Thursday, August 31, 2006

HAR1F: A hot new gene hits the scene

According to recent reports, scientists have identified a gene which has undergone an unusually rapid series of changes in the last few million years of human evolution. As the gene – assigned the catchy name HAR1F – appears to play a role in the development of the cerebral cortex, it may be one of the key genetic elements that make us smarter than the average bear – or horse, or chicken, or even chimpanzee.

The newly-discovered gene is unusual in a couple of ways: First, unlike “normal” genes – which are transcribed into messenger RNA which, in turn, controls production of a protein – HAR1F is an “RNA gene”: it produces an RNA string that functions on its own, affecting the organism directly rather than through creation of a protein product. But more importantly (for present purposes), HAR1F has undergone substantial changes in the course of human evolution over the last six or so million years, even though it’s a gene that normally changes very little over much longer time-spans.

The HAR1F gene is “essentially the same” in all mammals other than humans. Even between chimpanzees (our closest relatives) and chickens (who make good soup, but otherwise are not our friends), only two out of the gene’s 118 “letters” (more properly, “bases”) have changed – meaning that the gene has been almost entirely static for hundreds of millions of years. This is unsurprising: if the gene is significantly involved in fetal brain development, we would expect it to be conserved – since most possible mutations would be harmful or even fatal. How, then, do we explain the fact that human HAR1F differs from chimpanzee HAR1F in eighteen out of its 118 bases?

*          *          *

One of the fundamental implications of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is that humankind is no longer to be viewed as something special, apart from the rest of creation. Instead, we are an animal descended from other animals; and our ancestors, while obviously of parochial interest to our not-so-exalted selves, are no more inherently God-like than those of shrimp or shrew. Even worse, modern Darwinism (as articulated, for example, by the late Stephen Jay Gould) tells us that evolution is not “directional”: there is no inherent drive for Nature to come up with “better” creatures over time, but merely random drift, periodic ecological catastrophe, and fortuitous survival of those creatures lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right characteristics and something reasonably cute to mate with.

Obviously, this demotion of Man from “created in God’s image” to “ape descendant” is something that a lot of people find threatening – which may help to explain why Biblical fundamentalists spend so much time passionately fighting the teaching of evolution and yet often seem rather blasé about equally Biblical stuff like keeping the Sabbath and not coveting their neighbors’ asses. (Alternative explanation: a lot of people get all fired up about reading the Bible cover-to-cover, but get bored when they hit the “begats” after Noah’s Flood and give up; so they stick to the parts they know.) And even for those of us who intellectually embrace Darwinian evolution, it’s awfully hard to accept that our own species is ultimately just another bunch of animals enjoying its brief day in the sun until something wipes us out and we’re succeeded by our not-quite-human-in-our-sense-of-the-word descendants – or by something entirely different, like giant carnivorous land clams.

*          *          *

I find it rather consoling, then, to think about HAR1F and its implications. It was already well known, of course, that we humans are inordinately proud of our intelligence. Our large brains are so important to us that:
  • they’re worth sacrificing a fair bit of our efficiency as bipeds (in that our pelvises need to accommodate an oversized birth canal, and thus are less than optimal for running away from giant carnivorous land clams, should such fearsome creatures evolve on our watch);
  • they’re worth having an almost uniquely difficult, painful, and dangerous childbirth process (with our only mammalian competitor for this title being the hyena, which has a whole different set of problems and motivations than we do);
  • and they’re worth spending some 22% of our metabolic resources on (meaning that we require a good bit more food than a normally-brainy animal our size would need; so if I’m so smart, how come I ain’t thin?)

HAR1F adds a strong molecular confirmation to these more subjective indications of human uniqueness: after at least 200 million years (and perhaps more than twice that) of nearly complete stasis, HAR1F all of a sudden started to change rapidly as one group of apes set out on the road to humanity. Of course, there is no reason to think that our ancestors’ HAR1F genes mutated more readily than anyone else’s; but for some reason, the benefits provided by some of the random changes that took place were enough to preserve them in our genome, while other species were content to stick with what had worked since before the dinosaurs.

Why was it worthwhile for our ancestors to play Russian roulette with a gene that every other species was afraid to touch? Why was it worth having all the cost and inconvenience of a large brain? If intelligence is such a good thing, why is human HAR1F the only one that differs from the usual sort?

It appears that there is something unique about us after all! Over hundreds of millions of years, animals have lived happily with brains that were perfectly adequate for finding food, for escaping from predators in order not to become food, for creating and raising offspring, and so on – but which would never swoon over a sonnet or solve a Sudoku, much less write a blog. If our fellow animals had a use for bigger brains, they would have them; after all, there is nothing at all inadequate about horses or herons, which are quite smart enough to live the lives they choose to live, even if they can’t comprehend James Joyce.

But our ancestors chose (or perhaps were forced into) a lifestyle in which a much higher degree of intelligence was crucial – so important that it was worth paying a uniquely heavy biological price. And the lifestyle changes must have started before our ancestors’ brain size began to skyrocket; otherwise there would be no evolutionary pressure selecting for ever-larger brains and ever-greater intelligence. As far as we know, this experiment has never been attempted before – at least not on this planet.

So what if we humans are not the Paragon of Creation, uniquely created in the image of God? We’re not just another bunch of animals either! We (or our progenitors) have gone down a path that no other Earthly lineage has ever traveled; we’ve paid a high price for unique strengths. Let HAR1F serve as a reminder of just how special we are, how new and unusual, with our oversized brains.

Now if we could only figure out how to use them!

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

Categories: , , , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Clash of the Legal Titans: Fatah meets Resolution 1701

I’ve long had an interest in the law - not quite enough of an interest actually to go to law school and do something about it, mind you, but an interest just the same. Imagine my fascination and delight, then, to read the following in the Jerusalem Post:

The Lebanese government demanded [that] Palestinians in refugee camps in the Litani area... disarm in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701...

...according to “senior Fatah operative in Lebanon” Monir Al-Makdah.

Reportedly, Lebanese Prime Minister Faud Saniora made the request to Fatah representative in Lebanon Abbas Za’aki.

Al-Makdah rejected the demand in an interview with Jordanian newspaper Al-Dostur, saying that the Security Council resolution was illegal since it did not include the right of return of Palestinian refugees. [italics mine]

Now isn’t this wonderful? A legally-binding United Nations Security Council resolution can be declared “illegal” simply because it doesn’t include a reference to a presumptive “right” that is nowhere enshrined in international law - and which would be irrelevant to the implementation of Resolution 1701 even if it existed.

Rather than rail at the perfidy of Fatah, wail at the sheer unadulterated sophistry of Mister Al-Makdah’s logic, or otherwise kvetch, I’m going to take this report as a positive development in the evolution of the law: from now on, I’ll obey laws when they include stuff that makes me happy, and I’ll feel free to disobey them (without penalty, of course) if they lack that certain little something.

For example, I see no reason to obey the speed limit any more - since the traffic regulations don’t provide me with a harem of willing and lovely young women to cater to my every whim, it’s only right and reasonable for me to have other legally-sanctioned ways of coping with testosterone. And why should I be subject to the law against robbing banks when the same statute totally fails to rid my house of ever-present cat fluff? (I had thought that the proper term for cat fluff was “dander” - but I just looked it up at, and it turns out that dander is actually cat dandruff, not cat fluff. And the law against bank-robbery doesn’t take care of that, either.)

Ah well (sigh)... I suppose that Israel’s legal system probably hasn’t caught up with the latest advances coming out of Lebanon. I’d better tell my getaway driver to keep to the speed limit.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

Categories: , , , , , , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Havel Havelim (the Jewish/Israeli blog carnival): 84 and still going strong!

The new 84th edition of Havel Havelim is up at Batya’s me-ander blog. As usual, there’s a lot to read; as usual, Batya has done a wonderful job of putting it all together; and as usual, I’m trembling in my boots (Crocks, actually) out of fear that someone’s going to pick me to do the job. Enjoy!

Categories: , , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Thursday, August 24, 2006

President Peres? An Israeli political conundrum

It appears that Israel’s President is in trouble. I must admit that I haven’t been following the story closely – not because it isn’t interesting and important (although, in a very real sense, it isn’t), but because, frankly, I’m sick and tired of hearing about other guys whose love lives are more exciting than my own. (I’ll leave it open to debate whether President Katzav’s alleged escapades constitute a “love life” in the more enlightened sense of the phrase.)

So while our President remains innocent until proven guilty, potential replacements are lining up to announce (or at least quietly to leak) their availability for the job should a vacancy occur.

All of which leads me to the following gem, from this article in today’s Jerusalem Post:

Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who lost to Katsav six years ago, is only willing to run if no serious candidate would run against him. It is possible that [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert could end up urging Peres to run if he fears that [Likud MK and former Knesset Speaker Reuven] Rivlin could win.

All of this might seem rational enough, had I the answers to two closely-related questions:

  1. How could anyone run against Shimon Peres for national office and not be considered “a serious candidate”? It would seem to me that opposing Shimon Peres in an election is perhaps the most reliable recipe for Instant Seriousness in Israeli politics.

  2. How could Ehud Olmert – who has been accused of many nasty things, but seldom of political ineptitude – view a Peres candidacy as a way of preventing a competing candidate from winning the Presidential election?

I invite you – nay, I beg you, dear readers – to enlighten me. I’m stumped.

Categories: , , , , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

ClichéWatch: “Israel’s lost deterrence”

Deterrence is a topic that has been much on my mind since the early days of the “al-Aqsa Intifada” – when every time our army knocked down a suicide bomber’s family home or otherwise seemed to act in a draconian, thoughtless, and insensitive manner, the authorities trotted out the justification that Israel was acting “to deter future acts of terrorism”. The IDF eventually investigated its policy of home demolitions and decided, unsurprisingly, that the practice had never had a significant deterrent effect; indeed, home demolitions had probably acted as a stimulant for Palestinian terrorism. (I blogged on this topic back in December 2005; and my most recent academic conference presentation, at the IEEE Intelligence and Security Informatics conference in May 2006, was on “Rational-Choice Deterrence and Israeli Counter-Terrorism”. I’ll post the full article here if anyone’s interested.)

In the aftermath of our recent military campaign in Lebanon, many Israeli right-wingers have been wringing their hands (and, rhetorically, the necks of our Prime Minister and Defense Minister) over Israel’s supposed “loss of deterrence” due to our failure to destroy Hezbollah and its rocket-launching capability. Now I would hardly claim that our operation in Lebanon was an unqualified success; but I’ve become enough of a deterrence-skeptic that I’m instantly suspicious of people who use “deterrence” as a rationale for using maximal military force in asymmetric conflicts. Too often, “deterrence” is really just an excuse to blast away at people we don’t like.

It was refreshing, then, to read the following in an article by Yair Lapid about the Israeli news media’s handling of the Lebanon campaign (the italics are mine):

“Israel’s deterrence capabilities have been severely handicapped,” we told the whole world. This without bothering to remember that deterrence is a psychological situation for which there are no standards of measurement and no one can really know what those capabilities are.

After the Six-Day War, for example, the Israeli deterrence was at its highest and we got attacked on Yom Kippur anyway. After Yom Kippur every one knew that Israel’s deterrence had been damaged but no one attacked.

In other words, even when dealing with state actors, deterrence can be very difficult to measure – except, of course, in retrospect.

Deterrence works best against entities with a basically materialist outlook. The reason that the American-Soviet deterrent system of “mutually assured destruction” worked as well as it did was that both nations, while differing in many other values, were fundamentally uninterested in “martyrdom”; communism and capitalism both justify their policies based on the prosperity and well-being they provide their populations, and neither system could find a way to portray a nuclear holocaust, even a “victorious” one, as a success.

At the opposite end of the “deterrability” scale, suicide bombers are notoriously almost impossible to deter. How, after all, do you threaten someone who is already determined to die, and who has been promised extravagant rewards in an afterlife that is beyond your reach?

In evaluating potential deterrence, it’s crucial to determine where the entity to be deterred belongs on the Soviet-Union-to-suicide-bomber scale. Syria, for example, is not at all opposed to death per se, but much prefers to see other countries doing the fighting and dying. (Dr. Boaz Ganor of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism has suggested that Syria might be a more fruitful target for deterrence than Hezbollah itself in Israel’s attempts to solve its Lebanese problems.) Iran, on the other hand, is currently being led by a radical Shi’ite clique that appears to set a high value on “martyrdom”, even if Iran itself is the “martyr”. This is why the prospect of Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons is so scary: a country that is willing to become a nuclear wasteland in return for destroying its enemies cannot be easily deterred, even by a country with superb second-strike retaliatory capabilities. Thus the confrontation between an eventual nuclear Iran and a presumed-to-be-nuclear Israel would not have the inherent deterrence-driven stability of the American-Soviet match-up, or even of India and Pakistan.

I see no reason to believe that Israel’s ability to deter Syria has been degraded by our recent operations in Lebanon; after all, we certainly proved that we have plenty of firepower, the political will to deploy it, and even the ability to take casualties without panicking. I don’t believe our ability to deter Iran has significantly declined either – it wasn’t much to begin with. And Hezbollah? Remember who introduced suicide bombing to the Middle East! Hamas and the rest were taught the bomb-belt business by our friends up North; so we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we ever had a meaningful capacity to deter Hezbollah from attacking us simply by attacking them in return.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

Categories: , , , , , , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Monday, August 14, 2006

A new star in Cyberspace: Ahmadinejad blogs!

The Jerusalem Post (apparently along with the rest of the world’s news media) has informed us that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has started his own blog. The blogsphere’s newest sensation (or at least, its newest sensation as of a day or two ago) can be found at (WARNING: see postscript below before accessing this site, especially from Israel!), and is apparently available in a bunch of languages including English, French, and Arabic as well as its original Farsi. According to the Post’s story (supplied by the Associated Press), Ahmadinejad’s first entry recounts “childhood memories, the country's Islamic Revolution and Tehran's war with Iraq” – possibly a bad move on the newbie blogger’s part, since that much material could easily be stretched out to cover three or four blog posts, keeping the punters coming back for more and building up that all-important Google PageRank rating.

I must admit that my own efforts to peruse Ahmadinejad’s blog have so far proven frustrating: at best, I get a “Server Error” screen. Iran’s President, despite a level of intelligence sufficient to impress veteran CBS interviewer Mike Wallace (who gushed, “He's an impressive fellow, this guy. He really is. He's obviously smart as hell.”), has evidently not quite figured out all the technical wrinkles involved in fine-tuning his blog’s HTML code; perhaps he should have taken the easy approach and set up a blog as I did, using one of their standard templates. I don’t mean to criticize, Mr. President – it’s just a friendly tip from one of your new blogging colleagues. Please don’t nuke me!

One of Ahmadinejad’s local colleagues, (ex-?) blogger Keivan Mehrgan (formerly?) of Tehran, dismissed the President’s blog as “nothing more than a publicity stunt” – implying, I suppose, that the blog’s contents are not a genuine personal project of the Iranian leader. I think that the possibly-late Mr. Mehrgan is (or was) being overly cynical – for even if Ahmadinejad did receive a little help in getting started as a blogger, I have no doubt whatsoever that he will soon become as avid a blogger-hobbyist as the rest of us. I fully expect to see him sweating his Technorati rank, refreshing his SiteMeter visitor statistics page every half hour (struggling not to do it every fifteen minutes), and laboring to evolve in the Truth Laid Bear Ecosystem from “Adorable Rodent” to “Marauding Marsupial”. (I blush to admit that I’m still a “Crawly Amphibian”.)

It’s a cheerful thought, isn’t it? An Iranian President busy blogging would hardly have time or energy to send nuclear-armed missiles our way, rearm Hezbollah, or otherwise destroy the Western world that provides the bulk of his readership, would he? Sedentary hobbies are notoriously good for keeping Presidents peacefully occupied: look at Franklin Roosevelt, a famous stamp collector. He never got the United States into a war, or even nuked anyone! (OK, he might have used a small, primitive nuclear device or two had he had the chance, but he died a couple of months before the Bomb was ready. In any case, stamp collecting is deathly dull compared to blogging, so my thesis stands.)

Hey, I finally got through! I’d better post this and read what my new blogging buddy has to say. Do you think I can get him to link to me?

P.S. A comment on the Jerusalem Post article referred me to this page, claiming that President Ahmadinejad’s blog tries to install “Trojan Horse” code when Israeli users click on the links at the left-hand side of the blog’s homepage. Users from other countries did not report this problem, so it may be that if you try to click around the site and you’re not in Israel, you won’t experience any nastiness. Wherever you are, though, I would suggest avoiding Ahmadinejad’s blog – or at least treating it with extreme caution – until and unless all such hostile code is purged from the system.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

Categories: , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Born Into Trouble: Resolution 1701’s rocky start

The ink is not yet dry on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, but there is already at least one indication that the resolution’s implementation will be problematic: Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s supposed “acceptance” of the resolution in fact contradicts two of its most important operational clauses.

Here are the relevant parts of the resolution:

[The Security Council...]

1. Calls for a full cessation of hostilities based upon, in particular, the immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations;

2. Upon full cessation of hostilities, calls upon the government of Lebanon and Unifil as authorised by paragraph 11 to deploy their forces together throughout the South and calls upon the government of Israel, as that deployment begins, to withdraw all of its forces from southern Lebanon in parallel;

And here is some of what Nasrallah has to say about the resolution (with italics supplied by the Don’s Mideast Musings Typography Bureau):

We believe that the resolution that was agreed on last night was unfair, but if there is an agreement on the cessation of hostilities between the Lebanese government and the enemy, we will abide by it without delay...

Regardless of our reservations and political positions, we will cooperate when the Lebanese soldiers and UNIFIL forces are deployed...

We must be aware of the fact that the war will continue for another few days. That's why we are continuing to fight today. We will fight as long as Israeli soldiers are in Lebanon.

In other words, Hezbollah will continue its attacks against Israel – certainly guerrilla warfare against Israel Defense Force soldiers inside Lebanon, and perhaps rocket attacks on Israel’s civilian population – despite the fact that Resolution 1701 calls for “the immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks” before the Lebanese army and a beefed-up UNIFIL take the place of the IDF in South Lebanon. (One Associated Press report claims that Nasrallah “said Hezbollah rocket strikes on northern Israel would end when Israel stopped airstrikes and other attacks on Lebanese civilians” – but as it doesn’t give Nasrallah’s exact words, even in translation, it’s hard to know how seriously to take this statement. In any case, given Hezbollah’s deployment among South Lebanon’s civilian population, almost anything the IDF does there can be interpreted as “attacks on Lebanese civilians”.)

In short, the evidence so far is that despite the headlines, Hezbollah does not, in fact, intend to abide by the terms of U.N.S.C. Resolution 1701 – and thus it’s entirely possible that the fighting in Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israeli cities, will continue.

A more detailed analysis of Resolution 1701 in its entirety would probably be a good, albeit unoriginal, idea – if I can get around to it before the resolution becomes completely irrelevant.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

Categories: , , , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Israel and Lebanon, continued: Some thoughts on the end-game

I just fielded yet another AllExperts question on the Lebanon conflict, dealing specifically with the “end game” that seems to be developing on the ground and concurrently at the United Nations. Here’s the question and my answer – slightly retouched, but that seems to be basically normal these days.


What do you think about the continuing inability of Israel and Lebanon to agree on a ceasefire? From what I have heard, 15,000 Lebanese troops at the border would be useless and Israel will not leave until it believes it is going to be protected.  They are at a standoff, right?  How do you think the matter could be made appealing to both sides so that both will agree to a resolution?  Do you personally think it is time to stop the war or should Israel continue to move north into Lebanon??


Dear G_____ –

The question isn’t only how “useful” the deployment of the Lebanese Army to the South would be in strictly military terms. Having the Lebanese government take responsibility for its own country has a tremendous political value, even if its armed forces are (A) weak and (B) largely sympathetic to, and even infiltrated by, Hezbollah. Once the government has its forces deployed in the South, they can (and should) legitimately be held responsible for what happens there - as opposed to the current situation, where Hezbollah attacks Israel from Lebanese soil and the Lebanese government acts as if the country were a completely peaceful, harmless, innocent victim. In effect, by permitting Hezbollah to operate as a semi-autonomous mini-state in the South, official Lebanon has been getting the benefits of being peaceful without actually having to give up armed struggle; once the government takes responsibility for their own country, they can’t act as if Hezbollah attacks on Israel were originating from somewhere in outer space.

Israel’s position is that the Lebanese Army is indeed insufficiently capable and motivated to act decisively to disarm Hezbollah; thus we believe that a strong international force will be necessary in order to supplement and strengthen Lebanese government forces. I don’t see any real impasse here; I view it more as an indirect negotiation that will take a little time to conclude.

I’m not particularly convinced that controlling territory X kilometers into Lebanon will be the answer to all our troubles; thus I don’t think that it will necessarily be a tragedy if we fail to reach the Litani River (or further) before fighting stops. On the other hand, we have something of a dilemma on our hands: we can’t withdraw our forces before an effective Lebanese/international force takes over in South Lebanon, and we also don’t want to stop where we are, take up static positions, and be a sitting target for Hezbollah suicide bombers as we were during our previous occupation of southern Lebanon. So we pretty much have to continue on the offensive and work our way northward, at least until a U.N.-sponsored ceasefire takes hold; at that point we can sit tight (at high alert, you can be sure!) and wait for our forces to be replaced by the Lebanese army and/or a strong United Nations force.

At the same time, I believe that we should always keep in mind that a conflict like the one in Lebanon seldom, if ever, ends in a conventional military victory. Low-intensity conflicts (and the current Lebanese campaign is, I think, in many ways a sort of high-intensity low-intensity conflict) are won and lost in political rather than military terms; and thus when we talk about “letting the IDF win” we are merely fooling ourselves. In my view, the reasons for continuing to move the IDF northwards are at least as much political as they are military: by keeping the offensive going, we ensure (assuming the campaign goes reasonably well) that we end the active phase of our engagement in Lebanon on an upbeat.

Best regards,

-Don Radlauer

The whole issue of defining “victory” in low-intensity conflicts – and thus identifying exit points when the conflict occurs on foreign soil – is a complex and baffling one. At the same time as much of the Arab world has defined victory down to the point where stalemates and even crushing defeats are seriously portrayed as great victories, many Israeli thinkers apply a conventional-war-based definition of victory to our conflicts with Hezbollah and the Palestinians; this creates a situation where our adversaries claim victory merely because we haven’t bombed them into oblivion (or at least “back to the Stone Age”), and we basically agree with them because our criteria for victory are unrealistically high. More of this anon, methinks…

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

Categories: , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Still looking for a new job? Try failure!

Although the Jerusalem Post kindly deigned to run my last piece (for the usual fee of precisely zero), they were utterly silent regarding my implicit plea to be employed there as a headline writer for articles about my personal blogmuse, President Ahmadinejad of Iran. I had thought my qualifications were most impressive, but the good folks at the Post are evidently unimpressed. Their loss, I say, squaring my jaw and suppressing my sobs.

I am, of course, gainfully employed in a profession at which I am rather competent – which is why I am able to write for the supposed (and so far, completely imaginary) fun of it instead of earning fees and facing (ugh!) deadlines. Nonetheless, I am approaching (or perhaps have already approached and am just a bit slow) that age at which men frequently feel a vague sense of discontent, abandon their careers (successful or otherwise), and strike out in directions new and – one must concede – usually rather foolish. I am no less a man, no less a man approaching middle age, than any other forty-six-year-old male human; and after all, what have twenty-five years of striving for success got me? A massive overdraft, ten cats living in my house (plus one large dog who, thank heaven, likes cats), and residence in a country that tolerates weeks of Hezbollah’s Katyusha attacks with fortitude and equanimity, mostly because we fully expect to be incinerated when Iran nukes us on 22 August, just two weeks from now and nine days before this year’s start-of-school-year teachers’ strike.

Thus a new career is definitely in order – especially one in which I can make a good and fulfilling start within the next fortnight. And if I can’t be an Ahmadinejad-specialist headline writer (sob), I’ll be… I’ll be… I’ve got it! I’ll be a failure!

A failure? – you say. What good is being a failure?

Normally, I’d agree with you: being a professional failure is not something that is looked up to back where I come from. But you forget – and you really should feel embarrassed about this, considering the title of my blog – I live in the Middle East. Where I come from now, failure is not merely looked up to – it’s idolized.

Don’t believe me? Listen to the Associated Press, then, in this Jerusalem Post article:

Fierce anti-US protests have erupted in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait - all top American allies. At the same time, the demonstrators have vented their anger at their Arab rulers, praising their new hero: Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah… Meanwhile, Nasrallah has emerged as a hero, even among some secular Sunnis in Egypt and Jordan. In Egypt, protestors and opposition newspapers compare him with the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the old Arab nationalist champion against Israel.

You see? To be a success here – and if having adoring crowds chanting your name and begging you to bomb Tel Aviv isn’t success, I don’t know what is – you don’t have to improve your country’s literacy rates, end unemployment, control inflation, raise living standards, or even get a computer program working properly. All you have to do is get a bunch of weapons from somewhere else, fire them off at Israel, hide in a deep bunker somewhere when the Jews counterattack, and then claim that your personal survival represents a great Arab victory. If you’re halfway decent at the failure business, you won’t even have to pay for your weapons – I mean, is this a great career or what?

I’m still not entirely sure how to get my start in the Mideast failure business; I’ll have to do some research, maybe take an online correspondence course. But don’t worry: I’ll be up there soon with the big boys, bringing ruin on my country and a smile to “the street”. Yessir, it’ll be Nasser, Arafat, Saddam, Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad… and Radlauer!

I'll probably still have too many cats, though – there are some problems that even being a failure can’t solve.

Categories: , , , .
(Read more...)

<< Home

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Easy work and “the main solution”: Ahmadinejad rides again!

I wish I could get a job writing headlines. Not articles, not editorials, not analyses learned or otherwise – let someone else do that stuff. I want the fun job!

What am I talking about? This headline from the on-line edition of the Jerusalem Post:

‘Israel's destruction is the solution’
Ahmadinejad: Though main solution is end of Israel, cease-fire is first step.

Now come on. Don’t tell me that whoever wrote that headline and sub-headline didn’t spend a few seconds savoring the multi-level irony they convey. Don’t tell me s/he isn’t still chuckling over it as I write – probably guffawing out loud, spraying rancid, stale Jerusalem Post machine-made instant coffee all over his/her keyboard.

And the work is so easy! I mean, here’s the actual Ahmadinejad quote from the Jerusalem Post article:

“Although the main solution is for the elimination of the Zionist regime, at this stage an immediate cease-fire must be implemented,” Ahmadinejad said, according to state-run television in a report posted on its Web site Thursday.

The Iranians even did all the work of translation, for Pete’s sake! And Ahmadinejad, the dear boy, did pretty much all the rest. Just tighten up the wording a bit, check spelling and punctuation, and you’re there. Easy money!

*          *          *

Since I probably won’t get a headline-writing job at the Post or anywhere else, I suppose I’d better just sit back and savor the irony myself. (Unlike the Post’s headline-writer, I’m drinking green tea at the moment; it doesn’t look half as bad splattered on a keyboard as coffee does.) And really, it is rather nice having enemies like Ahmadinejad! How many enemies are so open (by implication, at least) about their inability to achieve their goals? “We’re going to destroy you, but since at the moment you’re effectively destroying us, let’s all stop shooting for a while!”

Just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and eager to stop attacking Hezbollah, doesn’t it? I mean, a cease-fire is the first step in our destruction, after all – who can resist that? And I certainly wouldn’t want the inconvenient fact that Israel is winning the war in Lebanon to stand in the way of Ahmadinejad’s “solution” (presumably a final one). After all, he’s got lots of problems to solve, and it’s awfully selfish of us to let our trivial little problems prevent him from making the world into the good and happy place he envisions.

Ah well… I think there’s still some tea in the pot.

Categories: , , , , .
(Read more...)

<< Home

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Israel in Lebanon: Goals, prospects, and “reasonableness”

Like pretty much everyone in Israel, I’ve had Lebanon on my mind for the last few weeks. After all, we’re at war up there – even if my own life, so far, has been remarkably unchanged by the fighting. Judging by the questions I’ve received through, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has been on the minds of a lot of other people as well.

The question below is a fairly typical one, as is my answer. Many of the topics raised deserve much longer responses; in particular, I’ve been considering writing something about the controversy over the “proportionality” of Israel’s military response to Hezbollah.

Question: What is it going to take for the fighting to stop and for a reasonable solution to be put into place?  I understand Israel’s goals, but can they be met anytime soon?  I’m also concerned that Israel is creating so many collateral enemies through all of this that she is going to be left with very few allies.  What are the chances of Syria and/or Iran becoming directly involved in the war at this point?  Do the citizens of Israel need to be concerned about attacks from the east?

Answer: Dear I_____ –

Good questions! I’ll deal with them (or attempt to do so) in order:

1) At this point, I’d predict that fighting will stop when the U.N. Security Council manages to come up with a resolution that more-or-less forces it to stop; or perhaps, less likely, when the U.S. or some other non-U.N. entity comes up with a cease-fire formula that both sides can agree to. I don’t think that Israel is going to be able to achieve a conventional victory over Hezbollah in the time available, largely since the organization is not going to stay in place and let itself be defeated.

Guerilla organizations are notoriously difficult to defeat: rather than fight pitched battles and lose against larger conventional forces, they cut and run, regroup, and maintain their existence to fight another day. At the same time, there will be no Lebanese Dien Bien Phu: the Israel Defense Forces, while they may not be able to deal Hezbollah a decisive defeat, will not themselves be beaten. At the end of the day, Hezbollah will be severely damaged but still standing; the IDF will go home with no more than minor bruises (relatively speaking, of course); and the Lebanese mess will enter its next phase without any real resolution.

Is that “reasonable”? Not really, and I’d certainly love for my prediction to prove to be incorrect and overly pessimistic. Some “reasonableness” would be a very welcome thing around here! What would it take to obtain a truly “reasonable” resolution? Probably a miracle or three.

2) Right now, it’s hard for me to imagine how Israel’s full goals can be met in the near future. There are simply too many players in the Middle East with an interest in preventing a peaceful resolution to the various parts of the over-all Arab-Israeli (and Iranian-Israeli) conflict, and not enough international powers will back Israel strongly enough for us to be able to force all the Arab/Islamic world to recognize our existence and cease sponsoring attacks on us. A more achievable goal would be for Israel to prove (yet again) that it is capable of defending itself, willing to do so, and unwilling to pay an exorbitant price for liberating Israeli prisoners. (Past Israeli governments have erred badly, in my opinion, in their negotiations for the return of living and dead Israelis in enemy hands.)

3) I’m not at all sure that Israel is creating a lot of enemies who didn’t hate us already. Who, after all, were our “allies”? The United States, Micronesia, and that’s about it. The rest of the world has always been ready to condemn us for anything we do in our own defense, not to mention the occasional things we do that actually deserve condemnation. Of course, it’s sad that in pursuit of Hezbollah’s fighters, installations, and materiel we unavoidably kill a lot of Lebanese noncombatants; it’s equally true that Hezbollah very deliberately set things up so that this was our only option other than simply to absorb their attacks without mounting a meaningful defense.

According to the Geneva Conventions and related elements of “international law”, the onus for Lebanese noncombatant fatalities is on Hezbollah, and not on Israel – as long as we are attacking what we believe to be genuine military targets, with levels of force that we believe to be necessary, reasonable, and proportional to the military importance of the target. While our results have not always been perfect (nobody’s are), I believe that Israel has held quite well to this standard.

Of course, most of the rest of the world completely misunderstands (through ignorance or through malice) the concept of proportionality, and thus compares Israeli fatalities with Lebanese fatalities (or Hezbollah fighters killed with Lebanese civilians killed). By such an unrealistic and irrational “proportionality” standard, Israel obviously comes off as the bad guy; but we have no option but to defend ourselves according to the requirements of genuine international law, not according to the bowdlerized version promulgated by our critics.

4) Neither Syria nor Iran is in any hurry to become directly involved in fighting with Israel; nor is Israel especially interested in fighting a shooting war with either of these countries until and unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Iran, in particular, has evidently drawn some “red lines” for Hezbollah – withholding permission for the organization to use their Iranian-made long-range missiles to attack cities in central Israel. This shows that Iran is looking to limit its direct involvement in the current war. When and if any Iranian Revolutionary Guards are killed in the fighting in Lebanon, I fully expect them to receive posthumous Lebanese citizenship with a name-change thrown in at no extra charge.

Of course, any time armies of hostile countries are mobilized, on alert, and positioned near their respective borders, there is a chance that some mishap will lead to fighting even if neither side intended for war to break out. This means that there is a real, if slight, chance that we will wind up fighting Syria; but I would assume, given past history and current intentions and interests, that both Syria and Israel will make every effort to keep the fighting contained inside Lebanon even if a bullet or two goes astray. (Iran, of course, is far enough away that an accidental war is pretty much impossible – unless a few Israeli F-15’s happen to get lost, accidentally get refueled by an equally misdirected airborne tanker, and mistakenly bomb Iran’s nuclear complex at Isfahan in an effort to improve their fuel economy by shedding excess payload.)

5) I assume that by “the east” you mean Iran and/or Syria, rather than Jordan. As I’ve said above, I don’t think either Syria or Iran (and especially not Jordan, for that matter) is looking for open conflict with Israel at this point.

Syria, while it has a substantial military and some non-conventional (chemical and perhaps biological) weapons capability, has a lot of vulnerabilities as well: Its tanks and planes are old and outmoded, and its minority-led government might well not survive any significant military reverses. Accordingly, I would expect Syria to stick to its historical pattern of instigating conflicts but not doing a lot of actual fighting.

Iran is a long way from Israel. While they can certainly annoy us by sponsoring Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, the only way they could pose a real threat to us would be to acquire or develop nuclear weapons and long-distance delivery systems. I would certainly say that a degree of Israeli (and global) “concern” about this possibility is warranted!

Israel is believed to have significant deterrent capability, including (so it is rumored) submarine-based second-strike nuclear weapons. The problem, of course, is that even such deterrence may not work against Iran’s extreme Shi’ite leaders, who seem to have something of a penchant for “martyrdom”; President Ahmadinejad and those who think as he does might be willing to absorb a massive nuclear attack on their own country in exchange for destroying Israel (and with it, inevitably, most of Palestine). I would hate to stake my life on my ability to predict the whims of Iran’s mullahs and their adherents; and yet (as I live in Israel and work in Tel Aviv) it appears that I have in fact done so.

Best regards,

-Don Radlauer

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

Categories: , , , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

It lives! Remiss blogger dares to show face after egregious hiatus...

As has by now become painfully obvious (especially to me) I’ve been somewhat remiss in my blogging of late. (“Of late”, in this context, means that I haven’t posted anything since May; “somewhat remiss” my oversized butt!) In my defense – and a flimsy defense it is, I admit – I’ve been rather busy with other activities, including projects at work and other such trivial pastimes. Mea maxima culpa.

At the same time, since Hezbollah attacked Israel and Israel attacked back, I’ve been kept rather busy answering questions at Even my monumental capacity for sloth cannot prevent me from writing answers to these questions, since if I don’t respond to them within a few days I’ll be unceremoniously purged from the AllExperts list of distinguished pundits on every subject from crises to cockatoos to carburetors. For some reason I can’t quite fathom, I’m quite protective of my status as an AllExperts “expert” – even though I’m paid nothing for my effort and occasionally receive abuse from some of my less philo-Semitic querents. Mine is not to wonder why; mine is just to write or die – metaphorically, of course.

I recently received the following question (which I’ve edited slightly):

The Israel Arab conflict is bad. Currently it seems like the U.S. has the most sway in the region, and influences the politics of many of the countries there. However, as you know, other countries are gaining political strength. As India and China gain in power, and their influence grows in the Middle East, how do you think this will affect the Israel-Arab conflict?

Are China and India more pro-Arab or pro-Israel? Is this changing? I know that India also has problems with the Muslims in Kashmir; will India favor Israel? What about China?

I find this question interesting, because those two countries are greatly increasing in importance. They will gain influence in the Middle East, and this could change the crisis there. What do you think?

Here is my answer:

Dear J____ –

China and India are indeed major nations, and are both becoming more significant powers as time passes. Your question about their current and future influence in the Middle East is thus a very good and important one.

To date, both China and India have played only a rather subdued role in the region – basically saying nice things to everyone, buying oil from the Arabs and weapons from Israel, and doing their best not to upset anyone too much. While the oil issue obviously gives the Arabs a degree of leverage (especially with China, whose appetite for oil is large and growing), it’s equally true that India (to a huge extent) and China (to a lesser extent, but with significant problems with Muslim separatists in Xinjiang) are threatened by Islamic radicalism. Israel is a natural ally to both countries in confronting this threat. (Of course, India has a large Moslem population of its own – so while many Hindus might be ready to embrace Israel more closely, the Indian government is careful not to befriend Israel too openly.)

Both countries, then, have chosen a rather typical (if perhaps less than admirably forthright) approach: In public pronouncements, U.N. votes, and so on, both tread a rather pro-Arab line; while in private conversations with Israelis, representatives of both countries explain that these public statements are basically for show, and we should not take them seriously. Of course, we Israelis respond (or at least I do, when I get the chance) that public pronouncements, even when not backed up by concrete action, can still do a great deal of harm.

I can’t really predict the future – or at least, I can’t do so and expect to be any more accurate than anyone else! The obvious prediction in the short term would be for both India and China to continue doing more or less what they’ve been doing: condemn Israel when they feel it’s diplomatically advisable to do so, buy arms from us, get advice from our counter-terrorism experts, and otherwise try to be friendly to everyone. I don’t see any real reason for either country to do otherwise; after all, they have nothing much to gain by ruffling anyone’s feathers.

While I don’t see any reason for a change in China’s or India’s muted approach to the Mideast conflict in the near future, the further we look ahead the more uncertain the picture becomes. I really can’t say what either country will be thinking, saying, or doing twenty or more years from now. Of course, it’s equally hard to predict what will happen in the Middle East between now and then.

Best regards,

-Don Radlauer

Tomorrow I’ll post another question and answer from today; someone asked about Lebanon, a small country somewhere north of Afula where there has evidently been a bit of unpleasantness recently. Stay tuned!

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

Categories: , , .

(Read more...)

<< Home