Category Archives: Obama agenda

Raised Middle Finger?

In his first week or two in office, President “Obama told al-Arabiya”: TV, “And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”

As it turns out, he said something slightly different during the “inaugural speech”:

bq. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Just in case you were wondering what BHO thinks of the IRI.

Now, more recently, the President said that “we’ll know within about half a year”: whether Iran’s fist is unclenched:

bq. My expectation would be that if we can begin discussions soon, shortly after the Iranian elections, we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there’s a good faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn’t mean every issue would be resolved by that point, but it does mean that we’ll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach.

Here’s a prediction. By the end of the year — or by October, the date that “leaked out”: “earlier”: — President Obama won’t necessarily get either a clenched fist or an extended hand from Iran. He may catch sight of a more ambiguous digital posture, something that doesn’t foreclose options one way or another, but puts the onus on Washington to do so.

We’d all prefer an either/or deal, but that’s not the most likely thing, really.

Iran Talks: Definition of Terms

I’ve “put this off”: for awhile, but it’s time: time to weigh the pros and cons of negotiation with Iran without preconditions. But before tackling this hefty matter, a clarification.

David Sanger’s “story in -Monday’s- Tuesday’s NYT”: floats a trial balloon, indicating that the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany – the hard core of the 5+1 group – are poised to shift ground on Iran strategy:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration and its European allies are preparing proposals that would shift strategy toward Iran by dropping a longstanding American insistence that Tehran rapidly shut down nuclear facilities during the early phases of negotiations over its atomic program, according to officials involved in the discussions.

The proposals, exchanged in confidential strategy sessions with European allies, would press Tehran to open up its nuclear program gradually to wide-ranging inspection. But the proposals would also allow Iran to continue enriching uranium for some period during the talks. That would be a sharp break from the approach taken by the Bush administration, which had demanded that Iran halt its enrichment activities, at least briefly to initiate negotiations.

This overview subtly mischaracterizes the record. Suspension as a precondition for talks was a European policy before it was American. The Iran-E3 talks of 2003-2005 took place under conditions of “voluntary suspension.” What Iran’s “National”: “Nuclear”: “Technology”: “Day”: commemorates, in fact, is the reversal of suspension.

The distinctly American position on Iran was something else: a refusal to engage in direct negotiations on the nuclear issues. But this difference between the U.S. and the E-3 was dissolved in May 2006 when Secretary of State Rice announced that “the U.S. would participate”: in direct talks with Iran, once suspension is resumed. In other words, on the same terms as the Europeans. (In practice, this has meant “more than preliminary talks.” But that’s another story.)

What’s more, the UN Security Council has demanded that Iran suspend enrichment or reprocessing-related activities in five separate Resolutions. That’s apart from the question of negotiations, but the point is, we’re not talking about America Alone.

The Obama administration, it seems, has now led the E-3 away from this unified position, in favor of talks without preconditions. But this process — which started during the “Presidential campaign”: — hasn’t happened overnight or without difficulty, as indicated by the “occasional”: “report”:

OK, enough throat-clearing. Substance to follow.

Update: I should have mentioned that the “State Department”: and the “White House”: say that the position on Iran hasn’t changed… yet.

Obama on Russia, Iran

President Obama’s Prague speech ran the gamut from CTBT to FMCT to NPT to TD-2. But let’s just examine a handful of things to consider how they inter-relate.

Excerpts from the “full text”:,0,3505727,full.story via AP:


bq. To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia this year. President Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally binding, and sufficiently bold. This will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.

On a multinational fuel bank (“Angarsk”:, “presumably”:

bq. And we should build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation. That must be the right of every nation that renounces nuclear weapons, especially developing countries embarking on peaceful programs. No approach will succeed if it is based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules. We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change, and to advance opportunity for all people.

On Iran:

bq. Iran has yet to build a nuclear weapon. And my administration will seek engagement with Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect, and we will present a clear choice. We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations, politically and economically. We will support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections. That is a path that the Islamic Republic can take. Or the government can choose increased isolation, international pressure, and a potential nuclear arms race in the region that will increase insecurity for all.

On Euro-GMD:

bq. Let me be clear: Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we intend to go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe at this time will be removed.

Here, perhaps, we get the flavor of the disputed Obama-Medvedev letter. But maybe with more of an edge. I didn’t expect something that sounded so much like an endorsement of Euro-GMD, however conditional (“As long as,” “intend,” “if.”).

This could be read in more than one way. But it sounds “less and less”: like Obama expects to get anywhere with the Russians on pressuring Iran. Perhaps the correct understanding of this speech is that he’s decided to let Moscow play good cop, since he can’t get a united front of bad cops.

How Euro-GMD will influence the atmosphere at the START talks is another matter.

Yeah, yeah, “light blogging”: Over and out.

Mother of All Tail Risks

Tail risk, according to “Investopedia”:, is

bq. A form of portfolio risk that arises when the possibility that an investment will move more than three standard deviations from the mean is greater than what is shown by a normal distribution.

Got that?

There’s another, more colloquial meaning to “tail risk,” which is simply the possibility of having a freakishly bad day. There’s a “book about this”:

Lately, we’ve been reminded that bad events deemed vanishingly unlikely actually might not be. So unlikely, that is. The nation’s supposedly uncorrelated residential real estate markets “all started plunging at once”:,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,1,1,0,0,0,0,0.html. All those “credit default swaps”: suddenly came into play at the same time. Two satellites collided. Two SSBNs collided.

A continually iterated potential hazard with potentially unknown correlated features is, over time, less improbable than it might seem. “Stuff happens”:

Now, per the happenstances mentioned above, you might imagine that the “financial crisis/recession/clusterf#@k to the poor house”: is the biggest deal on the Obama administration’s plate, the issue whose management will be most consequential, for good or ill. And in the short-to-medium term, that’s awfully hard to dispute.

But In The Long Term?

Look, I know some people are into comet strikes, and the climate situation looks worrisome. But where I come from, the Mother of All Tail Risks is nuclear war.

My nightmare can beat up your nightmare, see?

From the “stuff happens” perspective, the long-term issue of greatest consequence is taking U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons off alert and keeping them that way.

Yeah, I know, STRATCOM is very clear that U.S. nuclear weapons are not on “hair-trigger alert”: This seems to mean that U.S. weapons would not be launched unless A) the President ordered it or B) _[correction] someone acting in his stead ordered it after_ nuclear weapons had already detonated on U.S. soil.

I have just five or six small concerns about this. Little things.

A) How sure can we be that the President of these United States will be of “sound judgment”: when the time comes? “Really?”: “You’re sure?”: “Really, really sure?”:

B) After a single weapon goes off that incinerates our national leadership — origin unknown — what happens, exactly?

C) Is the Russian arsenal on higher alert than the U.S. arsenal?

D) Is the Russian early-warning system adequate?

E) Assuming the Russian arsenal is at the same “day-to-day” alert as the U.S. arsenal, and its early-warning system is adequate, how sure can we be that the “President”:, Prime Minister, and other key officials of the Russian Federation will be of sound judgment when the time comes?

F) After a single weapon goes off that incinerates the Kremlin — origin unknown — what happens, exactly?

Global financial crisis, global schminancial crisis.

Seriously, if you think none of the things hinted at above could happen — because it hasn’t happened yet, right? — try talking to someone in the financial sector.

If You Only Read One Part, Try This Right Here

Now that U.S.-RF nuclear force reduction talks are “getting underway”:, I’m as pleased as anyone to see the numbers coming down, but I would vote with both hands and both feet to make the numbers _go up_ if that’s what it took to get the G-d-damned things off alert once and for all.

Promissory Note

Back before Paul doubled my salary, he made an “insightful little observation”: about negotiating with Iran without first insisting on suspension of enrichment.

This has got me thinking. Perhaps it’s time to lay out as many pros and cons as can be thought of, and see how they stack up.

It’s not going to happen right away, but stay tuned.

Obama on Nuclear Diplomacy

Here are the two relevant excerpts from “tonight’s press conference”:

Caren Bohan of Reuters.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I’d like to shift gears to foreign policy. What is your strategy for engaging Iran, and when will you start to implement it? Will your time table be affected at all by the Iranian elections? And are you getting any indications that Iran is interested in a dialogue with the United States?

MR. OBAMA: I said during the campaign that Iran is a country that has extraordinary people, extraordinary history and traditions, but that its actions over many years now have been unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity both in the region and around the world; that their attacks or — or their — their financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the bellicose language that they’ve used towards Israel, their development of a nuclear weapon or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon — that all of those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests, but I think are contrary to the interests of international peace.

What I’ve also said is that we should take an approach with Iran that employs all of the resources at the United States’ disposal, and that includes diplomacy. And so my national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them. And my expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face; of diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction.

There’s been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it’s not going to happen overnight.

And it’s important that even as we engage in this direct diplomacy, we are very clear about certain deep concerns that we have as a country, that Iran understands that we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable, that we’re clear about the fact that a nuclear Iran could set off a nuclear arms race in the region that would be profoundly destabilizing. So there are going to be a set of objectives that we have in these conversations, but I think that there’s the possibility, at least, of a relationship of mutual respect and progress.

And I think that if you look at how we’ve approached the Middle East, my designation of George Mitchell as a special envoy to help deal with the Arab-Israeli situation, some of the interviews that I’ve given, it indicates the degree to which we want to do things differently in the region. Now it’s time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently as well and recognize that even as it is has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities.


All right. Helen. This is my inaugural moment here. (Laughter.) I’m really excited.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and — are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?

MR. OBAMA: Well, I think that Pakistan — there is no doubt that in the FATA region of Pakistan, in the mountainous regions along the border of Afghanistan, that there are safe havens where terrorists are operating. And one of the goals of Ambassador Holbrooke as he is traveling throughout the region is to deliver a message to Pakistan that they are endangered as much as we are by the continuation of those operations, and that we’ve got to work in a regional fashion to root out those safe havens.

They’re — it’s not acceptable for Pakistan or for us to have folks who, with impunity, will kill innocent men, women and children.

And you know, I — I believe that the new government of Pakistan and — and Mr. Zardari cares deeply about getting control of this situation, and we want to be effective partners with them on that issue.

QUESTION: Did you get any promise from them?

MR. OBAMA: Well, Mr. Holbrooke is there, and that’s exactly why he’s being sent there, because I think that we have to make sure that Pakistan is a stalwart ally with us in battling this terrorist threat.

With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate. What I know is this: that if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger.

And one of my goals is to prevent nuclear proliferation generally.

I think that it’s important for the United States, in concert with Russia, to lead the way on this. And you know, I’ve mentioned this in conversations with the Russian president, Mr. Medvedev, to let him know that it is important for us to restart the conversation, about how we can start reducing our nuclear arsenals in an effective way, so that —

MR. OBAMA: — so that we then have the standing to go to other countries and start stitching back together the non- proliferation treaties that frankly have been weakened over the last several years.

Caveat Linker

The “PONI blog”: “points out”: a “story by Tim Reid in the Times of London”: alleging that the Obama administration is seeking a bilateral treaty with Russia to cut nuclear arsenals to 1,000 warheads per side.

Whoa up there.

British journalism is sort of like British dentistry; the standards aren’t exactly the same as in America, where things aren’t necessarily ideal to start with.

Reid’s entire story hangs on the following anonymous quote:

“We are going to re-engage Russia in a more traditional, legally binding arms reduction process,” an official from the Administration said. “We are prepared to engage in a broader dialogue with the Russians over issues of concern to them. Nobody would be surprised if the number reduced to the 1,000 mark for the post-Start treaty.”

(He couldn’t even find a _senior_ administration official?)

In America, we usually like our anonymous sources in pairs. And we often like to see them called “senior administration officials,” or to come with some other assurance from the reporter that they possibly might know whereof they speak.

So what have we really got? A single, unnamed person who says that “no one would be surprised” if future talks with the Russians — long rumored to have minds of their own, but that’s mere speculation — were someday to reach a particular result. Which is not even stated to be the Administration’s actual objective. After all, it takes time to figure these things out. Key personnel have to be in place, and so forth. And the Administration is all of two weeks old.

OK, this is a lot of keystrokes to waste on a question that’s probably far less weighty than it’s made out to be. Long story short, don’t believe everything you see on the Internets.