Five Things You Need to Read Today

1. “The Battlefield Is Paradise”

The big news of the new year is the American air strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad.

Before we get to the implications of this, it’s worth devoting a whole item just to understanding who Suleimani is and why he was important. I can’t do better than direct you to a long profile by Dexter Filkins that appeared in The New Yorker back in 2013.

Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The US Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. ‘Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,’ John Maguire, a former CIA officer in Iraq, told me, ‘and no one’s ever heard of him.’…

Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone. The most notorious was a scheme, in 2011, to hire a Mexican drug cartel to blow up the Saudi Ambassador to the United States as he sat down to eat at a restaurant a few miles from the White House. The cartel member approached by Suleimani’s agent turned out to be an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration. (The Quds Force appears to be more effective close to home, and a number of the remote plans have gone awry.) Still, after the plot collapsed, two former American officials told a congressional committee that Suleimani should be assassinated. ‘Suleimani travels a lot,’ one said. ‘He is all over the place. Go get him. Either try to capture him or kill him.’

So the question is not why we killed Suleimani, it’s why we didn’t do it a lot sooner. But I very vividly remember that 2011 case, which uncovered a flagrant act of war by Iran—the plotting of a massive terror attack in our capital—which was then promptly forgotten and swept under the rug by an Obama administration that was irrationally devoted to making friends with Iran.

The most revealing passage in this profile is something Suleimani said in recalling his experience as soldier in the disastrous Iran-Iraq War: “The battlefield is mankind’s lost paradise—the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest. One type of paradise that men imagine is about streams, beautiful maidens, and lush landscape. But there is another kind of paradise—the battlefield.” I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more consistent expression of the anti-life creed of radical Islam. Killing is not what you do to achieve or protect the ideal. It is the ideal.

The real heart of this profile, though, is the overall Iranian strategy in the Middle East, of which Suleimani was the most prominent and effective instrument.

The other lesson drawn from the Iran-Iraq War was the futility of fighting a head-to-head confrontation…. The Quds Force was an ideal tool. Khomeini had created the prototype for the force in 1979, with the goal of protecting Iran and exporting the Islamic Revolution. The first big opportunity came in Lebanon, where Revolutionary Guard officers were dispatched in 1982 to help organize Shiite militias in the many-sided Lebanese civil war. Those efforts resulted in the creation of Hezbollah, which developed under Iranian guidance. Hezbollah’s military commander, the brilliant and murderous Imad Mughniyeh, helped form what became known as the Special Security Apparatus, a wing of Hezbollah that works closely with the Quds Force. With assistance from Iran, Hezbollah helped orchestrate attacks on the American Embassy and on French and American military barracks….

Since then, the regime has given aid to a variety of militant Islamist groups opposed to America’s allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The help has gone not only to Shiites but also to Sunni groups like Hamas—helping to form an archipelago of alliances that stretches from Baghdad to Beirut. ‘No one in Tehran started out with a master plan to build the Axis of Resistance, but opportunities presented themselves,’ a Western diplomat in Baghdad told me. ‘In each case, Suleimani was smarter, faster, and better resourced than anyone else in the region. By grasping at opportunities as they came, he built the thing, slowly but surely.’

So the Iranian approach is a consistent, long-term strategy to form an “archipelago of alliances” meant to export their political system. Maybe we should try that, too.

The Filkins profile also provides a bit of a corrective to those who complain that Iran’s push to dominate Iraq is the fault of George W. Bush. It is was actually the Obama administration, with its rush to reduce America’s role in the world and its irrational pursuit of a diplomatic rapprochement with Iraq, that engineered Iranian ascendancy.

On December 22, 2010, James Jeffrey, the American Ambassador to Iraq, and General Lloyd Austin, the top American commander there, issued a note of congratulations to the Iraqi people on the formation of a new government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The country had been without a government for nine months, after parliamentary elections ended in an impasse. The composition of the government was critical; at the time of the election, there were still nearly a hundred thousand American troops in the country, and US commanders were still hoping to leave a residual force behind. ‘We look forward to working with the new coalition government in furthering our common vision of a democratic Iraq,’ the two men said.

What Jeffrey and Austin didn’t say was that the crucial deal that brought the Iraqi government together was made not by them but by Suleimani. In the months before, according to several Iraqi and Western officials, Suleimani invited senior Shiite and Kurdish leaders to meet with him in Tehran and Qom, and extracted from them a promise to support Maliki, his preferred candidate. The deal had a complex array of enticements. Maliki and Assad disliked each other; Suleimani brought them together by forging an agreement to build a lucrative oil pipeline from Iraq to the Syrian border. In order to bring the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in line, Suleimani agreed to place his men in the Iraqi service ministries.

Most remarkable, according to the Iraqi and Western officials, were the two conditions that Suleimani imposed on the Iraqis. The first was that Jalal Talabani, a longtime friend of the Iranian regime, become President. The second was that Maliki and his coalition partners insist that all American troops leave the country. ‘Suleimani said: no Americans,’ the former Iraqi leader told me. ‘A ten-year relationship, down the drain.’

Iraqi officials told me that, at the time of Jeffrey’s announcement, the Americans knew that Suleimani had pushed them out of the country but were too embarrassed to admit it in public….

The deal was a heavy blow to Ayad Allawi, a pro-American secular politician whose party had won the most parliamentary seats in the elections, but who failed to put together a majority coalition. In an interview in Jordan, he said that with US backing he could have built a majority. Instead, the Americans pushed him aside in favor of Maliki. He told me that Vice-President Joe Biden called to tell him to abandon his bid for Prime Minister, saying, ‘You can’t form a government.’

Allawi said he suspected that the Americans weren’t willing to deal with the trouble the Iranians would have made if he had become Prime Minister. They wanted to stay in Iraq, he said, but only if the effort involved was minimal. ‘I needed American support,’ he said. ‘But they wanted to leave, and they handed the country to the Iranians. Iraq is a failed state now, an Iranian colony.’

Note the role in this of Joe Biden. If I have been promoting Biden as a the best option among the major Democratic candidates—as he undoubtedly is; more on that below—this is only true because the other options are so much worse.

So Suleimani definitely had it coming, and he was so central to Iranian planning that his death will be a blow to their strategy. But the key word there is “strategy.” I’ll say here what I said when we killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Osama bin Ladin, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Killing one guy isn’t a strategy, and what can be achieved by the strike on Suleimani will depend on the strategy we have in place for what comes next. Or rather, it will hinge on whether or not we have such a strategy.

2. The Quasi-War

Everyone is speculating that our killing of Suleimani could lead to a US war with Iran. The problem with this is that the US and Iran are already at war and have been for a long time—just at a low level.

In the past, I have compared the to the Cold War. But the Cold War had certain rules meant to prevent an escalation to a full-scale conflict, necessitated by the fact that both sides possessed nuclear weapons. As I observed years ago, we’ve been following the same approach with Iran as if they already had nuclear weapons. Nor have they been all that worried about preventing escalation.

That’s the context for questions about possible “blowback” from this killing. Sure, maybe the Iranians are going to throw at us everything they have. On the other hand, part of the calculation behind the killing is that the Iranians are already doing so. They have spent years engineering attacks on US soldiers and terrorist attacks on US assets. They have also been trying to build up Shiite militias in Iraq to follow the same model they have used in Lebanon: creating a state within a state, which they use as a base of power to turn the country into a de facto colony in an Iranian empire. And they spent last summer ramping up attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf and on Saudi oil facilities.

While that was happening, I criticized President Trump for ordering air strikes against Iranian military facilities, then calling them off at the last minute. It sent a signal of vacillation and indecision. But if he had gone through with the strikes, it would not have been much better. They would have been an annoyance to Iran but not have measurably decreased their military or strategic capacity. Taking out Suleimani is a much more effective blow against Iran.

But it’s only one action, and the real question is what comes next. For example, much has been made of a vote by the Iraqi parliament demanding the removal of US troops (which were withdrawn in 2011 but invited back three years later when, predictably, jihadists made a comeback). But the real context for the vote has been missed: it was not legislation but only a non-binding resolution, passed by a vote conducted among Shiite factions who are in the pocket of Iran. Check out this Twitter thread or this description from the Atlantic Council’s Thomas S. Warrick.

The exact terms of today’s resolution in the Iraqi parliament are important, more so than Western headlines that focus only on the future of US and Coalition forces in Iraq. Parliament’s resolution, which is not binding—though it has [outgoing] Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s support—obliges the government to (1) end the 2014 request for assistance to the US-led Coalition to fight ISIS, and (2) end the presence of any ‘foreign’ forces in Iraq, including the use of Iraqi airspace. (3) It calls for limiting arms to the Iraqi state, that is, no autonomous militias. Action now shifts to Iraq’s executive branch.

In other words, this is the beginning of a multi-sided negotiation—not the end of it….

If the Iraqi government is genuinely able to put Iranian-backed militias under government control and end Iran’s support and influence for them, and to prevent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force personnel from operating in Iraq, that would be quite an achievement. It would partially—only partially—offset what the parliament said about US forces. There are good reasons to believe Iran will use every trick in the book to stop this from happening. The United States needs to focus on stopping Iran from winning on this vital point.

He concludes: “If the US reaction is an emotional decision to pull out or treat Baghdad as an Iranian ally, Qasem Soleimani will have a posthumous victory.”

So the question, as usual, is: do we have a plan to win, and more important, do we have the will to do so? By the will, what I mean is: assuming we do have a plan, are we ready to persist and keep pursuing our goal when the original plan doesn’t quite go right?

If you’ve been following the news for the past couple of years, you will understand why I don’t have a lot of confidence in this. Donald Trump’s signature foreign policy move in 2019 was his abandonment of the Kurds who were our allies against ISIS in Syria, a decision that wiped out a lot of America’s credit with potential allies and signaled a desire to get out of the Middle East at all costs. So he is is going to have to show he has the attention span and stick-to-itiveness to see through this new conflict with Iran. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how likely that is.

So far the signs are not great. For example, we have the Pentagon responding with a letter to Iraqi officials discussing our imminent troop withdrawal—and then declaring that the whole thing was a mistake. Or we have President Trump threatening to bomb Iranian cultural sites, which have no military value, and then the Pentagon saying that they’re not going to do that because it’s a war crime. So color me skeptical on the level of planning and deliberation here.

But look, as a hawk on Iran, I’m going to try to be optimistic here. I know that old saw about the Chinese word for “crisis” being a combination of “danger” and “opportunity” isn’t quite true, but I like it anyway, so I’m going to link to Brian Stewart’s use of it in The Bulwark.

The prospect of Trump barking commands, with no larger strategic vision, in an escalating spiral of conflict against a powerful and determined adversary, leaves much to be desired. But then, so is the prospect of Trump sitting idly by as Iran advanced toward its object of regional domination, gaining control of a choke point of the world economy, and subverting the foundations of liberal order.

To those who say that the targeted killing of Soleimani was an act of war, the correct response is to concede the point. As the Atlantic‘s Andrew Exum points out: ‘This doesn’t mean war, it will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war.’ But then, a permanent war between the United States and the Islamic republic is well and truly underway, and it is unclear how it helps the American interest if Iran is the only party waging it. Whether or not it remains a hot war, or returns to the shadows is now the choice of Iran’s supreme leader and his clerical oligarchs….

Above all, America’s leaders should not lose sight of the strategic essence of this contest: The regime in Tehran is incompatible with, and adversarial to, any civilized order in the Middle East.

I have learned over the years to temper expectations about these kind of conflicts. I don’t think this is going to be either the beginning of World War III or the end of the Iranian regime. It will just be another stage in our Cold War with Iran.

But as someone who has followed Suleimani’s malevolent role in the world for a long time, I can’t help but smile a little knowing he met the business end of a rocket.

3. How Climate Change Caused Australia’s Wildfires

The comedian Ricky Gervais apparently gave a barnburner of an opening monologue at the Golden Globe awards telling Hollywood celebrities to shut up about their pet political causes. “If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world.”

But Russell Crowe wasn’t there and didn’t hear it, so when he won an award, the presenters read a sanctimonious little message from him insisting that the wildfires in Australia right now are the result of “climate change.” And so they are, just not in the way he thinks.

The wildfires aren’t caused by climate change as such, whatever “climate change” means. Yes, it has been hot and dry in Australia, but it is always hot and dry there at this time of year.

No, the wildfires are caused and made more damaging by the hysteria over climate change and the appallingly bad forest management policies it has led to.

Check out a good overview from James Delingpole. Yes, it’s in Breitbart, and Breitbart—or whatever is left of it after Steve Bannon drove it into the ground—is not exactly a reputable source these days. But Delingpole is a reputable source on this issue, and this article is valuable partly for the links it contains to extensive coverage of the issues he talks about.

The best of those links is this piece from a previous round of fires in 2009, which shows that Australians have been aware of the real problem for some time.

Governments appeasing the green beast have ignored numerous state and federal bushfire inquiries over the past decade, almost all of which have recommended increasing the practice of ‘prescribed burning.’ Also known as ‘hazard reduction,’ it is a methodical regime of burning off flammable ground cover in cooler months, in a controlled fashion, so it does not fuel the inevitable summer bushfires….

The Kinglake area was a nature-loving community of tree-changers, organic farmers, and artists to the north of Melbourne. A council committed to reducing carbon emissions dominates the Nillumbik shire, a so-called ‘green wedge’ area, where restrictions on removing vegetation around houses reportedly added to the dangers. In nearby St. Andrews, where more than 20 people are believed to have died, surviving residents have spoken angrily of
‘greenies’ who prevented them from cutting back trees near their property, including in one case, a tea tree that went ‘whoomp.’ Dr. Phil Cheney, the former head of the CSIRO’s bushfire research unit and one of the pioneers of prescribed burning, said yesterday if the fire-ravaged Victorian areas had been hazard-reduced, the flames would not have been as intense.

Kinglake and Maryville, now crime scenes, are built among tall forests of messmate stringy bark trees which pose a special fire hazard, with peeling bark creating firebrands that carry fire five kilometres out. ‘The only way to reduce the flammability of the bark is by prescribed burning’ every five to seven years, Cheney said. He estimates between 35 and 50 tonnes a hectare of dry fuel were waiting to be gobbled up by Saturday’s inferno.

Fuel loads above about eight tonnes a hectare are considered a fire hazard.

So the basic pattern is that greens want to preserve trees because they absorb carbon dioxide and “fight climate change.” So they dictate that there can be no brush-clearing or prescribed burning. The predictable result is massive wildfires, which they then blame on “climate change.”

Oh, and there’s one other way in which “climate change” might have contributed to these fires. Nearly 200 people have been arrested for deliberately setting fires. This is just speculation on my part, but given the saturation of green ideology in Australia, there is a chance that at least a few of these people might have started fires specifically for the purpose of supporting the global warming narrative. That’s a story to keep an eye outs for and see if it pans out.

4. The Man That Time Forgot, But in a Good Way

One of my top stories from 2019 was the evidence that the Democratic Party has a “silent majority” that is considerably less radical than the “extremely online” left, whose voices get artificially amplified because all of the political reporters live on Twitter.

A long profile on Joe Biden’s “retro” campaign, filled with Reagan-era Democratic Party operatives, describes how his entire candidacy is built around this premise. I particularly like this line: “Ignoring the noisy activist left and its megaphone on social media was perhaps the most consequential decision Biden made at the start of the campaign.”

Two dominant storylines had emerged from the 2018 midterm elections. In several safe districts, mostly in urban areas, a number of younger, more left-wing candidates had defeated incumbent Democrats in primaries and then retained the seats for the party in the general election. The most notable example was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the then 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer who defeated Joe Crowley, a 20-year incumbent twice her age, in a New York City primary. AOC beat Crowley by 4,100 votes. She now has almost 6 million Twitter followers.

At the same time in 2018, in a number of Republican-held swing districts, moderate Democrats defeated liberal primary opponents and went on to flip the seat for Democrats. Perhaps the best example was Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer from Northern Virginia who first beat a progressive challenger in the primary, then defeated Dave Brat, one of the most conservative House Republicans and a Tea Party celebrity.

Both AOC and Spanberger represented a major political disruption, but in the media, and especially on Twitter, which is not used by 78 percent of Americans, AOC came to define the purported direction of the Democratic Party. The issues of the AOC left soon defined the early months of the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination as candidates outbid each other with calls to abolish ICE, decriminalize the border, embrace the most robust version of the Green New Deal and, most of all, support ‘Medicare for All.’

For the Biden campaign this was an especially alarming development. Biden was then 76 years old and had spent 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president. He had a long record and a well-known philosophy, and it didn’t look much like AOC’s. It wouldn’t be credible to jump into the race with a left-wing makeover, which is what some aides were urging.

Biden had campaigned around the country in 2018. Spanberger was one of his major primary endorsements that year. Not only could he not AOC-ify himself, he was convinced he didn’t need to.

He had what now seems like a profound insight. ‘Everyone is misreading the electorate,’ he told his guest. ‘I campaigned in swing places, and the candidates who are winning are people who can get the middle.’…

But the media narrative of a more volatile race has been skewed by the influence of college-educated whites, who now represent the largest group in the Democratic electorate…. When this group suddenly becomes enamored of a candidate, it is loud on Twitter and on MSNBC, it shows up in polling in Iowa, and it can seem like the whole race has shifted. The Biden campaign argues that this is a driving force for why many political pundits have misunderstood the race….

Another top adviser said, ‘What happens in campaigns—and it’s been exacerbated by Twitter and social media—is that you get a cool-kid conventional wisdom, and then at some point, voters get read into the process and voters quite often behave differently than the cool kids do.’

I have discussed the dilemma for Biden of trying to be the man in the middle. But you can see why his running a whole campaign based on the rejection of the “woke” far left makes him the best option among the Democrats.

5. Best. Decade. Ever.

Just as the “extremely online” left magnifies its apparent influence beyond the reality of its power, thanks to its dominance of social media and the mainstream media, so too a narrative of decline tends to dominate the media and drown out evidence of progress.

So you might think that the 2010s were the worst decade ever. And you would be wrong. There was plenty to complain about, of course, but if you look at the really big picture, as the “rational optimist” Matt Ridley does, they were in many ways the best decade for human wellbeing in the history of the species. No, really.

Let nobody tell you that the second decade of the 21st century has been a bad time. We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.

Little of this made the news, because good news is no news. But I’ve been watching it all closely. Ever since I wrote The Rational Optimist in 2010, I’ve been faced with ‘what about…’ questions: what about the great recession, the euro crisis, Syria, Ukraine, Donald Trump? How can I possibly say that things are getting better, given all that? The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better. Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.

This won’t entirely be news to readers of this newsletter, whom I have bombarded with a steady drumbeat of optimistic stories about the non-collapse of civilization.

Unfortunately, Ridley goes on to spend most of the piece talking about how we consume fewer resources per capita than we did at the end of the 20th Century (due to increases in efficiency). This shows that he has let environmentalists into his head a little too much, granting the premise that the reduction of resource use is somehow a primary goal. He rebounds a little with this observation.

Innovation requires experiments (most of which fail). Experiments require energy. So cheap energy is crucial—as shown by the industrial revolution. Thus, energy may be the one resource that a prospering population should be using more of.

The larger point remains. Precisely because anti-freedom and anti-progress radicals are less influential than they think they are, human beings are likely to continue to advance for another ten years and be even wealthier, healthier, smarter, and happier at the end of the 2020s than we are as we enter it.

Have a happy new year.—RWT