Commentary Magazine


Topic: East Germany

Obama Needs a Korea Strategy Focused on Liberation, Not Engagement

It’s fascinating to see the ideological blinders slipping a bit in the Obama administration. First the president had to acknowledge that his efforts to reach out to Iran were going nowhere; now a similar outreach effort to North Korea mounted over many years by South Korea has been officially declared DOA. South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, is suspending a large measure of the South’s trade with the North, barring Northern ships from entering Southern waters, ramping up propaganda aimed at the North, and taking other steps to signal displeasure with the North’s sinking of a Southern frigate, which resulted in the loss of 46 sailors. The Obama administration, to its credit, is offering “unequivocal” support for the South’s get-tough policy, including agreeing to hold joint military maneuvers.

Such measures are necessary but insufficient. No one imagines they will seriously change the behavior of Kim Jong-il’s rogue regime. That kind of change is probably beyond our power to impose; only China has the leverage needed to really punish the North, and it won’t exercise that leverage for fear of accelerating the North’s collapse. Nevertheless, it would make sense to set a long-term goal for U.S. and South Korea policy — to bring about the peaceful collapse of North Korea.

That is something that South Korea has long been ambivalent about; the South Koreans are keenly aware of how much German unification cost, and they know that North Korea will be even tougher to integrate than East Germany was. But the Cheonan‘s sinking shows that the status quo has significant costs too.

Likewise, when it comes to Iran, the Obama administration needs to stop pretending that a fourth watered-down UN sanctions resolution is going to achieve anything. Here, too, the administration needs to set peaceful regime change as the goal for American policy. In neither case is regime change a panacea; the rulers in both Tehran and Pyongyang are firmly entrenched in power and will not easily be dislodged despite their lack of popular support. It will be a long, difficult process to help the peoples of North Korea and Iran to liberate themselves. All the more reason, then, to make this a priority for American policy now rather than succumbing to more wishful thinking about the possibilities of “engagement” with these criminal regimes.

It’s fascinating to see the ideological blinders slipping a bit in the Obama administration. First the president had to acknowledge that his efforts to reach out to Iran were going nowhere; now a similar outreach effort to North Korea mounted over many years by South Korea has been officially declared DOA. South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, is suspending a large measure of the South’s trade with the North, barring Northern ships from entering Southern waters, ramping up propaganda aimed at the North, and taking other steps to signal displeasure with the North’s sinking of a Southern frigate, which resulted in the loss of 46 sailors. The Obama administration, to its credit, is offering “unequivocal” support for the South’s get-tough policy, including agreeing to hold joint military maneuvers.

Such measures are necessary but insufficient. No one imagines they will seriously change the behavior of Kim Jong-il’s rogue regime. That kind of change is probably beyond our power to impose; only China has the leverage needed to really punish the North, and it won’t exercise that leverage for fear of accelerating the North’s collapse. Nevertheless, it would make sense to set a long-term goal for U.S. and South Korea policy — to bring about the peaceful collapse of North Korea.

That is something that South Korea has long been ambivalent about; the South Koreans are keenly aware of how much German unification cost, and they know that North Korea will be even tougher to integrate than East Germany was. But the Cheonan‘s sinking shows that the status quo has significant costs too.

Likewise, when it comes to Iran, the Obama administration needs to stop pretending that a fourth watered-down UN sanctions resolution is going to achieve anything. Here, too, the administration needs to set peaceful regime change as the goal for American policy. In neither case is regime change a panacea; the rulers in both Tehran and Pyongyang are firmly entrenched in power and will not easily be dislodged despite their lack of popular support. It will be a long, difficult process to help the peoples of North Korea and Iran to liberate themselves. All the more reason, then, to make this a priority for American policy now rather than succumbing to more wishful thinking about the possibilities of “engagement” with these criminal regimes.

Read Less

The Innocents Pack for Damascus

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

Read Less

Must We Waste Another Year?

The United States is re-establishing ties with Damascus and hoping to lure Syria away from Iran, but Lebanese scholar Tony Badran warns the Obama administration that Syria’s President Bashar Assad is laying a trap. The U.S., he writes in NOW Lebanon, needs to avoid making concessions until Assad “makes verifiable and substantial concessions on key Washington demands, not least surrendering Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Otherwise, Assad may dictate the avenues, conditions and aims of the engagement process.”

Syria has been cunningly outwitting Americans and Europeans for decades, and most Western leaders seem entirely incapable of learning from or even noticing the mistakes of their predecessors. Assad is so sure of himself this time around — and, frankly, he’s right to be — that he’s already announced the failure of President Obama’s outreach program. Yesterday he openly ridiculed the administration’s policy in a joint press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Syria will not abandon its alliance with Iran, nor will it cease and desist its support for terrorist groups, until at least one of the two governments in question has been replaced. The alliance works for both parties. While Assad’s secular Arab Socialist Baath Party ideology differs markedly from Ali Khamenei’s Velayat-e Faqih, “resistance” is at the molten core of each one. Syria’s and Iran’s lists of enemies — Sunni Arabs, Israel, and the United States — are identical.

Understand the lay of the land. Syria is no more likely to join the de facto American-French-Egyptian-Saudi-Israeli coalition than the U.S. is likely to defect to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. It’s as if the U.S. were trying to pry East Germany out of the Communist bloc during the Cold War before the Berlin Wall was destroyed.

No basket of carrots Barack Obama or anyone else can offer will change Assad’s calculation of his own strategic interests. His weak military and Soviet-style economy would instantly render his country as geopolitically impotent as Yemen if he scrapped his alliance with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Today, though, he’s the most powerful Arab ruler in the Levant. Because he contributes so much to the Middle East’s instability and starts so many fires in neighboring countries, he’s made himself an “indispensable” part of every fantasy solution Western diplomats can come up with. He wouldn’t be where he is without Iranian help, and that help will be more valuable than ever if and when Tehran produces nuclear weapons.

Last month Obama admitted he was “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Prying Syria away from Iran won’t be any easier. As Tony Badran points out in his NOW Lebanon piece, the United States has been trying to drive the two countries apart now for more than 25 years.

Obama has not been paying attention if he thinks “engagement” with Syria hasn’t been tried. Badran alone has been documenting the futility of Western attempts to cut deals with Damascus ever since I started reading him, almost six years ago. The problem itself is much older than that, of course. It goes all the way back to the 1970s. Many of us who have been following Syria for some time were exhausted by the failure of “engagement” before we had ever even heard of Barack Obama.

The administration has already lost a year to the locusts with its “peace process” to nowhere and its “engagement” with Iran. A whole range of options exists between negotiating with murderers and invading their countries, and it’s long past time they were applied.

It won’t be Obama’s fault when his Syria strategy fails, but it is his fault that he’s wasting time trying. The president really ought to have learned by now that reaching out to terror-supporting tyrants in the Middle East is a mug’s game. His charm, sincerity, and inherent reasonableness count for little in a hard region where leaders almost everywhere rule at the point of a gun, and where the docile and the weak are bullied or destroyed by the ruthless.

The United States is re-establishing ties with Damascus and hoping to lure Syria away from Iran, but Lebanese scholar Tony Badran warns the Obama administration that Syria’s President Bashar Assad is laying a trap. The U.S., he writes in NOW Lebanon, needs to avoid making concessions until Assad “makes verifiable and substantial concessions on key Washington demands, not least surrendering Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Otherwise, Assad may dictate the avenues, conditions and aims of the engagement process.”

Syria has been cunningly outwitting Americans and Europeans for decades, and most Western leaders seem entirely incapable of learning from or even noticing the mistakes of their predecessors. Assad is so sure of himself this time around — and, frankly, he’s right to be — that he’s already announced the failure of President Obama’s outreach program. Yesterday he openly ridiculed the administration’s policy in a joint press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Syria will not abandon its alliance with Iran, nor will it cease and desist its support for terrorist groups, until at least one of the two governments in question has been replaced. The alliance works for both parties. While Assad’s secular Arab Socialist Baath Party ideology differs markedly from Ali Khamenei’s Velayat-e Faqih, “resistance” is at the molten core of each one. Syria’s and Iran’s lists of enemies — Sunni Arabs, Israel, and the United States — are identical.

Understand the lay of the land. Syria is no more likely to join the de facto American-French-Egyptian-Saudi-Israeli coalition than the U.S. is likely to defect to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. It’s as if the U.S. were trying to pry East Germany out of the Communist bloc during the Cold War before the Berlin Wall was destroyed.

No basket of carrots Barack Obama or anyone else can offer will change Assad’s calculation of his own strategic interests. His weak military and Soviet-style economy would instantly render his country as geopolitically impotent as Yemen if he scrapped his alliance with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Today, though, he’s the most powerful Arab ruler in the Levant. Because he contributes so much to the Middle East’s instability and starts so many fires in neighboring countries, he’s made himself an “indispensable” part of every fantasy solution Western diplomats can come up with. He wouldn’t be where he is without Iranian help, and that help will be more valuable than ever if and when Tehran produces nuclear weapons.

Last month Obama admitted he was “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Prying Syria away from Iran won’t be any easier. As Tony Badran points out in his NOW Lebanon piece, the United States has been trying to drive the two countries apart now for more than 25 years.

Obama has not been paying attention if he thinks “engagement” with Syria hasn’t been tried. Badran alone has been documenting the futility of Western attempts to cut deals with Damascus ever since I started reading him, almost six years ago. The problem itself is much older than that, of course. It goes all the way back to the 1970s. Many of us who have been following Syria for some time were exhausted by the failure of “engagement” before we had ever even heard of Barack Obama.

The administration has already lost a year to the locusts with its “peace process” to nowhere and its “engagement” with Iran. A whole range of options exists between negotiating with murderers and invading their countries, and it’s long past time they were applied.

It won’t be Obama’s fault when his Syria strategy fails, but it is his fault that he’s wasting time trying. The president really ought to have learned by now that reaching out to terror-supporting tyrants in the Middle East is a mug’s game. His charm, sincerity, and inherent reasonableness count for little in a hard region where leaders almost everywhere rule at the point of a gun, and where the docile and the weak are bullied or destroyed by the ruthless.

Read Less




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