Commentary Magazine


Topic: Assad

Putin’s PR Blunder

It’s not easy being a dictator in the media age. That is a discovery made most spectacularly by the likes of Moammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar Assad, all of whom found, in differing ways, that repression is hard to carry out in the glare of media publicity. So, in a lesser way, is Vladimir Putin discovering that throwing dissidents in prison isn’t as easy in today’s Russia as it was in the bad old days of the czars and Communist Party bosses that he apparently so admires.

As Seth wrote earlier, today a Russian court sentenced three young women to two years in prison for protesting Putin inside an Orthodox cathedral. The result is to make their band, Pussy Riot, easily one of the most famous musical combos on the planet in spite of their not having released a single album. The Rioters have been championed by everyone from Amnesty International to Madonna. They have, in fact, provided the most attractive face possible for the anti-Putin opposition, giving rise to gibes that the supposedly manly president is afraid of a few girls, whereas if the authorities had simply ignored their performance art nobody would know their names.

Putin has already lost this round. Let us hope that he cuts his loss and pardons the Rioters before they have to serve their odious sentence.

It’s not easy being a dictator in the media age. That is a discovery made most spectacularly by the likes of Moammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar Assad, all of whom found, in differing ways, that repression is hard to carry out in the glare of media publicity. So, in a lesser way, is Vladimir Putin discovering that throwing dissidents in prison isn’t as easy in today’s Russia as it was in the bad old days of the czars and Communist Party bosses that he apparently so admires.

As Seth wrote earlier, today a Russian court sentenced three young women to two years in prison for protesting Putin inside an Orthodox cathedral. The result is to make their band, Pussy Riot, easily one of the most famous musical combos on the planet in spite of their not having released a single album. The Rioters have been championed by everyone from Amnesty International to Madonna. They have, in fact, provided the most attractive face possible for the anti-Putin opposition, giving rise to gibes that the supposedly manly president is afraid of a few girls, whereas if the authorities had simply ignored their performance art nobody would know their names.

Putin has already lost this round. Let us hope that he cuts his loss and pardons the Rioters before they have to serve their odious sentence.

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Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention Won’t Make Up for Obama’s Lack of Will to Act

In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.

Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.

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In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.

Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.

In his speech, Obama cited the example of Jan Karski, the heroic young Polish officer who smuggled himself into Treblinka in 1942 to find out what was happening and then escaped to the West where he told his tale to the leaders of the West including President Roosevelt. But what Obama failed to include in his account was the fact that FDR responded with silence and indifference to Karski’s shattering testimony when it was presented to him in person. And it is that precedent that illustrates why the mere convening of a meeting of the new atrocities prevention board today is a matter of little import so long as the president is more interested in talking about the subject rather than taking action.

The key test of his integrity on such matters today is the situation in Syria. In his introduction of the president at the museum, Elie Wiesel asked how it was possible for men like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to still be in power if we have actually learned any of the lessons of the Holocaust. But the president’s speech should have given Wiesel little comfort.

Obama said the United States will continue working to isolate the Syrian regime and make an effort to help document the atrocities going on there so as to facilitate the prosecution of those responsible after the fact. But he said nothing to give Assad the impression that the U.S. would do anything that might actually contribute to his downfall.

If, in the face of the massacres going on in Syria, the best that the president can offer is a promise of more meaningless economic sanctions, then of what possible use is an atrocity prevention panel?

The same question can be asked of Obama’s approach to Iran, whose pursuit of nuclear weapons raises the specter of another mass slaughter of the Jewish people made all the more ironic by the regime’s denial of the Nazis’ attempt at genocide. The president’s rhetoric on Iran has been consistently strong, and today’s pledge was just as good. But so long as he is willing to rely on a diplomatic channel in which the European Union’s Catherine Ashton (a veteran Israel-hater) is determined to make nice with Tehran rather than to press it, it’s hard to see how any of his excellent statements are to be translated into effective policy. Criticizing the State Department of the 1940s for its indifference to the Holocaust may satisfy some of the president’s audience today, but it doesn’t make up for contemporary failures.

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Calls for Action on Syria Grow

The news from Syria is unrelievedly grim. The Assad forces are continuing their murderous assault on Homs but the opposition continues to strike back–now, apparently, with two car bombs in Aleppo, a major city that until now had been largely free of violence. President Obama has gone to the UN Security Council and failed to get a resolution. Is this to be an excuse for continued inaction or will Obama summon as much courage as Bill Clinton did in 1999 when he authorized action in combination with NATO in Kosovo despite the lack of a UN mandate? A growing number of voices are suggesting it is time to act.

No one, to be sure, suggests the use of U.S. ground troops but there is much that can be done short of that. In a typically cogent Wall Street Journal article the great Arabist Fouad Ajami writes: “We could, with some moral clarity, recognize the Syrian National Council as the country’s legitimate government, impose a no-fly zone in the many besieged areas, help train and equip the Free Syrian Army, prompt Turkey to give greater support to defectors from Syrian units, and rally the wealthy Arab states to finance the effort.”
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The news from Syria is unrelievedly grim. The Assad forces are continuing their murderous assault on Homs but the opposition continues to strike back–now, apparently, with two car bombs in Aleppo, a major city that until now had been largely free of violence. President Obama has gone to the UN Security Council and failed to get a resolution. Is this to be an excuse for continued inaction or will Obama summon as much courage as Bill Clinton did in 1999 when he authorized action in combination with NATO in Kosovo despite the lack of a UN mandate? A growing number of voices are suggesting it is time to act.

No one, to be sure, suggests the use of U.S. ground troops but there is much that can be done short of that. In a typically cogent Wall Street Journal article the great Arabist Fouad Ajami writes: “We could, with some moral clarity, recognize the Syrian National Council as the country’s legitimate government, impose a no-fly zone in the many besieged areas, help train and equip the Free Syrian Army, prompt Turkey to give greater support to defectors from Syrian units, and rally the wealthy Arab states to finance the effort.”

Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post further develops the case for arming the Free Syrian Army in this article in which he points out why we should not be paralyzed by memories of how some of the mujahideen we had armed in Afghanistan in the 1980s later turned against us: “That’s a misreading of history,” he argues. “In fact, arming the Afghan opposition in the 1980s succeeded in its aim of driving out the Soviet Union. U.S. responsibility for the subsequent chaos lay in its abandonment of the country after 1989, not the arms it gave the mujahadeen.” Michael Weiss of the Henry Jackson Society in London provides additional details of what could be done here.

Let us hope the administration is paying attention because the death toll is growing every day.

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Time is Running Out in Syria

This New York Times article by reporter Anthony Shadid unfortunately confirms my worst apprehensions about where Syria is headed–namely toward a civil war. He writes that:

the government [is] losing control over some regions and its authority ebbing in the suburbs of the capital and parts of major cities like Homs and Hama. Even the capital, Damascus, which had remained calm for months, has been carved up with checkpoints and its residents have been frightened by the sounds of gunfire….

In a town about a half-hour drive from Damascus, the police station was recently burned down and in retaliation electricity and water were cut off, diplomats say. For a time, residents drew water in buckets from a well. Some people are too afraid to drive major highways at night.

In Homs, a city that a Lebanese politician called “the Stalingrad of the Syrian revolution,” reports have grown of sectarian cleansing of once-mixed neighborhoods, where some roads have become borders too dangerous for taxis to cross.

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This New York Times article by reporter Anthony Shadid unfortunately confirms my worst apprehensions about where Syria is headed–namely toward a civil war. He writes that:

the government [is] losing control over some regions and its authority ebbing in the suburbs of the capital and parts of major cities like Homs and Hama. Even the capital, Damascus, which had remained calm for months, has been carved up with checkpoints and its residents have been frightened by the sounds of gunfire….

In a town about a half-hour drive from Damascus, the police station was recently burned down and in retaliation electricity and water were cut off, diplomats say. For a time, residents drew water in buckets from a well. Some people are too afraid to drive major highways at night.

In Homs, a city that a Lebanese politician called “the Stalingrad of the Syrian revolution,” reports have grown of sectarian cleansing of once-mixed neighborhoods, where some roads have become borders too dangerous for taxis to cross.

We’ve seen this movie before–in next-door Iraq in 2003-2004–and we know what the ending looks like, with violence reaching catastrophic levels, unless something is done now. But what? The Arab League’s observer mission, a farce to begin with, ended in predictable failure with no sign of the killing abating. The best bet, as I have been arguing for some time, is for outside powers–ranging from the U.S., Britain and France to Turkey and Qatar–to do more to aid the opposition, including the armed opposition, so as to speed up the inevitable collapse of the Assad dictatorship and hasten the formation of a new, and one hopes more democratic, government. That could require a range of steps from providing arms and training to armed rebels, to air strikes, to setting up humanitarian corridors and zones of refuge, where the Assad regime will be prevented from continuing its bloodthirsty ways by the presence of Turkish and/or Arab League troops.

The latter option is not as far-fetched as it might have seemed only a few months ago. Shadid notes: “In a suggestion that reflected the sense of desperation, the emir of Qatar said in an interview with CBS, an excerpt of which was released Saturday, that Arab troops should intervene in Syria to ‘stop the killing.’”

But it is still extremely doubtful the Arab League, which failed to do much with an observer mission, could be induced to take a more active hand. Turkish and Qatari intervention is more possible. But for anything to happen, the U.S. will have to galvanize an active coalition to bring down Assad–something that hasn’t happened yet. Time is running short–more action is needed before the slaughter escalates and possibly even spills over Syria’s borders into such vulnerable neighbors as Iraq and Lebanon.

 

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Israel Now on Anti-Assad Bandwagon

Bashar Assad just lost another major ally. No, not Iran: Tehran is still the regime’s staunch backer–the only one it has left. No, not Turkey: Ankara turned against Assad weeks ago. And not Hamas: It too has already abandoned Assad. The latest government to join the anti-Assad caucus? Israel.

At first glance, this may seem like a surprising defection. Who would ever have expected Israel to be a supporter of Assad in the first place? Syria under the Assads (father and son) fought Israel in 1972 and 1982–and those were just the overt wars. Syria has also been a major source of surreptitious support to anti-Israel terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet all the while, Israeli officials quietly supported the Assads–or at least did not try to topple them–on the “better the devil you know” theory. Now that’s changed, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak telling reporters that Assad is finished and that’s a good thing:

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Bashar Assad just lost another major ally. No, not Iran: Tehran is still the regime’s staunch backer–the only one it has left. No, not Turkey: Ankara turned against Assad weeks ago. And not Hamas: It too has already abandoned Assad. The latest government to join the anti-Assad caucus? Israel.

At first glance, this may seem like a surprising defection. Who would ever have expected Israel to be a supporter of Assad in the first place? Syria under the Assads (father and son) fought Israel in 1972 and 1982–and those were just the overt wars. Syria has also been a major source of surreptitious support to anti-Israel terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet all the while, Israeli officials quietly supported the Assads–or at least did not try to topple them–on the “better the devil you know” theory. Now that’s changed, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak telling reporters that Assad is finished and that’s a good thing:

“When the Assad family falls, it will be a major blow to the radical axis led by Iran,” Barak said. “It will weaken Iran, it will weaken Hezbollah and weaken the backing for Hamas, and it will deprive the Iranians of a real stronghold in the Arab world. It will strengthen Turkey, which is a natural rival to Iran’s hegemonic intentions…This is something positive for Israel.”

The only mystery here is why the Israeli leadership has only now realized keeping Assad in power is not in their country’s interest. But better late than never.

The challenge now will be to usher Assad out as quickly as possible. Count me as skeptical he will be ousted within “weeks” as Barak predicts. He can hang on much longer, I fear, while Syrian society is ripped apart. Yet the Obama administration is adopting an unthinking policy of refusing to support armed rebellion against the criminal clique in Damascus.

This may seem to be a humanitarian policy–who can argue in theory with nonviolence?–but in fact it is deeply immoral because it consigns more Syrian civilians to death at the hands of ruthless government goons. It is high time for the administration to adopt the policy urged by the Washington Post editorial board which writes: ”If it is not doing so already, the administration should be quietly working with Arab allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as with Turkey, to provide greater support to the opposition — including its armed components.”

 

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Hezbollah Threatens to Take Over Lebanon

Almost everyone thought that the Syrian government assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005, but most evidence now points to Hezbollah. An investigation just published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation comes to that conclusion. The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon is widely expected to soon hand down an indictment against Hezbollah officials, and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is saying he may launch a coup d’etat or a putsch against Lebanon’s government if it happens. “Our options,” he said, “are anywhere between doing nothing and causing a major political change.”

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad’s regime in Damascus is off the hook. Hezbollah is a Syrian and Iranian proxy militia, after all. Both Damascus and Tehran could be considered at least indirectly responsible, if not directly responsible, if it turns out that Hezbollah is, in fact, guilty. And if Nasrallah makes good on his threat and takes over Lebanon on behalf of his foreign masters, the temperature in the Middle East will rise dramatically. Israelis will no doubt be alarmed, as will the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and the Arab states in the Gulf.

I do not, however, expect Hezbollah will ever conquer and rule the whole country as Hamas does in Gaza. Hezbollah is the most powerful military force in Lebanon by a long shot, but it’s a sectarian Shia militia and is not likely powerful enough to rule hostile Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions.

The Lebanese army is neither powerful nor cohesive enough to disarm Hezbollah by force. It would surely mean war if it tried, and Hezbollah would quickly and decisively win a defensive conflict. That does not, however, mean that Hezbollah can win an offensive war in hostile cities and neighborhoods. Sure, Nasrallah could topple Lebanon’s government easily enough, but then what? He won the short civil war in 2008 when his men took over the western half of the capital, but he did not stick around to govern that area. Hezbollah is a guerrilla and terrorist army, not an occupation force. Counterinsurgency is hardly in its skill set.

If Nasrallah tries to make himself the dictator of Lebanon, he’ll probably learn the hard way what Americans learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when regime change is easy, the aftermath is ferocious.

There’s a reason Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, and Druze haven’t fielded their own militias to stand against Hezbollah. The lesson they learned from the 1975-1990 civil war was perhaps best summed up by former president Amin Gemayel: “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.” But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Hezbollah may well be all but unstoppable. Nasrallah talks as though his men are all but unstoppable, and he might even believe it.

It has been a long time since Israel has fought a war against a foreign government rather than against non-state terrorist organizations, but if my analysis here is wrong, if Hezbollah does in fact take over the country, war between Middle Eastern nation-states will likely resume. The next war between Israel and Hezbollah would be a war between Israel and the Lebanese government by definition, and it could happen even if the majority of Israelis and Lebanese would rather it didn’t.

Almost everyone thought that the Syrian government assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005, but most evidence now points to Hezbollah. An investigation just published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation comes to that conclusion. The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon is widely expected to soon hand down an indictment against Hezbollah officials, and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is saying he may launch a coup d’etat or a putsch against Lebanon’s government if it happens. “Our options,” he said, “are anywhere between doing nothing and causing a major political change.”

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad’s regime in Damascus is off the hook. Hezbollah is a Syrian and Iranian proxy militia, after all. Both Damascus and Tehran could be considered at least indirectly responsible, if not directly responsible, if it turns out that Hezbollah is, in fact, guilty. And if Nasrallah makes good on his threat and takes over Lebanon on behalf of his foreign masters, the temperature in the Middle East will rise dramatically. Israelis will no doubt be alarmed, as will the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and the Arab states in the Gulf.

I do not, however, expect Hezbollah will ever conquer and rule the whole country as Hamas does in Gaza. Hezbollah is the most powerful military force in Lebanon by a long shot, but it’s a sectarian Shia militia and is not likely powerful enough to rule hostile Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions.

The Lebanese army is neither powerful nor cohesive enough to disarm Hezbollah by force. It would surely mean war if it tried, and Hezbollah would quickly and decisively win a defensive conflict. That does not, however, mean that Hezbollah can win an offensive war in hostile cities and neighborhoods. Sure, Nasrallah could topple Lebanon’s government easily enough, but then what? He won the short civil war in 2008 when his men took over the western half of the capital, but he did not stick around to govern that area. Hezbollah is a guerrilla and terrorist army, not an occupation force. Counterinsurgency is hardly in its skill set.

If Nasrallah tries to make himself the dictator of Lebanon, he’ll probably learn the hard way what Americans learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when regime change is easy, the aftermath is ferocious.

There’s a reason Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, and Druze haven’t fielded their own militias to stand against Hezbollah. The lesson they learned from the 1975-1990 civil war was perhaps best summed up by former president Amin Gemayel: “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.” But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Hezbollah may well be all but unstoppable. Nasrallah talks as though his men are all but unstoppable, and he might even believe it.

It has been a long time since Israel has fought a war against a foreign government rather than against non-state terrorist organizations, but if my analysis here is wrong, if Hezbollah does in fact take over the country, war between Middle Eastern nation-states will likely resume. The next war between Israel and Hezbollah would be a war between Israel and the Lebanese government by definition, and it could happen even if the majority of Israelis and Lebanese would rather it didn’t.

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Meanwhile, How’s the Syrian Outreach Going?

In the midst of the non-peace talk debacle, we shouldn’t lose track of another Obama blunder: his Syria policy. As this report explains:

Syria has bounced back from years of international isolation and is wielding its influence in crises around the Middle East, shrugging off US attempts to pull it away from its alliances with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.

Damascus played a role in helping Iraq’s fractious politicians agree this month to form a new government after eight months of deadlock. Now with Lebanon’s factions heading for a possible new violent collision, Arabs have had to turn to Syria in hopes of ensuring peace, even as Damascus backs Lebanon’s heaviest armed player, the Shi’ite terrorist group Hizbullah.

It seems all those John Kerry suck-uppery sessions, the attempt to send a new ambassador, the look-the-other way response to violations of the UN resolution prohibiting rearming of Hezbollah, the indifference to Syria’s human-rights record, and our more generic Muslim Outreach plan haven’t done the trick in separating Syria from Iran’s orbit or in curbing Syrian mischief-making. Quite the opposite.

This is yet one more area (others being our relations with Israel and Europe and Obama’s shoddy human-rights record) in which the U.S. is in a much worse position than when Obama assumed office:

Syria’s emergence as a regional heavyweight is a reversal from just a few years ago. Rafik Hariri’s assassination prompted a wave of anti-Syrian protests that forced Damascus to withdraw its military from Lebanon and end its long control there. In 2006, relations with some Arab states took a dive when Assad called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders “half men” over their disapproval of Hizbullah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, which sparked a 34-day war between Hizbullah and Israel.

At some point, you would think the Obama team would learn that prostrating ourselves before despots is a losing proposition.

In the midst of the non-peace talk debacle, we shouldn’t lose track of another Obama blunder: his Syria policy. As this report explains:

Syria has bounced back from years of international isolation and is wielding its influence in crises around the Middle East, shrugging off US attempts to pull it away from its alliances with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.

Damascus played a role in helping Iraq’s fractious politicians agree this month to form a new government after eight months of deadlock. Now with Lebanon’s factions heading for a possible new violent collision, Arabs have had to turn to Syria in hopes of ensuring peace, even as Damascus backs Lebanon’s heaviest armed player, the Shi’ite terrorist group Hizbullah.

It seems all those John Kerry suck-uppery sessions, the attempt to send a new ambassador, the look-the-other way response to violations of the UN resolution prohibiting rearming of Hezbollah, the indifference to Syria’s human-rights record, and our more generic Muslim Outreach plan haven’t done the trick in separating Syria from Iran’s orbit or in curbing Syrian mischief-making. Quite the opposite.

This is yet one more area (others being our relations with Israel and Europe and Obama’s shoddy human-rights record) in which the U.S. is in a much worse position than when Obama assumed office:

Syria’s emergence as a regional heavyweight is a reversal from just a few years ago. Rafik Hariri’s assassination prompted a wave of anti-Syrian protests that forced Damascus to withdraw its military from Lebanon and end its long control there. In 2006, relations with some Arab states took a dive when Assad called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders “half men” over their disapproval of Hizbullah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, which sparked a 34-day war between Hizbullah and Israel.

At some point, you would think the Obama team would learn that prostrating ourselves before despots is a losing proposition.

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The Real Middle East Linkage

Barack Obama’s administration is a big fan of “linkage” — the theory that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would, in his words, “change the strategic landscape of the Middle East” and “help us deal with terrorist organizations in the region.” And actually, he’s half right: America’s handling of this conflict does affect the Middle East’s strategic landscape. But the link, as newly declassified documents from the Vietnam War make clear, isn’t what Obama thinks it is. And therefore, his policies are making war more likely, not less.

Obama believes Palestinian suffering is a top Muslim concern that contributes greatly to radicalizing Muslim extremists. Thus, if America forced Israel to capitulate to Palestinian demands, not only would Muslims like America better, but all the Muslim world’s other problems would be easier to solve, because a key source of radicalization would be gone.

That version of linkage is clearly delusional. Just consider last month’s deadly bombing by Sunni extremists of a Shiite march in Pakistan. The march was one of several nationwide to “observe Al Quds Day, an annual protest to express solidarity with Palestinians and condemn Israel.” Yet solidarity with the Palestinians evidently ranks so low on the Muslim agenda that Sunnis and Shiites couldn’t suspend their mutual bloodletting for one day to unite around this issue. So how would a Palestinian state ease this Sunni-Shiite divide?

But as the Vietnam documents show, linkage does exist. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War erupted, forcing then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger to spend months brokering cease-fire agreements between Israel, Syria, and Egypt, the Vietnam War still raged. So after one of Kissinger’s trips to the region, then-ambassador to Saigon Graham Martin asked him “about the connection between what was happening in the Middle East and Vietnam.” Kissinger replied:

It hurt us with the Arabs. [Syrian President Hafez] Assad said in his talks with me, “You look what you’ve done to Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Portugal, etc.” … Assad said, “Therefore if you look at this, you will give up Israel, and so [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat should simply not give in.”

In short, it wasn’t American support for Israel that hurt America with the Arabs, but the Arabs’ conviction that this support would prove ephemeral, as it had with other American allies. The more convinced the Arabs were that America would ultimately abandon its allies, the less reason they saw to compromise, the more inflexible their positions became, and the more they preferred alliances with America’s enemies instead (in this case, the Soviet Union).

The same dynamic is evident today. Obama’s avowed goal of putting “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, coupled with his downgrading of other traditional American allies in favor of longtime enemies, has convinced Palestinians that if they hold out, America will eventually abandon Israel, too. And why compromise now if they could have it all later? Hence the flurry of new demands, like no negotiations without a settlement freeze, that they never posed before.

It seems some things never change. Today, too, the real link between Israel and the broader Middle Eastern strategic landscape remains America’s credibility as an ally.

Barack Obama’s administration is a big fan of “linkage” — the theory that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would, in his words, “change the strategic landscape of the Middle East” and “help us deal with terrorist organizations in the region.” And actually, he’s half right: America’s handling of this conflict does affect the Middle East’s strategic landscape. But the link, as newly declassified documents from the Vietnam War make clear, isn’t what Obama thinks it is. And therefore, his policies are making war more likely, not less.

Obama believes Palestinian suffering is a top Muslim concern that contributes greatly to radicalizing Muslim extremists. Thus, if America forced Israel to capitulate to Palestinian demands, not only would Muslims like America better, but all the Muslim world’s other problems would be easier to solve, because a key source of radicalization would be gone.

That version of linkage is clearly delusional. Just consider last month’s deadly bombing by Sunni extremists of a Shiite march in Pakistan. The march was one of several nationwide to “observe Al Quds Day, an annual protest to express solidarity with Palestinians and condemn Israel.” Yet solidarity with the Palestinians evidently ranks so low on the Muslim agenda that Sunnis and Shiites couldn’t suspend their mutual bloodletting for one day to unite around this issue. So how would a Palestinian state ease this Sunni-Shiite divide?

But as the Vietnam documents show, linkage does exist. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War erupted, forcing then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger to spend months brokering cease-fire agreements between Israel, Syria, and Egypt, the Vietnam War still raged. So after one of Kissinger’s trips to the region, then-ambassador to Saigon Graham Martin asked him “about the connection between what was happening in the Middle East and Vietnam.” Kissinger replied:

It hurt us with the Arabs. [Syrian President Hafez] Assad said in his talks with me, “You look what you’ve done to Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Portugal, etc.” … Assad said, “Therefore if you look at this, you will give up Israel, and so [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat should simply not give in.”

In short, it wasn’t American support for Israel that hurt America with the Arabs, but the Arabs’ conviction that this support would prove ephemeral, as it had with other American allies. The more convinced the Arabs were that America would ultimately abandon its allies, the less reason they saw to compromise, the more inflexible their positions became, and the more they preferred alliances with America’s enemies instead (in this case, the Soviet Union).

The same dynamic is evident today. Obama’s avowed goal of putting “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, coupled with his downgrading of other traditional American allies in favor of longtime enemies, has convinced Palestinians that if they hold out, America will eventually abandon Israel, too. And why compromise now if they could have it all later? Hence the flurry of new demands, like no negotiations without a settlement freeze, that they never posed before.

It seems some things never change. Today, too, the real link between Israel and the broader Middle Eastern strategic landscape remains America’s credibility as an ally.

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The Human Rights “Charm Offensive”

Fred Hiatt is hopeful — as so many observers have been during the Obama administration — that the president is “turning the corner” on his foreign policy, specifically in the area of human rights and democracy promotion. Hiatt recounts some of the administration’s failings:

The administration criticized the narrowing of freedom in Russia, but cooperation on Iran was a higher priority. It chided Hosni Mubarak for choking civil society in Egypt, but the autocrat’s cooperation on Israel-Palestine mattered more.

Sadly, in fact, it seemed fellow democracies often paid a higher price for real or supposed human-rights failings: Colombia, for example, where human rights was the excuse for not promoting a free-trade agreement.

But it’s worse than that, really. We stiffed the Green movement and cut funding to groups that monitor Iranian human rights abuses. We facilitated the egregious behavior of the UN Human Rights Council. Our Sudan policy has been widely condemned by the left and right. Our record on promotion of religious freedom has been shoddy. We acquiesced as Iran was placed on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. We turned a blind eye toward serial human rights atrocities in the Muslim World. We flattered and cajoled Assad in Syria with nary a concern for human rights. We told China that human rights wouldn’t stand in the way of relations between the countries. We’ve suggested that Fidel Castro might enjoy better relations and an influx of U.S. tourist dollars without any improvement in human rights. And the administration ludicrously sided with a lackey of Hugo Chavez against the democratic institutions of Honduras. The list goes on and on.

As I and other observers have noted, the Obama human rights policy has more often than not focused on America’s ills – supposed Islamophobia, homophobia, racism, and the like: “Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have found some victims of rights-transgression who are of very great interest to them — indeed, since some of them are here at home, and sinned against by America herself!”

But Hiatt thinks Obama is turning over a new leaf: “[A]couple of weeks ago, in his second annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama declared that ‘freedom, justice and peace in the lives of individual human beings’ are, for the United States, ‘a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity.’” Yes, but we’ve heard pretty words before. What makes Hiatt think that this time around Obama honestly means it? He concedes that the proof will be in what Obama actually does:

If Obama’s speech signals a genuine shift, we will see the administration insist on election monitors in Egypt or withhold aid if Mubarak says no. It will wield real tools — visa bans, bank account seizures — to sanction human-rights abusers in Russia and China. It will not only claim to support a U.N. inquiry into Burma’s crimes against humanity but will call in chits from friends in Thailand, Singapore or India to make such an inquiry happen.

And maybe the administration will stop sabotaging Obama’s message on his most active foreign policy front: the war in Afghanistan. There, in its almost aggressive insistence that the war is about protecting the U.S. homeland — and only about protecting the U.S. homeland — the administration undercuts its claim to be a champion of “universal values.”

You’ll excuse me if I’m skeptical, but we’ve been down this road before. And to really be serious about human rights, Obama would need to undo and revise his entire Muslim-outreach scheme. Instead of ingratiating himself with despots, he would need to challenge them. Instead of telling Muslim audiences in Cairo that the most significant women’s rights issue was “for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear,” he would need to start challenging regimes that countenance and promote violence against women, child marriages, stonings, lashings, honor killings, etc. He would likewise need to revisit systematically our “reset” with Russia and our indifference to Chavez’s shenanigans in this hemisphere. Is this president going to do all that?

It’s lovely that the president is planning a trip “through Asia designed in part to put meat on the bones of his new rhetoric … [where] he will announce grants for nongovernmental organizations that the administration hopes will flower into the kind of domestic lobbies that can push their own governments to promote democracy abroad.” But unless there is a fundamental rethinking and reworking of foreign policy, this will be simply another PR effort that does little for the oppressed souls around the world.

Fred Hiatt is hopeful — as so many observers have been during the Obama administration — that the president is “turning the corner” on his foreign policy, specifically in the area of human rights and democracy promotion. Hiatt recounts some of the administration’s failings:

The administration criticized the narrowing of freedom in Russia, but cooperation on Iran was a higher priority. It chided Hosni Mubarak for choking civil society in Egypt, but the autocrat’s cooperation on Israel-Palestine mattered more.

Sadly, in fact, it seemed fellow democracies often paid a higher price for real or supposed human-rights failings: Colombia, for example, where human rights was the excuse for not promoting a free-trade agreement.

But it’s worse than that, really. We stiffed the Green movement and cut funding to groups that monitor Iranian human rights abuses. We facilitated the egregious behavior of the UN Human Rights Council. Our Sudan policy has been widely condemned by the left and right. Our record on promotion of religious freedom has been shoddy. We acquiesced as Iran was placed on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. We turned a blind eye toward serial human rights atrocities in the Muslim World. We flattered and cajoled Assad in Syria with nary a concern for human rights. We told China that human rights wouldn’t stand in the way of relations between the countries. We’ve suggested that Fidel Castro might enjoy better relations and an influx of U.S. tourist dollars without any improvement in human rights. And the administration ludicrously sided with a lackey of Hugo Chavez against the democratic institutions of Honduras. The list goes on and on.

As I and other observers have noted, the Obama human rights policy has more often than not focused on America’s ills – supposed Islamophobia, homophobia, racism, and the like: “Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have found some victims of rights-transgression who are of very great interest to them — indeed, since some of them are here at home, and sinned against by America herself!”

But Hiatt thinks Obama is turning over a new leaf: “[A]couple of weeks ago, in his second annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama declared that ‘freedom, justice and peace in the lives of individual human beings’ are, for the United States, ‘a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity.’” Yes, but we’ve heard pretty words before. What makes Hiatt think that this time around Obama honestly means it? He concedes that the proof will be in what Obama actually does:

If Obama’s speech signals a genuine shift, we will see the administration insist on election monitors in Egypt or withhold aid if Mubarak says no. It will wield real tools — visa bans, bank account seizures — to sanction human-rights abusers in Russia and China. It will not only claim to support a U.N. inquiry into Burma’s crimes against humanity but will call in chits from friends in Thailand, Singapore or India to make such an inquiry happen.

And maybe the administration will stop sabotaging Obama’s message on his most active foreign policy front: the war in Afghanistan. There, in its almost aggressive insistence that the war is about protecting the U.S. homeland — and only about protecting the U.S. homeland — the administration undercuts its claim to be a champion of “universal values.”

You’ll excuse me if I’m skeptical, but we’ve been down this road before. And to really be serious about human rights, Obama would need to undo and revise his entire Muslim-outreach scheme. Instead of ingratiating himself with despots, he would need to challenge them. Instead of telling Muslim audiences in Cairo that the most significant women’s rights issue was “for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear,” he would need to start challenging regimes that countenance and promote violence against women, child marriages, stonings, lashings, honor killings, etc. He would likewise need to revisit systematically our “reset” with Russia and our indifference to Chavez’s shenanigans in this hemisphere. Is this president going to do all that?

It’s lovely that the president is planning a trip “through Asia designed in part to put meat on the bones of his new rhetoric … [where] he will announce grants for nongovernmental organizations that the administration hopes will flower into the kind of domestic lobbies that can push their own governments to promote democracy abroad.” But unless there is a fundamental rethinking and reworking of foreign policy, this will be simply another PR effort that does little for the oppressed souls around the world.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

So much for honoring America’s commitments: “As Israel’s prime minister prepares for his fifth official meeting with President Obama this week, the White House has declined to publicly affirm commitments made by President Bush to Israel in 2004 on the final borders of the Jewish state.”

So much for walking back the Afghanistan troop-withdrawal deadline. Joe Biden says, “This is the policy.”

So much for the Democratic 2010 strategy. Chis Cillizza writes: “the Democratic National Committee has committed to spending tens of millions of dollars to re-create (or come somewhere near re-creating) the 2008 election model, in which Democrats relied heavily on higher-than-normal turnout from young people and strong support from African American and Hispanic voters. The DNC’s plan is ambitious, to say the least: In the space of a few months, the strategists hope to change the composition of a midterm electorate that, if history is any guide, tends to be older and whiter than in a presidential-election year. Put that way, it sounds crazy — and it has drawn considerable skepticism from independent observers.”

So much for Obama’s salesmanship: “Sixty percent (60%) of voters nationwide favor repeal of the recently passed health care law, including 49% who Strongly Favor repeal. … This is the 16th weekly poll conducted on repeal since the health care law was passed. A majority of voters has favored repeal each and every week. Support for repeal has ranged from a low of 52% to a high of 63%.”

So much for the “permanent” Democratic majority. Charlie Cook writes: “Among all voters, there has been a significant swing since 2008 when Democrats took their new majority won in 2006 to an even higher level. But when you home in on those people in this survey who are most likely to vote, the numbers are devastating. … Make no mistake about it: There is a wave out there, and for Democrats, the House is, at best, teetering on the edge. To be sure, things could change in the four months between now and November 2. … Still, the potential is here for a result that is proportional to some of the bigger postwar midterm wave elections.”

So much for Obama’s Syrian engagement. The headline reads, “Assad: US administration is weak.” Well, he’s a brutal despot, but he’s not a bad political analyst.

So much for Obamanomics: “Just when they might be needed the most, the rescue ropes that hauled the nation out of the Great Recession have become badly frayed. A much-feared ‘double dip’ economic downturn would find interest rates already slashed to near zero by the Federal Reserve and lawmakers leery of voting for billions of stimulus dollars as they face re-election.”

So much for the prospects of a two-state solution. Barry Rubin: “Why should Israel give up territory and security to the PA merely because it prosecutes corrupt leaders (don’t hold your breath) and is more prosperous? What it needs to know is that the conflict won’t continue, that there won’t be cross-border raids, that Hamas won’t take over and that Palestine won’t invite in Syrian or Iranian military forces, to cite some examples.” And other than the deluded Obami, who really thinks that is happening any time soon?

So much for the notion that Fareed Zakaria is to be taken seriously (even by the Obama administration): “Fareed Zakaria criticized the Afghanistan war in unusually harsh terms on his CNN program Sunday, saying that ‘the whole enterprise in Afghanistan feels disproportionate, a very expensive solution to what is turning out to be a small but real problem.’”

So much for honoring America’s commitments: “As Israel’s prime minister prepares for his fifth official meeting with President Obama this week, the White House has declined to publicly affirm commitments made by President Bush to Israel in 2004 on the final borders of the Jewish state.”

So much for walking back the Afghanistan troop-withdrawal deadline. Joe Biden says, “This is the policy.”

So much for the Democratic 2010 strategy. Chis Cillizza writes: “the Democratic National Committee has committed to spending tens of millions of dollars to re-create (or come somewhere near re-creating) the 2008 election model, in which Democrats relied heavily on higher-than-normal turnout from young people and strong support from African American and Hispanic voters. The DNC’s plan is ambitious, to say the least: In the space of a few months, the strategists hope to change the composition of a midterm electorate that, if history is any guide, tends to be older and whiter than in a presidential-election year. Put that way, it sounds crazy — and it has drawn considerable skepticism from independent observers.”

So much for Obama’s salesmanship: “Sixty percent (60%) of voters nationwide favor repeal of the recently passed health care law, including 49% who Strongly Favor repeal. … This is the 16th weekly poll conducted on repeal since the health care law was passed. A majority of voters has favored repeal each and every week. Support for repeal has ranged from a low of 52% to a high of 63%.”

So much for the “permanent” Democratic majority. Charlie Cook writes: “Among all voters, there has been a significant swing since 2008 when Democrats took their new majority won in 2006 to an even higher level. But when you home in on those people in this survey who are most likely to vote, the numbers are devastating. … Make no mistake about it: There is a wave out there, and for Democrats, the House is, at best, teetering on the edge. To be sure, things could change in the four months between now and November 2. … Still, the potential is here for a result that is proportional to some of the bigger postwar midterm wave elections.”

So much for Obama’s Syrian engagement. The headline reads, “Assad: US administration is weak.” Well, he’s a brutal despot, but he’s not a bad political analyst.

So much for Obamanomics: “Just when they might be needed the most, the rescue ropes that hauled the nation out of the Great Recession have become badly frayed. A much-feared ‘double dip’ economic downturn would find interest rates already slashed to near zero by the Federal Reserve and lawmakers leery of voting for billions of stimulus dollars as they face re-election.”

So much for the prospects of a two-state solution. Barry Rubin: “Why should Israel give up territory and security to the PA merely because it prosecutes corrupt leaders (don’t hold your breath) and is more prosperous? What it needs to know is that the conflict won’t continue, that there won’t be cross-border raids, that Hamas won’t take over and that Palestine won’t invite in Syrian or Iranian military forces, to cite some examples.” And other than the deluded Obami, who really thinks that is happening any time soon?

So much for the notion that Fareed Zakaria is to be taken seriously (even by the Obama administration): “Fareed Zakaria criticized the Afghanistan war in unusually harsh terms on his CNN program Sunday, saying that ‘the whole enterprise in Afghanistan feels disproportionate, a very expensive solution to what is turning out to be a small but real problem.’”

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RE: Frolicking with Despots

OK, not every Democrat is enamored of Obama’s Syrian engagement and technology jaunt:

One House Democratic staffer, briefed in advance of the trip by representatives from the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, called it “f***ing idiotic.”

The staffer said State people briefing congressional staff on the trip said, “we are going to infiltrate them (Syria) with technology without them even knowing it.”

“It’s a stupid thing to do,” he said. “Because they are so enamored of their own brilliance. It’s ridiculous. They don’t know what they are doing if they think they are going to subvert the Syrian government with technology and Syria won’t even notice.”

And not every foreign policy guru is shy about blasting the administration:

The administration thinks “they can make Assad like Gorbachev,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Schenker said. “They think they are going to have some level of opening [in Syria] with the Internet.”

But “everything that the administration has dangled in front of the Syrians so far has not worked,” Schenker continued. “So now they are sweetening the pot. … The Obama administration has been trying to think creatively. They think that this is a key. They have given a whole number of things to Syria,” including airplane spare parts and lifting U.S. opposition to Syria applying for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Unfortunately, a different mentality pervades this administration, and there is no congressional majority willing to exercise the power of the purse to put a stop to this nonsense.

OK, not every Democrat is enamored of Obama’s Syrian engagement and technology jaunt:

One House Democratic staffer, briefed in advance of the trip by representatives from the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, called it “f***ing idiotic.”

The staffer said State people briefing congressional staff on the trip said, “we are going to infiltrate them (Syria) with technology without them even knowing it.”

“It’s a stupid thing to do,” he said. “Because they are so enamored of their own brilliance. It’s ridiculous. They don’t know what they are doing if they think they are going to subvert the Syrian government with technology and Syria won’t even notice.”

And not every foreign policy guru is shy about blasting the administration:

The administration thinks “they can make Assad like Gorbachev,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Schenker said. “They think they are going to have some level of opening [in Syria] with the Internet.”

But “everything that the administration has dangled in front of the Syrians so far has not worked,” Schenker continued. “So now they are sweetening the pot. … The Obama administration has been trying to think creatively. They think that this is a key. They have given a whole number of things to Syria,” including airplane spare parts and lifting U.S. opposition to Syria applying for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Unfortunately, a different mentality pervades this administration, and there is no congressional majority willing to exercise the power of the purse to put a stop to this nonsense.

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Frolicking with Despots

This report confirms many of the worst qualities of the Obama foreign team brain trust — unprofessional, oblivious, juvenile, and shockingly insensitive. It seems Special Adviser on Innovation Alec J. Ross and Policy Planning staffer Jared Cohen, two of the State Department’s best and brightest, are yucking it up in Syria. No, really:

For example, according to Ross, on Tuesday Cohen challenged the Syrian Minister of Telecom to a cake-eating contest and called it “Creative Diplomacy.” Match that, Tehran! Ross and Cohen both tweeted about their trip to the Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Lounge in Damascus, but while Ross was “amused” by the place, Cohen wants his 300,000-plus tweeps to know that “I’m not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus.” Good to know! …

In between drinking frappuccinos and touring such places as the Souk al-Hamadiye, the famous covered marketplace in Damascus, Cohen and Ross did find time to hold substantive meetings with Syrian students, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government officials, and Assad himself.

The students complained that the Syrian government blocked Google, Tashkil, Facebook, YouTube, etc., according to Cohen. Apparently they don’t block Twitter. …

Ross explained that the trip is not just about engaging Assad. “This trip to Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of netfreedom,” he tweeted.

Is it any wonder despots think they’re getting a free pass from Obama? There certainly is reason for their oppressed and brutalized people to despair.

This report confirms many of the worst qualities of the Obama foreign team brain trust — unprofessional, oblivious, juvenile, and shockingly insensitive. It seems Special Adviser on Innovation Alec J. Ross and Policy Planning staffer Jared Cohen, two of the State Department’s best and brightest, are yucking it up in Syria. No, really:

For example, according to Ross, on Tuesday Cohen challenged the Syrian Minister of Telecom to a cake-eating contest and called it “Creative Diplomacy.” Match that, Tehran! Ross and Cohen both tweeted about their trip to the Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Lounge in Damascus, but while Ross was “amused” by the place, Cohen wants his 300,000-plus tweeps to know that “I’m not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus.” Good to know! …

In between drinking frappuccinos and touring such places as the Souk al-Hamadiye, the famous covered marketplace in Damascus, Cohen and Ross did find time to hold substantive meetings with Syrian students, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government officials, and Assad himself.

The students complained that the Syrian government blocked Google, Tashkil, Facebook, YouTube, etc., according to Cohen. Apparently they don’t block Twitter. …

Ross explained that the trip is not just about engaging Assad. “This trip to Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of netfreedom,” he tweeted.

Is it any wonder despots think they’re getting a free pass from Obama? There certainly is reason for their oppressed and brutalized people to despair.

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How’s Syrian Engagement Going?

No matter how many trips John Kerry makes to Syria (could it be because he makes so many trips?), we haven’t been able to extract a smidgen of cooperation from the Syrian despot or weaken the bond between Iran and Syria. Here’s the latest:

Syria defied Western pressure on Sunday over its support for the militant group Hezbollah and said it would not act as a policeman for Israel to prevent weapons from reaching the Lebanese Shi’ite movement.

“Did Israel ever stop arming itself, did it stop instigating violence or making military maneuvers,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said after meeting his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. “Why are arms forbidden to Arabs and allowed to Israel?”

The answer is because Israel is a democracy that does not foment terrorism, saddle up to aggressive regimes, or brutalize its own people. But that’s not the sort of  answer any U.S. official is going to give these days. And it is further evidence that engagement has given the Syrians not pause but encouragement to defy the U.S. We are perceived as weak, desperate, unreliable, and in retreat in the region.

It seems that no amount of evidence — not defiance by Syria in this latest incident, not Scud sales, not chummy press conferences with Assad and Ahmadinejad in perfect harmony, not the continued trampling of human rights — will convince the Obama brain trust that our current policy is horribly misguided. They have their own game plan, and they aren’t about to let reality get in the way.

No matter how many trips John Kerry makes to Syria (could it be because he makes so many trips?), we haven’t been able to extract a smidgen of cooperation from the Syrian despot or weaken the bond between Iran and Syria. Here’s the latest:

Syria defied Western pressure on Sunday over its support for the militant group Hezbollah and said it would not act as a policeman for Israel to prevent weapons from reaching the Lebanese Shi’ite movement.

“Did Israel ever stop arming itself, did it stop instigating violence or making military maneuvers,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said after meeting his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. “Why are arms forbidden to Arabs and allowed to Israel?”

The answer is because Israel is a democracy that does not foment terrorism, saddle up to aggressive regimes, or brutalize its own people. But that’s not the sort of  answer any U.S. official is going to give these days. And it is further evidence that engagement has given the Syrians not pause but encouragement to defy the U.S. We are perceived as weak, desperate, unreliable, and in retreat in the region.

It seems that no amount of evidence — not defiance by Syria in this latest incident, not Scud sales, not chummy press conferences with Assad and Ahmadinejad in perfect harmony, not the continued trampling of human rights — will convince the Obama brain trust that our current policy is horribly misguided. They have their own game plan, and they aren’t about to let reality get in the way.

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So Much for Syrian Engagement

Obama is batting .000 in the engagement-of-despotic-regimes department. Iran, China, Sudan, and Burma have not responded to kind words, bows, or promises of future good relations with the U.S. And now Syria has officially — according to Obama — rebuffed us as well. This report explains:

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday he would extend a national state of emergency over Syria for another year, citing the Arab state’s continuing support for terrorists and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Obama’s decision means that despite Washington’s recent attempts to ease tensions with Damascus, United States economic sanctions against Syria, introduced in May 2004, will remain in force.

“While the Syrian government has made some progress in suppressing networks of foreign fighters bound for Iraq, its actions and policies, including continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” Obama said in a statement.

So the administration has now admitted failure — really, how could the Obami do otherwise? Even left-wing Haaretz must concede:

The Obama administration’s strategy of engagement has so far produced disappointing results, with Assad this year hosting Iran’s virulently anti-American President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a high-profile Damascus summit, alongside leaders of the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah – both on the State Department’s list of terror organizations.

In April tensions soared further following Israeli claims that Syria had supplied Hezbollah militants in Lebanon with advanced Scud missiles capable of inflicting heavy damage on Israel’s major cities – an accusation Damascus denies.

So what now — will the Obami decide to forget about returning an ambassador to Damascus? That, at least, would make the administration’s stance less incoherent. But the real issue remains — what will we do to replace the failed engagement gambit? Come to think of ,it that’s the dilemma with all the regimes that have slapped the open hand.

Obama is batting .000 in the engagement-of-despotic-regimes department. Iran, China, Sudan, and Burma have not responded to kind words, bows, or promises of future good relations with the U.S. And now Syria has officially — according to Obama — rebuffed us as well. This report explains:

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday he would extend a national state of emergency over Syria for another year, citing the Arab state’s continuing support for terrorists and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Obama’s decision means that despite Washington’s recent attempts to ease tensions with Damascus, United States economic sanctions against Syria, introduced in May 2004, will remain in force.

“While the Syrian government has made some progress in suppressing networks of foreign fighters bound for Iraq, its actions and policies, including continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” Obama said in a statement.

So the administration has now admitted failure — really, how could the Obami do otherwise? Even left-wing Haaretz must concede:

The Obama administration’s strategy of engagement has so far produced disappointing results, with Assad this year hosting Iran’s virulently anti-American President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a high-profile Damascus summit, alongside leaders of the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah – both on the State Department’s list of terror organizations.

In April tensions soared further following Israeli claims that Syria had supplied Hezbollah militants in Lebanon with advanced Scud missiles capable of inflicting heavy damage on Israel’s major cities – an accusation Damascus denies.

So what now — will the Obami decide to forget about returning an ambassador to Damascus? That, at least, would make the administration’s stance less incoherent. But the real issue remains — what will we do to replace the failed engagement gambit? Come to think of ,it that’s the dilemma with all the regimes that have slapped the open hand.

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Hillary Speaks to the AJC

Last night Hillary Clinton spoke to the AJC gala in Washington D.C. Her speech is a hodgepodge of platitudes and reveals how sharply the Obami’s rhetoric departs from their policies — the inevitable result of a disingenuous ”charm” offensive that seeks to soothe domestic critics of their assault on Israel while continuing their disastrous approach to the Middle East.

She began, as she did with AIPAC, with a series of fluffy assurances, which bear no relationship to the Obami’s actions:

We Americans may never fully understand the implications of this history on the daily lives of Israelis – the worry that a mother feels watching a child board a school bus or a child watching a parent go off to work. But we know deep in our souls that we have an unshakable bond and we will always stand not just with the Government of Israel but with the people of Israel. (Applause.)

Lovely sentiments but disconnected from their recent conduct. Was she feeling that unshakable bond deep in her soul when she chewed out Bibi for 43 minutes and instructed her State Department flack to relate the tongue-lashing to the entire world? Did Obama think he was standing with the government of Israel when he treated its prime minister with appalling rudeness?

Next, Hillary defends the administration’s defense of Israel in international institutions:

That is why the United States is fighting against anti-Semitism in international institutions — our special envoy for anti-Semitism is traveling the world as we speak, raising the issue at the highest levels of countries from one end of the world to the next. It is why we led the boycott of the Durban Conference. (Applause.) It is why we repeatedly and vigorously voted against and spoke out against the Goldstone Report. (Applause.) And it is why we have worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge, providing nearly $3 billion in annual military assistance. When I became Secretary of State, I asked my longtime defense and foreign policy advisor from my years in the Senate, Andrew Shapiro, to personally manage our defense consultations with Israel. And today, I am proud to say our partnership is broader, deeper, and more intense than ever before. (Applause.)

That envoy would be the one who slapped down Michael Oren, not exactly the sort of defender Israel needs. And as for the UN, she doesn’t of course bring up the anti-Israel resolution we failed to block or explain how our presence on the UN Human Rights Council or our muteness on the admission of Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women helps Israel’s cause.

She defensively repeats Obama’s retort that there is “‘noise and distortion’ about this Administration’s approach in the Middle East.” It’s all a grand misunderstanding, you see. Weren’t we listening, she says, when she went to AIPAC and told us how devoted she was to the Jewish state? Weren’t we listening when she made another speech at the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace? It is quite telling that her “defense” in the face of criticism is to cite her own pablum-filled speeches. This, she imagines, should put the whole matter to rest.

She then repeats the flawed premise of the Obami’s Middle East policy, namely:

Well, tonight I want to focus on the regional threats to Israel’s security and the imperative of reaching a comprehensive regional peace that will help defuse those threats. Because without a comprehensive regional peace, the Middle East will never unlock its full potential, and Israel will never be truly secure. Pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and its neighbors can be a mutually reinforcing process, and today it is more essential than ever to make progress on all tracks.

This falsely assumes that Iran’s nuclear threat will melt when peace breaks out with the Palestinians. It assumes that Assad and his Hezbollah surrogates will no longer threaten Israel once the peace deal is inked. In short, it ignores reality — both the impossibility of a peace deal in the near future and the lack of relevance such a deal has to Israel’s most pressing challenge: the existential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Remarkably, she then undermines her own case by pointing to Syria (Assad is going to be impressed with proximity talks? He’ll rein in Hezbollah as soon as Israel gives up the Old City?) and offering only words, again disconnected from reality and the Obami’s actions:

We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria’s transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms and have expressed our concerns directly to the Syrian Government. Transferring weapons to these terrorists — especially longer-range missiles – would pose a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region. And it would absolutely violate UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans the unauthorized importation of any weapons into Lebanon.

We do not accept such provocative and destabilizing behavior — nor should the international community. President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region. We know he’s hearing from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That’s why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria. There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and unmistakably clear messages aimed at Syria’s leadership. (Applause.)

Here we go again with “accept” (the Obami’s favorite word when they are doing nothing about a disagreeable situation) – we don’t accept it, but what are we doing about it? How does “engagement” not appear as a reward or a concession? And wouldn’t a military strike on those rockets be a superior method of conveying a strong and unmistakably clear message to Syria’s leadership, rather than dispatch an ambassador to glad-hand with Assad?

Her discussion of Iran consists of a single, terse paragraph in which she admits we’ve accomplished nothing by engagement but aren’t doing much else. And there is again no mention of “all options” remaining at our disposal to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

Iran, with its anti-Semitic president and hostile nuclear ambitions, also continues to threaten Israel, but it also threatens the region and it sponsors terrorism against many. The United States has worked with the international community to present the leaders in Tehran with a clear choice: Uphold your international obligations and reap the benefits of normal relations, or face increased isolation and painful consequences. At every turn, Iran has met our outstretched hand with a clenched fist. But our engagement has helped build a growing global consensus on the need to pressure Iran’s leaders to change course. We are now working with our partners at the United Nations to craft tough new sanctions. The United States is committed to pursuing this diplomatic path. But we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. (Applause.)

She then prattles on, paragraph after paragraph, describing the wonders of the peace process. On Jerusalem she sidesteps all the condemning and the administration’s reneging on prior agreements with another bit of sly puffery. (“The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply, profoundly, important issue for Israelis and Palestinians, for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. And we believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world.”) So why demand a unilateral concession from Israel now, in advance of any negotiations?

All in all, the speech is a vivid example of the degree to which the Obami are willing and able to divorce rhetoric from action, and policy from reality. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if the “applause” reflects genuine enthusiasm for her display of hypocrisy. If so, it’s confirmation that American Jewry — at least those represented by organizations like the AJC — is eager to be sold a bill of goods. Meanwhile, the administration undermines sanctions, threatens an imposed peace deal, and dawdles on the Scud missiles. But they’ve got a heck of a PR plan.

Last night Hillary Clinton spoke to the AJC gala in Washington D.C. Her speech is a hodgepodge of platitudes and reveals how sharply the Obami’s rhetoric departs from their policies — the inevitable result of a disingenuous ”charm” offensive that seeks to soothe domestic critics of their assault on Israel while continuing their disastrous approach to the Middle East.

She began, as she did with AIPAC, with a series of fluffy assurances, which bear no relationship to the Obami’s actions:

We Americans may never fully understand the implications of this history on the daily lives of Israelis – the worry that a mother feels watching a child board a school bus or a child watching a parent go off to work. But we know deep in our souls that we have an unshakable bond and we will always stand not just with the Government of Israel but with the people of Israel. (Applause.)

Lovely sentiments but disconnected from their recent conduct. Was she feeling that unshakable bond deep in her soul when she chewed out Bibi for 43 minutes and instructed her State Department flack to relate the tongue-lashing to the entire world? Did Obama think he was standing with the government of Israel when he treated its prime minister with appalling rudeness?

Next, Hillary defends the administration’s defense of Israel in international institutions:

That is why the United States is fighting against anti-Semitism in international institutions — our special envoy for anti-Semitism is traveling the world as we speak, raising the issue at the highest levels of countries from one end of the world to the next. It is why we led the boycott of the Durban Conference. (Applause.) It is why we repeatedly and vigorously voted against and spoke out against the Goldstone Report. (Applause.) And it is why we have worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge, providing nearly $3 billion in annual military assistance. When I became Secretary of State, I asked my longtime defense and foreign policy advisor from my years in the Senate, Andrew Shapiro, to personally manage our defense consultations with Israel. And today, I am proud to say our partnership is broader, deeper, and more intense than ever before. (Applause.)

That envoy would be the one who slapped down Michael Oren, not exactly the sort of defender Israel needs. And as for the UN, she doesn’t of course bring up the anti-Israel resolution we failed to block or explain how our presence on the UN Human Rights Council or our muteness on the admission of Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women helps Israel’s cause.

She defensively repeats Obama’s retort that there is “‘noise and distortion’ about this Administration’s approach in the Middle East.” It’s all a grand misunderstanding, you see. Weren’t we listening, she says, when she went to AIPAC and told us how devoted she was to the Jewish state? Weren’t we listening when she made another speech at the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace? It is quite telling that her “defense” in the face of criticism is to cite her own pablum-filled speeches. This, she imagines, should put the whole matter to rest.

She then repeats the flawed premise of the Obami’s Middle East policy, namely:

Well, tonight I want to focus on the regional threats to Israel’s security and the imperative of reaching a comprehensive regional peace that will help defuse those threats. Because without a comprehensive regional peace, the Middle East will never unlock its full potential, and Israel will never be truly secure. Pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and its neighbors can be a mutually reinforcing process, and today it is more essential than ever to make progress on all tracks.

This falsely assumes that Iran’s nuclear threat will melt when peace breaks out with the Palestinians. It assumes that Assad and his Hezbollah surrogates will no longer threaten Israel once the peace deal is inked. In short, it ignores reality — both the impossibility of a peace deal in the near future and the lack of relevance such a deal has to Israel’s most pressing challenge: the existential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Remarkably, she then undermines her own case by pointing to Syria (Assad is going to be impressed with proximity talks? He’ll rein in Hezbollah as soon as Israel gives up the Old City?) and offering only words, again disconnected from reality and the Obami’s actions:

We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria’s transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms and have expressed our concerns directly to the Syrian Government. Transferring weapons to these terrorists — especially longer-range missiles – would pose a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region. And it would absolutely violate UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans the unauthorized importation of any weapons into Lebanon.

We do not accept such provocative and destabilizing behavior — nor should the international community. President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region. We know he’s hearing from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That’s why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria. There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and unmistakably clear messages aimed at Syria’s leadership. (Applause.)

Here we go again with “accept” (the Obami’s favorite word when they are doing nothing about a disagreeable situation) – we don’t accept it, but what are we doing about it? How does “engagement” not appear as a reward or a concession? And wouldn’t a military strike on those rockets be a superior method of conveying a strong and unmistakably clear message to Syria’s leadership, rather than dispatch an ambassador to glad-hand with Assad?

Her discussion of Iran consists of a single, terse paragraph in which she admits we’ve accomplished nothing by engagement but aren’t doing much else. And there is again no mention of “all options” remaining at our disposal to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

Iran, with its anti-Semitic president and hostile nuclear ambitions, also continues to threaten Israel, but it also threatens the region and it sponsors terrorism against many. The United States has worked with the international community to present the leaders in Tehran with a clear choice: Uphold your international obligations and reap the benefits of normal relations, or face increased isolation and painful consequences. At every turn, Iran has met our outstretched hand with a clenched fist. But our engagement has helped build a growing global consensus on the need to pressure Iran’s leaders to change course. We are now working with our partners at the United Nations to craft tough new sanctions. The United States is committed to pursuing this diplomatic path. But we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. (Applause.)

She then prattles on, paragraph after paragraph, describing the wonders of the peace process. On Jerusalem she sidesteps all the condemning and the administration’s reneging on prior agreements with another bit of sly puffery. (“The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply, profoundly, important issue for Israelis and Palestinians, for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. And we believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world.”) So why demand a unilateral concession from Israel now, in advance of any negotiations?

All in all, the speech is a vivid example of the degree to which the Obami are willing and able to divorce rhetoric from action, and policy from reality. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if the “applause” reflects genuine enthusiasm for her display of hypocrisy. If so, it’s confirmation that American Jewry — at least those represented by organizations like the AJC — is eager to be sold a bill of goods. Meanwhile, the administration undermines sanctions, threatens an imposed peace deal, and dawdles on the Scud missiles. But they’ve got a heck of a PR plan.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

There’s something to cheer about: “The plan to unveil a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate on Monday collapsed over the weekend as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the bill’s three authors, declared he couldn’t support it if Democrats decided to prioritize immigration reform.”

Or is there? It seems Graham is just waiting for the Democrats’ immigration-reform ploy to blow over: “[Joe] Lieberman said [Harry] Reid pledged to bring the energy bill to the full Senate as soon as possible this year. In a separate conversation, according to Lieberman, Graham reiterated his support for the energy bill once it’s no longer tangled up with immigration legislation. ‘Now I’m encouraged,’ Lieberman said. Asked when the energy bill might advance, he said, ‘Sometime soon, as soon as we can get Lindsey on board.’”

Do we really think Obama is going to pick a non-judge to go toe-to-toe with Justices Alito, Scalia, and Roberts? “Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) says she’s once again on President Obama’s short list for appointment to the Supreme Court. In an interview with CNN, the term-limited governor says she has talked with people in the Obama administration about the upcoming nomination to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.” Well, it would nail down that all-important Canadian-American vote.

Delusions of grandeur time: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is talking up the healthcare reform law in a big way on the campaign trail. Reid, who led efforts to shepherd the $940 billion legislation through the Senate, is facing a tough reelection battle this fall. He spoke at several Democratic county conventions in northern Nevada on Saturday. ‘The most important thing we’ve done for the country and the world is health care’ he said.”

The GOP is expanding the playing field: “Representative David R. Obey has won 21 straight races, easily prevailing through wars and economic crises that have spanned presidencies from Nixon’s to Obama’s. Yet the discontent with Washington surging through politics is now threatening not only his seat but also Democratic control of Congress. Mr. Obey is one of nearly a dozen well-established House Democrats who are bracing for something they rarely face: serious competition. Their predicament is the latest sign of distress for their party and underlines why Republicans are confident of making big gains in November and perhaps even winning back the House.”

James Jones is now making Jewish jokes. The Forward, via Haaretz, notes that some were not amused: “After all, making jokes about greedy Jewish merchants can be seen at times as insensitive.”

An unnamed Obama official confesses: “We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem. … Until then it’s all damage control.” No one? Could it be that Assad is pushing the U.S. and Israel as far as they will go and cozying up to the Iranians, whom he sees as the rising power in the region? The Obami, however, are stumped.

On Friday, Charlie Crist has to decide whether to run for the Senate as an independent. Stories like this in the Miami Herald don’t help: “Charlie Crist, once Florida’s spectacularly popular governor, now in danger of seeing his political career washed up? ‘I honestly don’t know,’ Crist said Friday. ‘But I certainly think the economy played a role.” In hindsight, the warning signs were too numerous: Marco Rubio winning local ‘straw poll’; U.S. Senate elections that Crist brushed off as meaningless; prominent GOP allies publicly scolding him for endorsing President Barack Obama’s stimulus package; veteran party leaders beseeching him to remove or at least rein in his hand-picked Florida GOP chairman, Jim Greer.”

There’s something to cheer about: “The plan to unveil a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate on Monday collapsed over the weekend as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the bill’s three authors, declared he couldn’t support it if Democrats decided to prioritize immigration reform.”

Or is there? It seems Graham is just waiting for the Democrats’ immigration-reform ploy to blow over: “[Joe] Lieberman said [Harry] Reid pledged to bring the energy bill to the full Senate as soon as possible this year. In a separate conversation, according to Lieberman, Graham reiterated his support for the energy bill once it’s no longer tangled up with immigration legislation. ‘Now I’m encouraged,’ Lieberman said. Asked when the energy bill might advance, he said, ‘Sometime soon, as soon as we can get Lindsey on board.’”

Do we really think Obama is going to pick a non-judge to go toe-to-toe with Justices Alito, Scalia, and Roberts? “Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) says she’s once again on President Obama’s short list for appointment to the Supreme Court. In an interview with CNN, the term-limited governor says she has talked with people in the Obama administration about the upcoming nomination to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.” Well, it would nail down that all-important Canadian-American vote.

Delusions of grandeur time: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is talking up the healthcare reform law in a big way on the campaign trail. Reid, who led efforts to shepherd the $940 billion legislation through the Senate, is facing a tough reelection battle this fall. He spoke at several Democratic county conventions in northern Nevada on Saturday. ‘The most important thing we’ve done for the country and the world is health care’ he said.”

The GOP is expanding the playing field: “Representative David R. Obey has won 21 straight races, easily prevailing through wars and economic crises that have spanned presidencies from Nixon’s to Obama’s. Yet the discontent with Washington surging through politics is now threatening not only his seat but also Democratic control of Congress. Mr. Obey is one of nearly a dozen well-established House Democrats who are bracing for something they rarely face: serious competition. Their predicament is the latest sign of distress for their party and underlines why Republicans are confident of making big gains in November and perhaps even winning back the House.”

James Jones is now making Jewish jokes. The Forward, via Haaretz, notes that some were not amused: “After all, making jokes about greedy Jewish merchants can be seen at times as insensitive.”

An unnamed Obama official confesses: “We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem. … Until then it’s all damage control.” No one? Could it be that Assad is pushing the U.S. and Israel as far as they will go and cozying up to the Iranians, whom he sees as the rising power in the region? The Obami, however, are stumped.

On Friday, Charlie Crist has to decide whether to run for the Senate as an independent. Stories like this in the Miami Herald don’t help: “Charlie Crist, once Florida’s spectacularly popular governor, now in danger of seeing his political career washed up? ‘I honestly don’t know,’ Crist said Friday. ‘But I certainly think the economy played a role.” In hindsight, the warning signs were too numerous: Marco Rubio winning local ‘straw poll’; U.S. Senate elections that Crist brushed off as meaningless; prominent GOP allies publicly scolding him for endorsing President Barack Obama’s stimulus package; veteran party leaders beseeching him to remove or at least rein in his hand-picked Florida GOP chairman, Jim Greer.”

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The Scud Saga Continues

Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star, has a fine column parsing the latest developments on Syria, Lebanon, and the Obama administration. He confirms the interpretation I made recently on this blog, that the administration is puzzled at the failure of its opening gambits and unsure of what to do next:

The problem is that Washington is of several minds over what to do about Syria…because there is no broad accord, and because the president has not provided clear guidance on resolving Mideastern problems, there is confusion in Washington. And where there is confusion there is policy bedlam, with everyone trying to fill the vacuum. That explains why the Syrians feel they can relax for now, and why the Iranians see no reason yet to fear an American riposte.

Lebanon should be worried about American uncertainty. When there is doubt in Washington, it usually means the Israelis have wide latitude to do what they see fit here. With much of the Lebanese political class openly or objectively siding with Hezbollah, rather than shaping an American approach to Lebanon that might reinforce its sovereignty, we can guess the calamitous effect of that abdication.

Young’s worry is confirmed by this remarkable report from Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin:

As for why Syria seems to be playing such an unhelpful role, “that’s the million-dollar question,” the [Obama administration] official said….”We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem,” the official said. “Until then it’s all damage control.”

This is quite simply amazing. The Assads, father and now son, have run the same foreign policy for decades. It is a very simple model, and one that gets discussed in detail on a regular basis: They are the arsonists who sell water to the fire department. The administration official should start his odyssey of discovery by reading Bret Stephens’s 2009 Commentary essay, “The Syrian Temptation — and Why Obama Must Resist It.”

Bashar is a promoter of a remarkable array of death and destruction in the Middle East: killing American soldiers in Iraq, murdering Lebanon’s pro-democracy community into submission, killing Israelis, arming Hezbollah, hosting Hamas, and so on. This is intended not only to make Syria into a bigger player than it would otherwise be, but allows Bashar to maintain his illegitimate police state of a regime by constantly invoking foreign threats. And it ensures that the United States and other western powers will continuously drag themselves to Syria to beg for cooperation. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Nancy Pelosi famously declared on her visit in 2007, unintentionally confirming to Assad the wisdom of the mayhem he sponsors. This is like saying that the road to the brothel is a road to virginity.

In the Obama administration, there are a few people, like Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who understand Syria. But foreign policy is run from the top. The person who doesn’t get it is the president, who seems confused by the failure of the region’s dictators and terrorists to respond constructively to his sensitive reorientation of American foreign policy. Right now he is stuck between his ideological commitments and the reality of their failure, and in the meantime the Middle East’s rogues are not waiting around for The One to figure out what level of nuance he ultimately wishes to pursue. They see naivety and irresolution, and they capitalize.

Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star, has a fine column parsing the latest developments on Syria, Lebanon, and the Obama administration. He confirms the interpretation I made recently on this blog, that the administration is puzzled at the failure of its opening gambits and unsure of what to do next:

The problem is that Washington is of several minds over what to do about Syria…because there is no broad accord, and because the president has not provided clear guidance on resolving Mideastern problems, there is confusion in Washington. And where there is confusion there is policy bedlam, with everyone trying to fill the vacuum. That explains why the Syrians feel they can relax for now, and why the Iranians see no reason yet to fear an American riposte.

Lebanon should be worried about American uncertainty. When there is doubt in Washington, it usually means the Israelis have wide latitude to do what they see fit here. With much of the Lebanese political class openly or objectively siding with Hezbollah, rather than shaping an American approach to Lebanon that might reinforce its sovereignty, we can guess the calamitous effect of that abdication.

Young’s worry is confirmed by this remarkable report from Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin:

As for why Syria seems to be playing such an unhelpful role, “that’s the million-dollar question,” the [Obama administration] official said….”We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem,” the official said. “Until then it’s all damage control.”

This is quite simply amazing. The Assads, father and now son, have run the same foreign policy for decades. It is a very simple model, and one that gets discussed in detail on a regular basis: They are the arsonists who sell water to the fire department. The administration official should start his odyssey of discovery by reading Bret Stephens’s 2009 Commentary essay, “The Syrian Temptation — and Why Obama Must Resist It.”

Bashar is a promoter of a remarkable array of death and destruction in the Middle East: killing American soldiers in Iraq, murdering Lebanon’s pro-democracy community into submission, killing Israelis, arming Hezbollah, hosting Hamas, and so on. This is intended not only to make Syria into a bigger player than it would otherwise be, but allows Bashar to maintain his illegitimate police state of a regime by constantly invoking foreign threats. And it ensures that the United States and other western powers will continuously drag themselves to Syria to beg for cooperation. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Nancy Pelosi famously declared on her visit in 2007, unintentionally confirming to Assad the wisdom of the mayhem he sponsors. This is like saying that the road to the brothel is a road to virginity.

In the Obama administration, there are a few people, like Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who understand Syria. But foreign policy is run from the top. The person who doesn’t get it is the president, who seems confused by the failure of the region’s dictators and terrorists to respond constructively to his sensitive reorientation of American foreign policy. Right now he is stuck between his ideological commitments and the reality of their failure, and in the meantime the Middle East’s rogues are not waiting around for The One to figure out what level of nuance he ultimately wishes to pursue. They see naivety and irresolution, and they capitalize.

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Obami Refuse to Be Shaken from Syrian Slumber

In case you thought the delivery of Scud missiles to Hezbollah had shaken the Obama administration from its trance and dulled its infatuation with Syrian engagement, think again. This report makes clear that it isn’t going to let reality interfere with its plans:

The Obama administration is still committed to improving relations with Syria, despite “deeply disturbing” reports of its moves to aid the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in neighboring Lebanon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.

Clinton, speaking at a news conference before the opening of a NATO foreign ministers meeting in this Baltic capital, said the administration has concluded that the benefits of sending a U.S. ambassador to Damascus — after a five-year absence — outweigh the costs.

She said the presence of an ambassador gives Washington a better insight into what is happening in Damascus.

Well, it’s true that the Obami don’t seem to have a clue as to what Syria is up to, but of course sending an ambassador to yuk it up in Damascus isn’t going to solve that problem. If Assad’s latest move doesn’t provide insight into his intentions in the region, then nothing will — and certainly not an ambassador whose presence will convey to Assad that there is no affront and no violation of a UN resolution we won’t excuse. What’s worse, Clinton is now back-pedaling on whether Scuds in fact were delivered:

Clinton did not confirm the reports. Without mentioning Scuds or Iran, which many believe is the source of the missiles, she described the situation in a way that strongly suggested that the U.S. does not believe Scuds have been transferred to Hezbollah yet.
Clinton referred to “these stories that do suggest there has been some transfer of weapons technology into Syria with the potential purpose of then later transferring it to Hezbollah inside Syria”. Pressed to say whether she meant that the Scuds in Syria had originated in Iran, she replied, “I just said that we have expressed our concern about that.”

“That,” one supposes, is “Scuds.” But like “Islamic extremism,” it is a term the Obami dare not utter. For if they did, one would expect them to do something about them rather than wish them out of existence.

In case you thought the delivery of Scud missiles to Hezbollah had shaken the Obama administration from its trance and dulled its infatuation with Syrian engagement, think again. This report makes clear that it isn’t going to let reality interfere with its plans:

The Obama administration is still committed to improving relations with Syria, despite “deeply disturbing” reports of its moves to aid the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in neighboring Lebanon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.

Clinton, speaking at a news conference before the opening of a NATO foreign ministers meeting in this Baltic capital, said the administration has concluded that the benefits of sending a U.S. ambassador to Damascus — after a five-year absence — outweigh the costs.

She said the presence of an ambassador gives Washington a better insight into what is happening in Damascus.

Well, it’s true that the Obami don’t seem to have a clue as to what Syria is up to, but of course sending an ambassador to yuk it up in Damascus isn’t going to solve that problem. If Assad’s latest move doesn’t provide insight into his intentions in the region, then nothing will — and certainly not an ambassador whose presence will convey to Assad that there is no affront and no violation of a UN resolution we won’t excuse. What’s worse, Clinton is now back-pedaling on whether Scuds in fact were delivered:

Clinton did not confirm the reports. Without mentioning Scuds or Iran, which many believe is the source of the missiles, she described the situation in a way that strongly suggested that the U.S. does not believe Scuds have been transferred to Hezbollah yet.
Clinton referred to “these stories that do suggest there has been some transfer of weapons technology into Syria with the potential purpose of then later transferring it to Hezbollah inside Syria”. Pressed to say whether she meant that the Scuds in Syria had originated in Iran, she replied, “I just said that we have expressed our concern about that.”

“That,” one supposes, is “Scuds.” But like “Islamic extremism,” it is a term the Obami dare not utter. For if they did, one would expect them to do something about them rather than wish them out of existence.

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America in Retreat

Lee Smith writes that Obama’s Israel bash-a-thon is precisely the wrong strategic move:

Of course, Washington shaming Israel will please the Arabs—even U.S. allies like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Cairo, Egypt, that cheered on Jerusalem when it took on Iran’s assets Hezbollah and Hamas. Remember, the Arabs have been compelled by the American strong horse to swallow their pride for decades. But given that Arabs do not air their own dirty laundry for fear it will make them look weak, our public humiliation of an ally will earn us only contempt.

But here’s the most important thing: Even if you discount the centrality of shame and honor as operative principles in the Middle East, the Obama administration has blundered by jeopardizing not Israel’s stature but our own regional interests and the Pax Americana that has been ours over the last 35 years. Our position in the region depends on every actor there knowing that we back Israel to the hilt and that they are dependent on us. Sure, there are plenty of times we will not see eye-to-eye on things—differences that should be resolved in quiet consultations—but should any real distance open up between Washington and Jerusalem, that will send a message that the U.S.-backed order of the region is ready to be tested. And that’s exactly what the axis of resistance is seeing right now.

So the danger here is not that the nonexistent peace process will be imperiled but that this sends the wrong signal to Iran. We are not standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel but are moving toward a “containment” policy that imagines we can defend allies beneath our nuclear umbrella but not deprive the mullahs of nuclear weapons. In this light we see that “in rattling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cage, the Obama administration was warning Israel not even to contemplate an attack on Iran.” And the result, as we dump Israel and abandon efforts to stymie Iran’s ambitions, Smith says, is that “the American order of the region will be superseded by a new order in which we will play a secondary role at best. More likely, as Ahmadinejad and Assad say, it will mean a Middle East without American influence.”

If Smith is correct, then it is inaccurate to say that the last week is a dangerous distraction from our Iran policy. Rather, this is our Iran policy. Hobble and humiliate an ally, embolden adversaries, provide breathing space to the mullahs (did someone say something about sanctions at the end of 2009?), and hope that allowing the revolutionary Islamic state to acquire nuclear weapons will not come to be seen as the most dangerous foreign-policy calculation since the Munich Agreement.

How deliberate all this all is may be a matter of debate. What’s less in dispute is the inevitable result of a series of misguided moves by the Obama administration — each reinforcing the notion that we stand not with our allies or for our own national interests but merely for the proposition that conflict avoidance is the highest ideal. Obama intended to address “our standing in the world”. Little did we imagine where this was heading — a more innocuous and less reliable America, which is fast becoming an easier mark for despotic regimes.

Lee Smith writes that Obama’s Israel bash-a-thon is precisely the wrong strategic move:

Of course, Washington shaming Israel will please the Arabs—even U.S. allies like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Cairo, Egypt, that cheered on Jerusalem when it took on Iran’s assets Hezbollah and Hamas. Remember, the Arabs have been compelled by the American strong horse to swallow their pride for decades. But given that Arabs do not air their own dirty laundry for fear it will make them look weak, our public humiliation of an ally will earn us only contempt.

But here’s the most important thing: Even if you discount the centrality of shame and honor as operative principles in the Middle East, the Obama administration has blundered by jeopardizing not Israel’s stature but our own regional interests and the Pax Americana that has been ours over the last 35 years. Our position in the region depends on every actor there knowing that we back Israel to the hilt and that they are dependent on us. Sure, there are plenty of times we will not see eye-to-eye on things—differences that should be resolved in quiet consultations—but should any real distance open up between Washington and Jerusalem, that will send a message that the U.S.-backed order of the region is ready to be tested. And that’s exactly what the axis of resistance is seeing right now.

So the danger here is not that the nonexistent peace process will be imperiled but that this sends the wrong signal to Iran. We are not standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel but are moving toward a “containment” policy that imagines we can defend allies beneath our nuclear umbrella but not deprive the mullahs of nuclear weapons. In this light we see that “in rattling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cage, the Obama administration was warning Israel not even to contemplate an attack on Iran.” And the result, as we dump Israel and abandon efforts to stymie Iran’s ambitions, Smith says, is that “the American order of the region will be superseded by a new order in which we will play a secondary role at best. More likely, as Ahmadinejad and Assad say, it will mean a Middle East without American influence.”

If Smith is correct, then it is inaccurate to say that the last week is a dangerous distraction from our Iran policy. Rather, this is our Iran policy. Hobble and humiliate an ally, embolden adversaries, provide breathing space to the mullahs (did someone say something about sanctions at the end of 2009?), and hope that allowing the revolutionary Islamic state to acquire nuclear weapons will not come to be seen as the most dangerous foreign-policy calculation since the Munich Agreement.

How deliberate all this all is may be a matter of debate. What’s less in dispute is the inevitable result of a series of misguided moves by the Obama administration — each reinforcing the notion that we stand not with our allies or for our own national interests but merely for the proposition that conflict avoidance is the highest ideal. Obama intended to address “our standing in the world”. Little did we imagine where this was heading — a more innocuous and less reliable America, which is fast becoming an easier mark for despotic regimes.

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You Want Moral Clarity?

Via our friends at the Weekly Standard comes a letter to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer from Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who argues against the notion that the housing announcement (“an administrative error made by a low-level bureaucrat, and for which Prime Minister Netanyahu has now apologized no less than four times”) was some great insult or affront to Obama. The rabbi recounts:

Why was Assad’s meeting with Ahmadinejad the day after the US announced that we were sending an ambassador to Syria ignored by the State Department and not deemed to be an “insult and affront” to the United States?

Why is Palestinian Authority incitement of rioters in Jerusalem and elsewhere not condemned by this administration and not an “insult and affront” to the United States and the Vice President?

Why is the naming of the main public square in Ramallah by Abbas in honor of Fatah terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, murderer of 38 Israelis – 13 of them little kids not an impediment to the peace process and not an insult and affront to the US and Israel????

Not to mention – why does this administration insist on viewing construction in a vacant piece of land, adjacent to existing housing seen as thwarting the two state solution?

The answer is that Obama seeks to ingratiate himself with the thug-ocracies and put the screws on Israel. The answer is that Obama views Israeli actions not in the best possible light, as one would expect a valued friend to do, but in the worst possible light. And the answer is that neither Obama nor his administration can think through the implications of their actions (Will acquiescence work with Syria? Will bullying win over the Israelis?) or appreciate the moral distinction between a democratic friend and a rogue state. They are both morally obtuse and politically (domestically and internationally) tone-deaf.

If there is a silver lining in all this, it is that a number of groups and individuals have been compelled to restate the case for the U.S.-Israel relationship, review the past history of Palestinian rejectionism, and clarify some basic facts (for example, what’s a “settlement?”). It’s a beneficial development to the extent that the mainstream media have been obliged to recount some of these arguments. And to the extent that this controversy has made it crystal clear to the Obami how little stomach there is in America for Israel-bashing, this is helpful. But these are small consolations indeed. All in all, we’d prefer an enthusiastically pro-Israel president whose moral instincts are as sharp as Rabbi Weinblatt’s. Well, that’s perhaps too much to ask for.

Via our friends at the Weekly Standard comes a letter to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer from Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who argues against the notion that the housing announcement (“an administrative error made by a low-level bureaucrat, and for which Prime Minister Netanyahu has now apologized no less than four times”) was some great insult or affront to Obama. The rabbi recounts:

Why was Assad’s meeting with Ahmadinejad the day after the US announced that we were sending an ambassador to Syria ignored by the State Department and not deemed to be an “insult and affront” to the United States?

Why is Palestinian Authority incitement of rioters in Jerusalem and elsewhere not condemned by this administration and not an “insult and affront” to the United States and the Vice President?

Why is the naming of the main public square in Ramallah by Abbas in honor of Fatah terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, murderer of 38 Israelis – 13 of them little kids not an impediment to the peace process and not an insult and affront to the US and Israel????

Not to mention – why does this administration insist on viewing construction in a vacant piece of land, adjacent to existing housing seen as thwarting the two state solution?

The answer is that Obama seeks to ingratiate himself with the thug-ocracies and put the screws on Israel. The answer is that Obama views Israeli actions not in the best possible light, as one would expect a valued friend to do, but in the worst possible light. And the answer is that neither Obama nor his administration can think through the implications of their actions (Will acquiescence work with Syria? Will bullying win over the Israelis?) or appreciate the moral distinction between a democratic friend and a rogue state. They are both morally obtuse and politically (domestically and internationally) tone-deaf.

If there is a silver lining in all this, it is that a number of groups and individuals have been compelled to restate the case for the U.S.-Israel relationship, review the past history of Palestinian rejectionism, and clarify some basic facts (for example, what’s a “settlement?”). It’s a beneficial development to the extent that the mainstream media have been obliged to recount some of these arguments. And to the extent that this controversy has made it crystal clear to the Obami how little stomach there is in America for Israel-bashing, this is helpful. But these are small consolations indeed. All in all, we’d prefer an enthusiastically pro-Israel president whose moral instincts are as sharp as Rabbi Weinblatt’s. Well, that’s perhaps too much to ask for.

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