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February 09, 2009

The School

Is there some school where foreign policy elites go to learn how not to answer straightforward questions that they know they'll be asked? This is from tonight's press conference:

HELEN THOMAS: [D]o you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: ...With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don't want to speculate.

May 21, 2002:

RUSSELL MOKHIBER: Ari, does Israel have nuclear weapons?

ARI FLESICHER: That's a question you'll have to ask to Israel.

RUSSELL MOKHIBER: Do you know, does the administration know, whether they have...

ARI FLESICHER: I don't personally know.

Of course, the amazing thing is how infrequently questions about things that matter are ever asked, and hence how infrequently the people in charge have to display what they've learned in school.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at February 9, 2009 09:56 PM

Who's "Ari Flesicher"?

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at February 9, 2009 10:21 PM

That question from Helen Thomas really got my attention. I was born when Eisenhower was president, so to me, she is as persistant as the dodgey answers she generally receives. I thought that Obama was particularly skillful in the order he took his questions. Unfortunately, I believe he dismissed Helen as a novelty act.

Posted by: Bob at February 9, 2009 10:22 PM

I didn't like Helen's question. It sounded like she was playing games and trying to get Obama to admit what everyone knows. She made it easy for him to dodge her.

It would have been much better if she had said: "Olmert has admitted that Israel has nuclear weapons. Will you work for a nuclear free Middle East, and if not, what will you give Iran to convince them to stop their nuclear program, which they have a right to pursue under international law?"

Posted by: Carl at February 9, 2009 10:35 PM

Since Obama doesn't want to speculate about which countries have nuclear weapons, maybe he'll be reluctant to speculate about which countries might have an interest in acquiring them or might now or in the past have made any efforts in that direction.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at February 9, 2009 10:36 PM

As I recall, he also said something about preventing or that a nuclear arms race in the ME was unacceptable. Hmm, no one followed up with an obvious question as to whether one might be on already. Started, maybe, by everyone's good buddy, Israel, about whom no one can ever speculate.

As a quick aside, Obama performance was awkward and it seemed the right words were not flowing so well. Could it be that he's slightly over his head and pretty uneasy with the subject matter. That certainly was my impression.

Posted by: drpangloss at February 9, 2009 10:41 PM

Carl has a point. Don't be cute with the questions--politicians will always slither away from a tough question if given any sort of escape route.

Along the same lines, I'd have liked to have seen Obama asked about this comment he made--

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

The question would be whether the US or its allies should be allowed to kill innocent people with impunity. Perhaps one could ask more specifically either about his Predator strikes or Israel's killings in Gaza. But I don't think anyone likely to ask such questions will be given the opportunity.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at February 9, 2009 10:50 PM

1. I remember Barry McCaffrey was on MSNBC on a Sunday morning a couple of years ago, and Alex Witt asked him about nukes and the Middle East, and he said that the US intelligence community had known for some time that Israel has about 300 nuclear warheads.

It was one of those weekend morning interviews where it's obvious the producers feel relieved not to have to run the show at a breakneck pace, and McCaffrey stayed over through a commercial break. Afterwards he backtracked a bit(!) and told Witt that he believed Israel had nukes, but he wasn't sure of the number.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at February 10, 2009 01:40 AM

I am amazed at how similar all this is to the Soviet system: everyone in the room performs - totally voluntarily - a delicate Kabuki dance to avoid having to state a commonly known truth. Very typical.

And it's very funny, if you think about it.

I'm curious if this is some sort of a sign of decline and rot, or a normal MO of human societies (or hierarchical structures only?).

I'll note that ordinary Soviets were, according to my observations, much smarter than ordinary Americans are at being able to see bullshit for what it is. Well, except for those Americans who live in the urban ghettos, I suppose; those seem smarter.

Posted by: abb1 at February 10, 2009 04:31 AM

Reading the transcript, I see someone did ask about Leahy's proposal for a truth commission, so that was good. Obama, however, slithered away from giving a straightforward response.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at February 10, 2009 06:35 AM

abb1, from what I read about Soviet dissidents back in the day, they were as skeptical as Chomsky or I. F. Stone about the pronouncements of their own government, but utterly credulous about the US propaganda they got from the Voice of America.

Hm, I'll have to see what Whatever It Is I'm Against It has done with Obama's press confidence. WIIIAI was afraid that the exit of Bush would mean less funny/horrifying material from the Prez. I don't think there's anything to worry about in that department.

Posted by: Duncan at February 10, 2009 10:11 AM

Ahhh. The Winds of Change are soooooo refreshing, innit?

From here you can smell....

the fucking stockyards...

Posted by: woody at February 10, 2009 10:51 AM

woody: PLEASE, I live in the middle of a fucking stockyard.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 10, 2009 01:44 PM

When Israel tests a homegrown nuclear device I'll believe they have them.

Until then I'll just go on assuming that any weapons they might have were provided by the US and it's allies, which is an entirely different thing altogether.

Posted by: Jimbo at February 10, 2009 03:24 PM

"On Thursday(Sept. 15, 2008), at about 11 o'clock in the morning, the Federal Reserve noticed a tremendous draw down of Money Market accounts in the United States to the tune of $550 billion dollars being drawn out in a matter of an hour or two. The Treasury opened up its window to help. They pumped $105 billion into the system and then quickly realized that they could not stem the tide. We were having an electronic run on the banks. They decided to close down the operation, close down the Money Market accounts, and announce a guarantee of $250,000 per account so there wouldn't be further panic out there. If they had not done that, their estimation was that by 2 o'clock that afternoon 5 and 1/2 trillion dollars would have been drawn out of the Money Market system of the United States. It would have collapsed the entire economic system of the United States, and, within 24 hours, the world economy"
Rep. Paul Kanjorski D-Pennsylvania

Is anyone familiar with this scenario? Is Kanjorski a noted liar? If it is true then this was an entirely manipulated crisis. Of course, all we'd be left with is the identity of the manipulators.

Posted by: Richard at February 10, 2009 06:55 PM

i read about that on nakedcapitalism the other day... but the link to which yves smith pointed was overrun by 911truthers and other strange trolls i thought i wouldn't be seeing much of in light of what happened since the events described above.

Posted by: almostinfamous at February 11, 2009 02:18 AM

Don't they all go to Stutts?

Posted by: Anna in PDX at February 11, 2009 02:23 PM

No President has ever been able to go near the Iraeli Nukes question for one very good reason. The Symington Glenn and Pressler Amendments prohibit aid to countries that develop or traffic in Nuclear weapons and do not sign up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Thus, despite the fact that your granma knows Israel has a couple hundred Nukes, nobody is going to admit it officially in case some jerk decides to launch an action to have Israel's 5 billion in official aid cut off.

Diplomacy is fun.

Posted by: Spoff at February 12, 2009 05:41 PM

It's not only the nukes. According to this document (this is before the recent Gaza 'war' and 2006 Lebanon 'war'):

Also, the United States stipulates that U.S. military equipment provided through the
FMS program can be used only for internal security or defensive purposes, and that U.S.
weapons and equipment cannot be transferred to a third country without U.S. approval. (See
Sections 3 and 4 of the Arms Export Control Act, P.L. 90-629, as amended.) In 1978, 1979,
and 1981, the executive branch notified Congress that Israel “may have violated” U.S.-Israeli
agreements by using U.S. weapons for non-defensive purposes, and in 1982, the United
States suspended shipments of so-called cluster bombs after allegations that Israel violated
an agreement on the use of the bombs during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In the 1978,
1979, and 1981 instances, the Administrations took no further action. The cluster bomb ban
remains in effect. Israel maintains that the weapons were used for defensive purposes. (See
CRS Report RL30982, U.S. Defense Articles and Services Supplied to Foreign Recipients:
Restrictions on Their Use.) There were reports in February 2001 and again in the summer of
2002 that the U.S. government was investigating if Israel misused U.S. military equipment,
including Apache helicopters, in assassinating Palestinian leaders, and later reports that
Members of Congress inquired if Israel misused Apache and Cobra helicopters and F-16
fighter-bombers in attacking Palestinian facilities.

It appears, frankly, that hardly anything in the US/Israel relations is kosher.

Posted by: abb1 at February 13, 2009 04:09 PM