Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 10, 2013

Obama’s Call for Action–and Inaction

It’s hardly surprising that, given the incoherence of President Obama’s Syria policy, his prime time address to the nation on the subject made so little sense.

The first part of the speech was the kind of rousing call for action that a commander in chief would deliver right after the first bombs are falling on Damascus. Said the president: “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

He then proceeded to swat away one objection after another to the use of force. But here was the kicker: the bombs are not falling, nor are they likely to.

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It’s hardly surprising that, given the incoherence of President Obama’s Syria policy, his prime time address to the nation on the subject made so little sense.

The first part of the speech was the kind of rousing call for action that a commander in chief would deliver right after the first bombs are falling on Damascus. Said the president: “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

He then proceeded to swat away one objection after another to the use of force. But here was the kicker: the bombs are not falling, nor are they likely to.

Obama concluded, in a section obviously tacked onto remarks that were no doubt already written before the events of the last 24 hours, that there are “encouraging signs” that Syria will give up its chemical weapons as part of a deal brokered by Russia. His conclusion: “I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.”

In short, the speech was a rousing call to action followed by a call for inaction–a.k.a. the “diplomatic path” which apparently, as per Moscow, does not include making credible threats of force against Assad should he fail to disarm. Obama did not even demand that Congress pass a resolution authorizing military action if the current talks don’t pan out–he simply told Congress to cool it while Putin works his magic.

What, one wonders, was the point of the speech? Was it simply that the White House had already booked the TV time and wanted to carry on regardless of the facts? Or does Obama imagine that his stern words will cow Assad into compliance even as it is obvious that opposition in Congress will not allow air strikes?

This simply makes no sense. But then neither does anything that Obama has done on Syria recently.

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Obama’s Weak and Contradictory Speech

For a few minutes President Obama gave the speech on Syria that he should have made weeks if not years ago. In opening his address to the American people Tuesday night, he outlined a powerful case for action on Syria where the Assad regime has slaughtered over a hundred thousand people. He described Assad’s use of chemical weapons that resulted in the brutal deaths of a thousand victims including hundreds of children and even put this atrocity in the context of the Nazi use of poison gas. He explained why this is a threat not only to the people of Syria but also to the security of the entire Middle East and the United States.

But having done so, he then proceeded to explain why he would do nothing about any of it.

Of course, Obama claims that his embrace of Russia’s proposal to supervise the surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than strike Assad’s forces is merely a diplomatic endeavor that will put Damascus to the test. But by asking Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing the use of force against Syria, he has effectively assured Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers that they’ve won. Having described the Syrian regime as having gone beyond the pale, he has now ensured that not only will Assad survive a civil war that he is already winning, but he told the victims of the dictator that, for all of his compassionate rhetoric, he thinks their suffering is irrelevant.

In short, while posing—as he habitually does—as the only adult in the room scolding critics of his Syria policy on both the right and the left, his contradictions and weakness made their critiques look smart. It’s not just that his claim that diplomacy will succeed because of a “credible threat” of U.S. force that we all know was not credible is a flat-out lie. Having already demonstrated incompetence on a historic scale in flubbing this crisis, no speech could have retrieved the situation and restored Obama’s credibility. But by encapsulating all the inconsistencies of his foreign policy in 15 minutes of rhetoric, Obama sealed his reputation as the most feckless American leader since Jimmy Carter.

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For a few minutes President Obama gave the speech on Syria that he should have made weeks if not years ago. In opening his address to the American people Tuesday night, he outlined a powerful case for action on Syria where the Assad regime has slaughtered over a hundred thousand people. He described Assad’s use of chemical weapons that resulted in the brutal deaths of a thousand victims including hundreds of children and even put this atrocity in the context of the Nazi use of poison gas. He explained why this is a threat not only to the people of Syria but also to the security of the entire Middle East and the United States.

But having done so, he then proceeded to explain why he would do nothing about any of it.

Of course, Obama claims that his embrace of Russia’s proposal to supervise the surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than strike Assad’s forces is merely a diplomatic endeavor that will put Damascus to the test. But by asking Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing the use of force against Syria, he has effectively assured Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers that they’ve won. Having described the Syrian regime as having gone beyond the pale, he has now ensured that not only will Assad survive a civil war that he is already winning, but he told the victims of the dictator that, for all of his compassionate rhetoric, he thinks their suffering is irrelevant.

In short, while posing—as he habitually does—as the only adult in the room scolding critics of his Syria policy on both the right and the left, his contradictions and weakness made their critiques look smart. It’s not just that his claim that diplomacy will succeed because of a “credible threat” of U.S. force that we all know was not credible is a flat-out lie. Having already demonstrated incompetence on a historic scale in flubbing this crisis, no speech could have retrieved the situation and restored Obama’s credibility. But by encapsulating all the inconsistencies of his foreign policy in 15 minutes of rhetoric, Obama sealed his reputation as the most feckless American leader since Jimmy Carter.

The problem with this speech is that once the president latched onto the Russian ruse—which, as our Max Boot pointed out, has no chance of success—it made his appeal to Congress moot. At that point the address, which was seen when it was announced as a last-ditch attempt to rally a recalcitrant Congress behind a strike on Syria, should have been canceled. Since that would have caused the president more embarrassment than he was prepared to live with, he went ahead with the talk to the American people and asked his speechwriters to turn on a dime and give him some new talking points. But the final result of their labors was obviously a pastiche of drafts, with the opening section and part of the conclusion a remnant of an earlier impassioned plea for action.

We may never know which of the ghosts working in the West Wing came up with the line about the U.S. military not doing “pinpricks” in response to criticisms that the “incredibly small” attack promised by Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t enough. But it will be enough to give late-night comedians plenty of fodder. But the problem here is that by grasping onto what we all know is merely a diplomatic fig leaf to excuse inaction, his assurances convinced neither right-wing nor left-wing isolationists that there was any reason to give him their support. Indeed, in the face of such feckless leadership, even internationalists who have backed his call for a strike have good reason to bail on the president. The only people who should be applauding this address are Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers since Obama’s backing down means the dictator has been assured of victory in the Syrian civil war.

But the point here is that just like his last-minute refusal to act on his own authority and asking Congress for permission to strike, the speech made a case for action while going on to say the president would not act. If there is a precedent for a president taking prime time to tell the American people that something should happen but that it won’t, I’m not aware of it. This was a dreadful show by the president. If there was any doubt that he is a lame duck, it was erased in those 15 minutes.

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U.S. Says Palestinians Just Making Stuff Up

Well aware that Secretary of State John Kerry has a full dance card these days testifying to congressional committees on the case for military action against Syria, the Palestinians have selflessly volunteered to grind the peace negotiations with Israel to a halt so he doesn’t miss anything. That’s the takeaway from today’s New York Times story on the latest snag in the peace process.

The Times headline is “1967 Border Is a Source of Strain in the Israeli-Palestinian Talks,” but it quickly becomes apparent that the truth is slightly different. As the Times reports:

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Well aware that Secretary of State John Kerry has a full dance card these days testifying to congressional committees on the case for military action against Syria, the Palestinians have selflessly volunteered to grind the peace negotiations with Israel to a halt so he doesn’t miss anything. That’s the takeaway from today’s New York Times story on the latest snag in the peace process.

The Times headline is “1967 Border Is a Source of Strain in the Israeli-Palestinian Talks,” but it quickly becomes apparent that the truth is slightly different. As the Times reports:

Signs of strain emerged Monday around the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as a senior Palestinian official said Secretary of State John Kerry had “guaranteed us in writing” that negotiations would start from the 1967 lines, and American officials suggested he was not telling the truth.

Nabil A. Shaath, the Palestinian commissioner for international relations, said the Palestinians had agreed to enter the talks only because of the guarantee. He declined to provide a copy, but when asked if it was signed by Mr. Kerry personally, said: “Absolutely. We wouldn’t have done it without this.”

The real problem, it seems, is that the Palestinians don’t want to start serious negotiations. The background is that the Palestinians supposedly asked for one of three preconditions for negotiations from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: releasing terrorist prisoners, freezing construction in settlements, or starting the talks from the 1967 lines. Netanyahu opted for the prisoner release.

That didn’t, in the end, satisfy the Palestinians, who claimed that they had received private assurances that the Obama administration would try to hold Israel to one of the preconditions Netanyahu didn’t agree to: a settlement freeze. And now the picture is complete: the Palestinians claim, apparently without proof, that the Obama administration also agreed to enforce the other precondition to which Israel never agreed.

And that lack of proof is problematic for the Palestinians, because the American moderators are growing exasperated with the Palestinians. They told the Times in response that not only are the Palestinians making this up out of whole cloth, but that the Times should know by now not to believe anything out of the Palestinian camp unless they also hear it from Washington:

But American officials denied there was such a document, which would have been a significant gesture to the Palestinians and could have enraged Israel. “We have always said that if you don’t hear news about the talks from senior U.S. officials, you can’t count on it being reliable,” Marie E. Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement. “This is a good example.”

One of the reasons it’s so tempting for those involved in negotiations to leak to the press is that rumors can quickly become facts to those who hear them often enough. Being the first to establish a compelling narrative of any one situation can be to that party’s great advantage. And that seems to be what the Palestinians are doing. The Times notes that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas claimed last week that he only resumed negotiations because of an agreement over the 1967 lines, and the PA’s top negotiator Saeb Erekat made the same claim in a Ramallah-based newspaper over the weekend.

Of course, all leaks are not created equal. The Palestinians are shaping a narrative designed to negate the talks that have already begun. The Israelis seem to suspect the general doom-and-gloom attitude of the Palestinians is intended to undermine the negotiations from the outset and delegitimize any progress they might make that the Palestinian “street” wouldn’t like. Their respective complaints, in fact, are telling:

Israeli leaders complained to Washington in recent days about a series of leaks and downbeat assessments by Palestinians, citing the agreement both sides made from the beginning that only American officials would publicly discuss the diplomatic efforts. Palestinians had previously complained that American envoys were not present during the talks.

The Israelis are upset the Palestinians are simultaneously breaking agreements while insisting Israel be held to agreements that don’t exist. The Palestinians are angry they have to be in a room with Israelis. Though Israeli leaders are presumably not thrilled with the fact that Palestinian negotiators appear to be fabricating their latest cause for outrage, they are refusing to comment on it.

Perhaps that’s because they don’t put much stock in the credibility of the source, Nabil Shaath. As Elliott Abrams notes, this wouldn’t be the first time Shaath has made up claims about the American leadership. And of course it wouldn’t be the first time the Palestinians concentrated their energy on finding excuses, however suspect, to pocket concessions without making any of their own.

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Blame Turkey for PKK Truce Breakdown

Back in April, amidst a great deal of public optimism regarding the peace process between Turkish authorities and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents, I suggested that the Turkish government was more cynical than sincere, and was using the peace process for two reasons: First, to win Kurdish support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposed constitution—one that would consolidate his power for more than a decade to come—and second, to win Istanbul the 2020 Olympic Games. (I explain in more detail, here.) I predicted that after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made its choice, Turkey would no longer need to play nice, and so the peace process would collapse in September.

Well, September is here. Erdoğan’s ambitions for the constitution have been sidelined by his own behavior against the backdrop of the Gezi protests earlier this summer, and the IOC decided three days ago to bypass Istanbul’s ill-conceived bid and choose Tokyo. Now, like clockwork, the peace process is collapsing.

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Back in April, amidst a great deal of public optimism regarding the peace process between Turkish authorities and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents, I suggested that the Turkish government was more cynical than sincere, and was using the peace process for two reasons: First, to win Kurdish support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposed constitution—one that would consolidate his power for more than a decade to come—and second, to win Istanbul the 2020 Olympic Games. (I explain in more detail, here.) I predicted that after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made its choice, Turkey would no longer need to play nice, and so the peace process would collapse in September.

Well, September is here. Erdoğan’s ambitions for the constitution have been sidelined by his own behavior against the backdrop of the Gezi protests earlier this summer, and the IOC decided three days ago to bypass Istanbul’s ill-conceived bid and choose Tokyo. Now, like clockwork, the peace process is collapsing.

The Kurdistan Democratic Committee’s Union, a PKK front group, released a statement yesterday on the breakdown of the negotiations, a portion of which I excerpt here:

While a one-hundred-years-old problem is being dealt with, imposing solitary confinement on a main factor on the one side of the problem and not making room for him to work on the solution issues is a clear proof that the government is not sincere in settling the problem. While the Prime Minister and his government are free to hold many sessions and share opinions with many circles every day, Leader APO is only permitted to have a two-hour-long meeting in a month; this fact clearly shows that the process is not developing… Constructing new military posts, building new dams and HES’es [sic] are enough to show the ill-willing approach of the government. The government is preparing itself for war, not for peace. During the 9-month-long non-conflict environment, compared to those of the years of conflict, the government has escalated its military preparation more and more. It has taken no steps with regard to the democratization of Turkey. It has not released the KCK detainees – which would have cleared the way for democratic politics – as it has not abolished the Anti-Terror Law.

Erdoğan has called an emergency meeting with his military and national-security staff to discuss the situation.

Erdoğan will castigate the PKK, but he has no one but himself to blame. While the Turkish media and their Western counterparts expressed optimism about Erdoğan’s truce achievement, few considered what the Kurds hoped to achieve.

After the ceasefire agreement, I traveled both to Brussels and to Qandil—an area of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by the PKK—to discuss the issue with Kurdish intellectuals and senior PKK leaders. While there is still much about which they and I disagree and much of the conversation was off-the-record, it was clear that the PKK expected far more than Erdoğan was willing to offer. Indeed, aside from some radio programming and language freedom, Erdoğan offered little if anything.

Most Turks cannot conceive of what equality and reintegration inside Turkey would mean. Rather than talk about a few Kurdish language courses, they should understand that true reconciliation will mean former PKK soldiers become integrated into the Turkish army, and former PKK scouts join the MIT, Turkey’s intelligence service. Istanbul—which is the city with the largest Kurdish population in the world—should have bilingual street signs. Turkey would, in such circumstances, become a bi-national state. Under any circumstance, the PKK would want its leader Abdullah Öcalan released from prison.

There is no excuse for Turkey not to release Öcalan if Turkey is serious about peace. After all, by opening negotiations with Öcalan, Turkey made him the indispensable man. After years of declaring him irrelevant, Erdoğan transformed him into the only figure who can represent Turkey’s Kurds in negotiations. When Öcalan is released from prison, I doubt he will settle for being mayor of Diyarbakir, which would be the cap if anyone accepted Erdoğan’s plan.

Turkey and the United States consider Öcalan a terrorist, but it is well past time the United States reconsider the designation: Both sides have bloody hands in the conflict and the PKK has long acted more as an organized insurgent group rather than a terrorist group. The United States delisted the Mujahidin al-Khalq, an abhorrent cult that does conduct terrorism, has targeted Americans in the past, and has little if any support in Iran. In contrast, the PKK has never targeted Americans, has not bribed Americans as the Mujahedin does, and has widespread support not only in Turkey, but also in Iran and Syria.

Öcalan, from isolation in a prison cell, has run circles around Erdoğan and regardless of what happens next, will come out the victor. If the ceasefire collapses, he still has the relevancy Erdoğan bestowed upon him. If Erdoğan offers more concessions, he affirms the PKK’s strategy.

As problematic as some PKK behavior can be, it is time for American policymakers to reconsider its leader and the group, and end America’s blind support for Erdoğan who has used Kurds like a political football and has yet to outline his own road map or vision for the resolution of the conflict. That certainly does not mean swapping blind support for one authoritarian with another, but rather determining what is in the long-term interests of regional stability, democracy, and U.S. national interests.

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Obama’s Syria Debacle Inflicts Historic Damage on America

Max Boot does an excellent job explaining why the new Russian proposal on removing chemical weapons from Syria is almost certainly a mirage. Not surprisingly, however, President Obama is eager to embrace it. After all, doing so will avoid Congress rejecting his request to use military strikes against Syria–and the de facto collapse of his presidency.

But this will come at quite a high cost. Russia is now establishing itself as the preeminent power in the region, having displaced the United States. American prestige and credibility lie in ruins. President Obama has succeeded in undermining the moderate rebels he promised to assist. He has strengthened the murderous anti-American regime he declared he wanted gone. A despot who used chemical weapons and committed, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, a “moral obscenity” will now escape any punishment (which after all was the stated purpose of Obama’s threats to strike Syria). And Iran and Hezbollah, having (along with Russia) come to the aid of Assad, will emerge from this whole thing in a much stronger position.

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Max Boot does an excellent job explaining why the new Russian proposal on removing chemical weapons from Syria is almost certainly a mirage. Not surprisingly, however, President Obama is eager to embrace it. After all, doing so will avoid Congress rejecting his request to use military strikes against Syria–and the de facto collapse of his presidency.

But this will come at quite a high cost. Russia is now establishing itself as the preeminent power in the region, having displaced the United States. American prestige and credibility lie in ruins. President Obama has succeeded in undermining the moderate rebels he promised to assist. He has strengthened the murderous anti-American regime he declared he wanted gone. A despot who used chemical weapons and committed, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, a “moral obscenity” will now escape any punishment (which after all was the stated purpose of Obama’s threats to strike Syria). And Iran and Hezbollah, having (along with Russia) come to the aid of Assad, will emerge from this whole thing in a much stronger position.

It is hard to overstate how much of a debacle Syria has been for America. The damage we have sustained is deep and durable. The balance of power has shifted dramatically against America. It may take decades for us to undo the damage, if even that is possible.

This period may well turn out to be a hinge moment in the Middle East–and one of the worst diplomatic chapters in modern American history. Such is the cost to a nation when a community organizer is promoted to the job of commander in chief.

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The Tigris Flotilla

Too many Americans continue to view Iraq through the context of American politics. The Iraq War was a polarizing affair, and became more so with time both as casualties mounted and some Democrats decided to transform the war into a political football—hence then-Senator John Kerry’s famous flip-flop. While al-Qaeda-affiliated groups—reinforced by their allies in the Syrian opposition—continue to set off car bombs in Baghdad, Iraqis remain resilient and there remains slow progress in the country.

To ignore Iraq’s progress, to wish that Saddam Hussein had remained to once again use chemical weapons the way Bashar al-Assad’s regime has apparently done, and to slap away Iraq’s outstretched hand is unfair to Iraqis and counterproductive to long-term American economic and national interests.

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Too many Americans continue to view Iraq through the context of American politics. The Iraq War was a polarizing affair, and became more so with time both as casualties mounted and some Democrats decided to transform the war into a political football—hence then-Senator John Kerry’s famous flip-flop. While al-Qaeda-affiliated groups—reinforced by their allies in the Syrian opposition—continue to set off car bombs in Baghdad, Iraqis remain resilient and there remains slow progress in the country.

To ignore Iraq’s progress, to wish that Saddam Hussein had remained to once again use chemical weapons the way Bashar al-Assad’s regime has apparently done, and to slap away Iraq’s outstretched hand is unfair to Iraqis and counterproductive to long-term American economic and national interests.

Iraq today is better off than Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and perhaps even Lebanon. During my trips to Iraq over the past year, I published a few dispatches (here, here, here, here, and here, for example). I also noted the second-order impact from the revival of the southern Iraqi marshes. Now, Nature Iraq is about to go farther with a “Tigris River Flotilla” to be launched later this week from Hasankeyf, an ancient town in Turkish Kurdistan which Turkish authorities seek to destroy when they build the Ilisu Dam, and which will continue down the length of the Tigris, through Mosul—perhaps the most dangerous city in Iraq—and then south into the marshes.

The flotilla will post regular updates and tweets (@tigrisflotilla), and certainly seems worth watching. Alas, it seems flotillas in the Middle East only gain press coverage when they seek to supply terrorists, not showcase progress and unity.

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What Russia Gets Out of the Syria Deal

One way to tell how abrupt and unexpected was the change in plans toward Syria is the fact that no one seems completely sure who gets credit for the idea of having Bashar al-Assad give up his chemical weapons. It is being pitched as the Russian proposal, which is true enough. But it’s also true that the idea seemed to have been sparked by Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference yesterday. Then again it is also true that no one expected Kerry to say that, least of all the president.

In fact, President Obama was pushing for military action yesterday as the administration sent out key players to make the case publicly. Susan Rice, the national security advisor, gave a major speech justifying the administration’s plans. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, compared Syria to Nazi Germany. He’ll now have to temper that indictment ever so slightly, one suspects. The New York Times attempts to reconcile this discrepancy by crediting both the Russians and Kerry. The Times describes Russia as leading this diplomatic initiative, but buried in the story is this acknowledgement of its provenance:

Mr. Kerry returned to Washington on Monday after first raising the idea in a dismissive way in London on Monday, making clear that the idea of Mr. Assad giving up Syria’s weapons seemed improbable.

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One way to tell how abrupt and unexpected was the change in plans toward Syria is the fact that no one seems completely sure who gets credit for the idea of having Bashar al-Assad give up his chemical weapons. It is being pitched as the Russian proposal, which is true enough. But it’s also true that the idea seemed to have been sparked by Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference yesterday. Then again it is also true that no one expected Kerry to say that, least of all the president.

In fact, President Obama was pushing for military action yesterday as the administration sent out key players to make the case publicly. Susan Rice, the national security advisor, gave a major speech justifying the administration’s plans. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, compared Syria to Nazi Germany. He’ll now have to temper that indictment ever so slightly, one suspects. The New York Times attempts to reconcile this discrepancy by crediting both the Russians and Kerry. The Times describes Russia as leading this diplomatic initiative, but buried in the story is this acknowledgement of its provenance:

Mr. Kerry returned to Washington on Monday after first raising the idea in a dismissive way in London on Monday, making clear that the idea of Mr. Assad giving up Syria’s weapons seemed improbable.

I doubt this will get much pushback from the Obama administration. If the effort to secure Syria’s chemical weapons succeeds, the administration can credit diplomacy while playing up Kerry’s role. If the effort fails, the White House can recall that everyone knew Kerry didn’t mean for it to be a serious proposal anyway.

That raises another question: the consensus is that since the president had no idea this was coming the Russians are “saving” him from congressional defeat; why would they do so? The answer seems to be that they have nothing to lose one way or the other. This isn’t regime change; in fact it leans against it for the time being. It’s unclear exactly what the plan will be, as Max noted this morning, but it would depend heavily on Russian cooperation and at least partially on cooperation with Assad. The Russian government, then, looks like a bunch of geniuses who simultaneously prevented the expansion of war in Syria while keeping their preferred Syrian client in office, all the while banking some American goodwill.

What about the role of a credible threat of force? As the votes line up against it and Kerry insists any strike, even if authorized, would be modest and telegraphed, there hasn’t been much of a threat and it certainly hasn’t been credible. Are the Russians actually increasing the chances of a strike by giving the administration an excuse to argue that all other options have failed? Perhaps, but the mere scent of a diplomatic solution–likely to be drawn out–inspired relief in both parties’ congressional delegations as public support for such a strike continued to drop.

In the interim, Assad will have time to solidify his recent gains against the rebels and the Russians can continue to help Assad stack the deck. It’s worth pointing out that the Russian government is flatly opposed to removing Assad if it means he is replaced by his current opposition. As Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose stock is surely on the rise this week, told Foreign Policy for an interview published in late April:

Military solution can have only two options: The government wins, or the opposition wins. If the opposition wins on the ground militarily, I am afraid the people who have been selected for this national coalition, the people who compose the Syrian National Council, they will not be invited to Syria because the people with the guns, the extremists, would have the day….

So we really have to understand what we are doing when we support one side or another. The people whom the French and the Africans are fighting in Mali now, those are the same people which Europeans supported in Libya. Some of the arms used against the French apparently are the arms the Libyan opposition received from France. So we must take a broader look at the situation. We cannot say, well, Libya is not Syria, Syria is not Mali, Mali is not Tunis, Tunis is not Egypt. This is absolutely true. Each country is different, but the process which is under way in the context of this Arab Spring is certainly a comprehensive issue involving so many aspects that we cannot afford the luxury of just limiting ourselves at every given moment by a situation in country X, forgetting about the ramifications.

Lavrov’s position is that the West would regret Assad’s fall, and that recent history is sufficient to justify Russia’s decision that it will not let the West make its own “mistakes” anymore. This is different from the concern that the Putin regime opposes military action in Syria because it believes it was snookered into regime change in Libya and cannot trust the Obama administration. Lavrov has made it clear this isn’t really about trust; it’s about saving the West from itself and the world from the West.

That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of America’s reputation in the world right now. But as much as the Obama administration has bungled the Syria issue from the beginning, it should be noted that congressional Republicans were happy about this proposed chemical-weapons deal too. Indeed, the Russian support for it probably signaled the end of the possibility of support for military action, at least for the moment, in this Congress. If Obama got played by Putin, so did they.

Throughout this crisis, the administration did not appear to have anything resembling a strategy. Now would be a good time to formulate one.

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Iran Should Come Clean on Missing Jews

I’ve been traveling in Poland and Romania over the last week or so, without steady access to the Internet and so I was not able immediately to add my two cents to the flurry of discussion over Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s alleged Rosh Hashanah greeting. The Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari put the reports in context and called out some of the usual suspects in the press who are far more willing to embrace a random tweet than take seriously the pattern of decades of Iranian terrorism and anti-Semitism.

I spent a good deal of time with the Jews in Iran back in the later 1990s, in trips I took during the administrations of Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. While Iran does have a sizeable Jewish community, it is but a shadow of its pre-revolutionary self. To brag that “Iranian Jews have it so good” because they’ve only lost 80 percent of their population isn’t something that any academic, analyst, or journalist should claim with a straight face. Nor is it true that Iranians have always been tolerant toward their Jewish minority. Iran suffered its fair share of pogroms and religious violence; to pretend otherwise is to whitewash history. The best book on more modern Jewish history in Iran is Daniel Tsadik’s Between Foreigners and Shi’is; Habib Levy’s now-outdated Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran is the most comprehensive, though it ends more than a decade ago.

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I’ve been traveling in Poland and Romania over the last week or so, without steady access to the Internet and so I was not able immediately to add my two cents to the flurry of discussion over Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s alleged Rosh Hashanah greeting. The Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari put the reports in context and called out some of the usual suspects in the press who are far more willing to embrace a random tweet than take seriously the pattern of decades of Iranian terrorism and anti-Semitism.

I spent a good deal of time with the Jews in Iran back in the later 1990s, in trips I took during the administrations of Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. While Iran does have a sizeable Jewish community, it is but a shadow of its pre-revolutionary self. To brag that “Iranian Jews have it so good” because they’ve only lost 80 percent of their population isn’t something that any academic, analyst, or journalist should claim with a straight face. Nor is it true that Iranians have always been tolerant toward their Jewish minority. Iran suffered its fair share of pogroms and religious violence; to pretend otherwise is to whitewash history. The best book on more modern Jewish history in Iran is Daniel Tsadik’s Between Foreigners and Shi’is; Habib Levy’s now-outdated Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran is the most comprehensive, though it ends more than a decade ago.

At any rate, Iran’s new foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif eventually took credit for the Twitter stunt. By doing so, he not only seems to guarantee himself an appointment at Princeton or Harvard should he ever end up on the foul side of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but he appears to be pushing a strategy that Rouhani and former Khatami-era spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh once bragged about: Speak softly until the West lowers its guard, and then use the easing of pressure to push forward with Iran’s own special projects.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical, having studied for too long patterns of Iranian deception for a chapter of my forthcoming book. So, it would be nice if those willing to grasp Iran’s outstretched hands would ask Zarif, Rouhani, and the true leadership of Iran—Khamenei and Gen. Qasem Suleimani—to resolve the problem of Iran’s missing Jews.

During the 1990s—the reign of “pragmatist” Rafsanjani and “reformist” Khatami—security forces arrested several Jews who sought to flee Iran into Pakistan. Several were spotted subsequently in Iranian prisons. Here is the Simon Wiesenthal Center action alert from several years ago:

Between 1994 and 1997, 11 Jews, at the time ranging from 15 years of age to 57, were detained while attempting to cross the border from Iran into Pakistan seeking to be reunited with their families and in hopes of finding a secure future and a life of freedom. In addition, in February 1997, a Jewish businessman living in Tehran disappeared while visiting a provincial capital and has not been heard from since. The families of the disappeared have been virtually unable to get any information from the authorities as to the whereabouts of their loved ones. Several eyewitnesses (former Iranian intelligence officials who are now living in the West) claim they have seen some of the missing in Iranian jails and others in a detention center, but to date nothing has been substantiated. Several years ago, two credible Iranian officials privately assured a family member in Iran that the men were alive and had been transported to a prison in Tehran.

The appeal was delivered to Zarif while he was still Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. While it’s all well and good to applaud Zarif’s tweet, perhaps those who are seeking to draw broad conclusions from it might consider demanding the new government put its money where its tweets are, and come clean about what they have done to the missing Jews.

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What a Real Peace Process Would Look Like

The run-up to Friday’s 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords is a good time to consider not only what went wrong with the “peace process” they launched, but what a viable process would look like. You needn’t look far for answers to either question. As I noted last week, the past month alone has brought numerous examples of the problem that doomed the Oslo process from its inception: the Palestinian leadership’s utter lack of interest in making peace. As for what a viable process might look like, a good example is the new Palestinian city now arising near Ramallah.

The city of Rawabi is entirely the initiative of a private businessman: As the New York Times reported last month, the Palestinian Authority promised financial help but never delivered. And it offers a remarkable contrast to the official PA on two crucial counts. First, it’s actually seeking to improve Palestinian lives–in this case, by providing comfortable middle-class housing and quality municipal services. That’s something the PA has refused to do throughout the 19 years of its existence, despite being the world’s top recipient of international aid per capita. Second, the city’s very name (which means “hills” in Arabic) was deliberately chosen to eschew anti-Israel incitement: Its developers held a competition to name it, the Times reported, but rejected the numerous proposals that glorified anti-Israel terror, like “Arafat City” or “Jihad City.” The PA, in contrast, engages in such incitement on a daily basis.

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The run-up to Friday’s 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords is a good time to consider not only what went wrong with the “peace process” they launched, but what a viable process would look like. You needn’t look far for answers to either question. As I noted last week, the past month alone has brought numerous examples of the problem that doomed the Oslo process from its inception: the Palestinian leadership’s utter lack of interest in making peace. As for what a viable process might look like, a good example is the new Palestinian city now arising near Ramallah.

The city of Rawabi is entirely the initiative of a private businessman: As the New York Times reported last month, the Palestinian Authority promised financial help but never delivered. And it offers a remarkable contrast to the official PA on two crucial counts. First, it’s actually seeking to improve Palestinian lives–in this case, by providing comfortable middle-class housing and quality municipal services. That’s something the PA has refused to do throughout the 19 years of its existence, despite being the world’s top recipient of international aid per capita. Second, the city’s very name (which means “hills” in Arabic) was deliberately chosen to eschew anti-Israel incitement: Its developers held a competition to name it, the Times reported, but rejected the numerous proposals that glorified anti-Israel terror, like “Arafat City” or “Jihad City.” The PA, in contrast, engages in such incitement on a daily basis.

Ordinary Palestinians feel they’ve gotten nothing from the peace process, and they’re right. That, however, is because the PA deliberately chose to give them nothing. It never used its massive infusions of aid to build, say, better housing for Palestinian refugees living in squalid West Bank camps; on the contrary, it publicly vowed that even if a Palestinian state someday arises, the refugees won’t be given citizenship. Nor did it use foreign aid to upgrade its hospitals: Patients who need state-of-the-art treatment are still routinely sent to Israel. It refuses to cooperate with Israel on mundane issues like sewage treatment that would improve Palestinian lives, and allows anti-normalization thugs from the ruling Fatah party to drive away Israeli businesses that would provide Palestinians with jobs. In short, rather than trying to help its people, the PA has done everything possible to keep them in a state of perpetual misery.

As for anti-Israel incitement, even a cursory glance at the archives of Palestinian Media Watch reveals how rampant it is. To give just a few recent examples: Fatah’s Facebook page yearns for famous female terrorists to return and teach current Palestinian women about the need for “sacrifice and blood”; organizations from dance troupes to youth groups are named after terrorists, who are held up as role models; PA officials and the PA-controlled media routinely hurl libelous accusations at Israel, such as that it’s deliberately addicting Palestinians to drugs or trying to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque; they also urge children to engage in anti-Israel violence and promise that Israel will someday cease to exist.

If a Palestinian leadership ever arises that prefers helping its people to perpetuating their misery and teaches its children coexistence rather than anti-Israel hatred, peace might be possible. But until then, any “peace process” will at best be a farce–and at worst a bloody tragedy like Oslo was.

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The Long-Term Prospects of the Syria Deal

You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief in Washington over Syria’s apparent acceptance of a Russian plan to dismantle its chemical weapons. This offers the Obama administration an obvious out from what looked to be a losing vote to authorize military action against Bashar Assad. But is it a real out or a mirage?

It’s impossible to say for sure, without knowing the details of the “workable, precise, and concrete” plan that Russia has vowed to produce. But there is certainly room for considerable skepticism given what we know about the duplicity of the Syrian regime, Russia’s determination to keep that regime in power at all costs, and the ineffectuality of UN forces in the past.  

Start with the obvious question: how will the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal work anyway?

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You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief in Washington over Syria’s apparent acceptance of a Russian plan to dismantle its chemical weapons. This offers the Obama administration an obvious out from what looked to be a losing vote to authorize military action against Bashar Assad. But is it a real out or a mirage?

It’s impossible to say for sure, without knowing the details of the “workable, precise, and concrete” plan that Russia has vowed to produce. But there is certainly room for considerable skepticism given what we know about the duplicity of the Syrian regime, Russia’s determination to keep that regime in power at all costs, and the ineffectuality of UN forces in the past.  

Start with the obvious question: how will the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal work anyway?

The language coming from the Syrians and Russians suggests that Syria’s arsenal will not be moved out of the country. Rather, UN inspectors are somehow supposed to take control of tons of chemical agents in the middle of a war zone. It is unclear what then follows–will the inspectors somehow have to incinerate tons of these agents safely or will they simply camp out around the chemical-weapons sites indefinitely?

How this works, in practice, is almost impossible to imagine. Western intelligence agencies do not even know where all of Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpiles are located. Remember how much trouble UN inspectors had in verifying Saddam Hussein’s compliance with UN resolutions in the 1990s? The difficulties will increase ten-fold in Syria where the chemical-weapons arsenal is scattered across a large, dangerous battlefield. Saddam, it turns out, didn’t really have WMD; Assad does, and they won’t be easy to find.

The only way that Syria might fulfill its obligation to disarm is if it faces a credible threat of military action. Will Russia agree to a Chapter VII resolution at the United Nations that would authorize military action to compel Syrian compliance? Doubtful, but possible. Even if the UN does authorize action, what are the odds that Obama will act given the bipartisan resistance in Congress to any strikes? The House and possibly the Senate as well were already set to reject the authorization for the use of force. This “deal” is being peddled as a way to avoid a vote altogether. But if the U.S. is not seen as willing to strike Syria, what incentive does Assad have to comply with the terms of any disarmament deal? The most likely scenario is that Assad will agree to something in principle and then fudge on the implementation, knowing that Washington will have lost interest by that point.

The best thing that can be said in favor of the Russian deal is that it does offer an alternative to the immediate humiliation of Congress repudiating the president and refusing to authorize Syrian action. But the Russia resolution–unless it turns out to be unexpectedly binding–offers instead the prospect of a longer, more drawn-out strategic defeat in which Assad remains in power, keeps slaughtering his own people, and probably keeps at least part of his chemical-weapons arsenal.

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Egypt’s Prognosis Goes from Bad to Worse

Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

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Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

Other Arab Spring countries do not do much better. Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen hug the bottom rung throughout. Tunisia is supposed to be the shining star of the Arab Spring—but with a female labor participation ranking of 136 out of 146, that’s like saying we should celebrate Jersey City because it’s not Newark.

Part of the problem might be the chicken-and-egg conundrum: Perhaps the Arab Spring has turned out so badly (and Islamists have been so successful exploiting popular ignorance) because the education system has long been abysmal and the financial system so poor. Regardless, the question of how Egypt and other states can break out of such a cycle is unclear, but their inability to rise in the ranking has long-term security implications for the region. What an indictment it is of decades of poor leadership that these states cannot even beat a place like Zimbabwe where it counts.

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Obama Appoints Zogby to Commission on Religious Freedom

Last week, the White House quietly announced the appointment of Dr. James Zogby to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Zogby—whom I have debated on occasion on radio programs and who has always been a gentleman—is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and co-founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.  

But is Zogby the proper person to fight for religious freedom in the Middle East at a time when minorities are under the worst siege since the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in the wake of Israel’s founding?

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Last week, the White House quietly announced the appointment of Dr. James Zogby to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Zogby—whom I have debated on occasion on radio programs and who has always been a gentleman—is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and co-founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.  

But is Zogby the proper person to fight for religious freedom in the Middle East at a time when minorities are under the worst siege since the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in the wake of Israel’s founding?

Alas, the answer to that is no. Zogby has at times demonstrated an apologia which undercuts his ability as an advocate. Take, for example, an incident a decade ago in which Harvard University decided to partner with the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Zayed Center, an institution which sponsored Holocaust denial and promoted blood libel. The indefatigable Tom Gross catalogued the Zayed Center’s activities here. Zogby, however, who currently is also a visiting professor in Abu Dhabi, rushed to Zayed’s defense. From the CBS Evening News on May 19, 2003:

“That’s wrong, that smacks of a witch hunt,” says James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute. Zogby says the center does bear the sheik’s name, but so do a lot of things in his country. Zogby believes the sheik did not know about it. “There is no relationship between Sheik Zayed and the center,” says Zogby. “He knows who’s there,” says [Rachel] Fish. “There’s no way he does not know.” Harvard refused our request for an on-camera interview, but in a statement, called some of the center’s activities “repugnant and indefensible.” It said it is “carefully investigating” any links with Sheik Zayed.

Zogby was also a featured writer for the Arab Voice at the time that paper was excerpting the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Zogby responds at the base of the article, which is followed by a follow-up article casting doubt on parts of his explanations). He accused Israel of waging a “Holocaust” against the Palestinians. More recently, he embraced political polemics if not conspiracies regarding the Iraq war. And most recently, Zogby accused Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of being an “Israel firster,” an anti-Semitic trope.

Zogby has long been an activist for the Democratic Party and an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. It’s understandable that Obama wishes to reward him for his loyalty and, perhaps, for his political views. To do so with a seat at the USCIRF at a time when minorities are under siege from Syria to Egypt to Iran, however, shows the lack of seriousness with which Obama treats religious freedom.

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