Commentary Magazine


Topic: Department of State

Hamas and History

In “Hamas, the Brotherhood and Egypt,” the Wall Street Journal makes a point similar to one I tried to make in my prior post: that the 2006 Palestinian election, won by Hamas, is a cautionary tale for those anxious to dismantle the Egyptian regime and hold elections with the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood — and to do it prior to the establishment of the institutions necessary for a democratic process.

The Journal writes that Hamas should never have been given permission to participate in the Palestinian election:

[Condoleezza] Rice demanded that Israel accede to Hamas’s participation in the vote, on the theory that “we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process.” Her State Department also argued that disarming Hamas was a long-term goal, not a precondition to their political participation.

But that is not quite the theory under which Secretary Rice was operating, nor the time frame she anticipated for achievement of her goal.

Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in 2005, two months after the death of Yasir Arafat, having run essentially unopposed, and the U.S. was pressing him to meet the Phase I obligation under the Roadmap — dismantlement of Hamas and its infrastructure. An uncontested election gave Abbas no real mandate, however, and the Bush administration hoped a victory over Hamas in a free and fair election would give Abbas the legitimacy to do what Rice implied he had privately assured her: that if Hamas refused to acknowledge “one authority and one gun,” he would forcibly dismantle it.

In the election, the Palestinians chose Hamas, and in hindsight it was a historic U.S. mistake — compounded by the fact that the cognoscenti blamed George Bush for giving the Palestinians a choice, instead of blaming the Palestinians for the choice they made.

But at least Bush and Rice had the excuse that it seemed, at least to some, like a good idea at the time — and they did not have the lesson of history to warn them against it. Those who are in a rush to do it again a mere five years later — this time not in the Gaza Strip but in the most important Arab country in the Middle East, not with Hamas but with its even more dangerous parent organization, simultaneously ignoring history while congratulating themselves for getting on the right side of it, almost unanimous in their certitudes — have no such excuse.

They should pause and read Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the Knesset, “Whither Egypt.”

In “Hamas, the Brotherhood and Egypt,” the Wall Street Journal makes a point similar to one I tried to make in my prior post: that the 2006 Palestinian election, won by Hamas, is a cautionary tale for those anxious to dismantle the Egyptian regime and hold elections with the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood — and to do it prior to the establishment of the institutions necessary for a democratic process.

The Journal writes that Hamas should never have been given permission to participate in the Palestinian election:

[Condoleezza] Rice demanded that Israel accede to Hamas’s participation in the vote, on the theory that “we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process.” Her State Department also argued that disarming Hamas was a long-term goal, not a precondition to their political participation.

But that is not quite the theory under which Secretary Rice was operating, nor the time frame she anticipated for achievement of her goal.

Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in 2005, two months after the death of Yasir Arafat, having run essentially unopposed, and the U.S. was pressing him to meet the Phase I obligation under the Roadmap — dismantlement of Hamas and its infrastructure. An uncontested election gave Abbas no real mandate, however, and the Bush administration hoped a victory over Hamas in a free and fair election would give Abbas the legitimacy to do what Rice implied he had privately assured her: that if Hamas refused to acknowledge “one authority and one gun,” he would forcibly dismantle it.

In the election, the Palestinians chose Hamas, and in hindsight it was a historic U.S. mistake — compounded by the fact that the cognoscenti blamed George Bush for giving the Palestinians a choice, instead of blaming the Palestinians for the choice they made.

But at least Bush and Rice had the excuse that it seemed, at least to some, like a good idea at the time — and they did not have the lesson of history to warn them against it. Those who are in a rush to do it again a mere five years later — this time not in the Gaza Strip but in the most important Arab country in the Middle East, not with Hamas but with its even more dangerous parent organization, simultaneously ignoring history while congratulating themselves for getting on the right side of it, almost unanimous in their certitudes — have no such excuse.

They should pause and read Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the Knesset, “Whither Egypt.”

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Neoconservatives and Democracy: A 30-Year Story

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent. Read More

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent.

For example, in the case of the anti-Communist efforts in Nicaragua, the CIA preferred working with the Contras, for whom its agents had essentially bought and paid, no matter their political coloration; officials at the State Department, however, thought that it was a mistake to align the United States with elements of the previous thug regime and that the U.S. should be promoting liberal forces within the Contra movement.

But probably the key year for the maturation of these ideas was 1986. It was a general axiom on the right, including among neoconservatives, that efforts to impose an economic embargo on South Africa were dangerous and naive because, though the apartheid regime might be unjust, it could be pushed to reform, and the sanctions might lead to a Soviet-aligned takeover of a strategically important country. When Congress voted for such sanctions, Ronald Reagan vetoed them. His veto was overridden.

And those of us who thought the sanctions would be disastrous were proved utterly mistaken. They turned out to be an effective strategy for crippling the regime without toppling it and forcing its end in a manner more pacific than anyone expected. (Not that South Africa post-apartheid is a wonderful model, but it was a gravely wounded civil society, and its healing will take a long time.) Part of the reason that sanctions have been a part of the American diplomatic toolbox ever since, and always with neoconservative support, is that they proved successful in South Africa.

The other thing that happened was an election in the Philippines, whose authoritarian junta regime was closely allied with the United States. The clear theft of the election by Ferdinand Marcos’s forces created a massive groundswell in the streets. At first, the White House did what Barack Obama did with the revolt in Egypt — it tried to stay out of it. Then-Secretary of State George Shultz, together with the later-notorious Paul Wolfowitz, who ran the State Department’s East Asia bureau, convinced Ronald Reagan to change policy, support those who said the election had been stolen, and eventually, with great efficiency, convince Marcos it was time for him to go.

And on it went, with South Korea and Taiwan and Chile and many other nations whose authoritarian regimes peacefully gave way to more liberal ones in part because of the encouragement of the United States.

It’s not a perfect strategy, by any means. No strategy is, and no strategy is applicable in every circumstance. The danger that Egypt might not follow in the path of the Philippines but rather in the path of revolutionary Iran is very real. But as the year of Carter-administration fecklessness on Iran that preceded Khomeini’s takeover in 1979 proved, a policy of passivity is not a way out for a president who does not know what to do.

America can’t not choose sides in such a struggle. Not choosing sides is, in effect, to choose sides. So it’s better to have a policy that offers a direction congruent with our values, and with a proven track record, than one that offers nothing but confusion.

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Curious Quote of the Day

From a Bloomberg News article on turmoil in the Middle East:

In Egypt, where Mubarak, 82, has been a dependable U.S. ally for 30 years, the White House will need “a delicate touch” to “ensure that a successor government is neither virulently anti-American nor openly hostile to Israel,” said Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, according to the State Department’s 2011 budget, receiving more than $1.5 billion a year.

“We should be quietly advising other leaders in the region to take steps to alleviate discontent” and “avoid the same fate that Mubarak is now experiencing,” Walt said.

There’s no further description of Professor Walt in the Bloomberg article, but those familiar with his record on matters relating to Jews or Israel may find the spectacle of his cautioning against an Egyptian government “openly hostile to Israel” to be somewhat stunning, akin to Karl Marx being quoted hoping that the new Egyptian government won’t be openly hostile to capitalism. Though I suppose it leaves open the possibility that Professor Walt is hoping for an Egyptian government that’s privately hostile to Israel while publicly professing to wish it no harm.

From a Bloomberg News article on turmoil in the Middle East:

In Egypt, where Mubarak, 82, has been a dependable U.S. ally for 30 years, the White House will need “a delicate touch” to “ensure that a successor government is neither virulently anti-American nor openly hostile to Israel,” said Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, according to the State Department’s 2011 budget, receiving more than $1.5 billion a year.

“We should be quietly advising other leaders in the region to take steps to alleviate discontent” and “avoid the same fate that Mubarak is now experiencing,” Walt said.

There’s no further description of Professor Walt in the Bloomberg article, but those familiar with his record on matters relating to Jews or Israel may find the spectacle of his cautioning against an Egyptian government “openly hostile to Israel” to be somewhat stunning, akin to Karl Marx being quoted hoping that the new Egyptian government won’t be openly hostile to capitalism. Though I suppose it leaves open the possibility that Professor Walt is hoping for an Egyptian government that’s privately hostile to Israel while publicly professing to wish it no harm.

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Insights on Egypt from Israel

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yaakov Amidror, who held several senior posts in the Israel Defense Forces, including head of the IDF division preparing Israel’s National Intelligence Assessment, held a conference call this morning sponsored by One Jerusalem. In discussing Egypt, he said this:

There is no question that this is one of the fruits of the Internet technology — that these are mechanisms which give people the ability to organize without an organization … [T]his is the strength of the opposition: the fact that it was not organized by someone, but is a matter of people who organized themselves.

But when it comes to the next stage …  I mean “We don’t want Mubarak” is okay, but now you want something that can bring you to another stage. For that, you need an organization. And in elections after some months, there are very few organizations who have the ability to organize themselves … [other than] the Muslim Brotherhood. They have a long history, they have very deep roots in the society and when they compete with other elements of the opposition, which do not have these traditions, this organization, these roots, it is a new phenomenon …

In The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky warned that elections are never the beginning of the democratic process, but can only occur after the basic institutions of a free society are in place — a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties. It was why he praised George W. Bush’s landmark June 24, 2002, speech conditioning U.S. support for a Palestinian state on prior Palestinian success in building “a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty” — and then opposed the Roadmap, which he viewed as Bush’s abandonment of that condition in exchange for faith in Mahmoud Abbas as a “moderate.”

Sharansky’s insight was that moderation is not a function of a leader’s disposition or promises but of the society he governs: “One can rely on a free society to create the moderate, but one cannot rely on a moderate to create a free society.” In thinking about Egypt and its future, perhaps we can profit from a comparison of the Bush administration’s great achievement — the long, hard slog to create a representative government in Iraq — and the administration’s signal failure: the “shortcut” elections it sponsored in 2006 that produced the victory of Hamas.

The Obama administration’s current approach may be, as former State Department senior adviser Christian Whiton argues, too clever by half — closer to what produced Hamastan than what is necessary for a lasting democratic result.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yaakov Amidror, who held several senior posts in the Israel Defense Forces, including head of the IDF division preparing Israel’s National Intelligence Assessment, held a conference call this morning sponsored by One Jerusalem. In discussing Egypt, he said this:

There is no question that this is one of the fruits of the Internet technology — that these are mechanisms which give people the ability to organize without an organization … [T]his is the strength of the opposition: the fact that it was not organized by someone, but is a matter of people who organized themselves.

But when it comes to the next stage …  I mean “We don’t want Mubarak” is okay, but now you want something that can bring you to another stage. For that, you need an organization. And in elections after some months, there are very few organizations who have the ability to organize themselves … [other than] the Muslim Brotherhood. They have a long history, they have very deep roots in the society and when they compete with other elements of the opposition, which do not have these traditions, this organization, these roots, it is a new phenomenon …

In The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky warned that elections are never the beginning of the democratic process, but can only occur after the basic institutions of a free society are in place — a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties. It was why he praised George W. Bush’s landmark June 24, 2002, speech conditioning U.S. support for a Palestinian state on prior Palestinian success in building “a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty” — and then opposed the Roadmap, which he viewed as Bush’s abandonment of that condition in exchange for faith in Mahmoud Abbas as a “moderate.”

Sharansky’s insight was that moderation is not a function of a leader’s disposition or promises but of the society he governs: “One can rely on a free society to create the moderate, but one cannot rely on a moderate to create a free society.” In thinking about Egypt and its future, perhaps we can profit from a comparison of the Bush administration’s great achievement — the long, hard slog to create a representative government in Iraq — and the administration’s signal failure: the “shortcut” elections it sponsored in 2006 that produced the victory of Hamas.

The Obama administration’s current approach may be, as former State Department senior adviser Christian Whiton argues, too clever by half — closer to what produced Hamastan than what is necessary for a lasting democratic result.

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Pro-Mubarak Demonstrators Attack Reporters

Pro-Mubarak protesters in Egypt may have been following government instructions when they attacked members of the media today, according to the Jerusalem Post. Journalists from Sweden and Israel have allegedly been detained by the Egyptian government, and CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper and his news crew were physically assaulted by the pro-government rioters:

Two Swedish reporters were held for hours on Wednesday by Egyptian soldiers accusing them of being Mossad spies, the reporters’ employer, daily newspaper Aftonbladet, reported.

The soldiers reportedly attacked the reporters, spitting in their faces and threatening to kill them.

Four Israeli journalists were arrested by Egyptian military police in Cairo on Wednesday. Three of those arrested work for Channel 2 and the fourth is from Nazareth.

In addition, renowned CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper and his news crew were roughed up by mobs favoring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as were Washington Post reporters. Cooper was reportedly punched in the head ten times.

Another CNN correspondent said that pro-government rioters were instructed to target the press.

The State Department has tweeted a statement condemned the attacks, saying that “We are concerned about detentions and attacks on news media in Egypt. The civil society that Egypt wants to build includes a free press.” But the U.S. really needs to issue a much harsher condemnation on this. Not only is the Egyptian government now acting in direct defiance of Obama administration requests for nonviolence; it also appears that it may have instructed pro-Mubarak mobs to attack Americans. Based on this latest crackdown on the news media, and the recent suspension of Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau, it’s growing even clearer that Mubarak has no interest in pursuing the democratic reforms the U.S. has been calling for.

Pro-Mubarak protesters in Egypt may have been following government instructions when they attacked members of the media today, according to the Jerusalem Post. Journalists from Sweden and Israel have allegedly been detained by the Egyptian government, and CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper and his news crew were physically assaulted by the pro-government rioters:

Two Swedish reporters were held for hours on Wednesday by Egyptian soldiers accusing them of being Mossad spies, the reporters’ employer, daily newspaper Aftonbladet, reported.

The soldiers reportedly attacked the reporters, spitting in their faces and threatening to kill them.

Four Israeli journalists were arrested by Egyptian military police in Cairo on Wednesday. Three of those arrested work for Channel 2 and the fourth is from Nazareth.

In addition, renowned CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper and his news crew were roughed up by mobs favoring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as were Washington Post reporters. Cooper was reportedly punched in the head ten times.

Another CNN correspondent said that pro-government rioters were instructed to target the press.

The State Department has tweeted a statement condemned the attacks, saying that “We are concerned about detentions and attacks on news media in Egypt. The civil society that Egypt wants to build includes a free press.” But the U.S. really needs to issue a much harsher condemnation on this. Not only is the Egyptian government now acting in direct defiance of Obama administration requests for nonviolence; it also appears that it may have instructed pro-Mubarak mobs to attack Americans. Based on this latest crackdown on the news media, and the recent suspension of Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau, it’s growing even clearer that Mubarak has no interest in pursuing the democratic reforms the U.S. has been calling for.

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Obama’s New Anti-Satellite Weapons Push to Cede Space to the Chinese?

In 2006, the Chinese reportedly used an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) to blind one of our satellites. In 2007, they definitely used an ASAT to shoot down one of their own satellites. Incidents like these led the Pentagon in 2008 and Secretary Gates in 2010 to assert that China’s ASAT program was meant, respectively, to enhance their power projection and to curtail ours.

So naturally — per Eli Lake’s extensive report this morning — the Obama administration is pushing for a U.S./EU agreement that would severely restrict our ASAT capabilities. Experts who back the administration describe it as a “not exactly binding” minor move, the upshot being that Obama wouldn’t have to secure Senate approval for the measure. But experts and congressional staffers both insist that it would significantly curb what we can do in space and would endanger our ability to develop and deploy both offensive and defensive assets:

[A] congressional staff member said: “There is a suspicion that this is a slippery slope to arms control for space-based weapons, anti-satellite weapons and a back door to potentially limiting missile defense.”… “Because it appears that they are talking about limiting operations … it could be that this is as much an agreement on the law of war as it is on arms control,” Mr. Spring [a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation] said. “If it is something more like a law-of-war agreement, then you are creating a situation of legal jeopardy for a military commander who is responsible for operating systems in space.”

Presumably, the argument is that if we give up ours, they’ll give up theirs. The muddy, cascading norms argument is always trotted out when people push for unilateral disarmament, which is what opposing space militarization means in an age of Chinese ascendancy. In a full-blown movement, you’ll find the argument buttressed by everything from “at least our side won’t be complicit” moral preening to “it’ll snowball into a global movement, then there won’t be any more sides” activist nonsense. But it’s always there, in part because we have a surplus of foreign-policy experts churning out implausible advantages for their pet policies — and then selling those fanciful pretexts as objective evaluations.

If stopping Israeli construction in a particular Jerusalem neighborhood can placate Afghanis who’ve never seen a map of Israel, is it too much to suggest that unilateral Western gestures on space militarization will cause Beijing to abandon its ASAT program?

Turns out, there’s an answer to that:

The State Department has exchanged language with the EU on the code of conduct. The U.S. and Russia also have begun talks about creating confidence-building measures regarding space-based activities. The U.S. has reached out to China on space issues, but Beijing has declined offers to discuss the issue, according to a senior State Department official. [emphasis added]

Disappointing to be sure, but I’m sure there’s still something else we can give up that would swing them.

In 2006, the Chinese reportedly used an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) to blind one of our satellites. In 2007, they definitely used an ASAT to shoot down one of their own satellites. Incidents like these led the Pentagon in 2008 and Secretary Gates in 2010 to assert that China’s ASAT program was meant, respectively, to enhance their power projection and to curtail ours.

So naturally — per Eli Lake’s extensive report this morning — the Obama administration is pushing for a U.S./EU agreement that would severely restrict our ASAT capabilities. Experts who back the administration describe it as a “not exactly binding” minor move, the upshot being that Obama wouldn’t have to secure Senate approval for the measure. But experts and congressional staffers both insist that it would significantly curb what we can do in space and would endanger our ability to develop and deploy both offensive and defensive assets:

[A] congressional staff member said: “There is a suspicion that this is a slippery slope to arms control for space-based weapons, anti-satellite weapons and a back door to potentially limiting missile defense.”… “Because it appears that they are talking about limiting operations … it could be that this is as much an agreement on the law of war as it is on arms control,” Mr. Spring [a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation] said. “If it is something more like a law-of-war agreement, then you are creating a situation of legal jeopardy for a military commander who is responsible for operating systems in space.”

Presumably, the argument is that if we give up ours, they’ll give up theirs. The muddy, cascading norms argument is always trotted out when people push for unilateral disarmament, which is what opposing space militarization means in an age of Chinese ascendancy. In a full-blown movement, you’ll find the argument buttressed by everything from “at least our side won’t be complicit” moral preening to “it’ll snowball into a global movement, then there won’t be any more sides” activist nonsense. But it’s always there, in part because we have a surplus of foreign-policy experts churning out implausible advantages for their pet policies — and then selling those fanciful pretexts as objective evaluations.

If stopping Israeli construction in a particular Jerusalem neighborhood can placate Afghanis who’ve never seen a map of Israel, is it too much to suggest that unilateral Western gestures on space militarization will cause Beijing to abandon its ASAT program?

Turns out, there’s an answer to that:

The State Department has exchanged language with the EU on the code of conduct. The U.S. and Russia also have begun talks about creating confidence-building measures regarding space-based activities. The U.S. has reached out to China on space issues, but Beijing has declined offers to discuss the issue, according to a senior State Department official. [emphasis added]

Disappointing to be sure, but I’m sure there’s still something else we can give up that would swing them.

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Partial Freezes, Complete Freezes, and Eskimos

One of the most interesting “Palestine Papers” is the Minutes of a September 17, 2009, meeting between Saeb Erekat (SE), the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Dan Shapiro (DS) of the White House National Security Council, along with several high level State Department people and George Mitchell’s chief of staff.

The Americans urged the Palestinians to commence negotiations even though the U.S. had been able to obtain only a partial building freeze. The discussion in the Minutes represents, in my view, a microcosm of the 17-year peace process.

Erekat expressed his unwillingness to negotiate with Benjamin Netanyahu (BN), since Netanyahu had made his position clear, which was unacceptable to the Palestinians:

SE: … On substance, from day one BN said: Jerusalem the eternal undivided capital of Israel, demilitarized state without control over borders or airspace, no refugees. Once you agree to this we can negotiate a piece of paper and an anthem.

Erekat’s position was that “anything short of 2 states on the 1967 border is meaningless.” He explained his theory on Netanyahu’s strategy:

SE: When Bibi talks about excluding Jerusalem it is to make sure we can’t attend, because he doesn’t want to.

DS: So by not going aren’t you playing into his hand?

SE: You put me in this position! It’s like having a gun to my head — damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Netanyahu had set forth an adamant negotiating position, but also his willingness to negotiate without preconditions. The Palestinians responded with their own adamant position (nothing short of the indefensible 1967 lines) and their unwillingness to negotiate. If the Palestinians were correct about Netanyahu’s strategy, they were playing right into it — and blaming not themselves but the United States! Read More

One of the most interesting “Palestine Papers” is the Minutes of a September 17, 2009, meeting between Saeb Erekat (SE), the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Dan Shapiro (DS) of the White House National Security Council, along with several high level State Department people and George Mitchell’s chief of staff.

The Americans urged the Palestinians to commence negotiations even though the U.S. had been able to obtain only a partial building freeze. The discussion in the Minutes represents, in my view, a microcosm of the 17-year peace process.

Erekat expressed his unwillingness to negotiate with Benjamin Netanyahu (BN), since Netanyahu had made his position clear, which was unacceptable to the Palestinians:

SE: … On substance, from day one BN said: Jerusalem the eternal undivided capital of Israel, demilitarized state without control over borders or airspace, no refugees. Once you agree to this we can negotiate a piece of paper and an anthem.

Erekat’s position was that “anything short of 2 states on the 1967 border is meaningless.” He explained his theory on Netanyahu’s strategy:

SE: When Bibi talks about excluding Jerusalem it is to make sure we can’t attend, because he doesn’t want to.

DS: So by not going aren’t you playing into his hand?

SE: You put me in this position! It’s like having a gun to my head — damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Netanyahu had set forth an adamant negotiating position, but also his willingness to negotiate without preconditions. The Palestinians responded with their own adamant position (nothing short of the indefensible 1967 lines) and their unwillingness to negotiate. If the Palestinians were correct about Netanyahu’s strategy, they were playing right into it — and blaming not themselves but the United States!

Shapiro suggested that the Palestinians had a sympathetic U.S. president and should start negotiating, given his commitment to them:

DE: The President has demonstrated a personal and real commitment to you. What you are saying indicates that you tend to discount the President’s commitment. It strikes me that it doesn’t seem to be worth a lot to you.

SE: This is not about personalities or conscience. Bush did not wake up one day and his conscience told him “two state solution.” It’s about interests. We have waited a painful 17 years in this process, to take our fate in our own hands.

But quite a lot happened in those 17 years. They got three offers of a state on substantially all the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem — and turned all three down. They received all of Gaza and a chance to show they could build a state without threatening Israel — and demonstrated the opposite. They got a U.S. president personally committed to them, who undoubtedly would eventually push “bridging proposals” more to their liking than to Israel’s — and they refused to start negotiations without a complete freeze. A lot of opportunities came their way during those 17 years, while they were “waiting.”

In an old joke, a man tells a bartender he lost his religion after his small plane crashed in frozen Alaskan tundra and he lay there for hours, crying for God to save him, and nothing happened. The bartender says, “wait — you’re here.” “Right,” says the man, “because finally a damned Eskimo came along.” Some day Saeb Erekat will explain to some bartender that he was a negotiator for 17 years but nothing happened, except for all the damned Eskimos who came along.

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Irrelevance Is a Choice

The Obama administration is making policy with its effective silence on the events in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt. As Rick and Max both pointed out, Obama last night said nothing that mattered about these portentous developments. Hillary Clinton’s State Department has been notable only for its meaningless bromides. Clinton herself crowned a week of ineffectual gestures by expressing the “hope” today “that it will be the people of Lebanon themselves, not outside forces, that will sustain the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon.”

We’ve been watching the Hezbollah train wreck unfold for nearly two weeks now, and the U.S. government is doing nothing. It doesn’t even matter if there are minor things being done in secret somewhere: the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the kinds of events that cry out for public statements of U.S. policy, interests, and intention. The most important thing our president can do is frame the issues of freedom, consensual government, and national self-determination as strategic interests of the United States and the community of nations.

These are not abstractions we are dealing with. It’s not as if the locations in question are distant from global tradeways. They are hardly irrelevant to the security of our allies or the worldwide threat of Islamist terrorism. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the aspirants to regional leadership with the potential of countering Iran’s influence, have stepped back from Lebanon to regroup. Their prospects have, until now, always depended on a reliably dominant and interested posture from the United States — but that condition is absent today. Their abandonment of the unity-government process in Lebanon is an even more significant development than Hezbollah’s outmaneuvering of France and the last-minute, Sarkozy-sponsored “contact group.”

I’m not sure the Obama administration understands what many in the blogosphere have already seen: that a geopolitical transformation is underway — one more fundamental than any we have seen since 1945. There was always a likelihood that modern Arab peoples would rise up against their despotic leaders. And we have known for years what Hezbollah was up to in Lebanon. But it was not and is not inevitable that their dramas would play out without intervention from or reference to the United States. That aspect of the events is our president’s choice.

“Smart power” — diplomacy, rhetoric, engagement, aid, the forming of coalitions, the leveraging of the UN, the dispatching of singular individuals as envoys and inspirational leaders — these measures are exactly what is called for in the current circumstances. U.S. leadership in the Lebanese crisis — which would have benefited from common goals with France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — could have signaled Hezbollah that the time was not ripe for a summary action. A similar principle applies to Tunisia and Egypt; engagement and the guarding of our interests could be quite effective without having a military character.

But instead of smart power, there is simply a void. The nature of democratic leadership is to act visibly, openly, and persuasively; if there are no visible actions being taken, there is no leadership. The cost of this feckless inaction will be very high, but there has been nothing dictating our posture of disengagement. Each step of the way, it has been a choice.

The Obama administration is making policy with its effective silence on the events in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt. As Rick and Max both pointed out, Obama last night said nothing that mattered about these portentous developments. Hillary Clinton’s State Department has been notable only for its meaningless bromides. Clinton herself crowned a week of ineffectual gestures by expressing the “hope” today “that it will be the people of Lebanon themselves, not outside forces, that will sustain the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon.”

We’ve been watching the Hezbollah train wreck unfold for nearly two weeks now, and the U.S. government is doing nothing. It doesn’t even matter if there are minor things being done in secret somewhere: the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the kinds of events that cry out for public statements of U.S. policy, interests, and intention. The most important thing our president can do is frame the issues of freedom, consensual government, and national self-determination as strategic interests of the United States and the community of nations.

These are not abstractions we are dealing with. It’s not as if the locations in question are distant from global tradeways. They are hardly irrelevant to the security of our allies or the worldwide threat of Islamist terrorism. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the aspirants to regional leadership with the potential of countering Iran’s influence, have stepped back from Lebanon to regroup. Their prospects have, until now, always depended on a reliably dominant and interested posture from the United States — but that condition is absent today. Their abandonment of the unity-government process in Lebanon is an even more significant development than Hezbollah’s outmaneuvering of France and the last-minute, Sarkozy-sponsored “contact group.”

I’m not sure the Obama administration understands what many in the blogosphere have already seen: that a geopolitical transformation is underway — one more fundamental than any we have seen since 1945. There was always a likelihood that modern Arab peoples would rise up against their despotic leaders. And we have known for years what Hezbollah was up to in Lebanon. But it was not and is not inevitable that their dramas would play out without intervention from or reference to the United States. That aspect of the events is our president’s choice.

“Smart power” — diplomacy, rhetoric, engagement, aid, the forming of coalitions, the leveraging of the UN, the dispatching of singular individuals as envoys and inspirational leaders — these measures are exactly what is called for in the current circumstances. U.S. leadership in the Lebanese crisis — which would have benefited from common goals with France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — could have signaled Hezbollah that the time was not ripe for a summary action. A similar principle applies to Tunisia and Egypt; engagement and the guarding of our interests could be quite effective without having a military character.

But instead of smart power, there is simply a void. The nature of democratic leadership is to act visibly, openly, and persuasively; if there are no visible actions being taken, there is no leadership. The cost of this feckless inaction will be very high, but there has been nothing dictating our posture of disengagement. Each step of the way, it has been a choice.

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Rep. Allan West Talking Sense on PLO Flag

In a press release this morning, Rep. Allan West asked why the PLO is allowed to fly its flag above its Washington office but Taiwan is not.

“By allowing this flag to be flown, the United States is extending a diplomatic right that we refrain from offering to even our own allies, like Taiwan,” said West. “This action is a diplomatic slap in the face of our greatest of allies, Israel.”

The Taiwan-PLO comparison is an excellent point. As far as officially recognized states go, Taiwan is clearly further along that path than Palestine is. The U.S. has also recognized Taiwan as a country in the past.

Here are some more comparisons between Taiwan and Palestine:

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan has been an autonomous, self-governing entity for decades.

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan doesn’t claim that the only way it can ever be free is if it destroys the state next to it (in this case, China).

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan has been a reliable ally of the U.S. for years.

• Unlike Palestine, the U.S. has trusted Taiwan enough to sell it extensive arms, including F-16s under President George H.W. Bush.

West is right that this is a slap in the face to Israel — but it’s also a slap in the face to Taiwan, which has no hope of being recognized any time soon. According to West’s press release, he has joined House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in speaking out against the PLO flag being flown. Both members of Congress are asking President Obama and the State Department to rescind the authorization given to the PLO to raise the flag.

In a press release this morning, Rep. Allan West asked why the PLO is allowed to fly its flag above its Washington office but Taiwan is not.

“By allowing this flag to be flown, the United States is extending a diplomatic right that we refrain from offering to even our own allies, like Taiwan,” said West. “This action is a diplomatic slap in the face of our greatest of allies, Israel.”

The Taiwan-PLO comparison is an excellent point. As far as officially recognized states go, Taiwan is clearly further along that path than Palestine is. The U.S. has also recognized Taiwan as a country in the past.

Here are some more comparisons between Taiwan and Palestine:

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan has been an autonomous, self-governing entity for decades.

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan doesn’t claim that the only way it can ever be free is if it destroys the state next to it (in this case, China).

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan has been a reliable ally of the U.S. for years.

• Unlike Palestine, the U.S. has trusted Taiwan enough to sell it extensive arms, including F-16s under President George H.W. Bush.

West is right that this is a slap in the face to Israel — but it’s also a slap in the face to Taiwan, which has no hope of being recognized any time soon. According to West’s press release, he has joined House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in speaking out against the PLO flag being flown. Both members of Congress are asking President Obama and the State Department to rescind the authorization given to the PLO to raise the flag.

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How the Guardian Helped Kill the Peace Process

As Alana noted yesterday, the extent of Palestinian concessions during peace talks, once made public, has seriously damaged PA leaders — and the State Department has weighed, noting that things are now going to be even harder than they were already.

The immediate fallout from the leaks should raise a number of important questions for the Guardian, but judging by the way it is spinning the story, it is hard to believe introspection is coming.

First, the Guardian appears shocked and angered by the extent of Palestinian concessions on settlements and yet blames Israel for the subsequent impasse on account of … settlements!

As Noah pointed out, if the main cause for lack of progress in the past 24 months was Palestinian insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze, one that included Jerusalem, as a precondition for talks — and this, thanks to U.S. backing — the papers reveal that it was merely a cynical pretext for the Palestinians’ not resuming talks once Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took power. Otherwise, why make a sacred cow of something they had already conceded before? The answer may be that the Palestinians neither accepted nor rejected the Olmert offer but, rather, regarded it as still on the table, allowing them time to see if Olmert was going to survive politically. With Olmert (and Livni) out and Obama in, then, the Palestinians may have concluded that a better deal could be had with a more sympathetic U.S. administration in place. This is consistent with Palestinian behavior historically and a tried-and-tested recipe for disaster for their aspirations.

In his Guardian op-ed on the leaks, Jonathan Freedland wrote that:

Surely international opinion will see concrete proof of how far the Palestinians have been willing to go, ready to move up to and beyond their “red lines,” conceding ground that would once have been unthinkable — none more so than on Jerusalem. In the blame game that has long attended Middle East diplomacy, this could see a shift in the Palestinians’ favour. The effect of these papers on Israel will be the reverse.

What Freedland is telling us is not what might happen but rather what he ardently wishes would happen. He may be right, of course — but it is not like Israel was basking in the light of international favor before the leaks!

So in effect, the Guardian is saying, Thank heaven Israel will be forced to give back what the Palestinians conceded — that will surely lead to a more equitable result! (Though the Guardian also concedes that the chances for a deal are now dead in the water, thanks to their leak!)

Second, the fallout caused by the Guardian leak is that, in the short term, Palestinian negotiators will have to heed the calls of the street and be much less amenable to compromise than was demonstrated in the leaked papers. Why is it that private virtue and public vice deserve praise? Read More

As Alana noted yesterday, the extent of Palestinian concessions during peace talks, once made public, has seriously damaged PA leaders — and the State Department has weighed, noting that things are now going to be even harder than they were already.

The immediate fallout from the leaks should raise a number of important questions for the Guardian, but judging by the way it is spinning the story, it is hard to believe introspection is coming.

First, the Guardian appears shocked and angered by the extent of Palestinian concessions on settlements and yet blames Israel for the subsequent impasse on account of … settlements!

As Noah pointed out, if the main cause for lack of progress in the past 24 months was Palestinian insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze, one that included Jerusalem, as a precondition for talks — and this, thanks to U.S. backing — the papers reveal that it was merely a cynical pretext for the Palestinians’ not resuming talks once Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took power. Otherwise, why make a sacred cow of something they had already conceded before? The answer may be that the Palestinians neither accepted nor rejected the Olmert offer but, rather, regarded it as still on the table, allowing them time to see if Olmert was going to survive politically. With Olmert (and Livni) out and Obama in, then, the Palestinians may have concluded that a better deal could be had with a more sympathetic U.S. administration in place. This is consistent with Palestinian behavior historically and a tried-and-tested recipe for disaster for their aspirations.

In his Guardian op-ed on the leaks, Jonathan Freedland wrote that:

Surely international opinion will see concrete proof of how far the Palestinians have been willing to go, ready to move up to and beyond their “red lines,” conceding ground that would once have been unthinkable — none more so than on Jerusalem. In the blame game that has long attended Middle East diplomacy, this could see a shift in the Palestinians’ favour. The effect of these papers on Israel will be the reverse.

What Freedland is telling us is not what might happen but rather what he ardently wishes would happen. He may be right, of course — but it is not like Israel was basking in the light of international favor before the leaks!

So in effect, the Guardian is saying, Thank heaven Israel will be forced to give back what the Palestinians conceded — that will surely lead to a more equitable result! (Though the Guardian also concedes that the chances for a deal are now dead in the water, thanks to their leak!)

Second, the fallout caused by the Guardian leak is that, in the short term, Palestinian negotiators will have to heed the calls of the street and be much less amenable to compromise than was demonstrated in the leaked papers. Why is it that private virtue and public vice deserve praise?

Again: in the established tradition of Arab leadership, privately held views can never be aired in public, because the public cannot take the truth. This is what the leaks show: Palestinian leaders — much like their Arab counterparts and their Palestinian predecessors — are prisoners of their own past lies and public rhetoric. What they might have agreed to in private has exploded in their faces once made public.

How then can one expect these talks to have ever come to fruition? Surely had the Palestinians and the Israelis signed such a deal, the reaction would have been the same — a rejection of the deal and the questioning the PA leadership’s legitimacy, as the Guardian has indeed done on Sunday.

The Guardian has then chosen to leak the papers with a goal – to discredit Israel and the Palestinian leadership at the same time, to peddle its own rejectionist agenda. And what exactly is this agenda? Today’s commentary on the leaks, titled, tellingly, “Papers reveal how Palestinian leaders gave up fight over refugees” by Seumus Milne and Ian Black, is worth quoting:

The documents have already become the focus of controversy among Israelis and Palestinians, revealing the scale of official Palestinian concessions rejected by Israel, but also throwing light on the huge imbalance of power in a peace process widely seen to have run into the sand.

Milne is an anti-imperialist firebrand, who has applauded “the resistance” against the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, trivialized the scale of Stalinist atrocities, repeatedly shilled for Hamas, and staunchly defended unrealistic Palestinian claims on refugees. In short, he’d be probably kicked out of the Nation for being too left-wing; but at the Guardian, he is the mainstream.

To him, the leaks are a wonderful opportunity to berate what appear to be much-needed Palestinian concessions for a viable agreement as a surrender to Israel and a betrayal of Palestinian rights.

The Guardian hates the revelations in these papers not because they supposedly show that Palestinian leaders were ready to make the necessary concessions for peace and that Israel was intransigent, but because it hates the fact that Palestinians must make any concessions if peace is ever to be achieved. That is why the real story behind the leaks is not the papers themselves but the Guardian’s agenda for leaking them.

The sanctimony of its articles since last weekend shows a contempt for the kinds of concessions that everyone knows are the necessary preconditions for a deal. Milne is flummoxed by the fact that the Palestinians would renounce the refugees’ claim to a right of return; his colleagues are fuming because Israeli settlements would be allowed to survive under Israeli sovereignty; the lead editorial on Sunday decried Hamas’s exclusion from negotiations; and they lament “the huge imbalance of power” between Israel and the Palestinians — something they wish would change in favor of the Palestinians so that it would be Israel, not the PA, that would have to concede.

The peace process may have been moribund, but surely, after this weekend’s leak, it is dead. The Guardian has just given it the coup de grace and is now busy taking credit for it.

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Lebanon: An Inflection Point for the Status Quo

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Read More

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle.

But the days when the Western navies had plenty of carriers to move around from crisis to crisis are behind us. Two carriers may be in the Mediterranean shortly, but not because they were urgently dispatched. Abraham Lincoln is tethered to our requirements in Southwest Asia; USS Enterprise, on the way to relieve Lincoln on-station, is transiting through the Mediterranean. Charles de Gaulle, France’s only aircraft carrier, has been scheduled since her deployment in October to return home in February.

NATO’s non-U.S. carrier force is razor thin. Charles de Gaulle’s departure from France last fall was marred by a breakdown that delayed this very rare deployment by several weeks. Britain, once a reliable dispatcher of aircraft carriers, is in worse shape: just this weekend, the Royal Navy sent its last fighter-jet carrier, HMS Ark Royal, to be decommissioned. Britain won’t have a carrier that can deploy fighter jets again until 2020. In this capability, Italy now outstrips Britain: the Italians have two carriers that can each transport eight Harrier jump-jets. Spain has one.

For the U.S., as for France, putting a carrier off Lebanon entails rigorously prioritizing crises: either leaving some unattended or accepting schedule gaps down the road. With enough effort, the U.S. and France could still seek to affect the outcome in Lebanon with an offshore show of force. But the regional expectation implied by the Arab press rumor — the sense that Western navies can easily bring overwhelming force to a crisis — is outdated today.

Margin and latitude in our force options are casualties of the extended post–Cold War drawdown. At a juncture evocative of previous dilemmas for U.S. presidents, Obama would do better to take his cue from Harry Truman in the late 1940s than from Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. One way or another, this crisis in Lebanon will have a disproportionate impact on the future.

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Politico Swallows New White House Spin on Israel

It’s a new year and a somewhat new crew running things at the White House, what with Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod gone, so it’s to be expected that we’re now getting a new spin about the Middle East from their successors. That’s the only way to interpret Ben Smith’s somewhat puzzling article in Politico today.

In the wake of the collapse of the administration’s last incompetent effort to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, there’s little question about the piece’s conclusion that the peace process is dead in the water. No one should be surprised that the president’s spin masters are attempting to absolve the president and his foreign-policy team of all blame for the Middle East failures that have marked their two years in office. But it is astonishing that Smith, who has been covering them during this period, has swallowed whole their absurd rewriting of the history of this period.

The main point of the piece seems to be that the White House is fed up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Smith, after two years of trying to “give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt as a prospective peace partner,” they’ve had it with him. Netanyahu’s “intransigence,” Smith writes, is chiefly responsible for the collapse of American diplomacy, though he — and his highly placed sources — concedes that the feckless Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is no better. The conclusion is that Obama is giving up on the whole thing, since the chances “of a personal alliance growing between the Israeli leader and President Barack Obama to be just about zero.”

This makes for a neat narrative designed to make Obama look good, but only rings true if you haven’t been paying the slightest attention to U.S.-Israel relations since January 2009.

Contrary to Smith, if there has been one consistent point about the administration’s attitude toward Israel during this period, it has been its hostility to Netanyahu. From the start, Obama, who prior to his election claimed to be all right with Israel but not with Netanyahu’s Likud Party, showed his dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Israeli vote in February 2009. Rather than seek a common strategy to revive a peace process that had crashed in 2008, when Abbas refused Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert’s offer of a Palestinian state, Obama was determined to create some distance between the United States and Israel. Though the Palestinians had already conceded that most Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem would stay under Israeli control even as they rejected Israel’s offer of peace, Obama drew a new line in the sand. The president demanded that Israel freeze all building, even in areas — like Jerusalem — where everyone knew that Israel would not retreat even in the event of peace. Finding themselves outflanked, the Palestinians had to similarly dig in their heels, and the last two years of failed attempts to get them back to the negotiating table were the inevitable result. Read More

It’s a new year and a somewhat new crew running things at the White House, what with Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod gone, so it’s to be expected that we’re now getting a new spin about the Middle East from their successors. That’s the only way to interpret Ben Smith’s somewhat puzzling article in Politico today.

In the wake of the collapse of the administration’s last incompetent effort to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, there’s little question about the piece’s conclusion that the peace process is dead in the water. No one should be surprised that the president’s spin masters are attempting to absolve the president and his foreign-policy team of all blame for the Middle East failures that have marked their two years in office. But it is astonishing that Smith, who has been covering them during this period, has swallowed whole their absurd rewriting of the history of this period.

The main point of the piece seems to be that the White House is fed up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Smith, after two years of trying to “give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt as a prospective peace partner,” they’ve had it with him. Netanyahu’s “intransigence,” Smith writes, is chiefly responsible for the collapse of American diplomacy, though he — and his highly placed sources — concedes that the feckless Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is no better. The conclusion is that Obama is giving up on the whole thing, since the chances “of a personal alliance growing between the Israeli leader and President Barack Obama to be just about zero.”

This makes for a neat narrative designed to make Obama look good, but only rings true if you haven’t been paying the slightest attention to U.S.-Israel relations since January 2009.

Contrary to Smith, if there has been one consistent point about the administration’s attitude toward Israel during this period, it has been its hostility to Netanyahu. From the start, Obama, who prior to his election claimed to be all right with Israel but not with Netanyahu’s Likud Party, showed his dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Israeli vote in February 2009. Rather than seek a common strategy to revive a peace process that had crashed in 2008, when Abbas refused Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert’s offer of a Palestinian state, Obama was determined to create some distance between the United States and Israel. Though the Palestinians had already conceded that most Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem would stay under Israeli control even as they rejected Israel’s offer of peace, Obama drew a new line in the sand. The president demanded that Israel freeze all building, even in areas — like Jerusalem — where everyone knew that Israel would not retreat even in the event of peace. Finding themselves outflanked, the Palestinians had to similarly dig in their heels, and the last two years of failed attempts to get them back to the negotiating table were the inevitable result.

Obama’s first attempts to outmaneuver Netanyahu seemed to be based on a foolish hope that the prime minister would be forced into a coalition with the American favorite Tzipi Livni or out of office altogether. Rather than being weakened by this, Netanyahu gained strength. In the spring of 2010, Obama tried again when he deliberately picked a fight with Israel over the construction of new homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The White House and the State Department subjected Netanyahu to an unprecedented campaign of abuse, but the result was no different than their previous efforts. Soon Obama was forced to back down and resort to a charm offensive aimed at damping down criticism from American Jews.

Rather than take responsibility for their own mistakes and the president’s relentless hostility to Netanyahu — whose grip on his parliamentary majority is stronger than ever — all we’re getting from the White House is more negative spin about Israel. But in order to believe a word of it, you’ve got to be afflicted with the sort of short-term memory loss that is the premise of Ben Smith’s article.

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Bringing Change to Foreign Policy

At his Council on Foreign Relations blog, Elliott Abrams notes that Obama’s “engagement” policy suffers from an inherent contradiction:

[H]e believes in the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council [HRC], in treaties like the NPT and START, in the IAEA, in multilateral cooperation. But the regimes with which he wishes to engage do not, so that Asad tries to ruin the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear program threatens to destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA. The president is in this sense in the position of those who for decades sought “world peace” primarily by engaging with the Soviet Union, which did not share that goal.

So the question for the next two years is whether the president will remain wedded to policies that cannot achieve his stated goals.

In the prior Congress, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee cheered on the Obama engagement policy — at one point writing to all 435 House members that “sustained engagement” with the HRC (and UNESCO) had “reaped important dividends” for the U.S. and Israel, proving that “engagement works.” He cited the “hard-fought” victory to keep Iran off the HRC. The next month, the HRC voted 32-to-3 to condemn Israel (again) in harsh language, and then called for an “investigation” to prove what it had just condemned; the State Department spokesman responded that the U.S. had only one vote on the HRC but would continue to “engage.”

The new Congress may require the administration to start changing its policy. In “A Short United Nations To-Do List for the New Congress,” written after the November election, Heritage Foundation fellow Brett Schaefer recommended, among other steps, withholding funds from the HRC, since it has “proved to be no better — and in some ways, worse — than the commission it replaced”:

The Obama Administration engaged the HRC believing that the U.S. would be able to improve the HRC from within. Unfortunately, the performance of the HRC with the U.S. as a member has been virtually indistinguishable from its performance absent U.S. membership.

Next Tuesday, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will chair a full-committee hearing on “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action.” The lead-off witness will be Brett Schaefer.

At his Council on Foreign Relations blog, Elliott Abrams notes that Obama’s “engagement” policy suffers from an inherent contradiction:

[H]e believes in the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council [HRC], in treaties like the NPT and START, in the IAEA, in multilateral cooperation. But the regimes with which he wishes to engage do not, so that Asad tries to ruin the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear program threatens to destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA. The president is in this sense in the position of those who for decades sought “world peace” primarily by engaging with the Soviet Union, which did not share that goal.

So the question for the next two years is whether the president will remain wedded to policies that cannot achieve his stated goals.

In the prior Congress, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee cheered on the Obama engagement policy — at one point writing to all 435 House members that “sustained engagement” with the HRC (and UNESCO) had “reaped important dividends” for the U.S. and Israel, proving that “engagement works.” He cited the “hard-fought” victory to keep Iran off the HRC. The next month, the HRC voted 32-to-3 to condemn Israel (again) in harsh language, and then called for an “investigation” to prove what it had just condemned; the State Department spokesman responded that the U.S. had only one vote on the HRC but would continue to “engage.”

The new Congress may require the administration to start changing its policy. In “A Short United Nations To-Do List for the New Congress,” written after the November election, Heritage Foundation fellow Brett Schaefer recommended, among other steps, withholding funds from the HRC, since it has “proved to be no better — and in some ways, worse — than the commission it replaced”:

The Obama Administration engaged the HRC believing that the U.S. would be able to improve the HRC from within. Unfortunately, the performance of the HRC with the U.S. as a member has been virtually indistinguishable from its performance absent U.S. membership.

Next Tuesday, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will chair a full-committee hearing on “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action.” The lead-off witness will be Brett Schaefer.

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The Ninth Step

President Obama has recently taken eight steps toward the right. As Peter noted yesterday, Romesh Ponnuru listed six: (1) the tax deal; (2) selecting Bill Daley as chief of staff; (3) absolving conservatives of murder in Tucson; (4) having Joe Biden project involvement in Afghanistan beyond 2014; (5) reviewing burdensome federal regulations; (6) authorizing Hillary Clinton’s new line on human rights in China. Ira Stoll identified two more: (7) appointing the Democratic Leadership Council’s Bruce Reed as Biden’s chief of staff; (8) Clinton’s pressuring Arabs on democratic reform, in a manner reminiscent of the Bush administration.

Let’s add a ninth: opposition to a UN resolution on Israeli settlements.

Ponnuru argued that Obama’s six moves are merely a “tactical and temporary” move to the center — a description that might also describe the seventh and eighth. Let’s consider whether it applies to the ninth.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley repeatedly answered questions yesterday by saying that the UN was not the place for the issues to be addressed — a position that will require a U.S. veto of any proposed resolution, even if the Palestinians continue their efforts to refine the language, since the language is irrelevant if the UN is not the proper forum to begin with:

QUESTION: …why are you opposed to the UN adopting a resolution that isn’t — that supports existing U.S. policy?

MR. CROWLEY: We believe that the best path forward is through the ongoing effort that gets the parties into direct negotiations, resolves the issues through a framework agreement, and ends the conflict once and for all. Read More

President Obama has recently taken eight steps toward the right. As Peter noted yesterday, Romesh Ponnuru listed six: (1) the tax deal; (2) selecting Bill Daley as chief of staff; (3) absolving conservatives of murder in Tucson; (4) having Joe Biden project involvement in Afghanistan beyond 2014; (5) reviewing burdensome federal regulations; (6) authorizing Hillary Clinton’s new line on human rights in China. Ira Stoll identified two more: (7) appointing the Democratic Leadership Council’s Bruce Reed as Biden’s chief of staff; (8) Clinton’s pressuring Arabs on democratic reform, in a manner reminiscent of the Bush administration.

Let’s add a ninth: opposition to a UN resolution on Israeli settlements.

Ponnuru argued that Obama’s six moves are merely a “tactical and temporary” move to the center — a description that might also describe the seventh and eighth. Let’s consider whether it applies to the ninth.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley repeatedly answered questions yesterday by saying that the UN was not the place for the issues to be addressed — a position that will require a U.S. veto of any proposed resolution, even if the Palestinians continue their efforts to refine the language, since the language is irrelevant if the UN is not the proper forum to begin with:

QUESTION: …why are you opposed to the UN adopting a resolution that isn’t — that supports existing U.S. policy?

MR. CROWLEY: We believe that the best path forward is through the ongoing effort that gets the parties into direct negotiations, resolves the issues through a framework agreement, and ends the conflict once and for all.

QUESTION: So it’s not the contents that you’re opposed to; it’s simply the idea of a resolution.

MR. CROWLEY: We do not think that the UN Security Council is the best place to address these issues.

QUESTION: Can I ask why? Because, I mean, the UN is where Israel was created, basically. Why is the UN not the place to deal with these issues?

MR. CROWLEY: These are complex issues, and we think they’re best resolved through direct negotiations, not through the unilateral declarations, even if those unilateral declarations come in the form of a multilateral setting.

Asked to specify a productive step forward, Crowley repeated the goal of a framework agreement produced by direct negotiations and said the administration was working on it:

QUESTION: But that’s been going on for the past two years.

MR. CROWLEY: I understand that.

QUESTION: And if you’re talking about productive steps —

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s been going on for longer than that if — (laughter)

QUESTION: Well, this Administration, it’s been going on for the last two years. And if you’re talking about productive steps, certainly that process hasn’t produced anything.

MR. CROWLEY: You’re leading to a kind of a glass half full, glass half empty kind of discussion.

QUESTION: Well, yeah, except that the glass doesn’t have any water in it at all. (Laughter)

There are two possible explanations for the administration’s position: (1) a tactical and temporary move to the center, by a shellacked president anxious to avoid a confrontation with Israel before the 2012 presidential election; (2) a realization that focusing on Israeli settlements, without comparable concessions from either Palestinians or Arab states, is a failed strategy — and a UN resolution is not going to put any water in the glass.

The Palestinians, with their two-year strategy of avoiding negotiations (even after Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech; even after the settlement moratorium; even after repeated U.S. attempts to drag them to the table), have driven the peace process into a ditch. Unwilling to recognize a Jewish state or make the concessions necessary to get a Palestinian one, they want others to act while they stand by drinking slurpees.

Whether because of politics or policy, or both, the administration seems to realize this.

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Is HSBC Doing Damage Control at State Department After Pro-Iran Ad?

It looks like HSBC may be doing a bit of damage control in Foggy Bottom after its pro-Iran ad campaign sparked criticism from the media and foreign-policy experts. The bank’s controversial advertisement was discussed at a private meeting between HSBC CEO Niall Booker and Jose Fernandez, assistant secretary for economic energy and business affairs, at the State Department on Monday, a source familiar with the conversation told me.

HSBC’s spokesperson Robert Sherman declined to comment directly on whether the recent ad flap played a part in the discussion, saying only that “We have ongoing meetings with officials, sometimes at our request. This meeting was scheduled before the Iran ad articles.”

The ad in question claimed that “Only 4% of American films are made by women. In Iran it’s 25%,” and noted that the bank finds “potential in unexpected places.” Some interpreted this to mean that HSBC was pursuing investment opportunities in Iran, but the bank denied that was the ad’s intent.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin reported on Dec. 26 that the bank has recently “drawn the attention of various regulators” and is currently “being probed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Regulators at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago also reportedly “found that the bank’s compliance program was ineffective and created ‘significant potential’ for money laundering and terrorist financing. This opened HSBC to the possibility that it was conducting transactions on behalf of sanctioned entities.”

While HSBC has already pulled the offending advertisement, it makes sense that it would want to smooth things over with the State Department. The department has been a vocal critic of the Iranian regime’s oppressive treatment of women and disregard for human rights, and it’s easy to see how the ad could have ruffled some feathers there.

It looks like HSBC may be doing a bit of damage control in Foggy Bottom after its pro-Iran ad campaign sparked criticism from the media and foreign-policy experts. The bank’s controversial advertisement was discussed at a private meeting between HSBC CEO Niall Booker and Jose Fernandez, assistant secretary for economic energy and business affairs, at the State Department on Monday, a source familiar with the conversation told me.

HSBC’s spokesperson Robert Sherman declined to comment directly on whether the recent ad flap played a part in the discussion, saying only that “We have ongoing meetings with officials, sometimes at our request. This meeting was scheduled before the Iran ad articles.”

The ad in question claimed that “Only 4% of American films are made by women. In Iran it’s 25%,” and noted that the bank finds “potential in unexpected places.” Some interpreted this to mean that HSBC was pursuing investment opportunities in Iran, but the bank denied that was the ad’s intent.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin reported on Dec. 26 that the bank has recently “drawn the attention of various regulators” and is currently “being probed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Regulators at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago also reportedly “found that the bank’s compliance program was ineffective and created ‘significant potential’ for money laundering and terrorist financing. This opened HSBC to the possibility that it was conducting transactions on behalf of sanctioned entities.”

While HSBC has already pulled the offending advertisement, it makes sense that it would want to smooth things over with the State Department. The department has been a vocal critic of the Iranian regime’s oppressive treatment of women and disregard for human rights, and it’s easy to see how the ad could have ruffled some feathers there.

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Israel’s Opposition Leader Puts Politics Before Pollard

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni hit a new low yesterday when she ordered her Knesset faction to vote against a letter from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging President Barack Obama to pardon Jonathan Pollard — and then had the nerve to take the podium and declare: “I will not turn Pollard into a political issue. We will give our support to every effort to free him.”

Ever since Pollard’s 1985 arrest for spying on Israel’s behalf, successive Israeli governments have quietly sought a pardon for him. Never before, however, has Israel publicly appealed for his release.

But if there was ever any chance of Obama granting this request, Livni has just killed it by her disgraceful show of partisanship. After all, the Obama administration has made no secret of its preference for Livni over Netanyahu: see, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s ostentatious hour-long meeting with Livni at the State Department last month, even as she allotted only 30 minutes in a side room of the Saban Forum that same weekend to the government’s representative, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Thus Obama is highly unlikely to do anything that could be perceived as a victory for Netanyahu over Livni.

Had Livni’s faction backed the letter in the vote that Kadima itself requested, this wouldn’t be an issue: it would be clear that Netanyahu’s request was backed by a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus. But now that claim is impossible. By its vote, Kadima has made it clear that it views freeing Pollard as a lower priority than scoring points off Netanyahu. Livni’s assertion of support for “every effort to free him” is worse than meaningless when her party has just torpedoed the one serious effort actually in train.

This isn’t the first time Livni has displayed gross irresponsibility as opposition leader. Her joint interview to ABC with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad last month, at which the two of them teamed up to blame Netanyahu for the lack of progress in the peace process, was also a new low. I can’t remember any previous Israeli opposition leader staging a joint press conference with an adversary in order to smear her own country to the American public — especially when said adversary, rather than her government, is the one who has actually been refusing to negotiate for the past two years.

But at least there she attacked Netanyahu over an issue on which they ostensibly disagreed. In the Pollard vote, Livni sabotaged him over an issue on which they ostensibly agreed.

The pity is that Livni actually began her stint as opposition leader by demonstrating impressive national responsibility. Unfortunately, the statesmanlike veneer didn’t last long.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni hit a new low yesterday when she ordered her Knesset faction to vote against a letter from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging President Barack Obama to pardon Jonathan Pollard — and then had the nerve to take the podium and declare: “I will not turn Pollard into a political issue. We will give our support to every effort to free him.”

Ever since Pollard’s 1985 arrest for spying on Israel’s behalf, successive Israeli governments have quietly sought a pardon for him. Never before, however, has Israel publicly appealed for his release.

But if there was ever any chance of Obama granting this request, Livni has just killed it by her disgraceful show of partisanship. After all, the Obama administration has made no secret of its preference for Livni over Netanyahu: see, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s ostentatious hour-long meeting with Livni at the State Department last month, even as she allotted only 30 minutes in a side room of the Saban Forum that same weekend to the government’s representative, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Thus Obama is highly unlikely to do anything that could be perceived as a victory for Netanyahu over Livni.

Had Livni’s faction backed the letter in the vote that Kadima itself requested, this wouldn’t be an issue: it would be clear that Netanyahu’s request was backed by a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus. But now that claim is impossible. By its vote, Kadima has made it clear that it views freeing Pollard as a lower priority than scoring points off Netanyahu. Livni’s assertion of support for “every effort to free him” is worse than meaningless when her party has just torpedoed the one serious effort actually in train.

This isn’t the first time Livni has displayed gross irresponsibility as opposition leader. Her joint interview to ABC with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad last month, at which the two of them teamed up to blame Netanyahu for the lack of progress in the peace process, was also a new low. I can’t remember any previous Israeli opposition leader staging a joint press conference with an adversary in order to smear her own country to the American public — especially when said adversary, rather than her government, is the one who has actually been refusing to negotiate for the past two years.

But at least there she attacked Netanyahu over an issue on which they ostensibly disagreed. In the Pollard vote, Livni sabotaged him over an issue on which they ostensibly agreed.

The pity is that Livni actually began her stint as opposition leader by demonstrating impressive national responsibility. Unfortunately, the statesmanlike veneer didn’t last long.

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Morning Commentary

It looks like President Obama has finally found some backbone in his diplomatic spat with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president rejected the U.S.’s choice for ambassador to Caracas and dared Obama to cut diplomatic ties with the country. Today Obama responded by kicking the Venezuelan ambassador out of the U.S.

Americans are still displaying a lack of confidence in both political parties, according to a new poll released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. While pundits from all parts of the political spectrum have lauded President Obama’s successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, a plurality of Americans remains skeptical about the president’s ability to push his policies, according to the survey. And even though a majority of the public agrees that GOP control of the House will benefit the country, that optimism isn’t necessarily due to increased trust in the Republican Party. Only a quarter believe that the Republicans will do a better job running Congress than the Democrats.

The U.S. State Department has come out strongly against the Palestinian Authority’s newest effort to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, suggesting that the Palestinians may be alienating the best friend they’ve had in the White House for years. However, State Department officials still haven’t commented specifically on whether the U.S. would veto the resolution.

The Huffington Post reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans has soared to “over 50 million.” But is that really the case? At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey H. Anderson notes that the numbers come from a recent report published by the Census Bureau, which even the bureau has admitted was largely inaccurate: “The Census report also admits within its own pages that recognition of its inaccuracy led to ‘a research project to evaluate why CPS ASEC estimates of the number of people with Medicaid are lower than counts of the number of people enrolled in the program from CMS’ — in other words, to evaluate why the CPS ASEC lists millions of Americans as being uninsured while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicaid and keeps the official tally of enrollees, says that these people are on Medicaid.”

Islamists are apparently still having trouble getting over that Danish Mohammed cartoon from six years ago. Five terror suspects were arrested in Denmark and Sweden yesterday for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper headquarters, which published the cartoon in 2005.

With the rest of the world unwilling to combat the growing problem of Somali pirates, the transitional federal government of Somalia has finally taken the problem into its own hands by creating a paramilitary force to fight piracy. Sources say that the militia is being funded by donors in Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Ron Radosh joins the growing ranks of writers criticizing New Yorker editor David Remnick’s hostile rant against Israel last week. Radosh also highlights the insidious anti-Israel sentiment among today’s liberal Jewish intellectuals: “Today’s New York intellectuals are a pale imitation of their ancestors. The original group had a fidelity to the truth, and to bold assertions  they believed to be true, regardless of whom they offended. Today’s group, of which Remnick is most typical, runs to join their fellow leftist herd of no longer independent minds in Britain, assuring them of their loyalty to the influential [among] journalists and opinion makers, and if they are Jewish, making their assurance known by joining in the stampede to dissociate themselves from defense of Israel.” Jonathan Tobin discussed Remnick’s Israel problem in CONTENTIONS on Sunday.

It looks like President Obama has finally found some backbone in his diplomatic spat with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president rejected the U.S.’s choice for ambassador to Caracas and dared Obama to cut diplomatic ties with the country. Today Obama responded by kicking the Venezuelan ambassador out of the U.S.

Americans are still displaying a lack of confidence in both political parties, according to a new poll released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. While pundits from all parts of the political spectrum have lauded President Obama’s successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, a plurality of Americans remains skeptical about the president’s ability to push his policies, according to the survey. And even though a majority of the public agrees that GOP control of the House will benefit the country, that optimism isn’t necessarily due to increased trust in the Republican Party. Only a quarter believe that the Republicans will do a better job running Congress than the Democrats.

The U.S. State Department has come out strongly against the Palestinian Authority’s newest effort to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, suggesting that the Palestinians may be alienating the best friend they’ve had in the White House for years. However, State Department officials still haven’t commented specifically on whether the U.S. would veto the resolution.

The Huffington Post reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans has soared to “over 50 million.” But is that really the case? At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey H. Anderson notes that the numbers come from a recent report published by the Census Bureau, which even the bureau has admitted was largely inaccurate: “The Census report also admits within its own pages that recognition of its inaccuracy led to ‘a research project to evaluate why CPS ASEC estimates of the number of people with Medicaid are lower than counts of the number of people enrolled in the program from CMS’ — in other words, to evaluate why the CPS ASEC lists millions of Americans as being uninsured while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicaid and keeps the official tally of enrollees, says that these people are on Medicaid.”

Islamists are apparently still having trouble getting over that Danish Mohammed cartoon from six years ago. Five terror suspects were arrested in Denmark and Sweden yesterday for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper headquarters, which published the cartoon in 2005.

With the rest of the world unwilling to combat the growing problem of Somali pirates, the transitional federal government of Somalia has finally taken the problem into its own hands by creating a paramilitary force to fight piracy. Sources say that the militia is being funded by donors in Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Ron Radosh joins the growing ranks of writers criticizing New Yorker editor David Remnick’s hostile rant against Israel last week. Radosh also highlights the insidious anti-Israel sentiment among today’s liberal Jewish intellectuals: “Today’s New York intellectuals are a pale imitation of their ancestors. The original group had a fidelity to the truth, and to bold assertions  they believed to be true, regardless of whom they offended. Today’s group, of which Remnick is most typical, runs to join their fellow leftist herd of no longer independent minds in Britain, assuring them of their loyalty to the influential [among] journalists and opinion makers, and if they are Jewish, making their assurance known by joining in the stampede to dissociate themselves from defense of Israel.” Jonathan Tobin discussed Remnick’s Israel problem in CONTENTIONS on Sunday.

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RE: Palestinians’ UN Gambit Puts Both Israel and Obama on the Spot

The Associated Press has published excerpts from the Palestinians’ draft resolution; it seeks a declaration that Israeli settlements are “illegal” and a “major obstacle” to peace, and demands that settlement activities cease “immediately and completely.” The gambit should put the Palestinians on the spot.

As Jonathan noted, the asserted illegality has no foundation in international law. Nor have settlements been a “major obstacle” to peace, since notwithstanding them, Israel has made repeated offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the West Bank. In 2005, Israel removed every settlement from Gaza, only to have the Palestinian Authority turn it into Hamastan in one week. In 2009, Israel declared a 10-month West Bank construction moratorium (more than enough time to negotiate still another offer of a state, since Abbas asserted it would take only six months); George Mitchell repeatedly warned the Palestinians that the moratorium would not be extended, yet they had to be dragged to the table in the ninth month, and then left it at the end of the tenth.

The Gaza experience in 2005, the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s offer of a state on 100 percent of the West Bank (after land swaps) in 2008, the Palestinian refusal to negotiate during the 2009-10 moratorium, and now the attempted UN diversion all demonstrate that the problem is not the settlements but the Palestinians.

Settlements are a final-status issue under the Roadmap, to be negotiated in good faith. Asked yesterday about the potential Palestinian push for a UN resolution, the State Department spokesman said:

We believe, fundamentally, that direct negotiations are the only path through which the parties will ultimately reach the framework agreement that is our goal, our mutual goal. And final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties and not by recourse to the UN Security Council, so we’ve consistently opposed any attempt to take these kinds of issues to the Council. [emphasis added]

Asked yesterday if the U.S. would exercise its veto, the State Department spokesman said that “it’s a hypothetical at this point … but I think I made our position pretty clear.” If the Palestinians proceed with their end-run resolution, they will force the U.S. to make that position even clearer, assuming the italicized words matter.

The Associated Press has published excerpts from the Palestinians’ draft resolution; it seeks a declaration that Israeli settlements are “illegal” and a “major obstacle” to peace, and demands that settlement activities cease “immediately and completely.” The gambit should put the Palestinians on the spot.

As Jonathan noted, the asserted illegality has no foundation in international law. Nor have settlements been a “major obstacle” to peace, since notwithstanding them, Israel has made repeated offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the West Bank. In 2005, Israel removed every settlement from Gaza, only to have the Palestinian Authority turn it into Hamastan in one week. In 2009, Israel declared a 10-month West Bank construction moratorium (more than enough time to negotiate still another offer of a state, since Abbas asserted it would take only six months); George Mitchell repeatedly warned the Palestinians that the moratorium would not be extended, yet they had to be dragged to the table in the ninth month, and then left it at the end of the tenth.

The Gaza experience in 2005, the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s offer of a state on 100 percent of the West Bank (after land swaps) in 2008, the Palestinian refusal to negotiate during the 2009-10 moratorium, and now the attempted UN diversion all demonstrate that the problem is not the settlements but the Palestinians.

Settlements are a final-status issue under the Roadmap, to be negotiated in good faith. Asked yesterday about the potential Palestinian push for a UN resolution, the State Department spokesman said:

We believe, fundamentally, that direct negotiations are the only path through which the parties will ultimately reach the framework agreement that is our goal, our mutual goal. And final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties and not by recourse to the UN Security Council, so we’ve consistently opposed any attempt to take these kinds of issues to the Council. [emphasis added]

Asked yesterday if the U.S. would exercise its veto, the State Department spokesman said that “it’s a hypothetical at this point … but I think I made our position pretty clear.” If the Palestinians proceed with their end-run resolution, they will force the U.S. to make that position even clearer, assuming the italicized words matter.

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Morning Commentary

It looks like concerns over al-Qaeda wave attacks throughout Europe during the holiday season were justified. Nine men have been charged in connection to a British bomb plot today, just days after Dutch officials also arrested a dozen terrorism suspects: “In recent days, European concerns over terrorism have also seemed to mount after a suicide attack in Sweden by a British resident, a number of terrorism arrests in Spain and France, and other alarms in Germany over fears of a terrorism attack modeled on the 2008 Mumbai killings. The alerts have been given added weight by a warning in October from the State Department in Washington, cautioning of reports of a planned attack in a European city.”

Under mounting public pressure, King County officials have rejected the anti-Israel ads that were set to run on city buses. But it looks like the controversy may continue, as anti-Israel activists promise to fight the decision. [Correction: This post originally reported that Seattle officials rejected the metro bus ads, but the decision was made by King County officials. We apologize for any confusion.]

Under mounting public pressure, Seattle officials have rejected the anti-Israel ads that were set to run on city buses. But it looks like the controversy may continue, as anti-Israel activists promise to fight the decision.

Yesterday, the Iranian government halted the execution of a Kurdish student, but there are some indications that the death sentence may be imminent. Several of the student’s family members were reportedly arrested late last night, and the Internet and phone services have slowed noticeably in his home city.

A New York Times reporter gives a rare account of daily life in North Korea, where government officials are trying to boost the economy in preparation for the 2012 centennial of Kim Il-Sung’s birth.

Amir Taheri takes aim at the misguided argument that Iraq is simply a vessel state for the Iranian government. He points out that the money Iran poured into the recent Iraqi elections failed to translate into political power, and also notes that the Iraqi government refused to attend a political conference in Tehran: “The new Iraqi government represents a victory for all those who reject both Islamism and pan-Arabism as outdated ideologies. The biggest winners are those who assert Uruqua (Iraqi-ness) and ta’adudiyah (pluralism.) Today, one can claim that the Iraqi government is the most pluralist anywhere in the Arab world, with elected figures from all of Iraq’s 18 ethnic and religious communities. It includes representatives from 12 blocs formed by 66 parties.”

It looks like concerns over al-Qaeda wave attacks throughout Europe during the holiday season were justified. Nine men have been charged in connection to a British bomb plot today, just days after Dutch officials also arrested a dozen terrorism suspects: “In recent days, European concerns over terrorism have also seemed to mount after a suicide attack in Sweden by a British resident, a number of terrorism arrests in Spain and France, and other alarms in Germany over fears of a terrorism attack modeled on the 2008 Mumbai killings. The alerts have been given added weight by a warning in October from the State Department in Washington, cautioning of reports of a planned attack in a European city.”

Under mounting public pressure, King County officials have rejected the anti-Israel ads that were set to run on city buses. But it looks like the controversy may continue, as anti-Israel activists promise to fight the decision. [Correction: This post originally reported that Seattle officials rejected the metro bus ads, but the decision was made by King County officials. We apologize for any confusion.]

Under mounting public pressure, Seattle officials have rejected the anti-Israel ads that were set to run on city buses. But it looks like the controversy may continue, as anti-Israel activists promise to fight the decision.

Yesterday, the Iranian government halted the execution of a Kurdish student, but there are some indications that the death sentence may be imminent. Several of the student’s family members were reportedly arrested late last night, and the Internet and phone services have slowed noticeably in his home city.

A New York Times reporter gives a rare account of daily life in North Korea, where government officials are trying to boost the economy in preparation for the 2012 centennial of Kim Il-Sung’s birth.

Amir Taheri takes aim at the misguided argument that Iraq is simply a vessel state for the Iranian government. He points out that the money Iran poured into the recent Iraqi elections failed to translate into political power, and also notes that the Iraqi government refused to attend a political conference in Tehran: “The new Iraqi government represents a victory for all those who reject both Islamism and pan-Arabism as outdated ideologies. The biggest winners are those who assert Uruqua (Iraqi-ness) and ta’adudiyah (pluralism.) Today, one can claim that the Iraqi government is the most pluralist anywhere in the Arab world, with elected figures from all of Iraq’s 18 ethnic and religious communities. It includes representatives from 12 blocs formed by 66 parties.”

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Cut and Run Was No Strategy for Iraq and Isn’t One for Afghanistan

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written in the Wall Street Journal that we should “un-surge” in Afghanistan. While arguing against total withdrawal, he says “the U.S. effort there should be sharply reduced.”

Mr. Haass’s recommendation on Afghanistan sounds similar to his (flawed) recommendation on Iraq during the debate about the surge.

In a November 13, 2006, interview with Der Spiegel, Haass said: “We’ve reached a point in Iraq where we’ve got to get real. … The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word ‘winnable.’ So what we need to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, try to advance on other fronts in the region and try to limit the fallout of Iraq. That’s what you have to do sometimes when you’re a global power.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, Haass said, “It’s not clear to me that even if you double the level of American troops you would somehow stabilize the situation [in Iraq].”

And on December 10, 2006, on NBC’s Meet the Press, he said this:

I would perhaps do it for a short amount of time, a surge, as part, again, of this narrative, as part of saying, “We’ve gone the extra mile.” I want to take away the arguments, quite honestly, from the critics of the [Iraq Study Group] report. I want to take away the argument that if Iraq turns out as badly as I fear it might, I want to take away the argument that it was because of what we didn’t do. If Iraq doesn’t work, I think it’s incredibly important for the future of the Middle East and for the future of American foreign policy around the world that the principle lesson not be that the United States is unreliable or we lacked staying power. “If only we’d done a little bit more for a little bit longer it would’ve succeeded.” To me, it is essentially important for the future of this country that Iraq be seen, if you will, as Iraq’s failure, not as America’s failure.

So Haass supported a temporary surge in Iraq not because he thought it would work but in order to place the blame on the Iraqis when it failed. There was a notably amoral quality to Haass’s recommendation (the realpolitik Haass might accept this as a compliment). Read More

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written in the Wall Street Journal that we should “un-surge” in Afghanistan. While arguing against total withdrawal, he says “the U.S. effort there should be sharply reduced.”

Mr. Haass’s recommendation on Afghanistan sounds similar to his (flawed) recommendation on Iraq during the debate about the surge.

In a November 13, 2006, interview with Der Spiegel, Haass said: “We’ve reached a point in Iraq where we’ve got to get real. … The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word ‘winnable.’ So what we need to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, try to advance on other fronts in the region and try to limit the fallout of Iraq. That’s what you have to do sometimes when you’re a global power.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, Haass said, “It’s not clear to me that even if you double the level of American troops you would somehow stabilize the situation [in Iraq].”

And on December 10, 2006, on NBC’s Meet the Press, he said this:

I would perhaps do it for a short amount of time, a surge, as part, again, of this narrative, as part of saying, “We’ve gone the extra mile.” I want to take away the arguments, quite honestly, from the critics of the [Iraq Study Group] report. I want to take away the argument that if Iraq turns out as badly as I fear it might, I want to take away the argument that it was because of what we didn’t do. If Iraq doesn’t work, I think it’s incredibly important for the future of the Middle East and for the future of American foreign policy around the world that the principle lesson not be that the United States is unreliable or we lacked staying power. “If only we’d done a little bit more for a little bit longer it would’ve succeeded.” To me, it is essentially important for the future of this country that Iraq be seen, if you will, as Iraq’s failure, not as America’s failure.

So Haass supported a temporary surge in Iraq not because he thought it would work but in order to place the blame on the Iraqis when it failed. There was a notably amoral quality to Haass’s recommendation (the realpolitik Haass might accept this as a compliment).

In his Journal op-ed arguing for undoing the surge in Afghanistan, Haass lays out the “broader reasons to recast policy.” They include:

The greatest threat to U.S. national security stems from our own fiscal crisis. Afghanistan is a significant contributor to this situation and could play an important role in reducing it. A savings of $75 billion a year could help finance much-needed military modernization and reduce the deficit.

Another factor is the increased possibility of a conflict with a reckless North Korea and the continued possibility of a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. U.S. military forces must be freed up to contend with these issues. The perception that we are tied down in Afghanistan makes it more difficult to threaten North Korea or Iran credibly—and makes it more difficult to muster the forces to deal with either if necessary.

Haass’s somewhat novel argument, then, is that in order to preserve our capacity to wage future wars, we should lose (in the guise of de-escalation) our current ones. He doesn’t take into account that retreating in Afghanistan would be (rightly) interpreted by nations like Iran and North Korea as weakness on the part of America, thereby emboldening our adversaries. And nowhere does Haass explain how his recommended offshore counterterrorism strategy would work, since credible counterterrorism strikes depend on good intelligence, which is best gathered by ground forces that enjoy the trust of the local population. If we pull out our troops, we lose even that capacity.

One cannot help but suspect that Haass has arrived at a position based on a theory he holds to with dogmatic certitude and has gone in search of arguments to support it. This may explain why Haass is forced to mimic David Stockman on the deficit and Richard Perle on Iran. It’s not a terribly persuasive pose.

Mr. Haass concludes his op-ed this way:

Ultimately Afghanistan is a strategic distraction. U.S. interests there are limited. So, too, are the resources available for national security. It is not surprising that the commander in the field, Gen. David Petraeus, is calling for committing greater resources to the theater. But it is the commander-in-chief’s responsibility to take into account the nation’s capacity to meet all of its challenges, national and international. It is for this reason that the perspectives of Gen. Petraeus and President Obama must necessarily diverge.

The notion that Afghanistan is nothing more than a “strategic distraction” is not terribly serious. Events of the past decade have turned it into something very much more than that.

Defeat there would have profound, negative effects on, among other nations, nuclear-armed Pakistan. While it’s obviously true that events in Afghanistan don’t have unlimited effects on Pakistan, Haass’s insistence that they are almost completely unrelated will come as news to the Pakistani government and virtually everyone else in the region. The capitulation of the United States and the fall of the existing government in a neighboring state, Afghanistan, would have significant ramifications in Pakistan. It would be an enormously important psychological victory for jihadists and the Taliban. Islamists all over the world would assume that if they wait long enough, the U.S. will cut out and move on. And defeat in Afghanistan would have baleful consequences for the people, and especially the women, of Afghanistan (though that dimension of this issue doesn’t appear to enter into Haass’s calculus at all).

When it comes to both military planning and strategic thinking, General Petraeus is simply in a different league than Mr. Haass. The four-star general and Princeton Ph.D. has proved himself to be far wiser, more prescient, and more knowledgeable than the former State Department official. Which is why I’m thankful that America’s 44th president, like America’s 43rd president, is listening to David Petraeus rather than to Richard Haass.

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