Premature détente

My Alhurra appearance (I’ll toss up the YouTube whenever it’s online) went pretty well, I think, in no small part because I just felt a whole lot more comfortable (i.e., much less nervous) going in. About half of the show was focused on ISIS and the campaign in Syria, particularly the continuing lack of a consistent strategy from the Obama administration with respect to what’s going to happen to Bashar al-Assad. I’m going to try to tackle this issue next week, but the point I tried to make is that our Syria policy is a mess because Syria itself is such a mess. How can we fight ISIS without aiding Assad? Is that possible? On the other hand, how could we shift our focus in Syria to ousting Assad without doing serious damage to the course we’re following with respect to ISIS? Shifting to regime change right now could compromise our relationship with Baghdad and make American forces in Iraq and Syria targets for Iranian and Syrian retaliation. On the other hand, Assad is slaughtering rebels and refugees left and right, in particular the “moderate” rebels who we’re hoping to train up to fight ISIS (and then later Assad, maybe), plus we’re talking about a dictator who has lost control over two thirds of his country (admittedly, it’s the two least populated thirds) and who really has no way to ever regain full control over Syria. Like I said, it’s a mess.

Then we moved on to talking about Iran, and that’s what I want to cover here. There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week (it’s behind their paywall, but if you’re a subscriber or know how to get around it, go nuts) making the case that U.S.-Iranian relations have entered a détente phase, with all the attendant fear-mongering about regional security and the risk to America’s allies that you’d expect from Rupert Murdoch’s most prestigious print publication. But the case the piece makes is absurd. It cobbles together a bunch of unrelated U.S. actions in the region and attempts to draw a connection between them that is pure speculation. The evidence it offers for this supposed détente is as follows:

  • The U.S. and Iran have stopped directly antagonizing one another
  • Both countries have lately worked together, informally, on a range of regional issues
  • U.S. intelligence agencies have shared intel with Iran’s Lebanese client, Hezbollah
  • John Kerry talked to countries that have ties to Hamas when he was trying to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza this summer

Let’s take these points in that order. First of all, the U.S. and Iran are in the final month of a major international negotiation over Iran’s nuclear program. After a period where it looked like nothing was happening, there are actually some positive signs of late that a deal might be within reach. Why wouldn’t these two countries take concrete steps to avoid antagonizing each other at such a critical juncture? The nuclear deal has the potential to fundamentally remake the Middle East and Iran, putting the Islamic Republic on a path toward full reintegration into the regional and global order for the first time in 35 years. I realize the prospect of that terrifies some of America’s regional allies, but there is a tremendous potential for this deal to unlock a political change in Iran that would be good for everybody. So, yes, please, let’s not go back to antagonizing the Iranians until we know for sure that a deal isn’t happening.

Are we working with Iran on regional issues? The WSJ piece talks about an “alignment” between Washington and Tehran:

But recent months have ushered in a change as the two countries have grown into alignment on a spectrum of causes, chief among them promoting peaceful political transitions in Baghdad and Kabul and pursuing military operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to these [brave, anonymous “U.S. and Arab”] officials.

Certainly Tehran helped shove the incredibly unhelpful Nouri al-Maliki out the door in Baghdad, but the fact of the matter is that some U.S. and Iranian regional interests have been in “alignment” since at least 2001, if not before. Both countries wanted the Taliban out in Afghanistan and still want a stable government to form in Kabul that can keep the Taliban out and corral that country’s runaway opium trade. Both countries wanted Saddam gone and a representative Iraqi government put in his place (well, Iran wanted a Shiʿa government in his place, but any “representative” Iraqi government is inevitably going to be Shiʿa). Both countries are worried about Sunni extremism in the form of Al-Qaeda and now ISIS (and yes, Iran has worked with Al-Qaeda in the past for its own aims when convenient, but, you know, so have we). So, yes, there’s alignment, but it’s been that way (despite our best “Axis of Evil” efforts to wreck that alignment) for a long time.

The final two points can be taken together and are handled quite nicely in this EA Worldview piece:

Yes, Secretary of State Kerry communicated indirectly with the Gazan leadership of Hamas during this summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Gaza. He did so because it is impossible to pursue a ceasefire if you only speak with one side — the Israelis — in a conflict. The US maintained its bar on any direct contact with Hamas. It supported a final ceasefire in which Hamas was forced to make concessions to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt.

And none of this had anything to do with a “US-Iran detente”: Gaza was not on the agenda of any contacts between Washington and Tehran.

Similarly, the claimed indirect communication with Hezbollah, via Lebanese security organizations, was never part of a wider initiative involving Iran. In the context of the Syrian crisis, Washington was concerned that car bombings could spark widespread conflict throughout Lebanon, with the involvement of the Islamic State and the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra.

The laughable part of the Hezbollah angle is that we were sharing intel with Lebanese officials, undoubtedly knowing that it would filter to Hezbollah, last summer, before any change in the U.S.-Iran relationship had begun to take shape. It doesn’t take a grand conspiracy theory to understand why the U.S. would be interested in warning Lebanese authorities (which, like it or lump it, Hezbollah is) about Al-Qaeda plots in southern Lebanon, does it? Where Hamas is concerned, we didn’t just suddenly start engaging with Hamas via back channels; we’ve been doing that for quite a long time now, it’s just that we used to go through Egypt, which was acceptable to the Israelis since the Mubarak regime was an Israeli ally. The coup that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power last year eliminated that channel to Hamas because Sisi refused to have any contact with them. Kerry was trying to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza, so in the absence of the Egyptian channel he went through the two American allies with which Hamas still has close ties, Qatar and Turkey. That’s all.

Look, we may be on the cusp of some fundamental changes in the U.S.-Iran relationship, but the hyperventilating on the right is starting a little prematurely. If the nuclear talks fail to produce a deal then it’s pretty likely that we’ll see a backslide into a more hostile relationship. If the last two years of the Obama administration pass without a deal, we will certainly see a backslide into a more hostile relationship under the next administration. Please, hold your freakout until it’s really warranted.

Making the news up as we go along

Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Gerald F. Seib, twittering about an important piece on one of their blogs today:

Wow. Not going well? That sounds ominous. I’ve seen Robert Einhorn, one of the former advisors in question, speak about the talks recently, and he actually sounded cautiously optimistic about how things were going. Well, let’s see what the blog post says:

Two former top advisors to the Obama administration on Iran are calling for the White House and Congress to increase the threat of using military force against Tehran if talks aimed at curbing its nuclear program fail – or the country’s Islamist government is caught cheating on the terms of an agreement.

This hawkish stance taken by Robert Einhorn and Dennis Ross – both strong proponents of President Barack Obama‘s diplomacy with Iran – underscores the skittishness in Washington and Europe about the prospects for the negotiations losing momentum.

American and Iranian diplomats continue to stake starkly different positions on the end state for Tehran’s nuclear program. The U.S. wants a dismantling of much of Iran’s facilities, while President Hasan Rouhani’s government maintains it will keep them.

Well, Einhorn did recently issue a report where he said that Congress should give the president prior authorization to use force if Iran is caught reneging on its obligations, and Dennis Ross, the other advisor in question, did agree with him, but have either of them actually said they think talks aren’t going well? If you guessed “no,” you’re eligible for our grand prize, a one year subscription to the Wall Street Journal and the secret decoder ring you need to figure out if what they’re telling you is actually true.

As far as I can tell, the “talks aren’t going well” part of Seib’s tweet is completely imagined, and even the actual post’s less provocative tone (Einhorn “underscores the skittishness” here rather than coming right out and saying the talks aren’t going well) is the writer’s interpretation of Einhorn’s report being passed off as authoritative. But I feel very strongly that Seib’s made up extrapolation of the blog’s invented interpretation is going to be treated as received wisdom on the right for a day or so.

If you want to know what Einhorn is actually saying, and not what some WSJ blogger imagines he might be thinking, try instead this Laura Rozen piece from Al-Monitor:

“I think both parties really do have a strong incentive to get it done in six months,” Einhorn said. “I don’t think either party has an incentive to extend it.”

However, he said, while “both sides genuinely want to reach agreement and want to create the perception that agreement is possible…[to] generate momentum, the reality is the substantive positions” are still far apart.

Sounds pretty, I don’t know, cautiously optimistic, for a guy who’s so skittish about the talks collapsing. But I don’t have one of those WSJ decoder rings, so how would I know?

“Your kind has neither the cranial capacity nor the opposable digits to operate a firearm!”

ABOVE: David Brooks, forced to do his own grocery shopping, uses his copious mental equipment to ponder the "ketchup v. catsup" dilemma.

ABOVE: David Brooks, forced to do his own grocery shopping, uses his copious mental equipment to ponder the age-old “ketchup v. catsup” dilemma.

David Brooks, highly paid columnist for the New York Times and defender of Applebee’s salad bars everywhere, has diagnosed the problem with Egypt, and surprise, it turns out to be that the country is full of Egyptians. Egyptians who “lack even the basic mental ingredients” (actual quote!) to manage a transition to democracy, according to David Brooks. Brooks argues that your feelings on Egypt boil down to whether you are silly enough to care about the “process,” you know, respecting elections and all that hippy crap, or if you’re a serious thinker like David who cares about the “substance,” which apparently means that if the people we non-whites in other countries elect engage in some shady business, then bring on the junta. Except, as Max Read points out, respect for the process, when we’re talking about creating a democracy, is actually pretty substantive, you know?

The whole thing boils down to “Egyptians are too dumb to handle democracy, so let’s be happy they’ve switched from the authoritarians who don’t like us to the ones who do.” It’s racist garbage, from the guy who brought you “Haiti is suffering miserably because voodoo,” and unsurprisingly, Brooks is talking out of his ass when it comes to his analysis of Middle East politics and the supposed inability of “Islamist” governments to actually govern:

So he’s saying, then, that Islamists govern as if they were biologically inferior. And his evidence for this?

It has become clear–in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere–that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government…. We’ve seen that in Algeria, Iran, Palestine and Egypt: real-world, practical ineptitude that leads to the implosion of the governing apparatus.

Now, citing Egypt here is a logical cheat: You can’t really argue, “Of course it’s no surprise that Islamists governed poorly in Egypt–look what happened in Egypt!”

Likewise, it’s hardly fair to cite the example of Palestine, a country under foreign military control, half of which is governed by an unelected (and un-Islamist) government, and the other half subjected to a crippling economic blockade. (Though Hamas actually has a reputation for being very good at delivering social services–L.A. Times, 3/2/06.)Algeria is a very strange example to cite of how Islamist governments are always bad, since Algeria has never had an Islamist government. The army canceled elections in 1992 when it looked like the Islamic Salvation Front was going to win, leading to a bloody civil war.

So Brooks is really citing Turkey and Iran as his evidence that Islamist parties always and everywhere are bad news, and therefore the Egyptian coup was justified.  But how much are even these two examples worth, really? In a piece strongly critical of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly centralized rule, the Economist (6/8/13) also had plenty to say about his administration’s successes:

In the past ten years, GDP per person has risen by 43 percent in real terms, exports have increased nearly tenfold and foreign direct investment has leaped. Turkey is now the world’s 17th biggest economy.

Turkey’s robust banks are the envy of their beleaguered Western peers. Although income inequality is worryingly wide, wealth that was once concentrated in the hands of the Istanbul-based elite has spread to the Anatolian hinterland, leading to the rise of a new class of pious and innovative entrepreneurs who are powering growth. Hundreds of new hospitals, roads and schools have dramatically improved the lives of the poor.

That doesn’t really sound like government by the congenitally incompetent, does it?

Iran’s Islamist government has been the focus of a Two-Minute Hate that’s been going on now for 34 years, so it’s harder to find a kind word for it. But Iran’s Human Development Index in 1980, a year after the mullahs took over, was 0.443, well below the world average of 0.561; today it’s 0.742, well above the average of 0.641 and comparable to a developed nation’s stats.

ThinkProgress’ Zack Beauchamp offered something of a defense of Brooks’ column:

which, you know, isn’t totally wrong. If you remove the thick crust of racial slur from around the rest of the column, what’s left isn’t all that outrageous (or, for that matter, particularly new or interesting, considering it’s coming from a guy who’s paid quite handsomely to pretend to be a public intellectual): yes Morsi and the MB won an election, but they were clearly moving in the direction of taking down the democratic institutions that had put them in power, so there wasn’t much hope of removing them from power short of something like a popular uprising leading to a military overthrow. But saying that Brooks’ column was OK if you ignore all the racism is like saying that Sammy Sosa was a good ballplayer if you ignore all the cheating. For one thing, how do you separate one from the other and, for another, even if you could separate them I’m still not really sure that’s an accurate statement.

Not wanting to be out-bigoted by Brooks, the Wall Street Journal is now openly rooting for the country to be taken over by a military dictator with an urge to make folks disappear:

Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.

Yes, my word, what a stroke of luck that would be. Say, just for a larf, I wonder if you took the Chilean population in, say, 1980, calculated the percentage of that population that Pinochet murdered (anywhere from 1500-20,000, but we’ll go with estimates of 3000 and 10,000), and then applied that percentage to a population the size of modern Egypt, what kind of numbers would you be talking about? Why, it turns out that, if Egypt hits the jackpot, they’re looking at anywhere from 22,000 to 75,000 dead lucky duckies! Thanks, Wall Street Journal!