Freeing A Spy

Today Jonathan Pollard was freed.  Pollard, a former analyst for the U.S. Navy, was a notorious spy who passed classified secrets to a foreign government before being caught in the 1980s and sent to jail for life.

So why isn’t Pollard mentioned in the same breath as the Rosenbergs, or Benedict Arnold, or other notorious spies in American history?  Could it be, perhaps, because he was an agent who spied for Israel, that long-time U.S. ally?

jonathan_pollardWeird, isn’t it, that Israel would spy on the United States?  Not really.  I’m quite confident that the United States regularly collects data on friends and foes alike — remember Angela Merkel’s cell phone? — because intelligence gathering is what intelligence agencies do.  If America thought that finding out what was going on at 10 Downing Street was essential to its national security, America would figure out how to get that information out of Great Britain, by hook or by crook.

That’s not to diminish what Israel did in the Pollard case, or Pollard’s betrayal of his country.  He purportedly thought the United States should give more information to Israel, and he provided Israel with huge amounts of classified data.  After he was arrested in 1985, Israel initially denied that he was an agent, but they eventually ‘fessed up and began to quietly lobby for Pollard’s release to eliminate a source of tension between Israel and America.

Now, after 30 years, Pollard has been freed.  His parole conditions require him to stay in America for five years, wearing a GPS bracelet, and submitting to inspections of his house.  His lawyers say the conditions are onerous and oppressive.  Of course, they beat being in jail for life.

Jews In Europe, Again

On Saturday, a gunman in Copenhagen went on a rampage at a free speech event and then shot and killed a Jewish man guarding a synagogue before being killed by police; Danish authorities think he may have been trying to recreate last month’s murderous attacks at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and a kosher supermarket, in Paris.  On Sunday, hundreds of Jewish tombs were desecrated in eastern France.  Surveys of Jews in Europe show increased worries about anti-Semitism, and a recent hidden camera video shows a Jewish man being insulted, spat upon, and threatened as he walked the streets of Paris.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded to the Denmark incident by calling for Jews to emigrate to Israel; he said Jews deserve protection in every country but warned that the attacks will continue.  Some Jewish leaders in Europe rejected that call, arguing that, in one man’s words, for Jews to leave Europe would be handing Hitler a “posthumous victory.”  They contend, instead, that Jews should remain and advocate for increased democracy, vocal rejection of anti-Semitism by governments in the Eurozone, and increased police protection of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

What should Jews do?  No one is predicting a second Holocaust — but no one predicted a first Holocaust, either.  No one wants to retreat in the face of depraved and murderous attacks, but would you want to continue to expose your family and children to potentially unsafe conditions and a culture in which slurs and physical intimidation are increasingly commonplace?  It’s an impossible individual choice, being made against the dark historical backdrop of genocide that happened on the European continent less than a century ago.

The burden instead must fall on governments to stop Europe from backsliding into hell.  Protest marches and public pronouncements are nice, but more must be done to stop the anti-Semitic wave, demonstrate the commitment to a Europe that welcomes and includes Jews, culturally and politically, and aggressively identify and prosecute the perpetrators of street bullying, vandalism, shootings, and every other anti-Jewish criminal act.  Americans can reinforce that message by not spending their money in Europe unless action is taken.

If people are to leave the European continent in the wake of an anti-Semitic wave, it should be the wrongdoers, not the persecuted.

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

The Trilateral Commission, Once More

Diplomats are expected to be careful and judicious in their speech — which is why the word “diplomatic” found its way into everyday speech — but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is the exception to the rule.  He seemingly has a knack for ill-advised comments.

In recent remarks, Kerry said that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it doesn’t reach a peace agreement with Palestinians.  Of course, “apartheid” is a highly loaded word, evoking images of the repressive and racist South African regime that imprisoned Nelson Mandela.  Kerry’s statement was promptly and roundly criticized by supporters of Israel from both sides of the aisle, and Kerry then apologized, saying he wished he could rewind the tape and use a different word — although he blamed the chorus of criticism in part on “partisan, political purposes.”

What’s interesting about the story is not Kerry’s blunder — we should all be used to that by now — but that it happened at a super-secret, closed-door meeting of the Trilateral Commission.  For decades, the Trilateral Commission has been a favorite target of conspiracy theorists, who have depicted is as a kind of shadow world government that puts people into positions of power and then pulls the strings.

So, how did someone get a recording of a powerful figure speaking to the Commission?  It turns out that a journalist just walked into the meeting — he “slipped past both Commission staff and Diplomatic Security,” according to a letter of apology the North American chair of the Commission wrote to Kerry — and recorded Kerry’s remarks.  The incident therefore doesn’t reflect the kind of approach to security you’d expect from the  hyper-competent, brooding omnipresence depicted by the conspiracy-minded.

So, perhaps John Kerry’s latest bit of thoughtless floundering may have a positive impact after all:  it may finally strike the Trilateral Commission from the list of organizations that are the focus of international intrigue and the latest conspiracy theories.

Iran And Nukes

Today the United States and a group of other countries reached agreement on a proposal that addressed the Iranian nuclear program.  The agreement is a temporary one, apparently designed to freeze the Iranian program in place so that additional negotiations can occur.

According to the BBC, the key elements of the agreement are that Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond a certain point, allow inspectors increased access to its nuclear sites, and stop development of a plant that could create plutonium, and in exchange no new sanctions will be imposed for six months and Iran will receive billions of dollars in relief from existing sanctions.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the deal gives the U.S., and Israel, “breathing space” for additional negotiations with Iran.  Iran says the deal recognizes its right to enrich uranium; Kerry denies that.

Is it a good deal?  I tend to trust Israel on Middle Eastern matters, because the Israelis have shown a very clear-eyed view of the realpolitik in that perpetually challenging region of the world.  They have to be clear-eyed, of course, because their very survival is on the line.  It’s fair to say the Israelis aren’t happy about this agreement, and neither are their supporters — both Republican and Democrat — in the U.S. Congress.  In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake.”  The Israelis and their supporters think the sanctions were working and should have been continued until Iran agreed to end its program.

I don’t trust Iran.  I don’t trust a government that has called for the obliteration of Israel, that still has a scent of fanaticism about it, that has cracked down on its own citizens as they have tried to exercise basic freedoms, and that has been a fomenter of terrorism and unrest in the Middle East for decades.  How do you negotiate with a country that you can’t trust?

The Final Debate

Tonight, in Florida, President Obama and Mitt Romney have their final debate.  This debate will focus on foreign policy and — as UJ notes in his post today about the Middle East — there is a lot to talk about.

The debate will follow the same format as the first debate.  There will be six 15-minute discussion pods on topics selected by the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News.  The moderator will open each segment with a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and the moderator will guide a discussion of the topic for the remainder of the 15 minutes.  The six topics selected by Schieffer are:  “America’s role in the world,” “Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines — Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism (I and II),” and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.”  The moderator reserves the right to change the topics depending on developments, and the order of the topics also can be changed.

It will be interesting to see if there is a change in tone for tonight’s debate.  The last presidential debate was heated, with some very sharp exchanges.  Hyper-aggressive posturing by the candidates may be acceptable when domestic policy is being discussed, but foreign policy is a different arena.  Although the candidates obviously will be thinking of how their statements will affect the presidential race, they also need to be mindful of the foreign audience that will be watching the debate.  I’m sure the people of Israel, for example, will be carefully reviewing the discussion during the “Red Lines:  Israel and Iran” segment.  The candidates will need to speak clearly and be cautious in their comments and (of course!) avoid the devastating gaffe.  I’m sure both the President and Mitt Romney have been practicing the pronunciation of the names of foreign leaders.

For those of us here in America, Libya obviously has been in the spotlight.  Every day, revelations raise new questions about our security arrangements in Benghazi, our lack of a response while the attack was ongoing, and our conflicting and misleading statements after the attack ended.  Another big topic will be Afghanistan and Iraq, where so many of our sons and daughters have served for so long and so many families have suffered devastating losses.  What can we do to make sure that the gains obtained through their service are protected, while extricating ourselves from conflicts that seem never-ending?

It’s a dangerous world out there.  In addition to the rise of Islamic fanaticism and the always unsettled Middle East, there is the ongoing, hair-trigger stand-off between North and South Korea, a resurgent Russia eager to flex its geopolitical muscle, a European Union that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its fiscal irresponsibility, and tensions between China, Japan, and Taiwan about the sovereignty of islands, among many other issues.  UJ’s post notwithstanding, I don’t think President Bush can be blamed for all of these issues — and even if he could, laying blame on a President who has been out of office for four years does nothing to solve the problems.  In tonight’s debate I’ll be listening for thoughtful discussion of these issues and reasonable solutions, not finger-pointing.

Voting No On God And Jerusalem

A weird scene at the Democratic National Convention today, one of those impromptu moments that makes you wonder if you aren’t seeing something a bit deeper, something hidden that wouldn’t be shown if only scripted moments were permitted.

After people pointed out that the official Democratic platform didn’t mention God or support Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, embarrassed Democratic leaders acted to return those two concepts to the platform.  Unfortunately, their effort to do so by voice vote unleashed a torrent of shouted “no” votes and boos, as opposing delegates stood on their chairs and screamed at the top of their lungs.  After three attempts, the chairman declared that two thirds of the delegates had voted in favor, even though there was no material difference in volume between the “ayes” and the “nays” on the question.

Does any normal citizen — that is, anyone who isn’t a party activist or someone who is searching for fodder for an attack ad — read the platforms of our political parties?  I don’t think so . . . but will people pay attention to TV footage of angry delegates doing whatever they can to prevent even a mention of God, or a message of support for Israel, and perhaps draw inferences about what that party really believes as a result?

The GOP Targets Weiner’s World

You’ll remember former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned from the House of Representatives in disgrace after his curious on-line conduct and later misrepresentations about it were disclosed to the American public.  His sordid tale dominated the airwaves in June.

Tomorrow a special election will be held to replace Weiner.  His New York City district formerly was viewed as safely Democratic — it covers parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and was the political springboard for current New York Senator Chuck Schumer — but now polls indicate that the Republican candidate may actually win.  Such a result would send shock waves through the Democratic Party and might cause more Democrats to begin questioning President Obama and his leadership of the party.

The old saying is that all politics is local, and local issues have been important in this race.  The district includes a large Jewish population, and Republican Bob Turner has urged them to send a message to President Obama about his policies toward Israel.  The polling also indicates, however, that President Obama’s general unpopularity may be a drag on the Democratic candidate, David Weprin.  The President carried the district by 11 percentage points in 2008, but a recent poll indicates that he now is viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of respondents, including 38 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents.

You normally can’t make too much out of a special election to replace a politician who resigned amidst scandal, but tomorrow’s special election could be an exception to that rule.  If a safe Democratic seat flips to the Republicans, it may be a sign of greater voter unrest, and larger political waves, at work in America.

The Wave Rolls On

In the Middle East, these are interesting times — which means these also are interesting times in the halls of the State Department.

With popular protests having brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the wave of demonstrations for democracy is sweeping on to other countries in the region.  We are seeing unrest in Bahrain, violent encounters between government forces and anti-government activists in Libya, and clashes between police and protesters in Yemen.  Governments in places like Jordan are trying to implement reforms that they hope will quell popular unrest.  The wave has even reached Iran, where there have been confrontations between security forces and supporters of opposition to the government.

It is not clear yet how big, or how powerful, this wave of protest against undemocratic regimes will be.  Waves are unpredictable.  Sometimes waves that look enormous peter out, and waves also can be indiscriminate in their destructive force.  In a year, we could see a Middle East that looks pretty much the same as it does right now, or we could see an area filled with many new governments.  And if that is the result, who knows whether the governments will support peace with Israel and be favorably inclined to America, or whether we will see more governments predicated on intolerant religious fundamentalism, or whether we will see something else entirely?  In America, and in Israel, we watch with anticipation and dread as the wave rolls on.

Holding Our Breath

In the United States, the decision of Hosni Mubarak to yield power to a supreme military tribunal should be a cause for circumspection, not celebration.

Much as we understand and appreciate the desire of the Egyptian people to throw off the reins of an authoritarian regime, there is no assurance at present that whatever government will eventually follow Mubarak will be a real improvement in terms of permitting democracy and recognizing human rights.  From this point forward, prudence would seem to suggest that the United States should refrain from public statements about developments in Egypt in favor of careful diplomacy that works behind the scenes to ensure an inclusive, democratic Egyptian government that respects and honors Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

We also should recognize that the fall of Mubarak no doubt will leave every government in the Middle East — from Israel, to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia — feeling a bit shaken and concerned about the possibility of additional popular uprisings.  Sweeping pronouncements from the United States about what should be done may not be welcome.  We should hold our breath, keep our own counsel, and see what happens next.

Find The Cost of (Egyptian) Freedom

Egypt is now experiencing its fifth day of violent street protests.  The army has been called out, social media communications and internet access have been disrupted, and most recently President Hosni Mubarak has sacked his government and will be appointing a new one.

Egypt’s economy is mired in high unemployment with low wages, and the masses have followed the lead of Tunisia and taken to the streets against an unpopular leader.  Mubarak, who has been President for 30 years and apparently has become increasingly tyrannical over that period, is trying to avoid being deposed.  In these all-too-familiar scenarios, the crucial issue for the regime usually is whether the army can beat back the masses so that calm can be restored, or whether the army decides to side with the public, leaving the strongman President For Life unprotected, unsupported, and faced with a choice between arrest and trial or fleeing into exile.  That decision point seems to be drawing near in Egypt.

In Washington, D.C. and Tel Aviv, the wheels no doubt are turning.  Under Mubarak, Egypt has been a moderating force that gave Israel one set of stable borders.  Egypt was rewarded for that.  It has long been one of the largest recipients of American aid.  In 2010, Egypt received $1.5 billion in economic and military aid, second only to Israel.

I am sure that the realpolitick types in American government would prefer Mubarak to the unknown that might occur if he were deposed.  It is possible, of course, that elections could produce a fundamentalist Islamic regime that is hostile to Israel and the Mideast peace process.  Yet too much American support for Mubarak could quash American influence with a successor government if he ultimately is deposed.  Iran may be a model here.  America’s steadfast support for the Shah of Iran until the bitter end left America with no real influence when the Ayatollah Khomeini took over, and American and Iran have been estranged ever since — to the detriment of geopolitics in the Middle East.

Of course, geopolitical considerations and American foreign policy considerations don’t mean much to those Egyptians who are in the streets, protesting in hopes of achieving democratic changes and a better life.  Why shouldn’t they have a real say in how they are governed?

 

The Prospect Of A Nuclear Iran

The recent disclosure about a new secret Iranian facility devoted to the Iranian nuclear program — one of several such facilities in Iran — significantly raises the stakes in our relations with that Islamic state. It seems clear that the President will focus, for the present, on getting international agreement to some form of new sanctions on Iran. The question is whether the Administration should do more, and when? Some believe that the United States’ slow response to the Iranian nuclear program, and its dithering with respect to the North Korean program, are just encouraging other rogue states to try to enter the nuclear fraternity.

I doubt that Japan and other neighbors of North Korea are happy with the North Korean nuclear program or the missile tests the North Koreans have held in the past year. Such behavior is necessarily destabilizing. With each North Korean missile test I imagine the Japanese wonder whether, this time, the rogue government of Kim Jong Il has strapped a nuclear warhead aboard in hopes that the world will show it a bit more respect.

In Iran, the risks are even higher due to the volatility of the Middle East generally, the oil reserves located there, and the disturbing nature of the Iranian regime. Shouldn’t we all be terrified by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, governed by medieval religious figures and led by a Holocaust-denying fanatic who threatens the existence of Israel with every speech? Aren’t the parallels to Hitler and Nazi Germany too obvious to be overlooked? Shouldn’t we take Mr. Ahmadinejad at his word in his vows to wipe Israel off the map, and realize that preemptive action may the only way to avoid a second Holocaust?

The crucial difference between Iran and Nazi Germany, of course, is that Hitler, due to the technological limitations of his time, could only proceed through conventional warfare to cause a war that killed millions. If the Iranians succeed in developing nuclear weapons, they need only lob a few missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other nations to cause a global conflagration. The risks of that occurring are too appalling to contemplate or to permit. Any new sanctions regime should be brief and unyielding in its insistence that Iran stop its nuclear program; in the meantime the United States should be working with Israel and our allies to devise and, if necessary, carry out espionage and military options that will prevent Iran from realizing its evident nuclear ambitions.