Saturday, May 31, 2008

It's the mullahs who won't talk

In a report released this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed "serious concern" that the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to conceal details of its nuclear weapons program, even as it defies UN demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, in lieu of a policy for dealing with the growing threat posed by the Islamic Republic, repeats what has become a familiar refrain within his party: Let's talk to Iran.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to talk to an adversary. But Obama and his supporters should not pretend this is change in any real sense. Every US administration in the past 30 years, from Jimmy Carter's to George W. Bush's, has tried to engage in dialogue with Iran's leaders. They've all failed.

Just two years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proffered an invitation to the Islamic Republic for talks, backed by promises of what one of her advisers described as juicy carrots with not a shadow of a stick. At the time, I happened to be in Washington. Early one morning, one of Rice's assistants read the text of her statement (which was to be issued a few hours later) to me over the phone, asking my opinion. I said the move won't work, but insisted that the statement should mention US concern for human-rights violations in Iran.

"We don't wish to set preconditions," was the answer. "We could raise all issues once they have agreed to talk." I suppose Rice is still waiting for Iran's mullahs to accept her invitation, even while Obama castigates her for not wanting to talk.

The Europeans invented the phrase "critical dialogue" to describe their approach to Iran. They negotiated with Tehran for more than two decades, achieving nothing.

The Arabs, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been negotiating with the mullahs for years - the Egyptians over restoring diplomatic ties cut off by Tehran, and the Saudis on measures to stop Shi'ite-Sunni killings in the Muslim world - with nothing to show for it. Since 1993, the Russians have tried to achieve agreement on the status of the Caspian Sea through talks with Tehran, again without results.

The reason is that Iran is gripped by a typical crisis of identity that afflicts most nations that pass through a revolutionary experience. The Islamic Republic does not know how to behave: as a nation state, or as the embodiment of a revolution with universal messianic pretensions. Is it a country or a cause? A nation state wants concrete things such as demarcated borders, markets, access to natural resources, security, influence, and, of course, stability: all things that could be negotiated with other nation states. A revolution, on the other hand, doesn't want anything in particular because it wants everything.

In 1802, when Napoleon Bonaparte embarked on his campaign of world conquest, the threat did not come from France as a nation state but from the French Revolution in its Napoleonic reincarnation. In 1933, it was Germany as a cause, the Nazi cause, that threatened the world. Under communism, the Soviet Union was a cause and thus a threat. Having ceased to be a cause and re-emerged a nation state, Russia no longer poses an existential threat to others.

The problem that the world, including the US, has today is not with Iran as a nation state but with the Islamic Republic as a revolutionary cause bent on world conquest under the guidance of the "Hidden Imam". The following statement by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the "supreme leader" of the Islamic Republic - who Obama admits has ultimate power in Iran - exposes the futility of the very talks Obama proposes: "You have nothing to say to us. We object. We do not agree to a relationship with you. We are not prepared to establish relations with powerful world devourers like you. The Iranian nation has no need of the US, nor is the Iranian nation afraid of the US. We ... do not accept your behaviour, your oppression and intervention in various parts of the world."

So, how should one deal with a regime of this nature? The challenge for the US and the world is finding a way to help Iran absorb its revolutionary experience, stop being a cause, and re-emerge as a nation state. Whenever Iran has appeared as a nation state, others have been able to negotiate with it, occasionally with good results. In Iraq, for example, Iran has successfully negotiated a range of issues with both the Iraqi government and the US. Agreement has been reached on conditions under which millions of Iranians visit Iraq each year for pilgrimage. An accord has been worked out to dredge the Shatt al-Arab waterway of three decades of war debris, thus enabling both neighbours to reopen their biggest ports. Again acting as a nation state, Iran has secured permission for its citizens to invest in Iraq.

When it comes to Iran behaving as the embodiment of a revolutionary cause, however, no agreement is possible. There will be no compromise on Iranian smuggling of weapons into Iraq. Nor will the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps agree to stop training Hezbollah-style terrorists in Shi'ite parts of Iraq. Iraq and its allies should not allow the mullahs of Tehran to export their sick ideology to the newly liberated country through violence and terror. As a nation-state, Iran is not concerned with the Palestinian issue and has no reason to be Israel's enemy. As a revolutionary cause, however, Iran must pose as Israel's arch-foe to sell the Khomeinist regime's claim of leadership to the Arabs.

As a nation, Iranians are among the few in the world that still like the US. As a revolution, however, Iran is the principal bastion of anti-Americanism. Last month, Tehran hosted an international conference titled "A World Without America". Indeed, since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran has returned to a more acute state of revolutionary hysteria. Ahmadinejad seems to truly believe the Hidden Imam is coming to conquer the world for his brand of Islam. He does not appear to be interested in the kind of "carrots" that Rice was offering two years ago and Obama is hinting at today.

Ahmadinejad is talking about changing the destiny of the human race, while Obama and his foreign policy experts offer spare parts for Boeings or membership in the World Trade Organisation. Perhaps Obama is unaware that one of Ahmadinejad's first acts was to freeze Tehran's efforts for securing WTO membership because he regards the outfit as "a nest of conspiracies by Zionists and Americans".

Obama wavers back and forth over whether he will talk directly to Ahmadinejad or some other representative of the Islamic Republic, including Khamenei. Moreover, he does not make it clear which of the two Irans - the nation state or the revolutionary cause - he wishes to engage. A misstep could legitimise the Khomeinist system and help it crush Iranians' hope of return as a nation state.

The Islamic Republic might welcome unconditional talks, but only if the US signals readiness for unconditional surrender. Talk about talking to Iran and engaging Ahmadinejad cannot hide the fact that, three decades after Khomeinist thugs raided the US embassy in Tehran, America does not understand what is really happening in Iran.


Obama's Revisionist History


This week's minor controversy about Barack Obama's claim that an uncle liberated Auschwitz was quickly put to rest by his campaign. They conceded that it was a great uncle whose unit liberated Buchenwald, 500 miles away. But other, much more troubling, episodes have provided a revealing glimpse into a candidate who instinctively resorts to parsing, evasions and misdirection. The saga over Rev. Jeremiah Wright is Exhibit A. In just 62 days, Americans were treated to eight different explanations.

First, on Feb. 25, Mr. Obama downplayed Rev. Wright's divisiveness, saying he was "like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with." A week later, Mr. Obama insisted, "I don't think my church is actually particularly controversial," suggesting that Rev. Wright was criticized because "he was one of the leaders in calling for divestment from South Africa and some other issues like that."

The issue exploded on March 13, when ABC showed excerpts from Rev. Wright's sermons. Mr. Obama's spokesman said the senator "deeply disagrees" with Rev. Wright's statements, but "now that he is retired, that doesn't detract from Sen. Obama's affection for Rev. Wright or his appreciation for the good works he has done."

The next day, Mr. Obama offered a fourth defense: "The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation." Mr. Obama also told the Chicago Tribune, "In fairness to him, this was sort of a greatest hits. They basically culled five or six sermons out of 30 years of preaching." Then, four days later, in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama finally repudiated Rev. Wright's comments, saying they "denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation." But Mr. Obama went on to say, "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother. . . ."

Ten days later, Mr. Obama said if Rev. Wright had not retired as Trinity's pastor, and "had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended . . . then I wouldn't have felt comfortable staying there at the church." (Never mind that Rev. Wright had made no such acknowledgment.)

On April 28, at the National Press Club, Rev. Wright re-emerged - not to apologize but to repeat some of his most offensive lines. This provoked an eighth defense: "[W]hatever relationship I had with Rev. Wright has changed, as a consequence of this. I don't think that he showed much concern for me. More importantly, I don't think he showed much concern for what we are trying to do in this campaign . . . ." Self-interest is a powerful, but not noble, sentiment in politics.

The Rev. Wright affair is just one instance where the Illinois senator has said something wrong or offensive, and then offered shifting explanations for his views. Consider flag pins. Mr. Obama told an Iowa radio station last October he didn't wear an American flag lapel pin because, after 9/11, it had "became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues . . . ." His campaign issued a statement that "Senator Obama believes that being a patriot is about more than a symbol." To highlight his own moral superiority, he denigrated the patriotism of those who wore a flag.

Yet by April, campaigning in culturally conservative Pennsylvania, Mr. Obama was blaming others for the controversy he'd created, claiming, "I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins. This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us . . . ." A month later Mr. Obama was once again wearing a pin, saying "Sometimes I wear it, sometimes I don't."

The Obama revision tour has been seen elsewhere. Last July, Mr. Obama pledged to meet personally and without precondition, during his first year, the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Criticized afterwards, he made his pledge more explicitly, naming Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Venezuela strongman Hugo Ch vez as leaders he would grace with first-year visits. By October, Mr. Obama was backpedaling, talking about needing "some progress or some indication of good faith," and by April, "sufficient preparation." It got so bad his foreign policy advisers were (falsely) denying he'd ever said he'd meet with Mr. Ahmadinejad - even as he still defended his original pledge to have meetings without precondition.

The list goes on. Mr. Obama's problem is a campaign that's personality-driven rather than idea-driven. Thus incidents calling into question his persona and character can have especially devastating consequences. Stripped of his mystique as a different kind of office seeker, he could become just another liberal politician - only one who parses, evades, dissembles and condescends. That narrative is beginning to take hold. If those impressions harden into firm judgments, Mr. Obama will have a very difficult time in November.


The Obama Gaffe Machine


For months, Barack Obama has had the image of an incandescent, golden-tongued Wundercandidate. That image may be fraying now. As smart and credentialed as he is, Sen. Obama is often an indifferent speaker without a teleprompter. He has large gaps in his knowledge base, and is just as likely to dig in and embrace a policy misstatement as abandon it. ABC reporter Jake Tapper calls him "a one-man gaffe machine."

Take the Auschwitz flub, where Mr. Obama erroneously claimed last weekend in New Mexico that his uncle helped liberate the Nazi concentration camp. Reporters noted Mr. Obama's revised claim, that it was his great uncle who helped liberate Buchenwald. They largely downplayed the error. Yet in another, earlier gaffe back in 2002, Mr. Obama claimed his grandfather knew U.S. troops who liberated Auschwitz and Treblinka - even though only Russian troops entered those concentration camps.

That hardly disqualifies Mr. Obama from being president. But you can bet that if Hillary Clinton had done the same thing it would have been the focus of much more attention, especially after her Bosnia sniper-fire fib. That's because gaffes are often blown up or downplayed based on whether or not they further a story line the media has attached to a politician.

When John McCain claimed, while on a trip to Iraq in March, that Sunni (as opposed to Shiite) militants in Iraq are being supported by Iran, coverage of the alleged blunder tracked Democratic attacks on his age and stamina. (In fact, Iran may well be supplying both Sunni and Shiite militants.) Dan Quayle, tagged with a reputation as a dumb blond male, never lived down his misspelling of "potatoe."

Mr. Obama, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, has largely been given a pass for his gaffes. Many are trivial, such as his suggestion this month that America has 57 states, and his bizarre statement in a Memorial Day speech in New Mexico that America's "fallen heroes" were present and listening to him in the audience.

Some gaffes involve mangling his family history. Last year in Selma, Ala., for example, he said that his birth was inspired by events there which took place four years after he was born. While this gaffe can be chalked up to fatigue or cloudy memory, others are more substantive - such as his denial last April that it was his handwriting on a questionnaire in which, as a state senate candidate, he favored a ban on handguns. His campaign now contends that, even if it was his handwriting, this doesn't prove he read the full questionnaire.

Mr. Obama told a Portland, Ore., crowd this month that Iran doesn't "pose a serious threat to us," saying that "tiny countries" with small defense budgets aren't much to worry about. But Iran has almost one-fourth the population of the U.S. and is well on its way to developing nuclear weapons. The next day Mr. Obama had to reverse himself and declare he had "made it clear for years that the threat from Iran is grave."

Last week in Orlando, Fla., he said he would meet with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez to discuss, among other issues, Ch vez's support of the Marxist FARC guerrillas in Colombia. The next day, in Miami, he insisted any country supporting the FARC should suffer "regional isolation." Obama advisers were left explaining how this circle could be squared.

In a debate last July, Mr. Obama pledged to meet, without precondition, the leaders of Iran, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. He called President Bush's refusal to meet with them "ridiculous" and a "disgrace." Heavily criticized, Mr. Obama dug in rather than backtrack. He's claimed, in defense of his position, that John F. Kennedy's 1961 summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna was a crucial meeting that led to the end of the Cold War.

Not quite. Kennedy himself admitted he was unprepared for Khrushchev's bullying. "He beat the hell out of me," Kennedy confided to advisers. The Soviet leader reported to his Politburo that the American president was weak. Two months later, the Berlin Wall was erected and stood for 28 years.

Reporters may now give Mr. Obama's many gaffes more notice. But don't count on them correcting an implicit bias in writing about such faux pas. Over the years, reporters have tagged a long list of conservative public figures, from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, as dim and uninformed. The reputation of some of these men has improved over time. But can anyone name a leading liberal figure who has developed a similar media reputation, even though the likes of Al Gore, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have committed substantial gaffes at times? No reporter I've talked to has come up with a solid example.

It's clear some gaffes are considered more newsworthy than others. But it would behoove the media to check their premises when deciding just how much attention to pay to them. The best guideline might be: Show some restraint and judgment, but report them all.


Obama abandons the workers

With her overwhelming victory in Kentucky on May 20, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has completed her sweep of the crucial primary states adjoining the Ohio River -- and the fight for the Democratic nomination has entered its final phases. Having picked up a net gain of nearly 140,000 votes between Kentucky and Oregon, Clinton is now well poised to win the Puerto Rico primary on June 1 - and clinch a majority in this year's popular vote, even if the disputed returns from Michigan are discounted. Under those pressures, the Barack Obama campaign and its sympathizers have begun to articulate much more clearly what they mean by their vague slogan of "change" - nothing less than usurping the historic Democratic Party, dating back to the age of Andrew Jackson, by rejecting its historic electoral core: white workers and rural dwellers in the Middle Atlantic and border states.

Without a majority of those voters, the Democrats have, since the party's inception in the 1820s, been incapable of winning the presidency. The Obama advocates declare, though, that we have entered an entirely new political era. It is not only possible but also desirable, they say, for Democrats to win by turning away from those whom "progressive" pundits and bloggers disdain variously as "Nascar man," "uneducated," "low information" whites, "rubes, fools, and hate-mongers" who live in the nation's "shitholes."

Having attempted, with the aid of a complicit news media, to brand Hillary Clinton as a racist -- by flinging charges that, as the historian Michael Lind has shown, belong "in black helicopter/grassy knoll territory," Obama's supporters now fiercely claim that Clinton's white working class following is also essentially racist. Favoring the buzzword language of the academic left, tinged by persistent, discredited New Left and black nationalist theories about working-class "white skin privilege," a vote against Obama has become, according to his fervent followers, "a vote for whiteness."

Talk about transformative post-racial politics.

In fact, all of the evidence demonstrates that white racism has not been a principal or even secondary motivation in any of this year's Democratic primaries. Every poll shows that economics, health care, and national security are the leading issues for white working class voters - and for Latino working class voters as well. These constituencies have cast positive ballots for Hillary Clinton not because she is white, but because they regard her as better on these issues. Obama's campaign and its passionate supporters refuse to acknowledge that these voters consider him weaker -- and that Clinton's positions, different from his, as well as her experience actually attract support. Instead they impute racism to working class Democrats who, the polls also show, happen to be liberal on every leading issue. The effort to taint anyone who does not support Obama as motivated by racism has now become a major factor in alienating core Democrats from Obama's campaign. Out with the Democratic Party of Jefferson, Jackson, F.D.R., Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, and in with the bright, shiny party of Obama - or what the formally "undeclared" Donna Brazile, a member of the Democratic National Committee and of the party's rules committee, has hailed as a "new Democratic coalition" swelled by affluent white leftists and liberals, college students, and African-Americans.

The Democratic Party, as a modern political party, dates back to 1828, when Andrew Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams to win the presidency. Yet without the votes of workers and small farmers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as a strong Democratic turnout in New York City, Jackson would have lost the Electoral College in a landslide. Over the 180 years since then, only one Democrat has gained the presidency without winning either Ohio or Pennsylvania, with their large white working-class vote. (The exception, Grover Cleveland, managed the feat in 1892, and only barely lost Ohio - but he was dependent on the post-Reconstruction solid South.) Beginning in 1964, when the Democratic solid South dissolved, every successful Democratic presidential candidate has had to carry both Ohio and Pennsylvania, even when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton picked up southern states.

Northern white working-class defections to the Republicans grew steadily in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Republican's Watergate debacle temporarily halted the trend, but the disasters of the Carter presidency, especially its mishandling of economic woes and foreign policy, accelerated the defections in 1980. In his two successful races, Ronald Reagan won the support, on average, of 61 percent of white working class voters, compared to 35 percent for his opponents, Carter and Walter Mondale. (Both times, Reagan carried Ohio and Pennsylvania handily.) As the caricature of "Reagan Democrats" as racist militarists hardened among "new politics" advocates, they strove to make up the difference by creating an expanded base among African-Americans, college-age, and college educated voters. The result was yet another humiliating defeat for the Democrats in 1988.

Bill Clinton's shift to a centrist liberalism stressing lunch-pail issues--"Putting People First"--won back a large number of Reagan Democrats in 1992, enough so that, by the time Clinton won his second term in 1996, Democrats could claim parity with Republicans by winning a slim plurality among non-college educated working class white voters. But the perceived elitists Al Gore and John Kerry lost what Clinton had gained, as George W. Bush carried the white working-class vote by a margin of 17 percent in 2000 and a whopping 23 percent in 2004.

This year's primary results show no sign that Obama will reverse this trend should he win the nomination. In West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as Ohio and Pennsylvania, blue collar white voters sent him down to defeat by overwhelming margins. A recent Gallup poll report has argued that claims about Obama's weaknesses among white voters and blue collar voters have been exaggerated - yet its indisputable figures showed Obama running four percentage points below Kerry's anemic support among whites four years ago.

Given that Obama's vote in the primaries, apart from African-Americans, has generally come from affluent white suburbs and university towns, the Gallup figures presage a Democratic disaster among working-class white voters in November should Obama be the nominee. Yet Obama's handlers profess indifference - and, at times, even pride -- about these trends. Asked about the white working-class vote following Obama's ten-point loss in Pennsylvania, chief campaign strategist David Axelrod confidently told an National Public Radio interviewer that, after all, "the white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections going back even to the Clinton years" and that Obama's winning strength lay in his ability to offset that trend and "attract independent voters... younger voters" and "expand the Democratic base."

Apart from its basic inaccuracy about Clinton's blue-collar support in 1992 and 1996, Axelrod's statement was a virtual reprise of the Democratic doomed strategy from the 1972 McGovern campaign that the party revamped in 1988. The main difference between now and then is the openness of the condescension with which many of Obama's supporters - and, apparently, the candidate himself - hold the crude "low information" types whom they believe dominate the white working class. The sympathetic media coverage of Obama's efforts to explain away his remarks in San Francisco about "bitter," economically-strapped voters who, clinging to their guns, religion, and racism, misdirect their rage and do not see the light, only reinforced his campaign's dismissive attitude. Obama's efforts at rectification were reluctant and half-hearted at best - and he undercut them completely a few days later when he referred derisively, on the stump in Indiana, to a sudden "political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true."

Culturally as well as politically, Obama's dismissal of white working people represents a sea-change in the Democrats' basic identity as the workingman's party - one that has been coming since the late 1960s, when large portions of the Left began regarding white workers as hopeless and hateful reactionaries. Faced with the revolt of the "Reagan Democrats" - whose politics they interpreted in the narrowest of racial terms - "new politics" Democrats dreamed of a coalition built around an alliance of right-thinking affluent liberals and downtrodden minorities, especially African-Americans. It all came to nothing. But after Bill Clinton failed to consolidate a new version of the old Democratic coalition in the 1990s, the dreaming began again - first, with disastrous results, in the schismatic Ralph Nader campaign of 2000 and now (with the support of vehement ex-Naderites including Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West) in the Obama campaign.

Obama must assume that the demographics of American politics have changed dramatically in recent years so that the electorate as a whole is little more than a larger version of the combined Democratic primary constituencies of Oregon and South Carolina. While recent studies purport to show that the white working class has, indeed, shrunk over the past fifty years, as a political matter its significance remains salient, especially in the battleground and swing states--states like Ohio and West Virginia where Obama currently trails Senator John McCain in the polls. One of the studies that affirms the diminishing proportion of blue collar whites in the electorate, written for the Brookings Institution by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abamowitz, concludes [pdf], nevertheless, that "the voting proclivities of the white working class will make a huge difference and could well determine who the next president will be."

Teixeira and Abramowitz estimate that the Democratic candidate will need to cut Kerry's deficit of 23 percent in 2004 to around 10 percent if he or she is "to achieve a solid popular vote victory." By those lights, Obama, if nominated, is almost certainly destined to lose unless he can suddenly reverse the trend that his own dismissive language and his supporters' contemptuous tone has accelerated during the primaries.

In every presidential election they have won, the Democrats have solidified their historic link to white workers, not dismissed them. Obama and the champions of a new party coalition appear to think that everything has suddenly changed, simply because of the force of their own desires. In any event, Obama had shown no ability thus far to attract the one constituency that has always spelled the difference between victory and defeat for the Democratic Party. The party must now decide whether to go along with Obama and renounce its own heritage -- and tempt the political fates.



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