Pear-Shaped Ali and the Bomb

Here’s an interesting take by Amir Taheri on Iran, based on the folk take of ‘Pear-Shaped Ali’ (which is a better one for all concerned than ‘Mushroom Cloud-Shaped Ali’).

The issue here is not uranium enrichment but the finding of a way for the Islamic Republic to walk out of a high-risk confrontation with the United Nations without losing face.

On that score, Ahmadinejad should get high marks. But he may owe all that to the Tehrani folk tale we mentioned above. That tale is woven around its hero Ali Golabi (Pear-shaped Ali) who is a small chap with big ambitions.

The bigger chaps in the neighborhood dismiss him as a midget, bully him whenever they can, and never offer him a seat at the table in the teahouse which is their haunt. So what does Ali Golabi do? He goes around waving a big knife, making a big noise, breaking a window here and there, and, occasionally, even strangling a street cat to show his strength. His agitations annoy the big chaps who want to sip their tea, puff their hookahs and play a game of backgammon in peace.

Nevertheless, Ali knows where and when to stop. As soon as the big chaps come out of the teahouse to confront him, he declares that he has already done whatever he had wanted to do and is now ready not to do it again. This helps ease the tension and gets Ali off the hook- until the next showdown.

So, if our analysis is right the next step for the Islamic Republic would be to announce that, having done what it wanted to do, it has now decided to stop doing it for a while as a gesture of goodwill.

Tehran has less than two weeks to do that before the 28 April deadline set by the United Nations Security Council.

I may be wrong but I think that the Ahmadinejad announcement provides the first opportunity to stop the crisis from spiraling out of control. The Iranian climb-down, if it has not already happened by the time this column is published, is sure to come soon.

Interesting, and hopeful if true.

But not a long-term solution.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Timeline

There’s a lot of discussion about nuclear weapons timelines in Iran, and I thought it’d be interesting to lay out the most-comparible timeline to nuclear capability, that of Pakistan. This can hopefully serve as a factual anchor for our future discussions.

Obviously, Iran – assuming they got full cooperation from Pakistan’s experts – could move faster. The interesting question is “how much faster?” given the technical issues involved in implementing both enrichment and weapons production.

I’ve based the timeline below on two sources: William Langweische’s article on AQ Khan in the Atlantic, and the Nuclear Weapons Archive, a very useful site founded by Gary An, a student, and now operated by Carey Sublette.

Here’s Pakistan’s timeline (I’ve bolded the date that marks where in the process Iran is generally believed to be today):

1972 – PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto starts Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program
1974 – India detonates it’s first nuclear weapon; AQ Khan, working in the Netherlands, meets Bhutto and begins assembling data on enrichment technology
1975 – AQ Khan moves from the Netherlands to Pakistan
1976 – AQ Khan founds Engineering Research Laboratories to build an enrichment facility
1978 – prototype and first enrichment
1981/2 – first weapons-grade uranium
1983 – ‘inert test’ of bomb design
1984 – production levels of 90% enriched uranium
1985/6 – weapons produced

So for Pakistan, it seems that it took 7 or 8 years to go from first enrichment to reasonably reliable – and hence usable – weapons, with few measurable waypoints along the way (I’m presuming that we are likely to have means sensitive enough to detect an inert test – which is a test of a weapon with unenriched uranium to make sure that the mechanics work).

Then the interesting questions become: “How far is Iran really down the road today?” and “How much faster than Pakistan can they get to the end?”

It’s Harman in CA 36

There are a few interesting things about getting older, along with the depressing ones: women in their twenties are now potential babysitters rather than potential dates (I passed that threshold a long time ago); having lunch with the widow of a friend; learning that another good friend has died – and you didn’t hear for nearly a year, which reminds you of what a bad job you’re doing as a friend.

And then you get a mailer, and discover that a high school friend is running for Congress. Holy Crap, we’re old enough to be Members of Congress?

So Marcy Winograd sent me a mailer – not because of any long-standing relationship, but because I’m in the district she just moved into to run against incumbent Jane Harman.
Now I have had a tetchy attitude toward Congressmember Harman since before she ran for the first time – we met at one of her exploratory coffees, and I thought her an unprepared, establishment apparachnik.

Harman then abandoned her seat for an ill-considered and somewhat inept run at the Governorship, retired for several years, and then came back to California with the support of the national party and bigfooted several good local Democrats to take the seat back.

So I didn’t start this dance as a Friend of Jane.

And Marcy, when I knew her in high school and intermittently afterwards, was smart, engaged, someone who cared about the world – a good person to sit and talk issues and life with.

So I read the mailer, visit her website, and take a look. And sigh.

Because what’s there is pretty much a straight-ahead Kossak platform.

When we talk about security, we must talk about jobs for all, health care for all, and a foreign policy that embraces diplomacy and builds trust among nations, a foreign policy that chooses war as a very last resort – if ever – and a foreign policy that forever renounces the use of nuclear weapons- because to use those weapons is to ensure our own annihilation.

Marcy is our coast’s Net Lamont. She’s a manifestation of the single-issue orthodoxy that the ‘suicidal lemming’ wing of the Party wants to try and enforce. According to MyDD and Kos and Josh Marshall, you can’t be pro-war and be a Democrat.

And that’s wrong, on just so many levels.

First, and foremost, on the issues. I’ve blogged the kind of foreign policy I think is the intermediate state of this kind of isolationism:

In essence, it’d be a position that said “we’re washing our hands of you”, bulked up border and internal security, and made it a point never to drive through ‘those neighborhoods’ without locking the doors, and never, under any circumstances, to stop there. It solves that whole messy “war” thing, and makes sure that no one says bad things about us in our hearing. We’d be clean-handed liberals, and feel secure.

But I don’t think we’d be secure, or really have clean hands. It’s a nice thing to talk about in the Palisades (or actually, Marina del Rey), or in Georgetown. But the reality of governing America in the 21st Century takes more than this.

Harman has actually been damn sensible about security issues, walking a line in trying to stand for her Party while first of all doing the right thing – as she sees it – to defend America.

I do like Marcy more, but I think she’s flat wrong on the issues, and so I just went over and donated $100.00 to Jane, and encourage you all to go over and give her a few bucks.

I’m trying to do something on the internal struggle within the Democratic Party as an institutional struggle as much as one about issues or worldview; this campaign reflects that more than a little, I think.

Euston, We’ve Had A Manifesto

Norm Geras – who I’m happy to have drunk a Tsing-Tao or two alongside – has something on his site I hope you’ll all read. It’s a manifesto for a Left that makes sense.

A. Preamble

We are democrats and progressives. We propose here a fresh political alignment. Many of us belong to the Left, but the principles that we set out are not exclusive. We reach out, rather, beyond the socialist Left towards egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment. Indeed, the reconfiguration of progressive opinion that we aim for involves drawing a line between the forces of the Left that remain true to its authentic values, and currents that have lately shown themselves rather too flexible about these values. It involves making common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not.

1) For democracy.

We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.

2) No apology for tyranny.

We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

There’s more, read the whole thing.

The New Statesman has an article about how this document came to be.

On a Saturday last May, right after the general election, 20 or so similarly minded people met in a pub in London. We had no specific agenda, merely a desire to talk about where things were politically. Those present were all of the left: some bloggers or running other websites, their readers, a few with labour movement connections, one or two students. Many of us were supporters of the military intervention in Iraq, and those who weren’t – who had indeed opposed it – none the less found themselves increasingly out of tune with the dominant anti-war discourse. They were at odds, too, with how it related to other prominent issues – terrorism and the fight against it, US foreign policy, the record of the Blair government, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more generally, attitudes to democratic values.

I’m sorry I missed it…must have been quite a “do”.

Norm interviewed me a long time ago, he asked:

What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate?

And I answered:

The opposite of romantic self-annihilation, and when I can convince you to figure out what that is, we’ll all be better off.

Well, we’re headed that way.

And I’ll enthusiastically sign up to walk there alongside him.

Some First Thoughts on Propaganda

So I’ve been working on the media piece – about the role of media in creating and nurturing national mood – and, of course it’s impossible (for me, anyway) to digest what I’m seeing down into a blog post because it’s a woolly topic and one where I keep picking up threads – Homer! – Habermas! – and following them out to distraction.

Which means I’ve been reading a lot. I’ve looked and looked for the pithy quote that sums my position, or even a book to point you to. And to be honest, haven’t found it.

The closest things I’ve found have been in Clausewitz and in Thucydides, about which more later.
I’ve talked in the past aboutwicked‘ problems – problems that are not readily reducible to formulas, which cannot be ‘rationalized’ in the traditional sense (although recent advanced in agent-based modelling are actually beginning to put a net over them) and which we have to conceive of in different ways than the formal, rational, deterministic ones we use in discussion, planning, and often in politics.

The result of living outside those rational models (which we do, whether we admit it or not) is that we spend a lot of time not knowing how we’re doing.

Prince Hal stated it best:

I tell thee truly, herald,
I know not if the day be ours or no;
For yet a many of your horsemen peer
And gallop o’er the field.


The day is yours.


Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!
What is this castle call’d that stands hard by?


They call it Agincourt.

When you don’t know if you are winning or losing, when the decision is outside rational calculation, how do you decide what to do? Combat is obviously the extreme case, but it serves as an example of anything that must be done that is difficult and where the outcomes are unknowable. You act on faith, and prejudice, and to a lesser extent, on fear.

You have faith in yourself and those with whom you are struggling. You are prejudiced, because you believe that your succeeding – Henry and the English winning at Agincourt – is better than your failing. And you are afraid, both of the real losses that will come if you lose, but of the loss of reputation, of esteem, of the regard of trust of your fellows. back to Henry:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood’s cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

In early warfare (and in modern as well) one of the roles of the leader is to inspire the troops with speech before the battle. Thucydides is full of these speeches:

Remembering this, the old must equal their ancient exploits, and the young, the sons of the heroes of that time, must endeavour not to disgrace their native valour; and trusting in the help of the god whose temple has been sacrilegiously fortified, and in the victims which in our sacrifices have proved propitious, we must march against the enemy, and teach him that he must go and get what he wants by attacking someone who will not resist him, but that men whose glory it is to be always ready to give battle for the liberty of their own country, and never unjustly to enslave that of others, will not let him go without a struggle.

These speeches amplify the faith, prejudice, and fear of those who listen to them. Is that a reprehensible thing? To us, those three words are themselves pejorative.

The arguments that support them we call propaganda, which is itself a significantly pejorative term today.

But should it be? And if it is, what does that mean in terms of how we function as a society?

The LA Times today had an article about the new film on Flight 93, which cast a fascinating light on the issue. The article, “Is America ready for movies about 9/11?” talks about films as propaganda:

While some might think Hollywood is moving too quickly, history suggests otherwise. Within five months of the Pearl Harbor attack, Republic Pictures had cranked out “Remember Pearl Harbor,” the first in a series of Hollywood films that sought to depict the war and rally the American spirit.

“The nation was totally mobilized for war,” said Robert Sklar, a cinema studies professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, who watched from the roof of his apartment building as the twin towers fell. “There was an Office of War Information that had some direct control over Hollywood, and there was the Army Signal Corps producing documentaries. People like Frank Capra and John Ford and John Huston went into the military and made films.”

Some films were overt propaganda; others were more subtle.

“There was a string back then about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and kind of holy crusade that came after that,” said Richard Jewell, a professor in USC’s School of Cinema-Television. “There were a lot of movies made during that time period that dealt with events in the war that weren’t that great for the U.S. but that were used for propaganda to show how brave our people were even when they lost battles, like Bataan and Wake Island.”

Only after the war was over did movies take a less one-dimensional view.

More nuanced movies began coming out shortly after the war’s end, such as “The Best Years of Our Lives” in 1946, about soldiers trying to resume their prewar existences, up through “The Men” in 1950, about wounded soldiers trying to recover physically and emotionally in a veterans’ hospital.

“Relatively soon after World War II, we were able to show the soldiers in a much more complex light as opposed to having them be unambiguously heroic,” Rodman said. “We could show the cost of the war on our soldiers, which is something we could not have done during the war.”

The Korean War similarly gave rise to “The Steel Helmet” in 1951, a grunt’s view of the war zone, but “MASH” didn’t materialize until 1970 — and though set in a Korean War mobile medical unit, the movie was generally viewed as a Vietnam allegory. A year after the 1975 fall of Saigon, more direct treatments came out, such as “Taxi Driver” in 1976, which helped establish the now-familiar character of the troubled Vietnam veteran; “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” in 1978, followed by “Apocalypse Now” in 1979.

Between Korea and Vietnam, the role of the filmmaker moved from the propagandist to the critic, and our national hero moved from John Wayne to Travis Bickle.

The problem, of course, is that without the self-confidence of faith – and yes, without prejudice and fear – it’s probably very hard to fight a war. To many, that’s a feature, not a bug, I get it. But…

…let’s put war aside for a moment and ask ourselves how it is that we can function as a society without a certain kind of faith (I’m not suggesting religious faith, but rather the kind of faith that Schaar talks about:

“To be a patriot is to have a patrimony; or, perhaps more accurately, the patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts; one is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines what he or she is. Patrimony is mixed with person; the two are barely separable. The very tone and rhythm of a life, the shapes of perception, the texture of its homes and fears come from membership in a territorially rooted group. The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those who will come after.

But such primary experiences are nearly inaccessible to us. We are not taught to define our lives by our debts and legacies, but by our rights and opportunities. Robert Frost’s stark line, “This land was ours, before we were the land’s.” condenses the whole story of American patriotism. We do not and cannot love the land the way the Greek and Navaho loved theirs. The graves of some of our ancestors are here, to be sure, but most of us would be hard pressed to find them: name and locate the graves of your great-grandparents.”

“But if instinctive patriotism and the patriotism of the city cannot be ours, what can be? Is there a type of patriotism peculiarly American: if so, is it anything more than patriotism’s violent relative nationalism?

Abraham Lincoln, the supreme authority on this subject, thought there was a patriotism unique to America. Americans, a motley gathering of various races and cultures, were bonded together not by blood or religion, not by tradition or territory, not by the calls and traditions of a city, but by a political idea. We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles, and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world. Those principles and commitments are the core of American identity, the soul of the body politic. They make the American nation unique, and uniquely valuable among and to the other nations. But the other side of this conception contains a warning very like the warnings spoken by the prophets to Israel: if we fail in our promises to each other, and lose the principles of the covenant, then we lose everything, for they are we.”

Schaar’s claim is made against the kind of reflexive and abstract cosmopolitanism that Chris Bertram talks about today:

I recently wrote a review of a couple of books on global justice, one of which expended a great deal of effort in explaining how a liberal cosmopolitanism could be consistently combined with a reasonable patriotism. For some reason, the concern to combine these positions seems to especially concern liberal Americans who want be good patriots and think of themselves as endorsing universal values at one and the same time. Well I guess I agree about this far: that, within the limits justice allows, one both may feel an affection for one’s country and compatriots and promote the good of that nation and community, just as one can legitimately promote the good of one’s family and friends within the bounds set by justice.

To Bertram, patriotism is a kind of affection; like the affection one might have for a sports team or a television show (yes, I’m being a bit dismissive, but affection is itself a dismissive term). Schaar (and I) would disagree.

To Bertram and others, the intention is to reclaim the sphere of the political from the sphere of belief; to create an abstract, Rawlsian, rules-based justice and then expect that the result will be something other than the Panopticon.

I’ll switch to a scene from Yankee Doodle Dandy (released in 1942):

President: I’m sorry I missed the opening of your show.
George: Maybe it was just as well.
President: Don’t worry about it. We understand each other perfectly…The Herald Tribune says that you make a better president in I’d Rather Be Right than I am.
George: Don’t forget, that’s a Republican newspaper.
President: I can remember you and your family very well – the Four Cohans.
George: Do you really, Mr. President? That was a long time ago.
President: Yes, it was while I was attending school near Boston.
George: (smiling to himself) I was a pretty cocky kid in those days – a pretty cocky kid. A regular Yankee Doodle Dandy, always carrying a flag in a parade or following one.
President: I hope you haven’t outgrown the habit.
George: Not a chance.
President: Well that’s one thing I’ve always admired about you Irish-Americans. You carry your love of country like a flag, right out in the open. It’s a great quality.
George: I inherited that – I got that from my father. He ran away to the Civil War when he was thirteen – the proudest kid in the whole state of Massachusetts.
President: So you’ve spent your life telling the other forty-seven states what a great country it is.
George: Well, I never thought of it just that way before, but I guess that’s about the size of it. And I lost no time either. It started with a very funny incident about sixty years ago…

So here’s the question. Could we have won World War II without George M. Cohan, Frank Capra, and Michael Curtiz? Without Rick’s Cafe Americain? How would history have been different if M.A.S.H had been released in 1952?

Maybe I missed this…Michael Yon says “It’s A Civil War.”

Via this comment from David Blue (who I’m glad to see has stuck around), I’m sent over to Michael Yon’s, which I’m remiss for not following more closely.

Go read this whole piece, and get reminded why he is, in fact, a hella journalist. But here’s something he tossed off that we all need to think about:

bq. Every country practices censorship, in one form or the other. Just this week, Thailand is having a Texas-cage match over censorship, accuracy in reporting, and alleged slanderous swipes at the King. Last week, in America, a radio producer for a large syndicated program in the United States called me requesting that I go on the show, a show that has hosted me many times and where I’ve been referred to as, “Our man in Iraq.” But when I said Iraq is in a civil war, that same producer slammed down the phone and, in so doing, demonstrated how much he reveres truth.

There’s a lot to unpack in that, and in the rest of his post.

I’m working on it…and you should too. And no, if the reality is that Iraq is moving toward a civil war, it doesn’t mean we come home or laager up. We’re in until we win – or until someone gets elected who’s willing to settle for less. in which case it’s going to be a very, very bad decade.

Bush, Hersh & Iran

Kevin Drum takes me to task for diminishing the import of the leaked Iran plans.

But what’s important isn’t the existence of the contingency plans. Rather, it’s the fairly obvious fact that the Bush administration is publicizing them as part of a very public PR campaign in favor of a strike against Iran. The problem is that even if this is a bluff, it’s one that has a profound effect on both Iran and the American public. As James Fallows says:
By giving public warnings, the United States and Israel “create ‘excess demand’ for military action,” as our war-game leader Sam Gardiner recently put it, and constrain their own negotiating choices.

In other words, if the PR campaign is too successful, then Bush will have boxed himself in. Eventually he’ll feel obligated to bomb Iran solely because he’s now under pressure to make good on his threats and doesn’t want to look like he’s backing down. World Wars have started over less.

So Seymour Hersh is now the favored go-to leak of the Bush Administration?

It’s not like Bush doesn’t have problems but blaming him for the actions of someone who’s vehemently opposed to him seems just silly. And yes, I do think that that too much bluster (Hi, Trent! Hi, Tom!) is exactly the wrong approach to be taking right now. I think that it weakens us internally, stirs our opponents and sends an air of unseriousness. This is a case where we should be speaking very softly, and testing the heft of our biggest sticks.

A Man, A Plan, Iran

Just as a side note, it’s interesting that the people who are having strokes over the claim that the Administration is developing a plan or series of plans for military action in Iran are the same people who had strokes over the lack of planning in the war in Iraq.

I tend not to get very exercised about this, since I’m sure that there are plans being updated every day for – among other things – the invasion of Canada. All those midlevel officers in the Pentagon have to do something every day, and having detailed contingency plans for just about everything is probably a pretty good thing for them to be doing.

The disclosure of these plans is a part of the dance in which the Administration tries to manage perceptions within Iran while the press tries to manage perceptions of the Administration within the United States.

NBC Into The Pits

While I’m flailing working on the larger media piece, I’ll note that there’s a lot of blogosphere reaction to NBC’s effort to entrap (there’s no other word for it) NASCAR fans with decoy Arabs (there’s no other word for using Sikhs).

NBC apparently has a short memory:

Michael Gartner resigned as president of NBC News six days after NBC had made its second on-the-air apology in 15 days for having used fakery in its news shows. On February 9, it confessed to having rigged crash tests of GM C/K pickup trucks to support the claim on Dateline NBC that these trucks are “rolling fire bombs waiting to explode.”

You’d think they’d realize that staged action + pickup trucks / NASCAR will inevitably end badly for them…

And as a gratuitous editorial, can I invite the Dateline crew to join me at Hal’s for dinner, where I’ll stand up and loudly announce that I hunt, own guns, and support the war in Iraq? The reactions there will be priceless as well, I can assure you (note that I love the food at Hal’s and eat there often).

[Update: TG went and read the linked article and pointed this out:

“We deeply regret we included the inappropriate demonstration in our Dateline report. We apologize to our viewers and to General Motors. We have also concluded that unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That’s our new policy.”

A short-lived one, it appears…]

Paging Arthur Koestler

Totally unrelated to my own struuggling through the issues of media and the war, it turns out that Global Voices (the Berkman Center group) and Reuters will be holding an online discussion on:

How does the nature, quality, and content of media coverage of the Iraq war ultimately impact the lives of people in Iraq, the Middle East and around the planet?

In your country, how does the media’s Iraq coverage rate? Fair and balanced? Biased? Which way? How about bloggers’ reporting and discussion of the issue? Have blogs helped clarify things or added to the confusion? We want to bring the opinions of the world’s bloggers on this issue directly into the debate. Please join us for a live discussion on Wednesday at 22:00–24:00 GMT (6–8pm EDT).