April 29, 2010

Quote of the Day

Israel’s second war, the Sinai Campaign, began on October 29, 1956. On the first afternoon, fearing that the war might spill over to the Jordanian front, an order was given to harshly enforce a curfew in the Israeli-Arab towns along the Jordanian border. The commander of one of the units of the Border Police, stationed at the town of Kfar Kassem, interpreted this in an extreme manner, and his troops shot 47 villagers in cold blood -- workers returning from work without having heard about the curfew. It was a cold-blooded murder of innocent villagers, with no alleviating circumstances.

This time the killers were put on trial; two of the commanding officers were sentenced to many years prison, although they were later pardoned, and this pardon was a blot on Israel’s record. The long-term significance of the case, however, was in its legal and educational import. Henceforth Israeli soldiers were told that it was their legally binding duty to disobey what were called “categorically illegal orders.”

Categorically illegal orders are a modern version of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not murder.” Soldiers are expressly forbidden to murder, even if ordered to do so on the field of battle; if they do, they will be court-martialled. The order they were given will not be relevant to their defense, since their moral duty as human beings supercedes their duty as soldiers. Such a ruling can be applied only rarely: a merely “illegal order” must be obeyed; the “categorically illegal orders” must be disobeyed. The definition given by the court was hardly helpful, unless you came from a tradition that had been using the distinction between killing and murder for three thousand years: a categorically illegal act is one above which a black flag flutters.

With such a literary metaphor, 18 and 20-year-old youths are armed and sent to battle. They must obey the orders of their commanders, under threat of court-martial, because otherwise an army cannot function; but they must not obey when they see the black flag, under threat of court-martial, because otherwise the society they defend with their lives may not be worthy of the sacrifice. This is the Israeli definition of Jus in Bello. It is not a philosophical construct for academic seminars but a component of training for battle. Israel’s record prior to the murders at Kfar Kassem hadn’t been bad; it was generally to improve from here on. The cold-blooded lining up of civilians to be shot has never repeated itself.

From Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars by Yaacov Lozowick.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:48 AM | Permalink | 44 Comments »

April 26, 2010

The Revolution That Came Out of Nowhere

Throwing Rocks Kyrgyzstan RFE

My friend, colleague, and sometimes traveling companion James Kirchick—Writer-at-Large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—has just returned from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where he witnessed the tail end of a lightning fast revolution that toppled a tyrant from power.

Former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an unpleasant fellow according to just about every account, has taken refuge in Belarus, the last former Soviet state in Europe still ruled by one man. France is a nice place for ousted despots to retire if they can get in, but not even Moscow is too fond of Bakiyev these days, so he'll have to suffer in Minsk.

Perhaps the most striking thing about what just happened, aside from the fact that most people in the world are still unaware of it, is that Bakiyev's government fell over—bang—just like that. The whole thing, start to finish, lasted just days. And it only took a few thousand disgruntled citizens to get rid of him. If only Ali Khamenei's regime in Iran could be knocked off this easily.

I called James in Prague so he could tell me what he just saw.

MJT: Before we get into what happened, give us the setting. What's this place like? Lots of people aren't even sure where it is.


James Kirchick: The first impression for an American who doesn't know much about it is that it's strange. They are an Asiatic-looking people who speak Russian. They have their own language, Kyrgyz, but I interacted with them mostly in Russian. It's the lingua franca of Central Asia.

MJT: You speak Russian?

James Kirchick: I don't, but one my colleagues I traveled there with from Radio Free Europe speaks Russian. Most of the international journalists there were Moscow correspondents for newspapers or wire service writers from the region and are Russian specialists.

It's a very poor country—not African-style, which I've seen, but somewhere in between. The GDP per capita is 2100 dollars a year. So it's visibly poor.

Bishkek is also replete with monstrous architecture from the Soviet era.

Bishkek Square
Ala-Too Square Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Stadium Bishkek
Stadium, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

MJT: Does the whole city of Bishkek look like that?

James Kirchick: The whole city looks like that. When you go to the outskirts, though, it's near a beautiful mountain range.

Bishkek Outskirts
Outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

On my second day I went to a massive funeral for some of the victims. It was in a very scenic and beautiful area. The country is beautiful, but the urban areas are drab and the living conditions are poor.

The country was remarkably calm. I wasn't expecting a revolutionary country to be so calm, though since I left the situation seems to have deteriorated slightly. There were some ethnic riots against Turks last week.

MJT: When you say Turks, do you mean Uighurs?

James Kirchick: Yes, Uighurs and also Turkish merchants.

MJT: From Anatolia?

James Kirchick: Yes. The riots took place in a village outside Bishkek, and some people were killed. There's a sense of lawlessness in the country, like there's no authority. The fact that a mob of 5,000 people could overthrow a regime says something about its structural problems.

MJT: It really only took 5,000 people to overthrow the government?

James Kirchick: Yeah.

MJT: That's amazing.

James Kirchick: Bakiyev was a bad guy—a crook, a thug, a murderer, a torturer, all those things.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan's deposed president

But the interim government is portraying this as though it was some kind of Tiananmen Square situation, which is really not accurate. From what the eye-witnesses, participants, and journalists who were there told me, the opposition stole weapons from the security forces and fired at the White House, the executive office building downtown.

Bishkek White House
White House, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

There were snipers on the roof picking people off, but there were also protesters shooting Kalashnikovs. They also hijacked an APC, so it wasn't exactly Tiananmen Square.

In the immediate aftermath, which is what I saw—I landed in Bishkek 36 hours after Bakiyev fled the capital—you would not have known that there was a revolution. There weren't many political signs or graffiti. I saw only a couple of Fuck Bakiyev messages spray painted on buildings. And if you visited the White House you'd see the hulk of an empty truck that the protesters used to crash through the gate.

Bishkek crashing the gate
Crashing the gate of the White House, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

This country has just gone through yet another revolution, the second in five years. People seem to be used to it at this point. There was a perfect storm, I think, that led to the government falling.

MJT: Bakiyev was put in power after the Tulip Revolution in 2005.

James Kirchick: Yes.

MJT: Are the people who just overthrew him the same people he was against in 2005, or is this a third political force?

James Kirchick: These were a lot of his old friends and allies.

MJT: I see.

James Kirchick: Some of them fell out with him almost immediately. The intricacies of Kyrgyz politics are complicated. Everyone seems to be fighting for themselves, and once Bakiyev got into power he started rewarding the spoils of government to his friends, family, and colleagues. Some who turned against him did so not because of any principles. They wanted a piece and they weren't getting it.

There's a fear now with this new interim government that the same thing will start all over again. That's been the story since the country won its independence from the Soviet Union twenty years ago.

Bishkek Statue
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

MJT: Do you get the sense that things won't be better, only different?

James Kirchick: I think it's going to be better. I hope it's going to be better. I can't predict. If they don't get their act together, the country could fall into chaos.

Bakiyev gave a press conference in Belarus.

MJT: Yeah, he's in Belarus now.

James Kirchick: He still has the potential to cause trouble. He still has supporters in the south. If he calls on them to rise up, who knows what kind of trouble could start?

The Russians have been deft in helping to oust Bakiyev and making themselves appear all of sudden like supporters of human rights, democracy, and good government. Most of the people I talked to were pro-Russian.

MJT: Really.

James Kirchick: Most of them, but educated people seem to break down the middle. Some clearly understand that Russia is an authoritarian country, that the reason Moscow helped depose Bakiyev didn't have anything to do with altruism or anything benign, it was because he angered the Russians by allowing the Manas Transit Center to stay open, which is all the Russians really care about. They gave him an aid package, and he implied when receiving that aid package that he'd be kicking the American air base out. The Russians got very angry and started attacking him relentlessly in state-controlled media. The last straw, the week before he fell, was when Russia raised the tariff on gas imports. That threw the people into the streets.

Burned office Bishkek
Scorched office in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan after the overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiyev

But now the Russians don't seem to know what's going on. Medvedev issued a statement a couple of days ago saying the safety of ethnic Russians—who account for around ten percent of the population—must be a priority, that the interim government must protect them. He's already coming up with a pretext to send in Russian troops if he wants to later. It could turn into a Georgia situation all over again, but there is no indication that ethnic Russians have come under any sort of organized attack or are facing government discrimination.

MJT: I'm a little surprised to hear that so many people there are pro-Russian. It sure is different from Eastern Europe. They don't feel like Moscow is the old colonial and imperial power?

James Kirchick: I actually got into a couple of arguments with people about this, trying to convince them that Russia isn't their friend. But Russia is important economically. Around a million Kyrgyz people live in Russia and do manual labor. They send remittances back to Kyrgyzstan, which account for around a third of the country's economy. This is out of a population of 5.5 million people. So almost twenty percent of the population lives in Russia working low wage jobs. It's a Mexican-type situation.

Russia is also their biggest trading partner. They conduct a lot of business with Russia. Most of the leadership of the country was educated in Moscow. Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the interim government, was a Communist Party apparatchik and was educated in Moscow. She was a pro-Western leader when she was ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, but she rose through the ranks of the communist movement.

Bishkek Philharmonic
Bishkek Philharmonic

There is some resentment over the American air base. It's technically called a transit center. One of the conditions when we re-signed the lease last year was that we call it a transit center rather than an air base. That may not seem like much of a difference to you and me, but it's a huge difference in Kyrgyzstan. It was repeatedly stressed to me by both military officials and people at the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek that this is a transit center and not an air base.

I did get the sense that some people believe the transit center causes instability. They think it angers the Russians and makes Kyrgyzstan a part of the war in Afghanistan that it would rather not be a part of. I heard that expressed by some people. But there are others who understand that Kyrgyzstan fought its own war against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They were sheltered by the Taliban prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

I met people who said, "Look, if we want to be good international citizens, we should support the NATO mission in Afghanistan. It rebounds to our benefit. We don't want Afghanistan to fall under the control of an Islamic fascist regime again."

Ala Archa 2
Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan

I don't see the country evicting us from the air base. There are some leaders in the interim government calling for that, but I think cooler heads will prevail.

MJT: How much Islamism even exists in Kyrgyzstan? It looks from a distance like almost none.

James Kirchick: The north is pretty secular. At the funeral there were imams chanting in Arabic and there were people praying and whatnot, but it's pretty tepid Islam, I'd say. There are Hizb-ut-Tahrir cells in the south, but I certainly didn't hear the call to prayer five times a day, not in Bishkek at least.

MJT: Are there many mosques?

James Kirchick: I didn't see any.

MJT: I was surprised by how few we saw in Azerbaijan.

James Kirchick: Yeah.

MJT: I figured it might be similar in other post-Soviet Muslim countries.

James Kirchick: Azerbaijan is more Islamic.

MJT: It is? Really? Azerbaijan is startlingly un-Islamic.

James Kirchick: I don't think I saw a single mosque in Kyrgyzstan.

MJT: Really. I assume, then, that you didn't see women wearing headscarves.

James Kirchick: No. None. It's not at all like the Arab world.

Bishkek Women on Sidewalk
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

MJT: Most Americans don’t know the first thing about this country and don't really care about it. It's a random where-the-hellistan. Aside from the military base we use for the war in Afghanistan, is there anything there that Americans should pay attention to?

James Kirchick: Yes. Any government that either supports authoritarianism or soft-pedals opposition to it will be resented by the people of that country. I think this applies to our reputations with people in a whole host of countries, even Iran and Syria. We aren't allies with those countries. We don't even have ambassadors to those countries. But I think the people in those countries feel we aren't doing enough to help ease their plight.

The people of Kyrgyzstan felt the United States was actively worsening their plight.

MJT: What did they say to you?

James Kirchick: They felt like the United States wasn't doing enough to criticize Bakiyev.

MJT: Okay.

James Kirchick: That's one of the reasons they're pro-Russian. The Russians were very outspoken against Bakiyev. Many people there don’t understand why the Russians were so anti-Bakiyev. The Russians didn't have concerns about the well-being of the Kyrgyz people. Just look at how the Russians deal with Karimov in Uzbekistan who once boiled opponents alive.

Ala Archa National Park Kyrgyzstan
Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is known as the Switzerland of Central Asia. That's certainly more aspirational than descriptive, but it is the most open society in the region. It has been consistently ranked "Partly Free" by Freedom House over the past couple of years whereas the others have been ranked "Not Free."

The United States is in a tough position. I don't think there was much else we could have done. A lot of the criticism we've been getting for supposedly propping up Bakiyev has been a little unfair. What else were we supposed to do? We need that base.

When we support authoritarians who are by nature mercurial and unpredictable, the "realists" say they'll bring us stability. But what sort of stability did Bakiyev bring us? The guy was just ousted, totally by surprise. No one saw it coming. He was just kicked out of the country. And now there's a new government that's ambivalent about the United States.

Maybe we'll keep the base, but we'll only get to keep it because they'll fear the consequences of not letting us keep it.

When you're engaged in foreign policy and diplomacy, you have to understand that if you're perceived as supporting a nation's tormentor, that nation's people will not appreciate you when they come to power. And that's what's going to happen because no dictatorship lasts forever.

Wounded Kyrgyzstan

The U.S. tried to save face in Kyrgyzstan by sending a high level State Department official to meet with government leaders, but Roza Otunbayeva said to his face that she was disappointed with our country and the way we acted. She told the Washington Post that the U.S. Embassy refused to meet with the opposition.

We need to take that to heart when we craft policies for other countries.


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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:06 AM | Permalink | 58 Comments »

April 22, 2010

Yet Another Step Backward

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said yesterday that military action against Iran is “off the table in the near term,” effectively walking back President Obama’s position that “all options are on the table.” She prefaced her statement with the banal assertion that “military force is an option of last resort,” which of course everyone knows and which implies by itself that force is off the table for now. But the United States nevertheless just softened its position again on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. If the president doesn’t return force to the table, it is going to stay off.

It seems as though the U.S. is trying to look irresolute and nonthreatening lately, but whether it’s on purpose or not, that’s what it looks like, and it isn’t helpful. A credible threat — simple deterrence — can make war somewhat less likely, just as police officers on the street make crime somewhat less likely. The Iranian government won’t cooperate with irresolute and nonthreatening enemies; it will steamroll irresolute and nonthreatening enemies.

Attacking Iran wouldn’t be my next step either. I’m entirely sympathetic to the administration’s aversion to it, and not only on behalf of American servicemen who may be injured or killed. I know lots of Iranians. All are decent people. Not a single one supports Tehran’s deranged government. All have friends and family back home, and it has been obvious for some time now that a very large percentage of their fellow citizens left inside the country feel the same way. I don’t want to see any of these people get killed, especially if they’re killed by us. The very idea fills me with horror.

And that’s before factoring in the Israelis and Lebanese who would also be killed if the war spreads to the Levant — a likely event. I spend enough time in the Middle East that I could even end up in a bomb shelter myself.

We have to be realistic, though. There is only the smallest of chances that the Iranian government will mothball its nuclear weapons program if it does not feel some serious heat. Some people can only be disarmed at gunpoint, and that’s true of nearly all belligerent people.

Yet “off the table” has become the new normal. It will remain the new normal until further notice. The United States looks like it’s in retreat. Hardly anyone in the world believed President Obama would ever order a strike even before this most recent of climb-downs.

The administration seems to forget that threatening military action doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go through with it, that we want to go through with it, that we yearn to go through with it, or that we’re warmongers. Look at Taiwan. It exists independently of China only because the United States has made it clear that an invasion of Taiwan would be punished severely. Chinese leaders find the threat credible and have therefore backed off to let Taiwan live. The U.S. doesn’t have to pull the trigger. It’s enough just to say don’t even think about it.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:59 AM | Permalink | 150 Comments »

April 19, 2010

Lobbying for the Impossible

David Cole, writing in the May 3, 2010, edition of the Nation, notices a curious silence about the Obama administration’s recent decision to green-light the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen who has allegedly encouraged and even planned terrorist attacks against Americans. “In our peculiar post-9/11 world,” he writes, “it is apparently less controversial to kill a suspect in cold blood than to hold him in preventive detention.”

It almost (but not quite) looks like an inversion of our World War II–era policy. Some American soldiers at the time thought it less of a hassle, and no doubt more satisfying, to shoot captured Germans than to herd them off battlefields into prisons. That was not, however, what they were ordered to do. Captured enemy combatants were to be treated decently and held until the war ended. It was the right thing to do, even in a war against Nazi Germany. So that’s what they did, at least most of the time.

Yet here we are, more than 60 years later, with a liberal Democrat in the White House, and a broad swathe of the American public seems more comfortable having a man shot or vaporized by a Predator drone than given three square meals and a mattress for an undefined period.

I agree with Cole that it’s strange, but there’s another way to look at this that he might consider.

“The argument for preventive detention during armed conflicts,” he writes, “has always been that since the army is authorized to kill an enemy combatant, it must be permitted to take the lesser step of detaining him for the duration of the conflict. If so, shouldn’t we be at least as concerned about executive killing as we are about executive detention?”

That’s one way to frame it. Here is another: if killing enemy combatants in the field is okay, why shouldn’t we be able to take the lesser step of detaining them until the end of the conflict?

Cole is quite right that detaining an enemy combatant for the duration is a lesser step than zotting him from the heavens. That would be true no matter how long the conflict grinds on. Even life imprisonment beats the pants off the battlefield equivalent of capital punishment, at least for most people. Imprisonment with the real possibility of being set free beats both.

Maybe I’m reading him wrong, but he seems to be suggesting the U.S. should restrict, if not outright ban, both the targeted killing and indefinite detention of terrorists. There are reasonable suggestions out there for how we could do both slightly differently and a little more ethically, and citizens in democratic societies should always debate these kinds of questions, but a sharp curtailment or prohibition of both would be ludicrous, especially while tens of thousands of our soldiers are deployed in war zones and some unknown but appreciable number of terrorists still plan to wreak havoc.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:08 AM | Permalink | 74 Comments »

Quote of the Day

Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet.

From Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:27 AM | Permalink | 18 Comments »

April 16, 2010

Paul Berman’s New Intellectual Epic

Paul Berman sent me an advance copy of his forthcoming book The Flight of the Intellectuals, which will be released later this month, about the failure of many Western intellectuals to grapple with the threat radical Islam poses not only to themselves and their own societies, but also, and perhaps especially, to liberals and moderates in Islamic societies.

I haven't finished reading it yet, but I can tell you right now that his chapters in the first third of the book about German foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa during World War II are worth the price of purchase alone. He has written about this before, as have others, including me, but in this book he excavates all kinds of fresh material from dusty old archives that is as clarifying and eerily relevant as it is disturbing.

I'll have more to say about this later, and I will also probably interview him, but for now, pre-order a copy. Trust me.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:58 PM | Permalink | 101 Comments »

April 14, 2010

Let Them Meet Steel

Syria is now being credibly accused of shipping Scud missiles with a range of more than 430 miles to Hezbollah, placing Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the Dimona nuclear power plant inside the kill zone. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been forced under duress to visit Damascus and make amends with his father’s assassins, as has Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, effectively terminating whatever independence Lebanon scratched out for itself in 2005. At the same time, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contemptuously taunts the president of the United States, whom he clearly perceives as a pushover. “American officials bigger than you,” he said of President Obama’s attempts to talk him out of developing nuclear weapons, “more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”

Yet the Obama administration still seems to think engagement with Syria and the suggestion of possible sanctions against Iran may keep the Middle East from boiling over.

President George W. Bush lost a lot of credibility when the civil war and insurgency in Iraq made a hash of his policy there. It was eventually obvious to just about everyone that something different needed to happen, and fast. Replacing the top brass in the field with General David Petraeus and his like-minded war critics just barely saved Iraq and American interests from total disaster. The president himself never fully recovered.

If Obama’s squishy policies are misguided, as I think they are, it’s less obvious. The Middle East isn’t on fire as it was circa 2005. But it should be apparent that, at some point, all the pressure that’s building up will have to go somewhere. When and how is anyone’s guess, but there’s little chance it’s just going to dissipate or be slowly released during peace talks.

The Iranian-led resistance bloc is becoming better armed and more belligerent by the month. And the next round of conflict could tear up as many as six regions at the same time if everyone pulls out the stops. A missile war sparked between Hezbollah and Israel, for instance, could easily spread to Gaza, Syria, Iran, and even Iraq.

Even if it’s only half as bad as all that, we should still brace ourselves for more mayhem and bloodshed than we saw during the recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon. Israelis may show a lot less restraint if skyscrapers in Tel Aviv are exploding. Iran might even fire off some of its own if the leadership thinks Israel lacks the resources or strength to fight on too many fronts. The United States could be drawn in kicking and screaming, but resistance-bloc leaders have every reason to believe it won’t happen, that the U.S. is more likely to zip flex cuffs on Jerusalem.

I’m speculating, of course. The future is forever unknowable, and none of this is inevitable. An unexpected event — such as the overthrow of Ali Khamenei in Tehran — could change everything. A real-world conflict would take on a life of its own anyway that no one could predict or control.

What is clear, however, is that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah are hurtling ever closer to the brink. They’re acting as though they’re figuratively following Vladimir Lenin’s advice: “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:56 AM | Permalink | 191 Comments »

April 12, 2010

If You Shoot at a King You Must Kill Him

Last week I spoke with Reza Kahlili, a man who during the 1980s and 1990s worked for the CIA under the code name "Wally" inside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He wrote a terrific book about his experience as an American agent called A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, and today he's issuing a serious warning about his former Iranian masters: they mean what they say, and the West had better start taking them seriously.

He thinks President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei fully intend to use nuclear weapons if they acquire them, either by exploding them in enemy cities or holding the Middle East and the world's energy resources hostage. It's hard, to be sure, for even a well-placed expert to know this for certain. Perhaps not even the leadership knows exactly what it will do with the bomb once it gets the chance. (Either way, a nuclear-armed Iran won't suddenly play well with others.) What happens in the region over the next couple of years may depend in large part on whether the Israelis are willing to chance it.

We should not, Kahlili says, expect Iran's people to applaud an Israeli attack on the weapons facilities. "People in Iran do not sympathize with Israel the way they sympathize with the U.S.," he told me. "They're looking for help, right? But they're not looking for the same kind of help from Israel. So if Israel bombs the facilities in Iran, don't expect people to come out into the streets to celebrate or confront the government forces. That's not going to happen. They're just going to sit at home and pray this thing doesn't get out of hand."

A military attack against Iran should be rolled out only if every conceivable peaceful solution fails first. Striking Iran would, in all likelihood, ignite several Middle Eastern wars all at once. Hamas and Hezbollah would bombard Israel with missile attacks. Lebanon and Gaza would both come under massive counterbattery fire. The war could easily spill over into Iraq and put American soldiers at risk.

The above scenario may sound like the worst, short of nuclear war, but it isn't. The worst-case scenario is a regional war that fails to stop Iran's nuclear program while keeping the regime in place. If the Israelis decide to use force, the nuclear facilities should not be the target. The government should be the target. And the U.S. should back Israel's play and even assist it, no matter how enraged American officials might be. The last thing any of us needs is a bloodied Iranian government with delusions of invincibility that later acquires the weapons of genocide and then sets out for revenge. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, "If you shoot at a king you must kill him."

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:16 AM | Permalink | 59 Comments »

April 9, 2010

Quote of the Day

A great city in northern Europe is struck by an unusual heat wave in the middle of winter as an asteroid approaches Earth. In the evening, residents go out into the streets in their pajamas, wiping away the sweat that is running down their cheeks, and look anxiously up into the sky, seeing the asteroid grow larger as they watch. They all fear the same thing: that this mass of molten matter will collide with our planet. Hordes of panicked rats are fleeing the sewers, car tires are exploding, the asphalt is melting. Then a strange figure dressed in a white sheet and wearing a long beard begins to harangue the crowd, striking a gong and shouting: "This is punishment, repent, the end of Time has come."

We smile at this tawdry prophet belching forth prophesies, since this scene occurs in a comic book, Herge's The Shooting Star. However, beneath the silliness, what truth there is in the cry: "Repent!" That is the message that, under cover of its proclaimed hedonism, Western philosophy has been hammering into us for the past half-century—though that philosophy claims to be both an emancipatory discourse and the guilty conscience of its time. What it injects into us in the guise of atheism is nothing other than the old notion of original sin, the ancient poison of damnation. In Judeo-Christian lands, there is no fuel so potent as the feeling of guilt, and the more our philosophers and sociologists proclaim themselves to be agnostics, atheists, and free-thinkers, the more they take us back to the religious belief they are challenging. As Nietzsche put it, in the name of humanity secular ideologies have out-Christianized Christianity and taken its message further.

From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter's hypocrisy, violence, and abomination. In this enterprise the best minds have lost much of their substance. Few of them have avoided succumbing to this spiritual routine: one applauds a religious revolution, another goes into ecstasies over the beauty of terrorist acts or supports a guerrilla movement because it challenges our imperialist project. Indulgence toward foreign dictatorships, intransigence toward our democracies. An eternal movement: critical thought, at first subversive, turns against itself and becomes a new conformism, but one that is sanctified by the memory of its former rebellion…This repeated use of the scalpel against ourselves we call the duty of repentance…

First of all, the duty to repent forbids the Western bloc, which is eternally guilty, to judge or combat other systems, other states, other religions. Our past crimes command us to keep our mouths closed. Our only right is to remain silent.

From The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism by Pascal Bruckner.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:13 AM | Permalink | 144 Comments »
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