 1938, when Britain sold out Czechoslovakia, and great-power perfidy is inevitable. A year ago, in his more contemporary mode, Netanyahu was publicly supporting Obama's electoral opponent, a detail neither man will mention on Monday.

The Strategy that Dare Not Speak Its Name

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

As the past weeks of debate over action in Syria have shown, it’s nearly impossible to discuss U.S. policy toward the Middle East without discussing Iran, and concerns over the possibility that it could obtain a nuclear weapon. Over the past three decades, the U.S. approach to the region has been, if not entirely defined by the tension between Americans and Islamic Republic, then strongly colored by it. For its part, Iran has, to a considerable extent, defined itself in opposition to the United States, the sponsor of the oppressive Shah who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution.

American Public Oddly Reasonable on Syrian War

President Obama addressing the nation on Syria.

When public opinion is running against the position you've taken on something, it's natural to conclude either that the people just haven't yet heard your argument clearly, or even that opinion doesn't actually matter. And in one sense, it doesn't. If you're right, you're right, even if most Americans disagree. Not long ago, most Americans had a problem with people of different races to get married; they were wrong about that even if they were in the majority.

Of course, that's a matter of substance, which is distinct from matters of politics, which can constrain your behavior whether you're substantively in the right or not. So I wonder what Barack Obama thinks of public opinion on Syria these days. I doubt that he's like George W. Bush, who was forever certain that "history" would judge the Iraq War to be a smashing success. By now Obama may have concluded that he'll probably never win the public over on this question, so he should just try to move things along as best he can.

There's a new Washington Post/ABC News poll out today that, despite some rather poor numbers, could give him a bit of solace...

Obama's Crippling Ambivalence

AP Images/Charles Dharapak

Barack Obama’s presidency is a series of crossroads. The crossroads are moments of decision for a president who is utterly indecisive except, of course, when he’s not a ruthless tyrant trampling the Constitution (or, on more banal occasions, saving the national economy or pressing forward on health-care reform or ordering the execution of the mass murderer of 3,000 Americans).

Yet Another NSA Violation

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

Last month, it was revealed that the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had rebuked the National Security Agency for using illegal search methods. Not surprisingly, this incident wasn't an isolated one. In another judicial opinion responding to a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, further illegal abuses by the NSA were unveiled. Like the previous revelations, this story reveals the dangers posed by an NSA conducting searches with far too broad a scope and too few constraints.

Twelve Years Later, Have We Gotten Control of Our Fear?

This kind of thing just doesn't fill us with terror anymore. (Office of the President/Wikimedia Commons)

Reading an article today I came across a reference to the Dixie Chicks and their fall from grace, which happened ten years ago. It was shocking enough at the time, but today it seems beyond absurd, that a musical group could be all but blacklisted out of the American entertainment industry because they expressed opposition to the Iraq War and joked about being ashamed that George W. Bush was from their home state of Texas. Even then, a year and a half after the September 11 attacks, just expressing reservations about a foreign military adventure was enough to put them on the receiving end of a torrent of hate and fear, to the point where radio stations refused to play their songs and concert venues wouldn't book them.

But today, we can say with some pride that our level of national terror has been significantly reduced. The situation in Syria and the Iraq War are obviously different in many important ways, but don't forget that despite the ridiculousness of the Bush administration's case for war (which some of us saw plainly at the time), they were quite successful in getting Americans to sign on. At the time of the invasion, around two-thirds of the public thought it was a good idea. And that was a full-scale war. Today, Barack Obama can barely get half that number to support lobbing some cruise missiles into Syria.

As I said, the situations were different in many ways. But what made Bush's persuasion project possible was the fact that Americans were afraid.

If Obama Wants the GOP’s Help in Syria, He Must Deal with Torture First

AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

Among the lessons of Syria for Barack Obama, there is one that stands out: the destruction of the Republican foreign policy establishment makes his job harder, and the president is now suffering the consequences of his choice to avoid, as much as possible, dealing with the fallout from torture during the George W. Bush administration.

Playing Russian Roulette with Syria

The strategy outlined in President Obama’s speech Tuesday night was 180 degrees from where it stood when it was announced he would address the nation, so much so that it’s worth asking why he actually went ahead and went on prime time.

The War on Terror Is Still Everywhere

AP Photo/Doug Mills

In May of this year, Barack Obama gave a speech effectively declaring the end of the "War on Terror." Like many people, I was pleased. The War on Terror, which embodies the idea that terrorism is such an existential threat that all other threats the US has faced pale before it and therefore we had permission abandon every moral standard we ever held to and wage a global military campaign that never ends, has been a poison coursing through our national bloodstream. Its effects can be seen in things that don't on their surface seem to have almost anything to do with terrorism. And despite Obama's speech, it doesn't seem like much has changed.

It was only a few weeks after that speech that Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance began to come out, and it wasn't as though President Obama said, "You know what? This just shows how things have gotten out of hand. We're going to be dialing this stuff back." He defended every bit of it as necessary and proper. Why do we need this positively gargantuan apparatus of surveillance? The answer is always terrorism. Oh, we're using it to spy on state actors too—both enemies and friends—but it's harder to argue that Chinese officials or the president of Brazil want to kill your children, so when challenged, the justification inevitably turns back to terrorism.

The War on Terror perspective, where the most extreme overreactions become the ordinary way of doing business, has infected all kinds of government actions. I point you to this story in yesterday's New York Times by David Carr, which on first glance doesn't look like it's about the WoT, but I think in some ways it is. It's about Barrett Brown, a journalist who has reported on the activities of Anonymous, the internet hacking group. If prosecutors have their way, Brown will spend the rest of his life in prison because he posted a link. I kid you not:

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