Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 13, 2013

The Consequences of Kerry’s Vanity Project

The Russian-brokered deal for the West to partner with Bashar al-Assad to start clearing out his chemical weapons seemed to announce what everyone had already figured out: the Obama administration’s goal in Syria was not a rebel victory. Yet in truth the turning point in public perception of President Obama’s approach to Syria probably took place when the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the White House still hadn’t fulfilled its pledge to provide weapons to the moderate opposition.

The reason for the cold feet was calculating–and devastating to the rebels:

The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.

U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery “pipelines” to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime. …

The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn’t want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides.

So the message was clear: the Obama administration had given up on the moderates. The only non-Assad alternative to the moderates was victory by Islamists, who had gained strength and taken over the lead in opposition. It was more important to prevent an Islamist takeover of Syria, according to the administration, than to roll the dice on moderates. And yet we read today a very curious addendum to this, one that undermines the administration’s previous justification for inaction but helps illuminate the administration’s approach to the entire region, including the Iranian issue and Israeli-Palestinian talks.

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The Russian-brokered deal for the West to partner with Bashar al-Assad to start clearing out his chemical weapons seemed to announce what everyone had already figured out: the Obama administration’s goal in Syria was not a rebel victory. Yet in truth the turning point in public perception of President Obama’s approach to Syria probably took place when the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the White House still hadn’t fulfilled its pledge to provide weapons to the moderate opposition.

The reason for the cold feet was calculating–and devastating to the rebels:

The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.

U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery “pipelines” to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime. …

The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn’t want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides.

So the message was clear: the Obama administration had given up on the moderates. The only non-Assad alternative to the moderates was victory by Islamists, who had gained strength and taken over the lead in opposition. It was more important to prevent an Islamist takeover of Syria, according to the administration, than to roll the dice on moderates. And yet we read today a very curious addendum to this, one that undermines the administration’s previous justification for inaction but helps illuminate the administration’s approach to the entire region, including the Iranian issue and Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration is seeking to protect what really matters to them–the diplomatic photo op:

The Obama administration is willing to consider supporting an expanded Syrian rebel coalition that would include Islamist groups, provided the groups are not allied with al-Qaeda and agree to support upcoming peace talks in Geneva, a senior U.S. official said Thursday. …

The emergence last month of the Islamic Front has presented the administration with a dilemma as it seeks to maintain military pressure on the Syrian government before an opposition-government peace conference next month that it hopes will lead to the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and the installation of a transitional government.

The SMC, whose Free Syrian Army is the only opposition armed force the United States backs in Syria, has lost both strength and influence to anti-Assad Islamic groups. Among them is the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the al-Nusra Front, both of which have been labeled terrorist groups by Washington.

There are the obvious questions: how will the Obama administration vet the groups? What really constitutes an al-Qaeda “affiliation?” Doesn’t this incentivize Islamists to simply create front groups and workarounds? Why is official affiliation more important than, say, ideology and tactics? The answer to that last question is easy: the administration has decided that it is not fighting a war on terror; it’s fighting a war on al-Qaeda.

That also helps us understand the strategy, such as it is, that underpins the Obama administration’s problem-solving agenda. What the president wants is to preserve the superficial appearance of peace by gathering people in Geneva and signing whatever agreement can be cobbled together. This president prefers style over substance, and he has the perfect compliment in a secretary of state mildly obsessed with resume-padding.

So we got the deal with Assad that took the air out of the tires of his opposition and enabled him to go on killing with glee. Then we got the nuclear deal with Iran, which wasn’t a good deal and in fact may not have been a “deal” at all, just a flaky Potemkin escape hatch for the overmatched Western negotiators.

And now Kerry is back in Israel, where he is claiming that the talks are on schedule to produce a comprehensive, full peace agreement by the end of April. It’s possible that Kerry’s right, and he’s not leading the dangerously delusional vanity project he appears to be–gambling with the lives of others so he can secure a few more of those shiny, overtly ridiculous media profiles he’s been scoring lately. But it remains the case that the talks have stalled after Israel had to release terrorists for the privilege of being part of Kerry’s charade.

That is, Kerry appears to have been played by the Palestinians after getting played by Iran and played by Assad and the Russians before that, and is angling for a chance to be played by Islamist extremists for his next act. This process, of pointless photo ops and clumsy negotiations, is the metric by which this administration grades its foreign policy. And its got another mendacious “victory” planned for Syria.

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Israel-Bashers Let the Bedouin Rot

The Israeli government has waved the white flag. After trying to put through a rational plan for the Negev that would bring some aid and infrastructure to their nation’s most impoverished population, Jerusalem has given up. The announcement was greeted as a victory for Israel-bashers that painted the plan created by the government’s director of planning Ehud Prawer and former Cabinet minister Benny Begin as a racist land grab that stole land from the Bedouin. After violent demonstrations supported by a minority of Bedouin and international protests supported by the cast of usual suspects involved in efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, the Netanyahu government has understandably cut its losses. With so much else to deal with in terms of the Iranian nuclear threat and the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, what was the point of sticking their necks out on an issue where they were getting killed by both the left and the right?

The demise of the Prawer-Begin plan will be celebrated by the left as setback to Israeli control of the Negev and by the right as the collapse of a plan they saw as a dangerous giveaway of state land since it would have allocated vast tracts of desert territory to the nomads. But the only real losers here are the Bedouin. They are the poorest members of Israeli society and many live in ramshackle shantytowns with no infrastructure or state services. In exchange for giving up some of the area that they claimed, albeit without legal proof of ownership, many would have been left in place and a minority would have been moved to new towns where they could have joined the 21st century. While leftist foes of Israel denounced this as paternalism or colonialism, their victory leaves the Bedouin in the same desperate condition. But then again, like those who pose as friends of the Palestinians, the point of the exercise isn’t to help the Arabs; it’s to hurt Israel.

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The Israeli government has waved the white flag. After trying to put through a rational plan for the Negev that would bring some aid and infrastructure to their nation’s most impoverished population, Jerusalem has given up. The announcement was greeted as a victory for Israel-bashers that painted the plan created by the government’s director of planning Ehud Prawer and former Cabinet minister Benny Begin as a racist land grab that stole land from the Bedouin. After violent demonstrations supported by a minority of Bedouin and international protests supported by the cast of usual suspects involved in efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, the Netanyahu government has understandably cut its losses. With so much else to deal with in terms of the Iranian nuclear threat and the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, what was the point of sticking their necks out on an issue where they were getting killed by both the left and the right?

The demise of the Prawer-Begin plan will be celebrated by the left as setback to Israeli control of the Negev and by the right as the collapse of a plan they saw as a dangerous giveaway of state land since it would have allocated vast tracts of desert territory to the nomads. But the only real losers here are the Bedouin. They are the poorest members of Israeli society and many live in ramshackle shantytowns with no infrastructure or state services. In exchange for giving up some of the area that they claimed, albeit without legal proof of ownership, many would have been left in place and a minority would have been moved to new towns where they could have joined the 21st century. While leftist foes of Israel denounced this as paternalism or colonialism, their victory leaves the Bedouin in the same desperate condition. But then again, like those who pose as friends of the Palestinians, the point of the exercise isn’t to help the Arabs; it’s to hurt Israel.

Israeli planners will now go back to the drawing boards to try to do something for the Bedouin whose isolation and pre-modern style of life may seem romantic to those in the West but which, in reality, condemns them to lives of grinding poverty and deprivation. It’s possible that the government will now craft an even more generous plan that will give the Bedouin more land as well as the services they need. But the problem here is that virtually any attempt to give them what they require will run afoul of the notion that any attempt to create infrastructure in the Negev will be misinterpreted as a Zionist plot.

Let there be no mistake about the fact that Israel’s leftist foes don’t give a damn about the Bedouin. Bringing water, sewage, electricity and educational services to camps that can stretch out for miles in places throughout the desert is impossible. While most of the existing Bedouin towns can be left in place, the most far-flung need to be consolidated if the people who live there are not going to be left in shacks with no connections to the country’s first-world economy. Connecting them to the grid means some have to move.

Much like the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees, the Bedouin only serve a purpose to Israel-bashers if they can be portrayed as victims of the Zionists. They don’t care that the main purpose of the Prawer-Begin plan was to help the Bedouin. Those who claim to demonstrate on their behalf have done nothing for either group. Indeed, the more miserable their existence, the better they like it. Any deprivation faced by this population is fine, so long as it serves to make the Israelis look like exploiters. The crocodile tears they shed for the Bedouin will be swiftly forgotten as they move on to other issues and Israelis who argued about it will similarly push them to the back of the national agenda.

Just like the Palestinian refugees who have been kept homeless for generations in order to serve as a standing argument against Israel—while an equal number of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands were resettled in Israel or the West—the leftist foes of Israel are content to let the Bedouin rot in ramshackle tents. That’s where they will remain until Israel finally puts forward a new idea that will be, no matter how generous, denounced just as furiously by Israel’s enemies. Those who think the demise of the Prawer-Begin plan is good for the Bedouin are lying.

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Marital Harmony in the White House

If we were the teensiest bit anxious about marital strife in the White House after President Obama yukked it up at Nelson Mandela’s funeral with Denmark’s very winsome Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt and took a rollicking “selfie” with her and British PM David Cameron, we can breathe a sigh of relief. The Washington Post reassures us that Mrs. Obama was not as peeved as she seemed to be in some of the photographs.

As the Post’s Reliable Source reports, AFP photographer Roberto Schmidt (apparently no relation to Helle), who shot the now-famous pic of the cavorting and an apparently displeased Michelle looking on, has personally debunked the story. In a post on AFP’s blog, he noted that, in fact, “photos can lie. In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance.” What’s more, he wrote, no one else should be peeved by the funeral jollity either. Obama, Cameron and Thorning Schmidt were just acting “like human beings, like me and you. I doubt anyone could have remained totally stony faced for the duration of the ceremony, while tens of thousands of people were celebrating in the stadium.”

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If we were the teensiest bit anxious about marital strife in the White House after President Obama yukked it up at Nelson Mandela’s funeral with Denmark’s very winsome Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt and took a rollicking “selfie” with her and British PM David Cameron, we can breathe a sigh of relief. The Washington Post reassures us that Mrs. Obama was not as peeved as she seemed to be in some of the photographs.

As the Post’s Reliable Source reports, AFP photographer Roberto Schmidt (apparently no relation to Helle), who shot the now-famous pic of the cavorting and an apparently displeased Michelle looking on, has personally debunked the story. In a post on AFP’s blog, he noted that, in fact, “photos can lie. In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance.” What’s more, he wrote, no one else should be peeved by the funeral jollity either. Obama, Cameron and Thorning Schmidt were just acting “like human beings, like me and you. I doubt anyone could have remained totally stony faced for the duration of the ceremony, while tens of thousands of people were celebrating in the stadium.”

I have to say I sort of agree. However deeply people may feel the loss of Mr. Mandela, he triumphed over his enemies and then lived to a ripe old age, surrounded by children, grandchildren, and devoted followers. Under the circumstances, unremitting solemnity at the funeral would have seemed insincere. Still, it was disconcerting to see the (rapidly abdicating) leader of the free world horsing around in the stadium stands.

And hey, Michelle Obama can’t help it that her face looks rather, well, peeved in repose–or when listening to six hours of tributes to the man her husband insists on calling by his tribal name, Madiba. Some people’s faces are just like that.

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Appeasing Nuclear Tyrannies Doesn’t Work

The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

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The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

The differences between North Korea, where a bizarre family dynasty misgoverns a nation by employing Stalinist-style Communism, and Iran are vast. Kim Jong-un almost makes Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose anti-Semitic and anti-Western rants are broadcast live on Iranian TV, look like a rational actor. Though it is governed by Islamist theocrats whose mystical beliefs are as scary as North Korean ruling family dynamics, Iran is a place with a sophisticated system of government and an advanced economy that was, at least until recently, fueled by oil exports.

But it should not be forgotten that while the Obama administration has bought into the myth that the selection of a supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, in Iran’s faux presidential election, meant that the Islamist tyranny had become a haven for moderation, the reality of Iran is very different. As much as Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed like a cartoon villain, that Holocaust denying demagogue was quite representative of the character and ethos of his nation’s government.

The point is, American diplomats, and in particular State Department staffer Wendy Sherman, who helped lead the talks with North Korea under Clinton, were convinced that the irrational nature of the dictatorship was no bar to a common sense deal. Why wouldn’t the current dictator’s father accept a huge bribe to foreswear nuclear weapons? The North Koreans took the money and the aid and then violated every agreement they had signed and got their bomb. Today, Sherman, who has been recycled and rewarded for failure by being given the task of leading negotiations with Iran, thinks what didn’t work with North Korea will succeed with Iran. The U.S. has discarded the impressive economic and military leverage it had over Tehran and signed a deal predicated on the notion that Iran is run by rational people who prefer the welfare of their people to the dream of nuclear weapons.

But just as the megalomania of the North Korean leadership always trumped any idea of their nation’s economic interests, the Iranian theocrats will always prioritize their vision of regional hegemony in which nukes will be complimented by their thriving side business funding international terrorism and their alliances with the Assad clan in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps a renewed friendship with Hamas in Gaza. And at the pinnacle of the Iranian system remains an autocratic cleric who dreams of destroying Israel and has no interest in détente with the West. Appeasing him and his minions is just as futile a task as Sherman’s previous efforts in North Korea.

Laugh all you want about the craziness in North Korea and pretend, if you can manage it, that their nuclear arsenal doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S. But the cost of playing the same game in Iran will be even higher. Appeasing or containing a nuclear tyranny run by hate-filled theocrats is as hopeless as was the attempt to do the same thing with one run by a Stalinist family gang. Though Obama, Kerry, and Sherman want the nuclear deals signed with North Korea to be thrown down the memory hole, they stand as an indictment against the administration’s current Iran policy.

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A Setback for Manichean Conservatives

In the end, it wasn’t close.

The House of Representatives voted in favor of the bipartisan budget deal crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray. Republicans voted in favor of it by a 169-62 margin. And fully 66 percent of the Republican Study Committee supported it (the RSC is a group of the most conservative House Republicans). This despite fierce criticism of the deal by conservative groups and Tea Party activists.

What explains the route? Several factors, I think.

The deal itself, if imperfect, was certainly defensible given the current political landscape. It’s also hard to overstate the importance of Ryan’s role in winning over so many House Republicans. Highly respected by his conference and highly trusted as a conservative, the fact that Ryan was the architect of the agreement reassured Republicans who might otherwise have broken away.

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In the end, it wasn’t close.

The House of Representatives voted in favor of the bipartisan budget deal crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray. Republicans voted in favor of it by a 169-62 margin. And fully 66 percent of the Republican Study Committee supported it (the RSC is a group of the most conservative House Republicans). This despite fierce criticism of the deal by conservative groups and Tea Party activists.

What explains the route? Several factors, I think.

The deal itself, if imperfect, was certainly defensible given the current political landscape. It’s also hard to overstate the importance of Ryan’s role in winning over so many House Republicans. Highly respected by his conference and highly trusted as a conservative, the fact that Ryan was the architect of the agreement reassured Republicans who might otherwise have broken away.

Another factor in passage was removing the possibility of another government shutdown, which blew up in the faces of the GOP when it was tried in October. Those on the right (like Senator Ted Cruz) who predicted wonderful things that would emerge from a shutdown–up to and including defunding ObamaCare–were embarrassed. Only a foolish party, having been clubbed once, would return for more. But something else seems to be going on as well: Apocalypse fatigue.

To be sure, thoughtful people on the right opposed the budget agreement. But libertarians and conservatives who portrayed this deal as a “cave in” and a “shame” and an example of “a party that has lost its principles and bearings” look rather silly.

This budget deal (which now heads to the Senate) may be a marginally good one or it may be a marginally bad one; but it was hardly a dramatic or defining moment in the history of modern conservatism. It’ll be forgotten in a few weeks (and maybe in a few days). Yet there are some on the right who insist on turning every debate into a battle between liberty and tyranny, pitting the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. For them it’s Def Con 1 all the time. It’s the American Revolution all over again.

This approach can be entertaining up to a point, but it grows old and stale after a time; and a party that follows its Manichean Wing ends up battered and damaged.

One senses that the vote yesterday was a small step away from the suicide caucus, toward governing maturity, and toward a liberation of sorts.

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