Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Case for Bombing Iran: Tell Me What You Think

What do you think? Should Israel or the United States bomb Iran in order to prevent the development of nuclear weapons? Weigh in with your opinions by responding in the comment section. Here’s the case for stopping Iran:

Frederick Kagan and Maseh Zarif writing in The Wall Street Journal claim that America is being played for a fool. That we are naïve and there is no other case to be made other than Iran is preparing for nuclear weapons. Iran is doing nothing that would not lead one to conclude anything other than their nuclear program is moving forward and looking toward the day they are a nuclear power. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported last week that Iran continues to accelerate its enrichment program, and they are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. And there is no evidence that Iran would stop its nuclear program simply if we lift sanctions.

But the US goes about its business with nothing but confused and superficial discussion. Some governmental leaders claim the Iranians are ready to talk and others are blind to what is right in front of them. The thought of war with Iran and the implications for Israel and the United States is so unpleasant that we are misinterpreting intelligence data. We are desperately, according to the authors of the Wall Street Journal article, trying to convince ourselves that there are no problems and Iran is a “rational actor.” The IAEA found that Iran’s collection of centrifuges is growing and their uranium is enriched to the point of weapons grade quality. They also reported that Iran has a hidden enrichment facility with installed air defense systems and new centrifuges can be brought online at that facility.

Iran also has facilities that the UN investigators expect is being used to prepare weapons grade uranium but the investigators have been denied access to this facility. The sanctions against Iran have been harsh but the Iranian leadership seems to be willing to sell out its economy for nuclear weapons. Iran claims that their interests are peaceful but the international community has offered Iran enriched uranium for peaceful use but Iran has refused.

Iran is also preparing wartime messages. They have threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, attack ships passing through, and preemptively attack any nation that threatens Iran. Still, the US listens quietly and patiently. Only Iran is aggressive and one has to wonder why a state interested in peace would be working so hard to fan the fires of war. The Iranians are pursuing a weaponization program and any attempt on their part to negotiate with the IAEA is essentially designed to buy time. Soon they will reach what the Israelis call the “zone of immunity” after which military options will be more dangerous.

During the Bush administration it was easy to assume that the Bush-Cheney war mongers were just looking for more weapons to label as a threat. But now the pendulum has swung the other way. The Obama administration has been far more accommodating and taken a hands-off approach. But it seems as if we are trying to play catch-up by instituting tough sanctions, lobbying United Nations, and freezing Iranian assets. Perhaps diplomacy has not yet run its course but it’s nearing the finish line. Israel simply can’t wait any longer if they’re going to do something, and if Israel preemptively bombs Iran then the world is going to be an unstable place.

There are also plenty of good reasons for Israel to avoid a military confrontation with Iran. First, the Israeli bombers cannot attack with surgical precision. They might hit facilities but cannot eliminate them completely. Secondly, even after all the damages are tallied you cannot eliminate Iran’s nuclear knowledge and the military attack will only slow the process down. Third, an attack on Iran would justify retaliation. Iran would feel genuinely threatened and their arguments for defending themselves would be defensible. Israel is already a pariah nation in much of the Arab world and this would seal their fate. Israel would have to go to war perhaps with Lebanon, Gaza, and perhaps even Syria. Hezbollah has many rockets aimed at Israel and they would rain down on the country by the time Israel’s bombers returned to base.

The decision to attack Iran is one of those 1% decision problems. The probability of Iran actually using a nuclear weapon is small (1%) and a nation could assume that it is very unlikely. Sanctions and diplomacy continue with no plans for military action. But the consequences of being wrong are catastrophic. If that 1% possibility does occur, it’s a disaster.

So what kind of a decision do you make? Do you let sanctions play out and perhaps allow Iran to complete their nuclear program? Or, do you conclude that a nuclear Iran is simply unacceptable and stop it now?

I’m interested in your opinions. Weigh in on the debate in the comments section below.

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Israeli Nationalist Legislation and Democracy

Even the staunchest defender of Israel is troubled by the approval of undemocratic laws designed to maintain the Jewish nature of the state. For some time now nationalists have been challenging the good nature of Israel’s democracy by passing laws that restrict the rights of the minority community, namely Arabs, from expressing themselves even symbolically. Here are a few examples: Israel’s war of independence in 1948 is called the Nakba or the disaster by the Arabs and it is against the law to use state funds to commemorate the Nakba. Small communities have been empowered to prevent groups from moving into the community. Some have suggested loyalty oaths and there have been laws passed that prevent Palestinian citizens from seeking rights in the courts.

Many of these laws are objectionable to most Israelis and have been rejected by the Knesset. But a certain number of them appeal to a wide variety of people. Israelis fear the loss of the Jewish particularity of the state and even though they struggle with these laws some argue for their necessity. One Israeli leader even proposed legislation that suggested the superiority of the Jewish nature of the state over the democratic nature of the state, and this included rejecting Arabic as a national language in Israel.

What motivates this sort of action? There are a few prime motivators the most important of which is the essential Jewish nature of the state. Israel simply cannot be a strong liberal democracy and privilege Jewish particularity. It’s a contradiction in terms on one level. But on another level Israel has a right to remain Jewish. There is a sense in which the state of Israel makes no sense if it is not Jewish. The question is how Jewish? The answer lies somewhere betweenIsraelas a Torah state sealed in orthodoxy, and Israel as a secular democratic state with the separation of church and state. The balance between the Democratic and the Jewish nature of the state will have to evolve over time.

But there are other causes which include a failed peace process, a public tired of violence and rocket attacks, and the distasteful experience of watching Israeli Arabs cheer Hezbollah rockets. Increasingly Israelis see all Palestinians, even Israeli Palestinians, as the same and do not assume that Israeli Palestinians have any commitment to the state.

Of course, one answer to this reactionary legislation is the two-state solution. But that does not seem to be something bound for the near future; moreover, even with the establishment of a Palestinian state there will be a sizable Palestinian minority in Israel proper. This problem will not go away. This sort of reactionary legislation will not go away but it is more exposed than ever because it promises to threaten the democratic nature ofIsrael. Threats to free speech and the disempowerment of whole groups of people have placed the problem at the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Israeli Arabs are about 20% of the Israeli population and the number is simply too big to ignore.

Israel should guarantee the symbolic rights of all minority groups. The key word here is symbolic rights, the rights to express themselves through protest and the right to propose alternative perspectives on the state. Any culture has a right to protect itself from a genuine threat and Israelis no different. In the same way that the skinheads were allowed to march in the United States, as long as they were not judged to be overly provocative or violent, minority groups inIsraelshould also be allowed to express themselves through acceptable forms of protest. Protected speech is sacred to liberal democracies and, as the observation goes, the best response to unpleasant speech is more speech. Israel should have nothing to fear from the rights of Palestinians to express themselves – again, the right to express themselves peacefully and under conditions that do not promote imminent danger. Stubborn resistance to the rights of Palestinians will only cause the conflict to spiral downward and make the two-state solution even more difficult to achieve.

What We Are Learning from the “Arab Spring”

It is sensible to ask what recent events generally termed the “Arab Spring” mean. That is, even if we identify winners and losers and good things and bad things is it more than a parlor game. One wit took umbrage at the term “Arab Spring” because everybody knows that there are only two seasons in the Arab world neither one of which is Spring. It’s always an easy and correct copout to say it’s too early to know, and indeed there are numerous strategic and political implications yet to be realized. But it remains true that leaders have been driven from four Arab countries – Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia – and there is nothing insignificant about this. Syria is teetering on the brink while others – Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon – have been influenced by the uprisings. As easy as it is to make a case in either direction I believe there are four trends, some of them positive but not all, to the events of the past year.

1. The people have spoken and are energized. It was common knowledge that most political action in Arab regimes was among the elites. That it was the elites who determined the future and set the agenda. The influence of popular will was considered minimal and easy to ignore. With strong military influences and authoritarian traditions the voices from the streets were easy to hold down. Tahrir square showed that this was no longer the case. Clearly a rational deliberative democracy is not going to break out in Egypt anytime soon, but there has been a power shift toward popular voices.

2. Popular will and democratic voices have unleashed support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The future will see the emergence of an Iranian presence and a developing role for political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed in Egypt and held at bay for decades – now they hold electoral power. It’s possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could be considered an antidote to Al Qaeda, a softening of the Al Qaeda message because the Brotherhood must deal with the practical political issues of the population. But it is also the case that the Muslim Brotherhood will produce increasing anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric, not to mention a stubborn and difficult relationship with Israel. The last thing Egypt needs is a war with Israel and troubles along the border with the Gaza Strip. But it’s difficult to imagine the parliamentary power of the Muslim Brotherhood making life easier for Israel.

3. The American foreign-policy position will have to do business with the Muslim Brotherhood and religious oriented political parties. The United States will simply have to reconcile itself to Islamist dominated parties in Arab countries. The US still makes the mistake of believing that elections are the most important facet of democracy. We still have not internalized that when you are “in for a dime you are in for a dollar.” In other words, if we support open and free elections then you must be able to live with the results. Ideally, democracy building starts with institutions and habits of the mind before elections. But on the other hand political Islam is in its infancy stages and will, I believe, be one of the most interesting political theory developments in the future. If Western countries can play a role in this development, then so much the better for the future of international relations.

4. Finally, I have been surprised by the behavior of the Saudi’s. For most of their history they have been a rich and politically lazy society that did little more than produce oil and religion topped off with a dollop of authoritarianism. Moreover, the basis of much of their foreign-policy has been simply to buy off enemies and do what is ever necessary for their own self-preservation. They seem to be continuing down this path and have little regard for the promotion of any sorts of freedom or rights for their own people. Their assignment of military forces to Bahrain was designed to squash any hint of liberal democracy and to make a statement that they were not could allow such dalliances in their neighborhood.

There remains plenty of political and social forces that will shape the post-Mubarak Egypt as well as other “Arab Spring” countries. Hopefully, the spirit of Tahrir square, with its sense of social solidarity, will continue.

The Continuing Saga of Hamas Fatah Reconciliation

In May and June of 2011 I wrote about the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The two sides have been jockeying for political positions for the last few months and have not been able to agree on a structure for the new unity government. But just last week the two sides broke the political impasse and agreed to make Abbas that the head of the proposed unity government, a government that tries to join the secular Fatah party with the Islamist Hamas party. Abbas will be both president and prime minister and the current Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will move on because he is so disliked by Hamas who consider him to be far too pro-Western. There is much work to be done yet before these two groups actually reconcile or form what might be legitimately called a unity government, because these two groups have a history of disliking each other pretty intensely.

But a more intriguing question is “what should the role of Israel be or the attitude of Israel be about the proposed unity government?” Publicly, Israel holds its nose at the whole thing. They consider Hamas a terrorist organization and will have nothing to do with them. Netanyahu is on record as opposing the formation of a government reconciling Fatah and Hamas. In June of 2011 I wrote the opposite, that such a reconciliation might be a good thing because Hamas will be forced to moderate itself. Some certainly considered my position naïve but I will hold my ground by maintaining that no progress cannot be made without unity between Fatah and Hamas and without Hamas doing its share of moderating.

The received Israeli position is that Hamas is a radical movement guided by an ideology directed toward the elimination of Israel. Moreover, inclusion of Hamas in any negotiations would simply make it easier for them to reject a proposed resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is also fear that rather than Hamas moderate itself, Hamas will bore itself into the Palestinian authority and contaminate its ideology. If this happens there has been lots of saber rattling about what damage this will cause to the Palestinian Authority. But such damage will be minimal because there is no peace process anyway, and the maintenance of the Palestinian Authority is in the interest of both Israel and the United States.

There are some very good hard-core reasons to deal with Hamas: Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and if you want to do business in the Gaza Strip, if you want to sign agreements regulating political behavior, then you must do business with Hamas. Too, there is a good chance that the “Arab spring” will help usher in Muslim political parties and consequently enhance Hamas’s power. As more countries integrate Muslim political parties into the governing body, the more groups like Hamas take on legitimacy. Egypt has already taken a softer attitude toward Hamas and this is assumed to be the result of successful elections for the Muslim Brotherhood. Any movement towards solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to be gradual and include partial and limited agreements. A reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah will more than likely facilitate a gradual process, where small and limited agreements can flourish, rather than hinder conflict resolution. A unity government encourages progress – small as it may be – that does not require Hamas at this point to recognize Israel, nor Israel Hamas.

Increasingly analysts and pundits have argued that engaging Hamas will have the desired moderating effect. It will encourage moderates on each side and stimulate more debate. But Israel remains a problem, as does Hamas, because it still refuses to deal with Hamas. And this might be a particularly difficult problem because of Netanyahu who seems bent on preventing a two state solution and can use the recognition of Hamas to his advantage. This plays directly into the hands of the Palestinians who believe that Israel’s rejection of unity between Hamas and Fatah is part of a grander plan to prevent the two state solution.

Unity is still far off. And the loss of Mr. Fayyed is considerable because he was more oriented toward Western values. But a shift in the center of gravity for the Palestinians is coming. Let’s hope the shift is in the right direction.

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