Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bahrain

When Will Liberals Acknowledge What the Arab World Already Knows?

Based on secret diplomatic cables that were published by the website WikiLeaks, Foreign Policy reports, “In a telling exchange at the end of his meeting with the emir, the Qatari ruler gave [Senator John] Kerry some advice for dealing with the Iranian government. ‘The Amir closed the meeting by offering that based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100,’ the cable said.”

As has already been noted this morning on CONTENTIONS, this corresponds with what we’ve learned from other Arab leaders. For example, Bahrain’s king warning that the “danger of letting it [Iran’s nuclear program] go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.” King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program. The Saudi king “frequently exhorted the US to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons program,” one cable stated. “He told you [Americans] to cut off the head of the snake,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir said, according to a report on Abdullah’s meeting with the General David Petraeus in April 2008. Crown Prince bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, in warning of the dangers of appeasing Iran, declared, “Ahmadinejad is Hitler.” And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the Iranians “sponsors of terrorism.” Mubarak urged the U.S. to be wary of what Iran says, because “they are big, fat liars” and he thinks this opinion is shared by other leaders in the region. But Mubarak also said that “no Arab state will join the U.S. in a defense relationship vis-a-vis Iran out of fear of ‘sabotage and Iranian terrorism.’” Mubarak added that Iran’s support of terrorism is “well-known but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation.” (For good measure, Mubarak, in speaking on the Middle East peace process, expressed pessimism, saying that “Palestinians are quarreling” and Hamas will reject agreements made by Abu Mazen.)

WikiLeaks’s release of more than a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables also reveals that Iran used Red Crescent ambulances to smuggle weapons and agents into Lebanon during Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel and that it has obtained a cache of advanced missiles, including 19 from North Korea, that are much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal.

What the most recent batch of WikiLeaks reveals, in other words, is that the Arab world sounds at least as hawkish as anything you will find in the pages of COMMENTARY magazine. The difference, of course, is that the Arab leaders are, as Mubarak himself confirmed, playing a disreputable double game — publicly saying one thing (for example, pretending that the source of unrest and anxiety in the Middle East is Israel) while privately saying another (Iran is by far the main danger posed to Arab states and peace in the Middle East).

Julian Assange is himself a despicable and disturbing character who seems to harbor a fierce hatred for America. He and WikiLeaks should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But there is an irony in all this: WikiLeaks is the instrument that most confirms the conservative view of the world (as J.E. Dyer argues here). Now that most of the Arab world has confirmed what neo-conservatives have said about Iran, how long will it be until liberals finally do?

Based on secret diplomatic cables that were published by the website WikiLeaks, Foreign Policy reports, “In a telling exchange at the end of his meeting with the emir, the Qatari ruler gave [Senator John] Kerry some advice for dealing with the Iranian government. ‘The Amir closed the meeting by offering that based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100,’ the cable said.”

As has already been noted this morning on CONTENTIONS, this corresponds with what we’ve learned from other Arab leaders. For example, Bahrain’s king warning that the “danger of letting it [Iran’s nuclear program] go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.” King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program. The Saudi king “frequently exhorted the US to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons program,” one cable stated. “He told you [Americans] to cut off the head of the snake,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir said, according to a report on Abdullah’s meeting with the General David Petraeus in April 2008. Crown Prince bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, in warning of the dangers of appeasing Iran, declared, “Ahmadinejad is Hitler.” And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the Iranians “sponsors of terrorism.” Mubarak urged the U.S. to be wary of what Iran says, because “they are big, fat liars” and he thinks this opinion is shared by other leaders in the region. But Mubarak also said that “no Arab state will join the U.S. in a defense relationship vis-a-vis Iran out of fear of ‘sabotage and Iranian terrorism.’” Mubarak added that Iran’s support of terrorism is “well-known but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation.” (For good measure, Mubarak, in speaking on the Middle East peace process, expressed pessimism, saying that “Palestinians are quarreling” and Hamas will reject agreements made by Abu Mazen.)

WikiLeaks’s release of more than a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables also reveals that Iran used Red Crescent ambulances to smuggle weapons and agents into Lebanon during Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel and that it has obtained a cache of advanced missiles, including 19 from North Korea, that are much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal.

What the most recent batch of WikiLeaks reveals, in other words, is that the Arab world sounds at least as hawkish as anything you will find in the pages of COMMENTARY magazine. The difference, of course, is that the Arab leaders are, as Mubarak himself confirmed, playing a disreputable double game — publicly saying one thing (for example, pretending that the source of unrest and anxiety in the Middle East is Israel) while privately saying another (Iran is by far the main danger posed to Arab states and peace in the Middle East).

Julian Assange is himself a despicable and disturbing character who seems to harbor a fierce hatred for America. He and WikiLeaks should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But there is an irony in all this: WikiLeaks is the instrument that most confirms the conservative view of the world (as J.E. Dyer argues here). Now that most of the Arab world has confirmed what neo-conservatives have said about Iran, how long will it be until liberals finally do?

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Cables Tell Us: Linkage Was Nonsense

The WikiLeaks documents have multiple ramifications, but I will focus on one: the confirmation that the Obama “linkage” argument was pure bunk. Recall that the Obama team over and over again has made the argument that progress on the Palestinian conflict was essential to obtaining the help of the Arab states in confronting Iran’s nuclear threat. We know that this is simply and completely false.

The documents show that the Arab states were hounding the administration to take action against Iran. The King of Bahrain urged Obama to rec0gnize that the danger of letting the Iranian nuclear program come to fruition was worse than the fallout from stopping it. He wasn’t alone: there was also “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who according to another cable repeatedly implored Washington to ‘cut off the head of the snake’ while there was still time.” The New York Times connects some of the dots:

At the same time, the cables reveal how Iran’s ascent has unified Israel and many longtime Arab adversaries — notably the Saudis — in a common cause. Publicly, these Arab states held their tongues, for fear of a domestic uproar and the retributions of a powerful neighbor. Privately, they clamored for strong action — by someone else. …

Crown Prince bin Zayed [of Abu Dhabi], predicting in July 2009 that an Israeli attack could come by year’s end, suggested the danger of appeasing Iran. “Ahmadinejad is Hitler,” he declared.

Seemingly taken aback, a State Department official replied, “We do not anticipate military confrontation with Iran before the end of 2009.”

Obama’s outreach efforts only increased the Arab states’ panic:

The election of Mr. Obama, at least initially, left some countries wondering whether the sanctions push was about to end. Shortly after taking office, in a videotaped message timed to the Persian New Year, he reiterated his campaign offer of a “new beginning” — the first sustained talks in three decades with Tehran.

The United Arab Emirates called Mr. Obama’s message “confusing.” The American Embassy in Saudi Arabia reported that the talk about engaging Iran had “fueled Saudi fears that a new U.S. administration might strike a ‘grand bargain’ without prior consultations.”

In short, there is zero evidence that the Palestinian non-peace talks were essential to obtaining the assistance of the Arab states on Iran. To the contrary, what emerges is precisely the portrait that knowledgeable critics of the administration had already painted: Obama has taken his eye off the real ball, placed friendly Arab states in a precarious situation, and misrepresented to the American people and the world that the non-peace talks are necessary to curb the Iranian threat. To the contrary, those talks have been a grand waste of time and a dangerous distraction. Obama frittered away two years that could have been spent cementing an Israeli-Arab alliance against Tehran. Why? Perhaps he is blinded by ideology. Perhaps he realized it was his only chance for a diplomatic win. But whatever the explanation, we should be clear: linkage was a tale told to justify the president’s obsession with a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.

The WikiLeaks documents have multiple ramifications, but I will focus on one: the confirmation that the Obama “linkage” argument was pure bunk. Recall that the Obama team over and over again has made the argument that progress on the Palestinian conflict was essential to obtaining the help of the Arab states in confronting Iran’s nuclear threat. We know that this is simply and completely false.

The documents show that the Arab states were hounding the administration to take action against Iran. The King of Bahrain urged Obama to rec0gnize that the danger of letting the Iranian nuclear program come to fruition was worse than the fallout from stopping it. He wasn’t alone: there was also “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who according to another cable repeatedly implored Washington to ‘cut off the head of the snake’ while there was still time.” The New York Times connects some of the dots:

At the same time, the cables reveal how Iran’s ascent has unified Israel and many longtime Arab adversaries — notably the Saudis — in a common cause. Publicly, these Arab states held their tongues, for fear of a domestic uproar and the retributions of a powerful neighbor. Privately, they clamored for strong action — by someone else. …

Crown Prince bin Zayed [of Abu Dhabi], predicting in July 2009 that an Israeli attack could come by year’s end, suggested the danger of appeasing Iran. “Ahmadinejad is Hitler,” he declared.

Seemingly taken aback, a State Department official replied, “We do not anticipate military confrontation with Iran before the end of 2009.”

Obama’s outreach efforts only increased the Arab states’ panic:

The election of Mr. Obama, at least initially, left some countries wondering whether the sanctions push was about to end. Shortly after taking office, in a videotaped message timed to the Persian New Year, he reiterated his campaign offer of a “new beginning” — the first sustained talks in three decades with Tehran.

The United Arab Emirates called Mr. Obama’s message “confusing.” The American Embassy in Saudi Arabia reported that the talk about engaging Iran had “fueled Saudi fears that a new U.S. administration might strike a ‘grand bargain’ without prior consultations.”

In short, there is zero evidence that the Palestinian non-peace talks were essential to obtaining the assistance of the Arab states on Iran. To the contrary, what emerges is precisely the portrait that knowledgeable critics of the administration had already painted: Obama has taken his eye off the real ball, placed friendly Arab states in a precarious situation, and misrepresented to the American people and the world that the non-peace talks are necessary to curb the Iranian threat. To the contrary, those talks have been a grand waste of time and a dangerous distraction. Obama frittered away two years that could have been spent cementing an Israeli-Arab alliance against Tehran. Why? Perhaps he is blinded by ideology. Perhaps he realized it was his only chance for a diplomatic win. But whatever the explanation, we should be clear: linkage was a tale told to justify the president’s obsession with a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.

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Saudi Arms Sale: Which War in View?

The sheer size of the proposed $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia makes it worth critical reflection. The types of weapon systems in the Saudi shopping list are even more eye-catching. News outlets report that the sale is to be understood as a means of bolstering Saudi defenses and security confidence in the face of the threat from Iran. But the weapon systems in question don’t support that theory.

Other Persian Gulf nations like Bahrain and Kuwait have been loading up on missile-defense systems and air-defense fighters. The proposed Saudi sale, however, is weighted heavily toward strike aircraft (F-15s configured for ground attack) and anti-tank attack helicopters. The proposed sale includes 84 strike-configured F-15s along with the retrofit of the Saudis’ 72 existing F-15s, more than doubling the Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) inventory of medium-range strikers. Significantly, the purchase extends the range at which the RSAF can conduct ground strikes beyond the shorter, defense-oriented range of its British Tornado force.

The Saudis will also buy 70 Apache Longbow helicopters with laser-guided Hellfire missiles and 72 Black Hawk helicopters for combat transport. It’s not clear if any of these aircraft will supplant some of the 150 attack and multi-purpose helicopters the Saudis negotiated to buy from Russia a year ago. If all are delivered, the Saudis will have increased their heliborne ground combat capability by 500 percent.

The question is what they plan to do with all these aircraft. During the Saddam Hussein years, the threat of land attack against Saudi Arabia was obvious. Today, it’s not. The Saudis are buying for a major armed conflict on land, but nothing indicates that Iran presents a threat of that kind. Iran isn’t prepared militarily to invade the Arabian Peninsula, either by land or sea, nor is it making the effort to be. Iran is building up its navy, missile forces, and nuclear options; its regional “power projection” effort on land is accomplished through sponsoring terrorism. But the counterinsurgency warfare model (e.g., the U.S.’s in Iraq) is inapplicable in this case: population numbers and terrain inhibit the rise on the Arabian Peninsula of insurgencies with the profile of Hezbollah or the Taliban. The number of modern systems the Saudis propose to purchase outstrips such a requirement considerably.

They can’t be contemplating the invasion of Iran, even as a counter to an Iranian attack. Numbers and terrain are decisively arrayed against that as well. Riyadh is buying an unusually large number of weapons with which to project power and fight a land campaign at a greater range than ever before – but the weapons are a mismatch for the likely dimensions of a confrontation with Iran.

Perhaps the Saudis see a potential need to fight Iran on Iraqi or Kuwaiti territory in the future. It would certainly have to be a distant future, given the substantial U.S. military presence in those countries. This expeditionary concept would also be highly uncharacteristic in Saudi strategic thinking.

But Riyadh may be arming as a regional rival to Iran – not for the defense of its own territory but as the leader of an Arab coalition, formed to gain ascendancy over Iran as the power broker in the Levant. Western analysts tend to miss the fact that Iran’s moves against Israel constitute a plan to effectively occupy territory that the Arab nations consider theirs to fight for. The concerns on both sides are more than ethnic and historical: they involve competing eschatological ideas.

The resurgence of Turkey, erstwhile Ottoman ruler, only accelerates the sense of powerful regional rivals polishing up their designs on the Levant. The Saudis’ military shopping list doesn’t match their defensive requirements against Iran, but if the strategic driver is a race to Jerusalem, it contains exactly what they need. Congress should take a critical look at the numbers involved – and the U.S. should take one at our disjointed and increasingly passive approach to the region.

The sheer size of the proposed $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia makes it worth critical reflection. The types of weapon systems in the Saudi shopping list are even more eye-catching. News outlets report that the sale is to be understood as a means of bolstering Saudi defenses and security confidence in the face of the threat from Iran. But the weapon systems in question don’t support that theory.

Other Persian Gulf nations like Bahrain and Kuwait have been loading up on missile-defense systems and air-defense fighters. The proposed Saudi sale, however, is weighted heavily toward strike aircraft (F-15s configured for ground attack) and anti-tank attack helicopters. The proposed sale includes 84 strike-configured F-15s along with the retrofit of the Saudis’ 72 existing F-15s, more than doubling the Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) inventory of medium-range strikers. Significantly, the purchase extends the range at which the RSAF can conduct ground strikes beyond the shorter, defense-oriented range of its British Tornado force.

The Saudis will also buy 70 Apache Longbow helicopters with laser-guided Hellfire missiles and 72 Black Hawk helicopters for combat transport. It’s not clear if any of these aircraft will supplant some of the 150 attack and multi-purpose helicopters the Saudis negotiated to buy from Russia a year ago. If all are delivered, the Saudis will have increased their heliborne ground combat capability by 500 percent.

The question is what they plan to do with all these aircraft. During the Saddam Hussein years, the threat of land attack against Saudi Arabia was obvious. Today, it’s not. The Saudis are buying for a major armed conflict on land, but nothing indicates that Iran presents a threat of that kind. Iran isn’t prepared militarily to invade the Arabian Peninsula, either by land or sea, nor is it making the effort to be. Iran is building up its navy, missile forces, and nuclear options; its regional “power projection” effort on land is accomplished through sponsoring terrorism. But the counterinsurgency warfare model (e.g., the U.S.’s in Iraq) is inapplicable in this case: population numbers and terrain inhibit the rise on the Arabian Peninsula of insurgencies with the profile of Hezbollah or the Taliban. The number of modern systems the Saudis propose to purchase outstrips such a requirement considerably.

They can’t be contemplating the invasion of Iran, even as a counter to an Iranian attack. Numbers and terrain are decisively arrayed against that as well. Riyadh is buying an unusually large number of weapons with which to project power and fight a land campaign at a greater range than ever before – but the weapons are a mismatch for the likely dimensions of a confrontation with Iran.

Perhaps the Saudis see a potential need to fight Iran on Iraqi or Kuwaiti territory in the future. It would certainly have to be a distant future, given the substantial U.S. military presence in those countries. This expeditionary concept would also be highly uncharacteristic in Saudi strategic thinking.

But Riyadh may be arming as a regional rival to Iran – not for the defense of its own territory but as the leader of an Arab coalition, formed to gain ascendancy over Iran as the power broker in the Levant. Western analysts tend to miss the fact that Iran’s moves against Israel constitute a plan to effectively occupy territory that the Arab nations consider theirs to fight for. The concerns on both sides are more than ethnic and historical: they involve competing eschatological ideas.

The resurgence of Turkey, erstwhile Ottoman ruler, only accelerates the sense of powerful regional rivals polishing up their designs on the Levant. The Saudis’ military shopping list doesn’t match their defensive requirements against Iran, but if the strategic driver is a race to Jerusalem, it contains exactly what they need. Congress should take a critical look at the numbers involved – and the U.S. should take one at our disjointed and increasingly passive approach to the region.

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The Short List of Representative Arab States

Rami G. Khouri, writing in the Daily Star in Lebanon, offers a tour d’horizon of the “modern Arab state” — the 22 members of the Arab League:

We also have broken states (Somalia), states that disappeared and/or returned (Kuwait, South Yemen), security-dominated states (Tunisia, Syria, Baathist Iraq under Saddam Hussein), erratic states (Libya), pirate states (Somalia), vulnerable states (Lebanon, Palestine), privatized states in the hands of small ruling elites (most Arab states), states that carry a specific family’s name (Saudi Arabia, Jordan), tribal states (Yemen, Oman), mini-states (Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain), occupied states (Palestine, Iraq to an extent), and various degrees of client and proxy states, rogue states, gangster states, and others that defy description.

Khouri has a succinct description of what is missing from the above list:

Not a single Arab country can say with any certainty that the configuration of the state, the policies and values of the government, or the perpetuation of the incumbent ruling elite have been validated by the citizenry through any kind of credible, transparent, and accountable political process.

Well, there’s one — Iraq, which since 2005 has had successive elections whose outcomes were not preordained, involving a citizenry willing to risk their lives each time to go to the polls. A representative government replacing the most horrific Arab dictator in the region is a historic achievement — even if a fragile one, all the more remarkable in light of Khouri’s description of the other Arab states.

The “state” of “Palestine,” on the other hand, has been a failed one even before it was formed. It has rejected three formal offers of a state in the last decade. Half the putative state is occupied by an Iranian proxy pledged to destroy its neighbor. The other half lacks even the pretense of an elected government: its “president” is currently in the sixth year of his four-year term; its “prime minister” is an unelected appointee chosen by the holdover president; its funding comes primarily from the U.S., the EU, and Japan, not the 21 Arab states that supposedly consider it an urgent priority.

The Obama administration believes our strategic objectives should be to (1) withdraw from Iraq next year, and (2) form a Palestinian state as soon as possible. The first goal puts at risk the one Arab state on Khouri’s list with a representative government; the second seeks to add a 22nd Arab state on the unsupported assumption that it will live in peace with itself and its neighbors, but Khouri’s list suggests that the likely outcome would be otherwise.

Rami G. Khouri, writing in the Daily Star in Lebanon, offers a tour d’horizon of the “modern Arab state” — the 22 members of the Arab League:

We also have broken states (Somalia), states that disappeared and/or returned (Kuwait, South Yemen), security-dominated states (Tunisia, Syria, Baathist Iraq under Saddam Hussein), erratic states (Libya), pirate states (Somalia), vulnerable states (Lebanon, Palestine), privatized states in the hands of small ruling elites (most Arab states), states that carry a specific family’s name (Saudi Arabia, Jordan), tribal states (Yemen, Oman), mini-states (Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain), occupied states (Palestine, Iraq to an extent), and various degrees of client and proxy states, rogue states, gangster states, and others that defy description.

Khouri has a succinct description of what is missing from the above list:

Not a single Arab country can say with any certainty that the configuration of the state, the policies and values of the government, or the perpetuation of the incumbent ruling elite have been validated by the citizenry through any kind of credible, transparent, and accountable political process.

Well, there’s one — Iraq, which since 2005 has had successive elections whose outcomes were not preordained, involving a citizenry willing to risk their lives each time to go to the polls. A representative government replacing the most horrific Arab dictator in the region is a historic achievement — even if a fragile one, all the more remarkable in light of Khouri’s description of the other Arab states.

The “state” of “Palestine,” on the other hand, has been a failed one even before it was formed. It has rejected three formal offers of a state in the last decade. Half the putative state is occupied by an Iranian proxy pledged to destroy its neighbor. The other half lacks even the pretense of an elected government: its “president” is currently in the sixth year of his four-year term; its “prime minister” is an unelected appointee chosen by the holdover president; its funding comes primarily from the U.S., the EU, and Japan, not the 21 Arab states that supposedly consider it an urgent priority.

The Obama administration believes our strategic objectives should be to (1) withdraw from Iraq next year, and (2) form a Palestinian state as soon as possible. The first goal puts at risk the one Arab state on Khouri’s list with a representative government; the second seeks to add a 22nd Arab state on the unsupported assumption that it will live in peace with itself and its neighbors, but Khouri’s list suggests that the likely outcome would be otherwise.

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Iraq Proves the Pessimists Wrong

We often hear about the supposed “unraveling” of Iraq—a regular trope of veteran defense writer Tom Ricks, among others. No doubt there is cause for concern—ranging from bombings that kill dozens, even hundreds, to candidate disqualifications that threaten the integrity of upcoming elections. But as General David Petraeus notes in this interview published last Monday in the Times of London, Iraqi politicians have shown an impressive ability to overcome crises that could lead to the resumption of civil war. Speaking of the 500 candidates disqualified for Baathist links, Petraeus said:

I’m considerably much less worried than I was say last weekend when this was all really appearing that it actually could boil over and result in a reversal of the effect of two and an half years of reconciliation among different groups. It appears however in the last 48 to 72 hours that Iraqi leaders have really gripped this issue.

It turns out now that each party has at least double-digit numbers of individuals on this particular list of over 500 names and that it is reportedly 55 per cent or so Shia and 45 per cent or so Sunni. So if it ever was as was reported a predominately Sunni list and predominately focused on sidelining Sunni candidates that is not the case now and it appears there is going to be, as has been the case in Iraq on a number of previous occasions when there has been quite considerable political drama, that Iraqi leaders will resolve the issue without unhinging and undoing again two and a half years of very hard work at reconciling all of the factions inside the new Iraq.

I noticed another sign of how “the new Iraq” is making progress in this Wall Street Journal article about the rush of foreign airlines to increase service to Iraq at the same time that Iraq Airways is building up its fleet by placing an order with Boeing.

“It’s a good market,” said Turkish Airlines Chief Executive Temel Kotil. Turkish was one of the first foreign carriers to serve Baghdad after the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and it plans in March to start flights to Basra, in southern Iraq. “We want to serve many Iraqi cities,” Mr. Kotil said, adding that most of the carrier’s passengers are Europeans.

It’s not only Turkish Airlines that thinks Iraq is a good opportunity. Other carriers already flying there include Bahrain’s Gulf Air, Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, and Austrian Airlines. And, reports the Journal, “German giant Deutsche Lufthansa AG recently announced that it aims this summer to start serving Baghdad and Erbil, pending regulatory approval. Austrian Airlines, a unit of Lufthansa, is increasing flights to Erbil, the one Iraqi city it serves. Upscale Qatar Airways also is examining the Iraqi market, officials said.”

A fragile but working democracy, an increase in foreign investment, a steep decline in attacks over the past several years—all these are signs that Iraq is hardly unraveling. That doesn’t mean that it is on a one-way flight to Nirvana. American vigilance and involvement remain essential. But an awful lot has gone right recently—more than I would have predicted back in 2007, when the surge was just beginning. Perhaps, just once in the Middle East, the pessimists will be proven wrong.

We often hear about the supposed “unraveling” of Iraq—a regular trope of veteran defense writer Tom Ricks, among others. No doubt there is cause for concern—ranging from bombings that kill dozens, even hundreds, to candidate disqualifications that threaten the integrity of upcoming elections. But as General David Petraeus notes in this interview published last Monday in the Times of London, Iraqi politicians have shown an impressive ability to overcome crises that could lead to the resumption of civil war. Speaking of the 500 candidates disqualified for Baathist links, Petraeus said:

I’m considerably much less worried than I was say last weekend when this was all really appearing that it actually could boil over and result in a reversal of the effect of two and an half years of reconciliation among different groups. It appears however in the last 48 to 72 hours that Iraqi leaders have really gripped this issue.

It turns out now that each party has at least double-digit numbers of individuals on this particular list of over 500 names and that it is reportedly 55 per cent or so Shia and 45 per cent or so Sunni. So if it ever was as was reported a predominately Sunni list and predominately focused on sidelining Sunni candidates that is not the case now and it appears there is going to be, as has been the case in Iraq on a number of previous occasions when there has been quite considerable political drama, that Iraqi leaders will resolve the issue without unhinging and undoing again two and a half years of very hard work at reconciling all of the factions inside the new Iraq.

I noticed another sign of how “the new Iraq” is making progress in this Wall Street Journal article about the rush of foreign airlines to increase service to Iraq at the same time that Iraq Airways is building up its fleet by placing an order with Boeing.

“It’s a good market,” said Turkish Airlines Chief Executive Temel Kotil. Turkish was one of the first foreign carriers to serve Baghdad after the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and it plans in March to start flights to Basra, in southern Iraq. “We want to serve many Iraqi cities,” Mr. Kotil said, adding that most of the carrier’s passengers are Europeans.

It’s not only Turkish Airlines that thinks Iraq is a good opportunity. Other carriers already flying there include Bahrain’s Gulf Air, Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, and Austrian Airlines. And, reports the Journal, “German giant Deutsche Lufthansa AG recently announced that it aims this summer to start serving Baghdad and Erbil, pending regulatory approval. Austrian Airlines, a unit of Lufthansa, is increasing flights to Erbil, the one Iraqi city it serves. Upscale Qatar Airways also is examining the Iraqi market, officials said.”

A fragile but working democracy, an increase in foreign investment, a steep decline in attacks over the past several years—all these are signs that Iraq is hardly unraveling. That doesn’t mean that it is on a one-way flight to Nirvana. American vigilance and involvement remain essential. But an awful lot has gone right recently—more than I would have predicted back in 2007, when the surge was just beginning. Perhaps, just once in the Middle East, the pessimists will be proven wrong.

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Andrew Roberts’ History Lesson

Andrew Roberts, Britain’s distinguished historian, has an important front-page article in the Jewish Press, entitled “Israel’s Fair-Weather British Friends” – a survey of the history of British diplomatic betrayals and genteel anti-Semitism that should be read in its entirety.

Here’s a remarkable fact about the Queen’s travels, which are controlled by the British Foreign Office:

Though the queen has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries during her reign, neither she nor any other member of the British royal family has ever been to Israel on an official visit. …

But the Foreign Office has somehow managed to find the time over the years to send the queen on state visits to Libya, Iran, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey. So it can’t have been that she wasn’t in the area.

Perhaps Her Majesty hasn’t been on the throne long enough, at 57 years, for the Foreign Office to get around to allowing her to visit one of the only democracies in the Middle East.

Barack Obama has been in office for 56 fewer years than the Queen, but he did a remarkable amount of traveling last year – including three trips to Scandinavia alone (to make a pitch, receive a prize, and negotiate a non-binding agreement) — without visiting Israel. He went to Egypt to give a speech and to Saudi Arabia to make a bow, and to Turkey on another trip, so it couldn’t have been that he wasn’t in the area.

The absence of a trip to Israel was one of many signals he gave over the past year that he wanted to put daylight between the U.S. and Israel – something that did not go unnoticed across the political spectrum in Israel. Haaretz’s Yoel Marcus, one of the most liberal columnists in the country, argued that Obama should “come to Israel and declare here courageously, before the entire world, that our connection to this land began long before the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Holocaust; and that 4,000 years ago, Jews already stood on the ground where he is standing.” Aluf Benn, another prominent Haaretz columnist, used the op-ed page of  the New York Times to urge Obama to come to Israel to talk directly to its citizens. Those pleas, made six months ago, produced no response.

Roberts observes that if Israel “decides preemptively to strike against [the Iranian] threat – as Nelson preemptively sank the Danish Fleet at Copenhagen and Churchill preemptively sank the Vichy Fleet at Oran – then it can expect nothing but condemnation from the British Foreign Office.” He advises Israel to ignore it — “because Britain has only ever really been at best a fair weather friend to Israel.”

Britain’s disregard for Israel is an historical embarrassment. The disregard by the American president is a matter of current importance. Israel struck preemptively the incipient nuclear program of Iraq in 1981 and that of Syria in 2007; it found itself required to strike preemptively against Egypt in 1967. If it finds itself in a position of having to strike preemptively again, it will be because of an American failure to deal with a problem that casts its shadow beyond Israel, aggravated by the signals of the president’s uncertain support of one of the very rare democracies in the Middle East.

Andrew Roberts, Britain’s distinguished historian, has an important front-page article in the Jewish Press, entitled “Israel’s Fair-Weather British Friends” – a survey of the history of British diplomatic betrayals and genteel anti-Semitism that should be read in its entirety.

Here’s a remarkable fact about the Queen’s travels, which are controlled by the British Foreign Office:

Though the queen has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries during her reign, neither she nor any other member of the British royal family has ever been to Israel on an official visit. …

But the Foreign Office has somehow managed to find the time over the years to send the queen on state visits to Libya, Iran, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey. So it can’t have been that she wasn’t in the area.

Perhaps Her Majesty hasn’t been on the throne long enough, at 57 years, for the Foreign Office to get around to allowing her to visit one of the only democracies in the Middle East.

Barack Obama has been in office for 56 fewer years than the Queen, but he did a remarkable amount of traveling last year – including three trips to Scandinavia alone (to make a pitch, receive a prize, and negotiate a non-binding agreement) — without visiting Israel. He went to Egypt to give a speech and to Saudi Arabia to make a bow, and to Turkey on another trip, so it couldn’t have been that he wasn’t in the area.

The absence of a trip to Israel was one of many signals he gave over the past year that he wanted to put daylight between the U.S. and Israel – something that did not go unnoticed across the political spectrum in Israel. Haaretz’s Yoel Marcus, one of the most liberal columnists in the country, argued that Obama should “come to Israel and declare here courageously, before the entire world, that our connection to this land began long before the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Holocaust; and that 4,000 years ago, Jews already stood on the ground where he is standing.” Aluf Benn, another prominent Haaretz columnist, used the op-ed page of  the New York Times to urge Obama to come to Israel to talk directly to its citizens. Those pleas, made six months ago, produced no response.

Roberts observes that if Israel “decides preemptively to strike against [the Iranian] threat – as Nelson preemptively sank the Danish Fleet at Copenhagen and Churchill preemptively sank the Vichy Fleet at Oran – then it can expect nothing but condemnation from the British Foreign Office.” He advises Israel to ignore it — “because Britain has only ever really been at best a fair weather friend to Israel.”

Britain’s disregard for Israel is an historical embarrassment. The disregard by the American president is a matter of current importance. Israel struck preemptively the incipient nuclear program of Iraq in 1981 and that of Syria in 2007; it found itself required to strike preemptively against Egypt in 1967. If it finds itself in a position of having to strike preemptively again, it will be because of an American failure to deal with a problem that casts its shadow beyond Israel, aggravated by the signals of the president’s uncertain support of one of the very rare democracies in the Middle East.

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Slavin Gets It Wrong

Barbara Slavin’s op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle tackles the question of Iran in order to rebuke what she considers as growing “war talk” within the Bush Administration–although the White House Press Office today strongly rebuked the Jerusalem Post for publishing an article that attributed such war talk to the President, and denied any of its assertions. After criticizing this newfound militancy, Slavin explains why Iran would not be so much of a problem for the West after all. In her defense of Iran’s motives and intentions, Slavin mentions Tehran’s nuclear nuclear program only once–though Iran’s nuclear program is the principal reason why an outgoing Bush Administration might contemplate at all a military strike.

There are many reasons why a military strike poses significant risks and has potentially very serious consequences. But to ignore the the consequences of the alternative–that Iran succeeds in its nuclear pursuit–is not the most intellectually honest thing to write, though it spares Slavin from the troublesome exercise of having to list the likely consequences of Iranian success. And this is what’s truly missing from the debate about Iran–what would happen if Iran succeeded in its pursuit? Slavin dismisses Iran’s comparison with either Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union–but while at some levels Iran may not be comparable to either, Iran remains wedded to a revolutionary ideology. A revolutionary power, by definition, will seek to change the regional status quo and to remake the world in its own image. In this trajectory, it will eventually find itself embroiled in war, even if that is the result of plain miscalculation. Slavin reassures us that the Iranians will not overstretch:

A country whose boundaries have barely changed since the 16th century, Iran is not able to or interested in recreating the Persian Empire and is not about to become a second Nazi Germany or Soviet Union. As Mohammad Atrianfar, a veteran publisher who is close to former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, told me recently in Tehran: “We are not going to stretch our legs beyond the capacity of our carpets.”

The problem with that statement is that neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union believed they were overstretching until it was too late. Nuclear capability will give Iran the kind of umbrella of impunity that will allow it to double its mischief in the region without fear of retribution. Do you like the way Hezbollah and Hamas behave in their respective domains? You will love it when Iran has nukes! Do you find it hard to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict now? Try when Iran’s nukes enable its proxies to up the ante. Are you worried about Shia unrest in Kuwait and Bahrain? Prepare for more trouble when Iran’s nuclear bomb casts a shadow on those countries. Do you think oil prices are too high? Save for a cold winter, when Iran’s speedboats swarm the Gulf and harass supertankers. Do you really think anyone will risk a nuclear showdown for any of the above?

Consider this as well: Iran might lend its nukes and ballistic missiles to friends like Venezuela, to get San Francisco within range. It would not be overstretching–Hugo Chavez will surely pick up the bill to pay the costs of the exercise. Unbelievable? Why? Fidel Castro did it with the Russians in 1962–so why shouldn’t we expect a not a rerun, given that Iran’s revolutionary vocation, as an anti-Western power aspiring to change the world to its own image, does not need to overstretch. It will suffice to have some allies, friends and supporters to bankroll and supply, under its nuclear umbrella, in order to make this world an infinitely more dangerous place.

War might be premature–but war talk, as a reminder to Iran that it will pay a steep price for staying the course, is a better option than what Slavin has to offer.

Barbara Slavin’s op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle tackles the question of Iran in order to rebuke what she considers as growing “war talk” within the Bush Administration–although the White House Press Office today strongly rebuked the Jerusalem Post for publishing an article that attributed such war talk to the President, and denied any of its assertions. After criticizing this newfound militancy, Slavin explains why Iran would not be so much of a problem for the West after all. In her defense of Iran’s motives and intentions, Slavin mentions Tehran’s nuclear nuclear program only once–though Iran’s nuclear program is the principal reason why an outgoing Bush Administration might contemplate at all a military strike.

There are many reasons why a military strike poses significant risks and has potentially very serious consequences. But to ignore the the consequences of the alternative–that Iran succeeds in its nuclear pursuit–is not the most intellectually honest thing to write, though it spares Slavin from the troublesome exercise of having to list the likely consequences of Iranian success. And this is what’s truly missing from the debate about Iran–what would happen if Iran succeeded in its pursuit? Slavin dismisses Iran’s comparison with either Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union–but while at some levels Iran may not be comparable to either, Iran remains wedded to a revolutionary ideology. A revolutionary power, by definition, will seek to change the regional status quo and to remake the world in its own image. In this trajectory, it will eventually find itself embroiled in war, even if that is the result of plain miscalculation. Slavin reassures us that the Iranians will not overstretch:

A country whose boundaries have barely changed since the 16th century, Iran is not able to or interested in recreating the Persian Empire and is not about to become a second Nazi Germany or Soviet Union. As Mohammad Atrianfar, a veteran publisher who is close to former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, told me recently in Tehran: “We are not going to stretch our legs beyond the capacity of our carpets.”

The problem with that statement is that neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union believed they were overstretching until it was too late. Nuclear capability will give Iran the kind of umbrella of impunity that will allow it to double its mischief in the region without fear of retribution. Do you like the way Hezbollah and Hamas behave in their respective domains? You will love it when Iran has nukes! Do you find it hard to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict now? Try when Iran’s nukes enable its proxies to up the ante. Are you worried about Shia unrest in Kuwait and Bahrain? Prepare for more trouble when Iran’s nuclear bomb casts a shadow on those countries. Do you think oil prices are too high? Save for a cold winter, when Iran’s speedboats swarm the Gulf and harass supertankers. Do you really think anyone will risk a nuclear showdown for any of the above?

Consider this as well: Iran might lend its nukes and ballistic missiles to friends like Venezuela, to get San Francisco within range. It would not be overstretching–Hugo Chavez will surely pick up the bill to pay the costs of the exercise. Unbelievable? Why? Fidel Castro did it with the Russians in 1962–so why shouldn’t we expect a not a rerun, given that Iran’s revolutionary vocation, as an anti-Western power aspiring to change the world to its own image, does not need to overstretch. It will suffice to have some allies, friends and supporters to bankroll and supply, under its nuclear umbrella, in order to make this world an infinitely more dangerous place.

War might be premature–but war talk, as a reminder to Iran that it will pay a steep price for staying the course, is a better option than what Slavin has to offer.

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The (Financial) Hammer Comes Down

While Swiss energy company EGL–backed by its government–is busy signing unprecedented gas deals with Iran, the U.S. government is trying to increase economic pressure on Tehran’s business partners by making financial transactions with Iran harder and more expensive. First, the U.S. sanctioned Future Bank in Bahrain for its links to Iran’s Bank Melli, Iran’s leading commercial bank. Then it issued an advisory about 49 banks linked to Iran and their deceptive financial practices. Now, the U.S. has demanded that the Swiss government fully disclose the contract that EGL signed with Tehran.

It is too early to tell whether Switzerland will satisfy Washington’s curiosity. After all, judging by the enduring secrecy of its banking system, one can say transparency is not Switzerland’s greatest strength. Regardless, the U.S. administration should look into more robust ways to “encourage” recalcitrant European governments and companies to comply more with the spirit, to say nothing of the letter, of the developing UN sanctions regime against Iran. Europeans, after all, are all about solving the nuclear standoff with Iran through non-military means.

It should be clear then, to them as it is to the U.S., that short of military action the only thing that stands between Iran and a nuclear bomb is robust economic pressure–mainly from Iran’s commercial partners in Europe. As for the Swiss, their protestations of innocence and UN sanctions compliance are a little odd. But then again, they hang together with Switzerland’s other recent diplomatic activity.

While Swiss energy company EGL–backed by its government–is busy signing unprecedented gas deals with Iran, the U.S. government is trying to increase economic pressure on Tehran’s business partners by making financial transactions with Iran harder and more expensive. First, the U.S. sanctioned Future Bank in Bahrain for its links to Iran’s Bank Melli, Iran’s leading commercial bank. Then it issued an advisory about 49 banks linked to Iran and their deceptive financial practices. Now, the U.S. has demanded that the Swiss government fully disclose the contract that EGL signed with Tehran.

It is too early to tell whether Switzerland will satisfy Washington’s curiosity. After all, judging by the enduring secrecy of its banking system, one can say transparency is not Switzerland’s greatest strength. Regardless, the U.S. administration should look into more robust ways to “encourage” recalcitrant European governments and companies to comply more with the spirit, to say nothing of the letter, of the developing UN sanctions regime against Iran. Europeans, after all, are all about solving the nuclear standoff with Iran through non-military means.

It should be clear then, to them as it is to the U.S., that short of military action the only thing that stands between Iran and a nuclear bomb is robust economic pressure–mainly from Iran’s commercial partners in Europe. As for the Swiss, their protestations of innocence and UN sanctions compliance are a little odd. But then again, they hang together with Switzerland’s other recent diplomatic activity.

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Lying Lies and the Liars Who Tell Them

Last week we noted that the Center for Public Integrity, a public-interest group in Washington DC, had created an online database of the 935 “false statements” uttered by ranking officials of the Bush administration to push the United States into war with Iraq. The New York Times, reporting on the new research resource, compared the scandal the center had documented to Watergate.

But if the Bush lies were bad, how about the lies told by Bill Clinton on the same score, or for that matter, the lies told in the editorials of the New York TimesConnecting the Dots has uncovered a couple of whoppers, which the Times, in its story on the matter did not — or affected not to –  notice.

Here is a New York Times editorial on February 13, 2003, on the eve of the second Gulf war:

The Europeans and the United Nations must recognize that Saddam Hussein does pose a clear and present danger to the peaceful international order that the United Nations purports to protect. The credibility of the United Nations is at issue — not because President Bush says so, but because Mr. Hussein is a serial violator of both international law and Security Council resolutions forbidding him to acquire terrible weapons of mass destruction, and because he is a serious threat to his neighbors.

It is easy to find many more such “lies” in the editorials of the Times. Here is another one from November 4, 1997.

Closing down Baghdad’s efforts to build weapons of mass destruction requires the continuing pressure of international sanctions until U.N. investigators are completely satisfied that Baghdad is no longer hiding anything from them. Iraq now demands that the Security Council set a timetable for lifting all sanctions in exchange for full Iraqi cooperation. The sanctions are indeed supposed to be lifted when Iraq has fully complied with U.N. requirements. But Baghdad has no right to negotiate over the degree of its cooperation with U.N. investigators. Iraq has been flagrantly misleading U.N. experts and obstructing inspectors’ efforts to examine suspected storage sites.

And here is President Clinton “lying” to the American people on December 16, 1998, as he justifies military action against Iraq:

Earlier today I ordered America’s Armed Forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq. They are joined by British forces. Their mission is to attack Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors.

Their purpose is to protect the national interest of the United States and, indeed, the interest of people throughout the Middle East and around the world. Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons.

Other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. With Saddam, there’s one big difference: He has used them, not once but repeatedly, unleashing chemical weapons against Iranian troops during a decade-long war, not only against soldiers but against civilians; firing Scud missiles at the citizens of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iran, not only against a foreign enemy but even against his own people, gassing Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq.

A question Connecting the Dots has asked before is: did the Bush administration lie when it relied on the CIA’s estimates of Iraq’s WMD program? Did the Clinton administration also lie? Are the Clinton administration’s lies included in the database of the Center for Public Integrity? Are the “lies” of the New York Times?

Or perhaps the Bush administration’s lies were not lies after all but something else. Or perhaps the George Soros-funded Center for Public Integrity lacks integrity, as does the New York Times.

Last week we noted that the Center for Public Integrity, a public-interest group in Washington DC, had created an online database of the 935 “false statements” uttered by ranking officials of the Bush administration to push the United States into war with Iraq. The New York Times, reporting on the new research resource, compared the scandal the center had documented to Watergate.

But if the Bush lies were bad, how about the lies told by Bill Clinton on the same score, or for that matter, the lies told in the editorials of the New York TimesConnecting the Dots has uncovered a couple of whoppers, which the Times, in its story on the matter did not — or affected not to –  notice.

Here is a New York Times editorial on February 13, 2003, on the eve of the second Gulf war:

The Europeans and the United Nations must recognize that Saddam Hussein does pose a clear and present danger to the peaceful international order that the United Nations purports to protect. The credibility of the United Nations is at issue — not because President Bush says so, but because Mr. Hussein is a serial violator of both international law and Security Council resolutions forbidding him to acquire terrible weapons of mass destruction, and because he is a serious threat to his neighbors.

It is easy to find many more such “lies” in the editorials of the Times. Here is another one from November 4, 1997.

Closing down Baghdad’s efforts to build weapons of mass destruction requires the continuing pressure of international sanctions until U.N. investigators are completely satisfied that Baghdad is no longer hiding anything from them. Iraq now demands that the Security Council set a timetable for lifting all sanctions in exchange for full Iraqi cooperation. The sanctions are indeed supposed to be lifted when Iraq has fully complied with U.N. requirements. But Baghdad has no right to negotiate over the degree of its cooperation with U.N. investigators. Iraq has been flagrantly misleading U.N. experts and obstructing inspectors’ efforts to examine suspected storage sites.

And here is President Clinton “lying” to the American people on December 16, 1998, as he justifies military action against Iraq:

Earlier today I ordered America’s Armed Forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq. They are joined by British forces. Their mission is to attack Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors.

Their purpose is to protect the national interest of the United States and, indeed, the interest of people throughout the Middle East and around the world. Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons.

Other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. With Saddam, there’s one big difference: He has used them, not once but repeatedly, unleashing chemical weapons against Iranian troops during a decade-long war, not only against soldiers but against civilians; firing Scud missiles at the citizens of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iran, not only against a foreign enemy but even against his own people, gassing Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq.

A question Connecting the Dots has asked before is: did the Bush administration lie when it relied on the CIA’s estimates of Iraq’s WMD program? Did the Clinton administration also lie? Are the Clinton administration’s lies included in the database of the Center for Public Integrity? Are the “lies” of the New York Times?

Or perhaps the Bush administration’s lies were not lies after all but something else. Or perhaps the George Soros-funded Center for Public Integrity lacks integrity, as does the New York Times.

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Bush’s Bahraini Fumble

In case you had any doubts, the primary target of President Bush’s eight-day sojourn in the Middle East remains Iran. Whether the President is pitching Israeli-Palestinian peace or promoting political liberalization, rolling back Iranian ascendancy is the name of the game. Bush’s strategic reasoning is as follows: if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved and liberal democracy proliferates, Arabs will reject the radical extremism that stands at the heart of Tehran’s political program and stifle Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony.

Yet in pursuing this strategy, Bush has sought out the wrong audiences. Rather than reaching out to Arab publics and explaining the benefits of peace and democracy, the President has presented his thesis before Arab monarchs and their ministers—the very individuals who have long thwarted democratic movements and undermined Arab-Israeli peace. In this vein, Bush’s praise for Israel as having “raised a thriving modern society out of rocky soil” before an Abu Dhabi conference of government and business leaders likely fell on deaf ears, while his declaration that Iran is “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror” predictably elicited no response—business-conscious U.A.E. is Iran’s biggest trading partner.

But perhaps Bush’s greatest misfire came in Bahrain. With an entrenched Sunni monarchy that rules over a 70 percent Shiite majority, Bahrain might have provided a remarkable opportunity for Bush to engage a key Shiite population and promote the benefits of human rights and democracy over the religious extremism that Iran embodies. Yet Bush did the opposite, grinning with King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, whom he lauded as standing “on the forefront of providing hope for people through democracy.” Any Shiite paying attention would have been dumbfounded. Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy holds half of all cabinet positions; controls all of the major security services posts; and appoints the upper chamber of the legislature, which has veto power over the elected lower chamber. How can an American president term such arrangements democratic?

Granted, Bush probably had little hope of winning over Bahrain’s Shiites, some of whom protested his visit in the days prior to his arrival. Indeed, having personally traveled in Bahrain, I can attest to the prevalence of Khomeini posters and pro-Hezbollah slogans that line the streets in the heart of Manama—good indicators of anti-American hostilities that few presidential addresses could reasonably overcome.

Still, for all the lip service that the Bush administration has given to empowering Arab publics through democracy, it would have been refreshing to see the President just once address some of his harshest Arab critics face-to-face, rather than continually talking over them. After all, if the freedom agenda holds the key to liberating the region from Iranian hegemony, then Bush has wasted precious time praising democracy to an unpopular monarchy.

In case you had any doubts, the primary target of President Bush’s eight-day sojourn in the Middle East remains Iran. Whether the President is pitching Israeli-Palestinian peace or promoting political liberalization, rolling back Iranian ascendancy is the name of the game. Bush’s strategic reasoning is as follows: if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved and liberal democracy proliferates, Arabs will reject the radical extremism that stands at the heart of Tehran’s political program and stifle Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony.

Yet in pursuing this strategy, Bush has sought out the wrong audiences. Rather than reaching out to Arab publics and explaining the benefits of peace and democracy, the President has presented his thesis before Arab monarchs and their ministers—the very individuals who have long thwarted democratic movements and undermined Arab-Israeli peace. In this vein, Bush’s praise for Israel as having “raised a thriving modern society out of rocky soil” before an Abu Dhabi conference of government and business leaders likely fell on deaf ears, while his declaration that Iran is “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror” predictably elicited no response—business-conscious U.A.E. is Iran’s biggest trading partner.

But perhaps Bush’s greatest misfire came in Bahrain. With an entrenched Sunni monarchy that rules over a 70 percent Shiite majority, Bahrain might have provided a remarkable opportunity for Bush to engage a key Shiite population and promote the benefits of human rights and democracy over the religious extremism that Iran embodies. Yet Bush did the opposite, grinning with King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, whom he lauded as standing “on the forefront of providing hope for people through democracy.” Any Shiite paying attention would have been dumbfounded. Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy holds half of all cabinet positions; controls all of the major security services posts; and appoints the upper chamber of the legislature, which has veto power over the elected lower chamber. How can an American president term such arrangements democratic?

Granted, Bush probably had little hope of winning over Bahrain’s Shiites, some of whom protested his visit in the days prior to his arrival. Indeed, having personally traveled in Bahrain, I can attest to the prevalence of Khomeini posters and pro-Hezbollah slogans that line the streets in the heart of Manama—good indicators of anti-American hostilities that few presidential addresses could reasonably overcome.

Still, for all the lip service that the Bush administration has given to empowering Arab publics through democracy, it would have been refreshing to see the President just once address some of his harshest Arab critics face-to-face, rather than continually talking over them. After all, if the freedom agenda holds the key to liberating the region from Iranian hegemony, then Bush has wasted precious time praising democracy to an unpopular monarchy.

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Leaning towards Iran…

On Tuesday, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie announced that there would be no permanent U.S. military bases stationed in Iraq. “We need the United States in our war against terrorism, we need them to guard our border sometimes, we need them for economic support and we need them for diplomatic and political support,” he told al-Arabiyya television. “But I say one thing, permanent forces or bases in Iraq for any foreign forces is a red line that cannot be accepted by any nationalist Iraqi.”

For al-Rubaie, this marked a stunning change of tune. Earlier this year, he arrived in Washington to lobby Democratic critics of the war against a U.S. troop withdrawal, holding closed-door meetings with Senator Carl Levin and Congressman John Murtha, among others.

But with the surge now firmly in place and working, al-Rubaie has apparently taken U.S. support for granted. Most disturbingly, the Iraqi security establishment has set its sights on another partner for its future security needs. At a security conference in Bahrain earlier this week, al-Rubaie called for a regional security pact that would include Iran, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad naturally has welcomed.

To say the least, this a frightening prospect. Among other goals, the Iraq war sought to replace a most tyrannical regime with a democracy, with policymakers believing that a democratic government would be most inclined towards alignment with the United States. In the short-run, the chaos in Iraq created a military opening for Iran against U.S. forces, and the results have been deadly. But if the long-term outcome of the Iraq war is a Persian Gulf that is firmly united with Iran as its power center, a large chunk of the Middle East will be lost for many years to come.

On Tuesday, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie announced that there would be no permanent U.S. military bases stationed in Iraq. “We need the United States in our war against terrorism, we need them to guard our border sometimes, we need them for economic support and we need them for diplomatic and political support,” he told al-Arabiyya television. “But I say one thing, permanent forces or bases in Iraq for any foreign forces is a red line that cannot be accepted by any nationalist Iraqi.”

For al-Rubaie, this marked a stunning change of tune. Earlier this year, he arrived in Washington to lobby Democratic critics of the war against a U.S. troop withdrawal, holding closed-door meetings with Senator Carl Levin and Congressman John Murtha, among others.

But with the surge now firmly in place and working, al-Rubaie has apparently taken U.S. support for granted. Most disturbingly, the Iraqi security establishment has set its sights on another partner for its future security needs. At a security conference in Bahrain earlier this week, al-Rubaie called for a regional security pact that would include Iran, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad naturally has welcomed.

To say the least, this a frightening prospect. Among other goals, the Iraq war sought to replace a most tyrannical regime with a democracy, with policymakers believing that a democratic government would be most inclined towards alignment with the United States. In the short-run, the chaos in Iraq created a military opening for Iran against U.S. forces, and the results have been deadly. But if the long-term outcome of the Iraq war is a Persian Gulf that is firmly united with Iran as its power center, a large chunk of the Middle East will be lost for many years to come.

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ANNAPOLIS: There Has to Be Something to It, Right?

Over the past few weeks, consensus has continually held that little should be expected from the Annapolis conference, which opens tomorrow. Op-ed after op-ed and poll after poll have dictated that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too weak, if not too far apart in their positions, for any meaningful progress towards peace to take place.

Yet it’s hard to reconcile the notion that Annapolis is little more than an impressive photo op with the serious diplomatic capital that Arab states have invested in it. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia announced that it would send Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, marking the first time that the Saudis are participating in talks with Israelis present. Representatives of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen will also participate. Indeed, the Annapolis conference has achieved such profound legitimacy that Syria—believing that it risked regional isolation by not attending—announced that it would send its deputy foreign minister.

How can we explain this broad participation in a conference doomed to failure? Below, I weigh the compelling and insufficient aspects of three possibilities that have been tossed around in recent weeks:

1. It’s all about Iran. As David Brooks argued a few weeks ago, the Israeli-Palestinian focus of this conference is a proxy for creating a regional consensus for confronting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Compelling because of the broad (Sunni) Arab participation in the conference. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned of a “Shiite Crescent” of regional Iranian influence, running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (Hizballah), and the Palestinian Authority (Hamas); Sunni unity—sponsored by a U.S.-led peace effort—provides a possible diplomatic antidote. Meanwhile, Israel has embraced strong Arab participation, even though this will increase pressure for concessions. This implies that Israel’s priorities lie with countering Iran, perhaps at the expense of other cards it holds.

Insufficient because a conference that cannot actually deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot create regional consensus around Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is necessary to foster and support any long-term regional strategy against Iran. Moreover, is Syria so desperate for the return of the Golan Heights that it would spurn its historic ties with Iran—particularly at the moment that Iran is most regionally ascendant?

2. It’s aimed at achieving broad consensus on Israeli-Palestinian peace to legitimize final status negotiations. The International Crisis Group, one of the few think tanks to take a mildly optimistic view of Annapolis, has argued that Annapolis should be a platform for deliberation on final status issues, with Arab engagement exchanged for Israeli concessions.

Compelling because the Bush administration emphasized the discussion of final status issues in its successful effort to lure Arab states to Annapolis. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have called for a final settlement before the expiration of Bush’s term. Furthermore, broad Arab consensus for such a settlement might undermine Hamas’s rejection of peace efforts.

Insufficient because Arab political unity has had little bearing on Arab public opinion in recent years: contrast Arab governments’ condemnation of Hizballah during the 2006 Lebanon war with the popularization that followed throughout the region of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Moreover, public opinion has hardly constrained Hamas, which seized control in Gaza this past June with little Palestinian public support. If Hamas responds to (the highly unlikely) Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with another takeover, as Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas recently announced, Arab unity will prove impotent once again.

3. The Bush administration is using the Annapolis conference to shore up its legacy. Numerous American dailies attribute the Bush administration’s pursuit of the Annapolis conference to the “legacy” issue, while Dov Weissglas, former senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, believes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is “led by the desire to get a Nobel Prize.”

Compelling because the Bush administration arguably has dedicated more attention to the Middle East than any previous presidency, with few concrete successes. Democratization efforts have stalled or failed in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority; Iraq is improving but remains unstable; Iran is ascendant; and American popularity in the Middle East is at an all time low. Israeli-Palestinian peace might provide one last chance at securing a favorable legacy in foreign affairs.

Insufficient because psychoanalysis is no substitute for policy analysis.

Over the past few weeks, consensus has continually held that little should be expected from the Annapolis conference, which opens tomorrow. Op-ed after op-ed and poll after poll have dictated that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too weak, if not too far apart in their positions, for any meaningful progress towards peace to take place.

Yet it’s hard to reconcile the notion that Annapolis is little more than an impressive photo op with the serious diplomatic capital that Arab states have invested in it. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia announced that it would send Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, marking the first time that the Saudis are participating in talks with Israelis present. Representatives of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen will also participate. Indeed, the Annapolis conference has achieved such profound legitimacy that Syria—believing that it risked regional isolation by not attending—announced that it would send its deputy foreign minister.

How can we explain this broad participation in a conference doomed to failure? Below, I weigh the compelling and insufficient aspects of three possibilities that have been tossed around in recent weeks:

1. It’s all about Iran. As David Brooks argued a few weeks ago, the Israeli-Palestinian focus of this conference is a proxy for creating a regional consensus for confronting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Compelling because of the broad (Sunni) Arab participation in the conference. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned of a “Shiite Crescent” of regional Iranian influence, running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (Hizballah), and the Palestinian Authority (Hamas); Sunni unity—sponsored by a U.S.-led peace effort—provides a possible diplomatic antidote. Meanwhile, Israel has embraced strong Arab participation, even though this will increase pressure for concessions. This implies that Israel’s priorities lie with countering Iran, perhaps at the expense of other cards it holds.

Insufficient because a conference that cannot actually deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot create regional consensus around Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is necessary to foster and support any long-term regional strategy against Iran. Moreover, is Syria so desperate for the return of the Golan Heights that it would spurn its historic ties with Iran—particularly at the moment that Iran is most regionally ascendant?

2. It’s aimed at achieving broad consensus on Israeli-Palestinian peace to legitimize final status negotiations. The International Crisis Group, one of the few think tanks to take a mildly optimistic view of Annapolis, has argued that Annapolis should be a platform for deliberation on final status issues, with Arab engagement exchanged for Israeli concessions.

Compelling because the Bush administration emphasized the discussion of final status issues in its successful effort to lure Arab states to Annapolis. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have called for a final settlement before the expiration of Bush’s term. Furthermore, broad Arab consensus for such a settlement might undermine Hamas’s rejection of peace efforts.

Insufficient because Arab political unity has had little bearing on Arab public opinion in recent years: contrast Arab governments’ condemnation of Hizballah during the 2006 Lebanon war with the popularization that followed throughout the region of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Moreover, public opinion has hardly constrained Hamas, which seized control in Gaza this past June with little Palestinian public support. If Hamas responds to (the highly unlikely) Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with another takeover, as Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas recently announced, Arab unity will prove impotent once again.

3. The Bush administration is using the Annapolis conference to shore up its legacy. Numerous American dailies attribute the Bush administration’s pursuit of the Annapolis conference to the “legacy” issue, while Dov Weissglas, former senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, believes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is “led by the desire to get a Nobel Prize.”

Compelling because the Bush administration arguably has dedicated more attention to the Middle East than any previous presidency, with few concrete successes. Democratization efforts have stalled or failed in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority; Iraq is improving but remains unstable; Iran is ascendant; and American popularity in the Middle East is at an all time low. Israeli-Palestinian peace might provide one last chance at securing a favorable legacy in foreign affairs.

Insufficient because psychoanalysis is no substitute for policy analysis.

Read Less




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