National Security

Obama's Nuclear Step Forward

AP Images/Mohammad Berno
Shortly after the news broke that a deal over Iran’s nuclear program had been struck in Geneva, Switzerland between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China, and Germany), President Obama made a short speech from the White House hailing the agreement, and noting the challenges ahead in hammering out a broader comprehensive deal. “Ultimately,” he said, “only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program.” Nuclear non-proliferation experts have been overwhelmingly supportive of the agreement, which offers limited and reversible sanctions relief in exchange for Iran curbing key aspects of its nuclear work. “The Geneva agreement is a good deal because Iran’s capabilities in every part of the nuclear program of concern are capped, with strong verification measures,” wrote Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “All in all, the interim agreement is a good deal,” concurred Jeffrey...

Bibi's Agreement Anxiety Disorder

T o explain Benjamin Netanyahu's frenzied reaction to the Geneva agreement on Iran's nuclear program, let me begin with the stack of brown cardboard boxes under my wife's desk. Each of the five cartons contains a gas mask and related paraphernalia for a member of my family to use in the event of a chemical-weapons attack. They were delivered last January, as part of the gradual government effort to prepare every household in Israel for a rain of Syrian missiles. I suppose that having "defense kits" in the house could be macabre, but what we usually notice is that they're a nuisance: another thing on which to bang your toe in an overstuffed city flat. What's more, they're apparently an obsolete nuisance. A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons...

Moderating Influences

AP Images/FRANKA BRUNS
“How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.” This was what Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk had to say Wednesday after a briefing by his former Senate colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, on the state of play in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Last weekend, the talks came tantalizingly close to closing a deal on a first phase agreement to halt to Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for limited and reversible sanctions relief, creating space for a broader comprehensive deal addressing the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The thrust of Kirk’s remark is that, whatever friendly noises any Iranian leader might make—and new President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been making a lot of them—these do not represent any genuine difference of opinion within the Iranian political system, are only the result of pressure that’s been brought to bear on Iran, and should not distract us...

Super Sad Spy Story

AP Images/Julian Stratenschulte
AP Images/Julian Stratenschulte L et’s face it, unless Democrats win back the House in 2014, Obama will soon become a lame duck president. To some degree or another, it is a universal truth that second-term presidents turn to foreign policy to burnish their historical legacy. Yet the continuous drip of revelations about the National Security Agency’s vast array of surveillance programs is not only shaping up to be the biggest headache for the Obama administration. It's potentially primed to be part of its defining legacy. And that is sad. Super sad. The latest news centers on allegations that the NSA has been tapping the cell phones of over 35 heads of state, from Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff to German chancellor Angela Merkel. Originally reported last week by the German magazine Der Spiegel , the shock waves from Berlin continue to ripple throughout the globe. Foreign governments everywhere are now scrambling their intelligence agencies’ best and brightest to see if they were...

Mission Affordabled: Why Obama’s Website Problems Aren’t “His Iraq”

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File Y es, the Affordable Care Act website rollout has been a fiasco. And, as always happens when political catastrophe strikes, the wave of bad analogies has rushed in its wake. One in particular is gaining ground: Healthcare.gov is for Barack Obama’s presidency what the invasion of Iraq was to George W. Bush’s administration, complete with outraged liberal reactions to it . Here’s the funny thing: it’s a bad analogy, which could turn out to be accurate … but probably won’t. To start with, the fact that people died in Iraq, as opposed to the inconvenience involved in a malfunctioning website, doesn’t make it a bad analogy. The analogy has to do with presidential decisions; it’s about process, not outcomes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. No, what makes it a bad analogy is that Iraq War was misconceived from the start, and the actual events of the war, to a large extent, made obvious what some saw from the beginning. With the exchanges, on the...

Bomb Me, Big Sheldon

AP Photo/Stanley Troutman, File
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File T he 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. Speaking on a panel New York’s Yeshiva University on Tuesday night, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson suggested that the U.S. launching a nuclear weapon into Iran would be the appropriate way to handle negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “And then you say, ‘See? The next one is in the middle of Tehran,’” he explained. “’You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.’” The audience applauded. Adelson got a lot of coverage during the 2012 presidential campaign for the amount of money he threw around. He contributed over $93 million to Republican super PACs, making him the single biggest donor to such groups “by a wide margin,” according...

Eric Schlosser, Bard of Folly

AP Images/John S. Zeedick
I t 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 Thermonuclear 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. All too often, the history of nuclear weapons has been told as a history of those schemes, a history of plans for wars that never took place. The genesis of nuclear weapons has...

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 reported by CBS News, 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...

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
F or 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. In a statement at the close of talks Wednesday—the first ever such joint statement from the Iranian and P5+1 delegations (the permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany)—European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif hailed “two days of substantive and forward looking negotiations.” “I've been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,” said a senior U.S. official after the talks. “And I would say we are beginning that kind of negotiation to get to a place where, in fact, one can imagine that you could possibly have an agreement.” The official continued, “I think if you talk to any of the P5+1 members–and some of them have been...

Hawks at Home—Obama and Rohani's Shared Obstacle

U nless 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. While it’s easy to dismiss Obama’s reiteration of America’s commitment to the United Nations at the top of the speech as the usual internationalist boilerplate, the importance of robust American participation in multilateral institutions is something that has underpinned his administration’s approach to foreign policy. (For a wide-angle view of the speech, read John Judis’s excellent take .) It’s this approach—pursuing U.S. goals within a broader multilateral framework—that has facilitated the ongoing international effort to pressure and cajole Iran to address concerns over its nuclear program. Notably, the...

Obama’s Foreign-Policy Realism

AP Images/Meisam Hosseini
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 United States 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. This new course presents a tricky set of diplomatic challenges. It falls squarely within the school of foreign policy known as realism: give up on ideals that are unattainable and focus on those that serve core national interests and that can be achieved at proportional cost, even if that means making peace with regimes you detest. In modern times, Henry Kissinger, sponsor of détente with China, was the great advocate of realism—with the notable exception of the failed crusade in Vietnam. Realism says that we should try to get along with even brutal status-quo powers, not topple them,...

Me, Myself, and Netanyahu

AP Photo/Ammar Awad, Pool
(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File) W hen 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. Obama and Netanyahu must always discuss two issues, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace, which they see in ways so different that they...

The Strategy that Dare Not Speak Its Name

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
A s 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. A key foreign policy goal of the Islamic Republic is undermining and rolling back the U.S.’s influence in the neighborhood which it considers itself the natural hegemon of. That bid for regional influence was given a generous boost by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which removed Iran’s bitterest foe, Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Iran in 1980 sparked the massively destructive eight-year war that...

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 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...

Obama's Crippling Ambivalence

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
AP Images/Charles Dharapak B arack 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). Unlike the topographically comparable term of Bill Clinton when such junctures were psychodramas of his own making, Obama’s junctures are of his own being, which many regard as despicable irrespective of anything he actually does; and now events, dread, myopia, and the congenitally and hopelessly, inevitably and eternally fucked up state of affairs whose address is Syria have conspired to put the president in a lose-lose situation he may win anyway. That no one yet offers a single cogent assessment of just what Syrian policy should be apparently pales beside the president’s handling...

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