Day: July 20, 2007

Cheney’s Long-Lost Twin

Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times, behind its ‘Select’ firewall:

“Could Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be twins separated at birth?

The U.S. vice president and Iranian president, each the No. 2 in his country, certainly seem to be working together to create conflict between the two nations. Theirs may be the oddest and perhaps most dangerous partnership in the world today.

Both men are hawks who defy the international community, scorn the U.N. and are unpopular at home because of incompetence and recklessness — and each finds justification in the extremism of the other.

“Iranians refer to their new political radicals as ‘neoconservatives,’ with multiple layers of deliberate irony,” notes Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University, adding: “The hotheads around President Ahmadinejad’s office and the U.S. foreign policy radicals who cluster around Vice President Cheney’s office, listen to each other, cite each others’ statements and goad each other to new excesses on either side.”

So one of the perils in the final 18 months of the Bush administration is that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Ahmadinejad will escalate provocations, ending up with airstrikes by the U.S. against Iranian nuclear sites.

Already we’re seeing a series of leaks about Iran that echo leaks in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The reports say that Iran is turning a blind eye to Al Qaeda, is using Hezbollah to wage a proxy war against U.S. forces in Iraq, is transferring bomb-making skills to Iraq insurgents and is handing out armor-piercing bullets to fighters in Iran and Afghanistan so as to kill more Americans.

Yet the jingoists aren’t all in our government: These leaks may well all be accurate, for Mr. Ahmadinejad is a perfect match for Mr. Cheney in his hawkishness and contempt for the international community.

It’s worrying that Iran has just recalled its most able diplomat — Javad Zarif, ambassador to the U.N. — and sent him out to pasture as an academic. Hard-liners always hated Mr. Zarif; goons from a mysterious Iranian security agency detained me on my last trip to Tehran and accused me of being a C.I.A. or Mossad spy, apparently because they were trying to get dirt to use against Mr. Zarif (who had given me my visa).

Mr. Zarif’s departure last week suggests that Mr. Ahmadinejad doesn’t plan to solve his nuclear confrontation with the West through diplomacy.

So the danger is that the pragmatists on both sides will be sidelined, while the extremists will embolden and empower each other. The ultimate decision-makers may be President Bush and the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Mr. Cheney may find a sympathetic ear when he makes an argument to Mr. Bush that goes like this:

How can we leave a nuclear Iran as our legacy? Tehran’s arms program will encourage Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to seek nuclear weapons as well — and then there’s the worst-case scenario that Iran actually wants to destroy Tel Aviv. We just can’t bet on Iranian restraint.

These are real arguments, but a strike is no solution. For starters, it would delay the Iranian nuclear program by only about three years — and when it came back, the regime might be more likely than ever to use the weapons. And for Mr. Bush to launch a third war against a Muslim country would undermine Islamic moderates and strengthen radicals around the world.

Iran is also more complex and sophisticated than it pretends to be — and the fact is that standard deterrence has constrained it. Iran has a huge stockpile of chemical weapons, and the U.S. intelligence community suspects that it has sleeper agents in the U.S. who could be activated for terrorism. But we have deterred Iran from unleashing terror attacks against our homeland, and the best bet for eliminating the threat altogether is the collapse of Iran’s own neocons under the weight of their incompetence.

A recent opinion poll in Iran found that 70 percent of Iranians want to normalize relations with the U.S., and 61 percent oppose the current Iranian system of government. Any visitor to Iran knows that it is — at a people-to-people level — the most pro-American Muslim country in the region, and the regime is as out of touch and moribund as the shah’s was in the late 1970s.

The ayatollahs’ only hope is that we will rescue them with a military strike, which would cement them in place for many years to come. But look out, because that’s what may happen if bilateral relations are driven by those jingoistic twins, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Ahmadinejad.” (New York Times op-ed)

All The President’s Enablers

Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times, behind its ‘Select’ firewall:

“In a coordinated public relations offensive, the White House is using reliably friendly pundits — amazingly, they still exist — to put out the word that President Bush is as upbeat and confident as ever. It might even be true.

What I don’t understand is why we’re supposed to consider Mr. Bush’s continuing confidence a good thing.

Remember, Mr. Bush was confident six years ago when he promised to bring in Osama, dead or alive. He was confident four years ago, when he told the insurgents to bring it on. He was confident two years ago, when he told Brownie that he was doing a heckuva job.

Now Iraq is a bloody quagmire, Afghanistan is deteriorating and the Bush administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate admits, in effect, that thanks to Mr. Bush’s poor leadership America is losing the struggle with Al Qaeda. Yet Mr. Bush remains confident.

Sorry, but that’s not reassuring; it’s terrifying. It doesn’t demonstrate Mr. Bush’s strength of character; it shows that he has lost touch with reality.

Actually, it’s not clear that he ever was in touch with reality. I wrote about the Bush administration’s “infallibility complex,” its inability to admit mistakes or face up to real problems it didn’t want to deal with, in June 2002. Around the same time Ron Suskind, the investigative journalist, had a conversation with a senior Bush adviser who mocked the “reality-based community,” asserting that “when we act, we create our own reality.”

People who worried that the administration was living in a fantasy world used to be dismissed as victims of “Bush derangement syndrome,” liberals driven mad by Mr. Bush’s success. Now, however, it’s a syndrome that has spread even to former loyal Bushies.

Yet while Mr. Bush no longer has many true believers, he still has plenty of enablers — people who understand the folly of his actions, but refuse to do anything to stop him.

This week’s prime example is Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who made headlines a few weeks ago with a speech declaring that “our course in Iraq has lost contact with our vital national security interests.” Mr. Lugar is a smart, sensible man. He once acted courageously to head off another foreign policy disaster, persuading a reluctant Ronald Reagan to stop supporting Ferdinand Marcos, the corrupt leader of the Philippines, after a stolen election.

Yet that political courage was nowhere in evidence when Senate Democrats tried to get a vote on a measure that would have forced a course change in Iraq, and Republicans responded by threatening a filibuster. Mr. Lugar, along with several other Republicans who have expressed doubts about the war, voted against cutting off debate, thereby helping ensure that the folly he described so accurately in his Iraq speech will go on.

Thanks to that vote, nothing will happen until Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, delivers his report in September. But don’t expect too much even then. I hope he proves me wrong, but the general’s history suggests that he’s another smart, sensible enabler.

I don’t know why the op-ed article that General Petraeus published in The Washington Post on Sept. 26, 2004, hasn’t gotten more attention. After all, it puts to rest any notion that the general stands above politics: I don’t think it’s standard practice for serving military officers to publish opinion pieces that are strikingly helpful to an incumbent, six weeks before a national election.

In the article, General Petraeus told us that “Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously.” And those security forces were doing just fine: their leaders “are displaying courage and resilience” and “momentum has gathered in recent months.”

In other words, General Petraeus, without saying anything falsifiable, conveyed the totally misleading impression, highly convenient for his political masters, that victory was just around the corner. And the best guess has to be that he’ll do the same thing three years later.

You know, at this point I think we need to stop blaming Mr. Bush for the mess we’re in. He is what he always was, and everyone except a hard core of equally delusional loyalists knows it.

Yet Mr. Bush keeps doing damage because many people who understand how his folly is endangering the nation’s security still refuse, out of political caution and careerism, to do anything about it.” (New York Times op-ed)

Scientists Find Genetic Link for a Disorder (Next, Respect?)

“Imagine you keep waking up with a fierce urge to move your legs, each time further eroding your sleep quota and your partner’s patience. You have restless legs syndrome, a quaintly named disorder whose sufferers may get more respect now that its genetic basis has been identified.

Two independent teams, one in Germany and one in Iceland, have identified three variant sites on the human genome which predispose people to the condition. The advance should help scientists understand the biological basis of the disorder, which could lead to new ideas for treatment.

The new findings may also make restless legs syndrome easier to define, resolving disputes about how prevalent it really is. The disorder is a “case study of how the media helps make people sick,” two researchers at Dartmouth Medical School, Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz, wrote recently in the journal PLoS Medicine. They argued that its prevalence had been exaggerated by pharmaceutical companies and uncritical newspaper articles, and that giving people diagnoses and powerful drugs were serious downsides of defining the elusive syndrome too broadly.” (New York Times )

Throughout my psychiatric career, I have had a strong interest in the faddish diagnoses interest in which is spread by grapevine, media attention and advertising. These are the diagnoses with which patients are invested in being diagnosed. Some, of course, are legitimately advocating for the ‘missing link’ in explaining troubling symptoms they have been experiencing. But for others, the incentive is secondary gain of one sort or another.

Usually, the diagnoses around which this phenomenon clusters are medically unvalidated and ill-defined. A vicious circle ensues, in which, the more vague a diagnosis is, the more heterogeneous the group of self-identified sufferers becomes and the more difficult it is to find homogeneous empirical attributes of the diagnosis. In short, such diagnoses spread like viral memes.

Consequences include having a pretext for dysfunction for which one ought to be taking responsibility; and needless drug therapy, sometimes with risks or side effects making the “cure worse than the disease.” The epidemic of stimulant prescribing for the faddish and vastly overused diagnosis of ADHD, as FmH readers know, is one of the more egregious examples of this trend. As a psychopharmacologist, I would never have guessed, but indeed welcome the fact, that my work would turn out to be in such large part “just saying no.”