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Posts For: March 25, 2013

Obama in Israel: Hope over Experience?

I was traveling last week, so have not had an opportunity until now to comment on President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem and his visit to Israel in general. I only now read the speech and, like many of Obama’s speeches, it is a rhetorical masterpiece. It is also a tacit repudiation of his entire first term, which began, as far as Middle East policy was concerned, with his speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.

This was a conscious attempt by Obama to hit the “reset button” on U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which he thought had been harmed by George W. Bush’s hawkish ways. Obama went so far to ingratiate himself with the Arabs that he even seemed to equate Jewish suffering in the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering “in pursuit of a homeland”–as if the Palestinians had been the victims of genocide too. Obama pointedly did not visit Israel on that swing through the Middle East and subsequently he put unprecedented pressure on the government of Israel to halt all construction in the West Bank–not as the ending point of talks with the Palestinians but as a precondition for such talks.

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I was traveling last week, so have not had an opportunity until now to comment on President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem and his visit to Israel in general. I only now read the speech and, like many of Obama’s speeches, it is a rhetorical masterpiece. It is also a tacit repudiation of his entire first term, which began, as far as Middle East policy was concerned, with his speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.

This was a conscious attempt by Obama to hit the “reset button” on U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which he thought had been harmed by George W. Bush’s hawkish ways. Obama went so far to ingratiate himself with the Arabs that he even seemed to equate Jewish suffering in the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering “in pursuit of a homeland”–as if the Palestinians had been the victims of genocide too. Obama pointedly did not visit Israel on that swing through the Middle East and subsequently he put unprecedented pressure on the government of Israel to halt all construction in the West Bank–not as the ending point of talks with the Palestinians but as a precondition for such talks.

As we now know, this gambit backfired spectacularly. There has been no progress at all in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since 2009–in fact no meaningful negotiations at all because Obama set the bar so high for holding talks that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has felt compelled to make even more sweeping demands that Prime Minister Netanyahu could not accept, certainly not at the start of negotiations. The Cairo speech did not even work at the level of public relations because it set Arab expectations for the U.S. so high that they could never be fulfilled. The result is that, as the Pew survey notes, Obama’s approval rating in the Muslim world has fallen from 34 percent in 2009 to just 15 percent today.

Without explicitly repudiating his Cairo address, Obama took a decidedly different tack in Jerusalem. He devoted the first part of the speech to expressing sympathy and admiration for Israel and making clear that he recognizes that the Jewish right to a state is not simply rooted in Holocaust guilt; it is an age-old bond between a people and their land. It is hard to imagine any American president doing a better job of paying tribute to the state of Israel and its people.

He did not, of course, just leave it there. And there the problem begins.

Toward the end of his speech he pivoted from praising Israelis to exhorting them to make peace with Palestinians. “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized,” he said to the cheers and applause of his Israeli audience. One wonders if he would have gotten similar cheers and applause in the West Bank or Gaza Strip if he had addressed a large audience of students–most of them Hamas or Fatah members–and told them that Israel’s right too must be recognized.

Obama recognizes that persistent Palestinian unwillingness to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is a problem, but he imagines that somehow it can be wished away in another round of negotiations. “Now, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who’s dedicated to its destruction,” he said. “But while I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.”

Actually, there is plenty of cause to doubt that Abbas and Fayyad are true partners for peace–not necessarily because their intentions are bad but simply because they do not have the power to deliver peace. If even a veteran revolutionary like Yasir Arafat, who was an icon to his own people, could not in the end make painful concessions such as giving up the “right of return,” what chance is there that two unpopular leaders with much less legitimacy can do so? And even if by some miracle Abbas and Fayyad could be convinced to sign a final status agreement, how would they possibly bring along the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip?

Obama’s only reference to Hamas in the entire speech–the only one!–was this one sentence: “Israel has a right to expect Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.” True, Israel has a right to expect this–but what strategy does Obama offer for making Hamas renounce its entire ideology and history and recognize Israel’s right to exist?

On this issue he was silent–as he was silent on offering any actual blueprint for advancing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Such tedious details are presumably left to Secretary of State John Kerry to work out. That has been a pattern with Obama that even his supporters recognize–he is much better at soaring rhetoric than at nuts-and-bolts implementation.

The Jerusalem speech was undoubtedly a great improvement over the Cairo speech–Obama now at least seems to recognize that he has a better chance of winning concessions from Israel if he embraces rather than berates the Jewish state. But at heart the Jerusalem speech suffers from the same problem as the Cairo one of raising unreasonable expectations. Given that the Jewish-Palestinian conflict has been going on since before the birth of Israel, it is perhaps time for American policymakers to give up the dream that they will somehow solve this intractable situation in the next presidential term. Yet Obama is the latest American leader to imagine that he can work miracles in the Holy Land. In this regard, his Jerusalem address was yet another triumph of hope over experience.

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The Life and Fate of Boris Berezovsky

In late 2009, Russia lost a man it had already begun to forget. Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the “shock therapy” designed to transition Russia immediately from socialism to capitalism, died at the very young age of 53. Gaidar was sorely underappreciated, because the troubled Yeltsin years that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union were marked by hardship and the wiping out of Russians’ savings. Gaidar was a staunch proponent of privatization because he understood the primacy of private property in any aspiring democracy.

Aside from Gorbachev and Yeltsin, few in Russia could be said to have had as much influence on the new Russia as the brilliant Gaidar. And few could be said to have personified the Russia inherited from Gaidar more than Boris Berezovsky, who died in exile in England over the weekend. Berezovsky was one of the original “oligarchs,” who got rich quickly in the new Russia and used his wealth to influence Russian politics, first by backing Yeltsin and then by helping to elevate Vladimir Putin. Putin would betray Berezovsky by seeking to undo much of Gaidar’s privatization and wrest control of the oligarchs’ assets. Some challenged Putin, like the still-imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky; some wavered, like Berezovsky; some played along, like Berezovsky’s former partner, Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky put two and two together and fled Russia, never to return. He sued Abramovich in a London court, which ruled against Berezovsky in 2012. The suit nearly bankrupted Berezovsky of his wealth and, it seemed from his reaction, his very will to live.

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In late 2009, Russia lost a man it had already begun to forget. Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the “shock therapy” designed to transition Russia immediately from socialism to capitalism, died at the very young age of 53. Gaidar was sorely underappreciated, because the troubled Yeltsin years that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union were marked by hardship and the wiping out of Russians’ savings. Gaidar was a staunch proponent of privatization because he understood the primacy of private property in any aspiring democracy.

Aside from Gorbachev and Yeltsin, few in Russia could be said to have had as much influence on the new Russia as the brilliant Gaidar. And few could be said to have personified the Russia inherited from Gaidar more than Boris Berezovsky, who died in exile in England over the weekend. Berezovsky was one of the original “oligarchs,” who got rich quickly in the new Russia and used his wealth to influence Russian politics, first by backing Yeltsin and then by helping to elevate Vladimir Putin. Putin would betray Berezovsky by seeking to undo much of Gaidar’s privatization and wrest control of the oligarchs’ assets. Some challenged Putin, like the still-imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky; some wavered, like Berezovsky; some played along, like Berezovsky’s former partner, Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky put two and two together and fled Russia, never to return. He sued Abramovich in a London court, which ruled against Berezovsky in 2012. The suit nearly bankrupted Berezovsky of his wealth and, it seemed from his reaction, his very will to live.

Of course, just as Berezovsky’s life and fate were typical of post-Yeltsin Russia, his death could not come without intrigue. The headlines of the first three stories on Berezovsky’s death in the Guardian seemed almost inevitable. Soon after Berezovsky was found dead the paper published a story titled “Boris Berezovsky: a tale of revenge, betrayal and feuds with Putin.” The next day came the logical follow-up: “Boris Berezovsky’s death leaves friends suspecting foul play,” followed by “No evidence that Boris Berezovsky was killed, say police.”

More than anything, the Guardian’s Luke Harding points out, Berezovsky misread Putin from the outset:

Berezovsky had reckoned that his friend would be a pliable successor – and that he, the ultimate Kremlin insider, would continue to pull the strings. Quickly, however, it became apparent that Putin had his own vision of Russia: a less democratic place, in which the country’s spy agencies would play a vanguard role, and with Putin in charge. The two clashed; Putin seized Berezovsky’s ORT TV station; and Berezovsky decamped to London. Their feud was nasty and would lead ultimately to Berezovsky’s death at the age of 67 in exile.

Yet according to a Russian journalist who interviewed Berezovsky on Friday, the oligarch claimed his greatest miscalculation was “that Russia is so dear to me that I cannot be an émigré.” Exile was killing him, but there was no way he could return to Russia.

Berezovsky was hopelessly devoted to somehow deposing Putin. It was never clear whether this mission was primarily driven by greed, homesickness, delusion, vengeance, or guilt; probably it was a potent mix of them all, impossible to untangle. But it is the guilt that is most interesting, because it would be almost noble. And nobility was something Berezovsky’s vast wealth and power could never buy him. It was not self-aggrandizement for Berezovsky to claim he created Putin—he did—but neither was it something of which he would have wanted to boast. Thus Berezovsky’s death was a tragedy but, to many Russians, so was his life.

There is a Shakespearean quality to Berezovsky’s story. And in the suspicion that Putin must have had something to do with Berezovsky’s death there is something distinctly representative of the Russia Berezovsky helped create, a place in which nothing is believable until it strains the imagination and defies mundane explanation. In his haunting new book on Russia’s cultural mourning of its Stalinist past, Alexander Etkind writes:

I would speculate that the historical processes of catastrophic scale traumatize the first generation of descendants, and it is their daughters and sons—the grandchildren of the victims, perpetrators, and onlookers—who produce the work of mourning for their grandparents: mass graves for the generation of terror, trauma for the first postcatastrophic generation, and mourning for the second.

Berezovsky was always too busy to mourn the past. And one of the great ironies of the Berezovsky tale is that the man he helped install, Putin, has tried to rescue elements of Stalin’s brutal legacy from mourning by insisting that some of it deserves celebration. Berezovsky was part of a generation that ran as fast they could away from Soviet collectivism and Communism, presciently aware that the past was in hot pursuit. Yet the threat to Berezovsky was right in front of him, in the future he so energetically crafted. Like most who spend too much time looking over their shoulder, he never saw it coming.

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The Pathetic Conclusion of the American Mission in Iraq

It’s amusing to watch senior American officials doing their best to put a smiling face on the repeated American failures in Iraq since the departure of our troops at the end of 2011. Thus the Washington Post quotes one “senior US official involved in Iraq policy” as follows: “The smaller our presence, the more strategic our presence, the more effective we can be.”

That’s not how the Iraqis see it. In their very same article, Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy prime minister and the senior Sunni in the government, is quoted as saying, “No one thinks America has influence now in Iraq. America could still do a lot if they wanted to. But I think because Obama chose a line that he is taking care of interior matters rather than taking care of outside problems, that made America weak — at least in Iraq.”

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It’s amusing to watch senior American officials doing their best to put a smiling face on the repeated American failures in Iraq since the departure of our troops at the end of 2011. Thus the Washington Post quotes one “senior US official involved in Iraq policy” as follows: “The smaller our presence, the more strategic our presence, the more effective we can be.”

That’s not how the Iraqis see it. In their very same article, Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy prime minister and the senior Sunni in the government, is quoted as saying, “No one thinks America has influence now in Iraq. America could still do a lot if they wanted to. But I think because Obama chose a line that he is taking care of interior matters rather than taking care of outside problems, that made America weak — at least in Iraq.”

It’s hard to dispute Mutlak’s judgment, especially when the U.S. has had no luck in influencing Iraq’s conduct on the two most important issues of the day–Prime Minister Maliki’s growing tendency to use the security forces to target influential Sunni leaders and his unwillingness to interfere with Iranian flights to supply Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry once again raised the latter issue with Maliki during his quick visit to Baghdad–and predictably got nothing in response.

What a sad and pathetic conclusion to a decade of American intervention in Iraq. Having made vast sacrifices to secure that country’s future, we have now voluntarily walked away, with consequences that grow more serious by the day.

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The Battle Over the Surge

In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

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In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

As Gordon puts it:

Much of the discussion … was dominated by [Secretary of State] Rice’s argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which “nothing is going right” and instead focus on “core interests” like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting “mass killings” — attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

But [NSC Advisor Stephen] Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.

It’s now obvious that those who favored the surge were correct and those advocating the alternatives–whether withdrawal or a “light footprint” counterinsurgency or retreating to bases to “ride out” the sectarian violence–were not. Yet even those who believed at the time that the surge was clearly the correct strategy also had to concede that the arguments marshaled by Secretary Rice and her top aides were serious ones and worth taking into account. Were sectarian demons that had been unleashed now uncontainable? Were we beyond the point when no application of forces was likely to make a discernible difference? Had the Sadirist elements defeated the more moderate Shia ones?  

Which brings me to my second point. When asked by ABC’s William Lawrence to look back over the first two years of his presidency, John Kennedy said this:

I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.  

It is in the nature of things that in America, the president is the individual who has to sort through competing counsel and decide which course of action to take. The surge was, as Gordon points out, a fateful one for George W. Bush, and in this instance Bush embraced a new war strategy in Iraq that required him to jettison the counsel of his most trusted foreign policy advisor (Secretary Rice, who eventually embraced the surge strategy), to say nothing of the views of most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General George W. Casey, Jr., then the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq; John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command; military analysts; the entire Democratic Party; much of the Republican Party; most of the foreign policy establishment; the Iraq Study Group; and public opinion. It was a remarkable moment in presidential leadership. 

It’s also fair to say, I think, that as much of the world seems to be spinning out of control–with ill-advised decisions by President Obama having undone many of the gains in Iraq and worrisome-to-ominous developments occurring in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Georgia, North Korea, Mali, Sudan, Russia and elsewhere–President Bush’s successor is learning the hard way that it’s easier to make the speeches than it is to make the judgments.

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