Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 2, 2013

The Wrong Kind of Russian Reset

Over the weekend the Washington Post reported this:

The Obama administration lashed out at Russia on Friday ahead of a visit to that nation next week, blaming Moscow for standing in the way of the United States’ attempt to build an international coalition for potential military intervention in Syria. …

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this week that personal relations between Obama and Putin are worse than any U.S. president with their Russian, or even Soviet, counterparts in history.

“There’s a deep degree of disrespect,” Kuchins said. “It’s very likely that we could see this relationship muddle along at this, very, very kind of unpleasant level for the next three years until we’re looking at a new administration in the United States.”

So just for the fun of it, let’s return to the early days of the Obama presidency, shall we? How about February 2009, when Vice President Biden told an international security conference that the White House was determined to “press the reset button” with Russia.

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Over the weekend the Washington Post reported this:

The Obama administration lashed out at Russia on Friday ahead of a visit to that nation next week, blaming Moscow for standing in the way of the United States’ attempt to build an international coalition for potential military intervention in Syria. …

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this week that personal relations between Obama and Putin are worse than any U.S. president with their Russian, or even Soviet, counterparts in history.

“There’s a deep degree of disrespect,” Kuchins said. “It’s very likely that we could see this relationship muddle along at this, very, very kind of unpleasant level for the next three years until we’re looking at a new administration in the United States.”

So just for the fun of it, let’s return to the early days of the Obama presidency, shall we? How about February 2009, when Vice President Biden told an international security conference that the White House was determined to “press the reset button” with Russia.

“The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and members of our alliance,” Biden said in a speech that the White House advertised as a guide to the Obama administration’s foreign-policy goals. “The U.S. and Russia can disagree but still work together where its interests coincide.”

It sure sounded easy, didn’t it?

And let’s not forget when that same year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greeted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva and presented him with a red button with the Russian word “peregruzka” printed on it and said, “I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: We want to reset our relationship, and so we will do it together.” (It was perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come that the incorrect Russian word was printed on the red button. The Russian word for reset is “perezagruzka,” not “peregruzka,” which means “overcharged.”)

So we’ve gone from a reset to endless diplomatic conflicts, increased tensions, deep disrespect, and the worst relations between a leader of the United States and Russia or the Soviet Union in history. Just like Mr. Obama promised things would be like during his enlightened rule.

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Barack Obama’s Staggering Incompetence

It’s reported that President Obama was ready to order a military strike against Syria, with or without Congress’s blessing, but “on Friday night, he suddenly changed his mind.” According to the Huffington Post:

Senior administration officials describing Obama’s about-face Saturday offered a portrait of a president who began to wrestle with his own decision – at first internally, then confiding his views to his chief of staff, and finally summoning his aides for an evening session in the Oval Office to say he’d had a change of heart.

In light of all this, it’s worth posing a few questions:

1. Why didn’t the president seek congressional authority before the administration began to beat the war drums this past week? Did the idea not occur to him? It’s not as if this is an obscure issue. When you’re in the White House and preparing to launch military force against a sovereign nation, whether or not to seek the approval of Congress is usually somewhere near the top of the to-do list.

And why has the urgency to act that we saw from the administration during the last week–when Assad’s use of chemical weapons was referred to by the secretary of state as a “moral obscenity”–given way to an air of casualness, with Obama not even calling Congress back into session to debate his military strike against Syria?

2. The president didn’t seek congressional approval for his military strike in Libya. Why does he believe he needs it in Syria?

3. Mr. Obama, in his Rose Garden statement on Saturday, still insisted he has the authority to strike Syria without congressional approval. So what happens if Congress votes down a use-of-force resolution? Does the president strike Syria anyway? If so, will it be an evanescent bombing, intended to be limited in scope and duration, while doing nothing to change the war’s balance of power? Or does the president completely back down? Does he even know? Has he thought through in advance anything related to Syria? Or is this a case of Obama simply making it up as he goes along?

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It’s reported that President Obama was ready to order a military strike against Syria, with or without Congress’s blessing, but “on Friday night, he suddenly changed his mind.” According to the Huffington Post:

Senior administration officials describing Obama’s about-face Saturday offered a portrait of a president who began to wrestle with his own decision – at first internally, then confiding his views to his chief of staff, and finally summoning his aides for an evening session in the Oval Office to say he’d had a change of heart.

In light of all this, it’s worth posing a few questions:

1. Why didn’t the president seek congressional authority before the administration began to beat the war drums this past week? Did the idea not occur to him? It’s not as if this is an obscure issue. When you’re in the White House and preparing to launch military force against a sovereign nation, whether or not to seek the approval of Congress is usually somewhere near the top of the to-do list.

And why has the urgency to act that we saw from the administration during the last week–when Assad’s use of chemical weapons was referred to by the secretary of state as a “moral obscenity”–given way to an air of casualness, with Obama not even calling Congress back into session to debate his military strike against Syria?

2. The president didn’t seek congressional approval for his military strike in Libya. Why does he believe he needs it in Syria?

3. Mr. Obama, in his Rose Garden statement on Saturday, still insisted he has the authority to strike Syria without congressional approval. So what happens if Congress votes down a use-of-force resolution? Does the president strike Syria anyway? If so, will it be an evanescent bombing, intended to be limited in scope and duration, while doing nothing to change the war’s balance of power? Or does the president completely back down? Does he even know? Has he thought through in advance anything related to Syria? Or is this a case of Obama simply making it up as he goes along?

This latest volte-face by the president is evidence of a man who is completely overmatched by events, weak and confused, and deeply ambivalent about using force. Yet he’s also desperate to get out of the corner he painted himself into by declaring that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute a “red line.” As a result he’s gone all Hamlet on us. Not surprisingly, Obama’s actions are being mocked by America’s enemies and sowing doubt among our allies. (Read this New York Times story for more.)

What explains this debacle? It’s impossible for us to know all the reasons, but one explanation appears to be a CYA operation.

According to Politico, “At the very least, Obama clearly wants lawmakers to co-own a decision that he can’t back away from after having declared last year that Assad would cross a ‘red line’ if he used chemical weapons against his own people.” And the Washington Post reports:

Obama’s proposal to invite Congress dominated the Friday discussion in the Oval Office. He had consulted almost no one about his idea. In the end, the president made clear he wanted Congress to share in the responsibility for what happens in Syria. As one aide put it, “We don’t want them to have their cake and eat it, too.”

Get it? The president of the United States is preparing in advance to shift the blame if his strike on Syria proves to be unpopular and ineffective. He’s furious about the box he’s placed himself in, he hates the ridicule he’s (rightly) incurring, but he doesn’t see any way out.

What he does see is a political (and geopolitical) disaster in the making. And so what is emerging is what comes most naturally to Mr. Obama: Blame shifting and blame sharing. Remember: the president doesn’t believe he needs congressional authorization to act. He’s ignored it before. He wants it now. For reasons of political survival. To put it another way: He wants the fingerprints of others on the failure in Syria.

Rarely has an American president joined so much cynicism with so much ineptitude.

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What More Must PA Do to Show Its Lack of Interest in Peace?

Under pressure from his own party’s opposition to “normalization” with Israel, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday canceled a meeting with Israeli Knesset members who had formed a caucus to support the recently revived peace talks. Normally, this would call the whole point of peace talks into question: Someone too scared of the anti-normalization thugs to host a meaningless gabfest with Israeli MKs isn’t likely to have the guts to sign a final-status agreement containing real Palestinian concessions. But in this case, anyone paying attention to Palestinian behavior since the talks began already knew they were nothing but a farce.

The following are just a few of the steps Palestinians have taken over the last month to prove their lack of desire for peace:

Under pressure from his own party’s opposition to “normalization” with Israel, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday canceled a meeting with Israeli Knesset members who had formed a caucus to support the recently revived peace talks. Normally, this would call the whole point of peace talks into question: Someone too scared of the anti-normalization thugs to host a meaningless gabfest with Israeli MKs isn’t likely to have the guts to sign a final-status agreement containing real Palestinian concessions. But in this case, anyone paying attention to Palestinian behavior since the talks began already knew they were nothing but a farce.

The following are just a few of the steps Palestinians have taken over the last month to prove their lack of desire for peace:

  • The PA sent a letter to governments worldwide asserting that Israelis–all Israelis–are “terrorists” and “criminals,” whereas Palestinians who bomb school buses and Passover seders and murder elderly Holocaust survivors are “political prisoners” and “freedom fighters” who fight “in accordance to international law.” To say the least, that’s a novel interpretation of international law’s prohibition on deliberately targeting civilians.
  • The PA has already threatened to violate its promise not to pursue action against Israel in international forums while talks are continuing–the main promise it made in exchange for Israel’s phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. So what heinous Israeli “war crimes” and “anti-human racist acts” (to quote the PLO’s Executive Committee) sparked this threat? Announcing new construction plans in East Jerusalem neighborhoods and major settlement blocs that everyone knows will remain Israeli under any peace deal anyway–and which, as even Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged, violates no Israeli promises.
  • This week, Abbas clarified that he won’t do any such thing until all 104 prisoners have been released. But once that irreversible concession has been pocketed, he promised to immediately resume UN action against Israel. In short, the talks are simply a vehicle for wringing more unilateral concessions from Israel.
  • After four years of refusing to talk to Israel at all, Abbas is now complaining that progress is impossible because the parties aren’t meeting often enough, and because he hasn’t yet met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–the very man whose repeated pleas for a meeting he steadfastly rejected during those four years. And also, of course, because America actually wants the sides to conduct bilateral negotiations: The Palestinians want trilateral negotiations, warning that talks are doomed if America doesn’t “play a direct role” and “assert itself in the peace process”–Palestinian-speak for forcing Israel to capitulate wholesale to Palestinian demands.
  • During a “peace mission” by the FC Barcelona soccer team, Palestinians vetoed Barca’s idea of playing an exhibition match against a joint Israeli-Palestinian team. They also refused to allow Israelis to attend Barca’s exhibition in Ramallah, even though Israel invited Palestinians to Barca’s exhibition in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. As one Israeli official noted, such behavior hardly promotes a spirit of “peace and reconciliation.”
  • Pressure from anti-normalization activists also forced two Arab businessmen to scrap plans to open a branch of an Israeli clothing chain in Ramallah. The PA made no effort to counteract this pressure, even though the store would have employed almost 150 Palestinians.

I could go on, but the point seems clear: The PA has no interest whatsoever in making peace. So isn’t it about time for the world to stop pretending that it does?

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