Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

The Obama Announcement

December 1, 2008

I watched in awe as President-Elect Barack Obama announced his national security team. There, as has been leaked, stood Senator Clinton aside the incoming president. It is remarkable in our political lifetime for a president to make such an ambitious pick — and for that pick to accept.

The Obama team faced a considerable challenge during today’s media availability. They had to manage the announcement — and the egos of the personalities involved –in such a way to highlight each member of the team without having it look unruly. It came across, more or less, as smooth. The journalists’ questions were all easily anticipated and mostly focused on challenging Obama on what statements he made about Clinton during the campaign. Other thoughts:


  • Permanent Representative to the United Nations is a good spot for the underwhelming Susan Rice. At the U.N. she can be an outspoken advocate for American values and diplomacy without having much to do with substance — although the elevation of this post to cabinet-level could alter the equation.
  • I could not miss Obama’s reference to the Middle East peace process. I wonder exactly how ambitious his plans are for this area.
  • A interesting spot of the event was Vice President-Elect Joseph Biden. He seemed to be chafing at the confines of his talking points. 
  • Expect some conflict between the presumptive national security adviser, James Jones, who has been critical of Israel, and Clinton. Writes Eli Lake: “When Obama makes that move [on the issues], the Jones-Clinton tensions may reprise the great Powell-Cheney fights of yore.”

Obama on Iran: Bush-Cheney Lite Sounds Great

May 27, 2008

Ben Smith’s got an item about how Barack Obama is backtracking on his pledge to meet with Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. You can watch that here.

It was one of the most memorable moments of last summer’s campaign, one that many thought would torpedo Obama’s chances.

Here’s what Smith quotes Obama as saying now: “‘There’s no reason why we would necessarily meet with Ahmadinejad before we know that he was actually in power,’ ” he said. ” ‘He’s not the most powerful person in Iran.’ ”

Smith rightly points out that Obama stood by his answer well into the primary season, calling it “an effective point of contrast with Hillary in the primary.”

Having spent much time up in New Hampshire last summer, I remember Obama taking it even further.

Last July, I drove up to Concord’s Eagle Square to see Congressman Paul Hodes endorse Obama. Here at, I observed “there’s no question that Obama’s willingness to meet with the despots of Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela is electrifying the progressive grassroots, particularly in New Hampshire.”

Reporting for The New York Sun, I noticed that Obama not only stood by his pledge, he upped the ante on it. His direct quote, using the word dictator, reinforces the fact that he was specifically referring to Ahmadinejad.

“It is no longer sufficient to trot out the old formulas, the old tired phrases. If we want fundamental change, then we can’t be afraid to talk to our enemies. I’m not afraid of losing the p.r. war to dictators,” Mr. Obama said to prolonged applause. “I’m happy to look them in the eye and say what needs to be said… I don’t want a continuation of Bush-Cheney. I don’t want Bush-Cheney lite, I want a fundamental change.”

In presidential politics, it’s long been commonplace for candidates to move leftward to win Democratic primaries and caucuses and then tack to the center to win general elections. But it’s not exactly a new kind of politics. It’s the same kind of politics we’ve always had.

The Bush-Israel Contretemps

May 16, 2008

The blogosphere and prominent Democrats are going crazy in the aftermath of President Bush’s remarks to the Israeli Knesset.

The meme here is that Bush was trying to make political points in Israel by likening Democrats to the appeasers of the Hitler Era. I have a few comments.

1. At this point in his lame duck presidency Bush poisons everything he touches. Notwithstanding the merits or lack thereof of his comments, his brand is so low, the president only hurts the cause he was purportedly helping — support for Israel. At this point, Bush should be winding things down and preparing to ride off into the sunset, not making comments easily construed as political attacks.

2. Having said that, an argument can be made that Bush was saying exactly what he believes. After all, a common refrain from Bush’s critics he is that he is too resistant to negotiations to solve problems and too quick to select the military option. But within the context of that critique, it would be wrong to somehow suggest at the same time that Bush doesn’t truly believe what he is saying. I thought that’s a big reason people don’t like him.

3. Observing the vitriol of Keith Olbermann last night, a heavy-handed performance which prompted me to change the channel, I couldn’t help but wonder where Olbermann’s anger was at the actual acts of terrorism that emanate from Hamas-controlled Gaza and into Israel, which, it should be remembered, withdrew from the coastal plain unilaterally in 2005.

4. Finally, why is it completely verboten to discuss the possibly existential threats Israel faces today from Iran? We can quarrel over the extent of danger posed by Iran and the true intentions of the Iranian regime. But there are certain facts on the record. Ahmadinejad has, after all, vowed “to wipe Israel off the map.” It is probably true that the position of Iran’s presidency does not hold exclusive authority in that country, and debates do exist about Iran’s progress at constructing a nuclear weapon. On the merits, too, it’s never a good idea for a sitting U.S. president to launch a political attack, particularly in a foreign land. At the same time, it suggests something pernicious about our culture when a ham-handed political attack from a president on his way out engenders more anger than a maniac’s promise to destroy another sovereign, democratic state.

Israel’s Livni in Boston

March 12, 2008

Israel's Foreign Minister

Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, made the rounds in Boston today. A rising star, she was the subject of a memorable profile in The New York Times Magazine. I caught most of her remarks to a gathering at the Park Plaza organized by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. She later appeared at the State House and will speak at the Kennedy School later today.

Her speech timed to coincide with Israel’s 60th anniversary, the tone of Livni’s remarks was subdued. Israel faces uncertain borders on at least two fronts — Lebanon to the north and Gaza to the south. “Israel is still fighting for its existence,” she said.

Much, if not most, of Livni’s speech focused on the renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, at least the portion of the PA’s Fatah faction that controls the West Bank. Gaza, Livni acknowledged, is run by Hamas, which showers missiles down upon the Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon.

Livni’s central point that the negotiations are necessary for Israel’s survival. “Time is of the essence,” she warned, adding that “more and more changes in the conflict” are coming. Some of the forces that dictate attempting to make a deal now, she said, include anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, Arab League diplomatic action, and potential United Nations resolutions. She went so far as to allude to “international forces” being inserted into the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I took that to mean that she fears the international community will attempt to place some kind of international peace-keeping body on Israel’s borders. “Time is not working for us,” she said.

Livni also offered a slightly different take on events which followed the failed conclusion of the Oslo discussions between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David. “Frustration can lead to violence,” Livni said. “We faced an intifada after Camp David.” The general pro-Israeli view has been that Arafat and his cronies launched the violence or allowed it to start to distract from their refusal to make peace with Israel. It was, for example, not frustration that prompted Nabil Shaath, a key Arafat ally, to say as early as 1996, according to a story in the Jerusalem Post, that when negotiations eventually deadlocked, the Palestinians would return to the armed struggle and “all acts of violence” would return.

Iran, which I heard so much about during my last reporting trip in Israel, merited very little attention in the organized portion of Livni’s comments. “It needs to be stopped when it comes to its aspiration to have a nuclear weapon,” she said.

The job of being both Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians and top diplomat with members of the often hostile world community is not an easy one. She tempered her remarks with realism, even pessimism, in parts. The substance of her comments reflects the indifference and anger Israel faces from the international community, which seems to be grinding Israel’s will down as it approaches its 60th birthday.

Dartmouth Democratic Debate: Hillary Clinton and Iran

September 27, 2007

I thought Hillary Clinton did a terrific job standing up to Tim Russert and the other presidential candidates on the issue of Iran. She gave a clear, declarative answer as to why she supported Joseph Lieberman’s resolution calling the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in Iran a terrorist group. This showed great courage coming as it did after as Mike Gravel tried to set it up with the Lieberman conspiracy talk. Given the climate on the Left these days, I’m frankly amazed that she would so calmly tick off the factors that make the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group.

At the same time, once again, I am entirely unimpressed with Obama’s style and “substance.” His answers are halting and haughty at the same time. It’s almost infuriating.

I don’t agree with Chris Dodd on much of this, but his performance is solid as usual. I felt, as did Joe Biden, that Russert is giving the Delaware senator short shrift.

Columbia and Germany’s Development of Atomic Weapons

September 24, 2007

Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president, did a fantastic job of challenging Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on campus today.

Having said that, there’s quite a story to be told about what Columbia did when another tyrannical nation, Germany, appeared to be going after atomic weapons.

Back in the summer of 1939, Germany, like Iran today, wasn’t officially at war. Yet for an émigré-physicist at Columbia, Leo Szilard, the possibility that Germany might attempt to purchase uranium in the Belgian Congo was disturbing enough to take action. Szilard, it is recorded in Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” tracked down the great scientist in Princeton, New Jersey, and warned him of the dangers a fission weapon could pose. Szilard, Einstein and another scientist decided to send a letter to the Roosevelt Administration in the name of Einstein, who was famous enough to be taken seriously by the president. Both Szilard and another Columbia physicist, Enrico Fermi, were studying the power of splitting the atom at that time.

“Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in a manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future,” Einstein wrote. “The new phenomena would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” Einstein concluded the letter with an ominous reference to Germany’s ceasing “the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over” and copying “American work on uranium.”

Eventually, the letter in conjunction with Szilard’s militating and the help of Alexander Sachs, an informal adviser to the president, prompted Roosevelt to set up the program that became the Manhattan Project, so named, in part, for atomic research taking place at Columbia. Roosevelt arranged for the transfer of $6,000 to support research at the university at that time. While the university appears inclined to provide a p.r. platform to a nation attempting to race ahead in its quest for atomic energy nowadays, it nonetheless recognizes work of Fermi. In a November 2001 story in “The Columbia News,” the university announced a conference recognizing the contributions of Fermi, who was affiliated with the school from 1939 to 1942, to the Manhattan Project. “Enrico Fermi shaped the destiny of physics from the Manhattan Project through the present times,” said Tsung-Dao Lee, University Professor at Columbia.

The Columbia News story, citing, Professor David Freedberg, Director of the Italian Academy, trumpeted Columbia’s status as “the appropriate setting for the signature American event of a year devoted to recalling the life and work of one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, who directed the experiment that initiated the world’s first controlled and self-sustaining nuclear reaction.” Fermi’s eagerness to speed his experiments forward prompted him to commandeer members of Columbia’s football team to pack heavy uranium into cans and then bring it into his lab, according to Mr. Freedberg in an accompanying podcast. Said Mr. Freedberg in the news story: “Had Fermi and another Columbian, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard not persevered in their collaboration here, the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction would not have been developed by 1942, and the Manhattan Project would not have built the first atomic bombs by 1945.” And, Mr. Freedberg might have added, the history of the world might be tragically different today.

Obama Wows Concord with Bush-Cheney Lite Message

July 27, 2007

I was up in Concord, NH yesterday morning when Barack Obama referred to Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy as “Bush-Cheney Lite.” No matter what I might think about the exchange during the YouTube debate on Monday, there’s no question that Obama’s willingness to meet with the despots of Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela is electrifying the progressive grassroots, particularly in New Hampshire. The campaign knows this and is attempting to exploit it on the trail. I write the following in The New York Sun today

“Mr. Obama’s event here, hastily but efficiently organized, appeared to be an attempt to capitalize on the energy generated by his exchange on foreign policy during the YouTube debate on Monday. While New Hampshire has historically been an independent-minded state, it took a lurch to the left in 2006, when voters elected Mr. Hodes and another Democrat, Carol Shea-Porter, to the House of Representatives. They also elected a Democratic governor, John Lynch. Both branches of the state legislature became Democratic for the first time in more than a century as well. Mr. Obama, during his brief speech, emphasized that changing tide as he made the case that he represented a new beginning.

Area voters were notified Wednesday afternoon of the event in Eagle Square, in the heart of downtown Concord and directly in back of the Illinois senator’s local office. The foci of the Obama campaign appeared to be on providing an effective visual for local television cameras – Messrs. Obama and Hodes, both without suit jackets, standing in front of a crowd of enthusiastic supporters – and collecting personal information from newcomers to the campaign. Building a strong field organization, which can identify and turn out voters, is a key to victory in January’s primary contest. At least 20 young members of Mr. Obama’s team canvassed the crowd with clipboards and cards for attendees at the rally to fill out. While Mr. Obama participated in the aforementioned telephone press call with national reporters, he did not choose to approach local reporters covering his speech, opting instead to sign copies of his books and work the crowd.”

Iran Discussion at TPM Cafe

July 8, 2007

I have been posting at TPM Cafe, where the debate is rigorous to say the least. You can read my posts on the threat of Iran here and here. Make sure to check out the posts of Chris Floyd and Ezra Klein as well as the commentators.

6:30 a.m. Appearance with Michael Graham on WTKK

June 18, 2007

I will appear as a guest on WTKK with Michael Graham Monday morning at roughly 6:30 a.m. — give or take a few minutes. The subject will be the upheaval in Gaza and the broader Middle East.

Joe Lieberman’s War

June 12, 2007

Disagree with Joe Lieberman’s suggestion of military action versus Iran, if you want. Argue that America doesn’t have the military capacity to start another front right now. But let’s keep it in perspective shall we. Lieberman’s reacting to an Iran that has embarked on military adventurism across the Middle East.

I write in The New York Sun: “Iran’s role in training fighters in Iraq, Iran’s aiding Hezbollah, which is destabilizing Lebanon and threatening Israel, Hamas battling Fatah and threatening Israeli areas bordering Gaza. To these can be added recent reports that NATO forces have detected Iranians bringing explosive materials into Afghanistan. All of these actions are not equivalent to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor yet, perhaps, but, taken together, they suggest a regional effort by Iran to destabilize the Middle East.”

Many commentators — including one in an e-mail comment read last night on CNN — have suggested Lieberman is merely carrying water for Israel. Drudge even ran a photo of Lieberman with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to illustrate the Iran story. We’re back to the “double loyalty” canard. I suppose one might argue that a nuclear Iran dominant from Gaza to Afghanistan only affects Israel — not America. Perhaps this is the foreign policy reordering that such bright lights as Steve Walt are advocating for — one that has us behaving far more like France or Germany than America. That would mean we’d also have to sell out oil-producing Sunni countries such as Dubai and Kuwait, who depend on us to keep Iran away from them.

Lieberman’s raising a difficult option to a tough problem. I thought that was what members of the U.S. Senate were supposed to do.