President Obama was confronted with the anxieties of the Middle East yesterday when the first question he received at his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu was about Syria. “Morally,” began the question ominously, “how is it possible that for the last two years, tens of thousands of innocent civilians are being massacred and no one, the world, the United States, you are doing anything to stop it immediately. On a practical level, you have said today and also in the past, that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line. It seems like this line was crossed yesterday. What specifically do you intend to do about it?”
Obama began his answer by noting that there is no proof or consensus on whether chemical weapons have, in fact, been used. Then he pushed back on the accusation he’s done nothing: “It is incorrect to say that we have done nothing. We have helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime internationally. We have supported and recognized the opposition. We have had hundreds of millions of dollars in support for humanitarian aid.”
That wasn’t much of a response, because the question was what is being done to “stop it immediately,” and nothing the West is doing would seem to qualify. And in fact the reporter’s question was representative of the current mood here in the States as well, in which calls for Obama to intervene in Syria are growing as quickly as the wisdom of such intervention seems to be fading.
Sitting in the back of the room as the UN’s member states negotiate the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a disorientating experience. That’s partly because it’s not a negotiation as Americans understand the term: it’s a series of more or less unconnected national interventions on particular points of interest, while the actual drafting happens out of sight. It’s also because Iran and North Korea are treated with at least as much formal respect as the United States and South Korea. Before last summer’s ATT negotiations, I had naively expected that the North Korean diplomats, for example, would be just a touch embarrassed to be representing their regime, and that as a result they would try to fade into background. On the contrary–it’s the U.S. that intervenes as little as possible, while the totalitarians speak up loud, proud, and often.
But it’s mostly because of the sleep-inducing effect of UN-style rhetoric, which only a few nations have failed to master. Phrases like “colonial and alien domination” (meaning, of course, Israel and the United States), “right of resistance” (meaning Palestinian and Islamist terrorism), “balanced and objective criteria” (meaning that nothing should inconvenience human rights abusers), “open and inclusive negotiations” (meaning that the conference has to work entirely in plenary, because Iran and the other dictatorships do not want anything happening out of their sight), and the “disproportionate effect of armed violence on women, children, the elderly, and the disabled” (meaning that the speaker is very eager to sound progressive, either because they are Norway or because they are speaking on behalf of a Third World autocracy) roll off tongue after tongue.
This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.
The New York Times jumps into the lingering Rand Paul vs. the Establishment storyline today, purporting to examine what Paul’s popularity portends for the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. But in truth, such stories have been able to paint this as a significant rift within the party only by utilizing the same selective vagueness that Paul himself employs when discussing political ideology. Some of this is, of course, natural and understandable–at least on Paul’s part–because a worldview must have overarching principles.
But what Paul’s foreign policy would mean in practice is incredibly unclear in the Times piece. It devotes more than a thousand words to the subject and still manages to paint an extremely and frustratingly incomplete picture. This is to Paul’s benefit. Only a selective reading of history–by both Paul and the New York Times–gives the appearance of a philosophical divide in which the two sides are more evenly balanced than they really are. For example, the Times writes:
Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.
Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:
As I wrote on Friday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham didn’t do themselves any good this week when they angrily trashed Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster about drone attacks on the Senate floor. Sounding like angry old men telling the kids to get off their lawn isn’t the best way to respond to an event that galvanized the country and inspired admiration from both the right and the left. But rather than turn down the heat, McCain doubled down on his critique when he subsequently referred to Paul, Senator Ted Cruz and fellow libertarian Rep. Justin Amash as “wacko birds” in an interview with the Huffington Post that was published subsequent to his Senate remarks.
It should be understood that the Arizonan firing from the hip in this manner is just McCain being McCain. He doesn’t pull his punches, and, as is well known among those who have worked with him in the Senate, his lack of tolerance for those politicians who don’t measure up to his standards or who just annoy him is legendary.
But at this point that remark will do McCain more harm than it will the targets of his wrath. It will be seen as yet another indication that McCain and others who agree with him just don’t understand why Paul’s filibuster struck a nerve with so many in his party’s grass roots and inspired the admiration of many on the other side of the aisle as well. The word “wacko” signifies a lack of seriousness and the idea that those who fit the description are out of the political mainstream. The problem is that McCain, Graham and others who oppose Paul’s foreign policy views don’t seem to grasp that what is happening now is not merely excrescence of a marginal movement but the beginning of a serious policy debate about what Republicans believe about foreign policy. And the sooner he, and others who don’t want the GOP to drift away from being the party that stands for a strong America on the international stage, stop dismissing their opponents and start engaging them on the issues the better off they and the country will be.
The Obama administration may regret pushing General James Mattis, the brilliant and blunt-talking Marine who is head of Central Command, into retirement for a variety of reasons—not the least of them being that, with his impending retirement looming, he has felt free to voice undiplomatic truths.
In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he was asked whether sanctions and diplomacy were preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. His blunt answer: “No, sir” He followed up by explaining: “That should not be in any way construed as we should not try to negotiate. I still support the direction we’re taking. I’m just — I’m paid to take a rather dim view of the Iranians, frankly.” Needless to say his “dim view” is a lot closer to reality than the daydreams of political staffers in the White House who imagine that some kind of diplomatic breakthrough with the mullahs is likely.
When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in June 1989, there was a brutal heat wave in Tehran. Iranian forces sprayed the crowds who took to the streets with water to prevent heat stroke. The quip on the streets of Tehran at the time was “the old man was so senile, he forgot to close the door on the way down.” With the passing of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, Khomeini surely has company.
The relationship between Chavez and the Islamic Republic of Iran was too often dismissed in policy circles. Some in the State Department approached it almost as an amusing curiosity, while on the right it became exhibit A in the strange confluence of radical Islamism and unrestrained leftism.
The AIPAC Policy Conference ended this morning, after an evening gala where the 13,000 delegates were joined by 63 percent of the Congress: 65 senators and 274 House members. The conference has nearly doubled in size from the 7,000 delegates who attended in 2008. The plenary hall extended almost two football fields wide. But the hall was not large enough to hide what Shmuel Rosner called, after the first day of the conference, “the elephant in the room”:
[The] elephant is American policy in the region. In one session after another one hears criticism of American inaction, American hesitation, American lack of coherence. The criticism is at times subtler, and at times more direct, but it’s almost always there. You hear it from the experts on the different panels, from Americans and Israelis. You get less of it, but still some, even in the larger gatherings where the politicians and the leaders speak, where the politicians attempt to make it seem as if there are no problems and no daylight between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. Americans and Israelis are now all walking on eggshells, making sure not to interfere with the “reset” of relations, not to add new tensions into the delicate relations between the second Obama administration and the second Netanyahu government. The elephant is there though … There’s surely doubt in Israel, and there’s concern in pro-Israel circles in the US (“we need a national security team that is pro-Israel”, Senator McCain said Monday morning).
If President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were still optimistic about the latest round of talks, the comments of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereydoun Abbasi should disabuse them of that notion.
Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Isfahan, according to a news compilation circulated by U.S. diplomats in the region, Abbasi said that Iran would announce further “achievements” at the next round of talks, and that Iran would not accept any new restrictions:
Like clockwork, every four months or so, one Iranian official or another will threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Pentagon assumes that Iran would seek to carry out its threats with mines, and so has deployed extra mine-sweepers to the region. Certainly, the Iranian navy would not be a match for the U.S. Navy. Anti-ship missiles are another concern, but it is a safe bet that not only the Defense Intelligence Agency, but also the militaries and intelligence agencies of most regional states, keep an eye on Iranian mobile missile launchers.
The latest news from Iran—if true—should raise new concerns and could undercut U.S. strategy for keeping the waterway open.
The saddest thing about American diplomacy in the age of Obama is that the State Department does not know when the Islamic Republic is laughing at them. Take the previous round of talks: When the Iranian government suggested they would meet in Baghdad on May 24, 2012, the State Department jumped at the opportunity. After all, if the Iranians were willing to talk, who cares when and where the meeting takes place? Dialogue is the most important thing, the logic goes.
Yet, Iranian authorities had a reason for the date and place: May 24, 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of the Liberation of Khorramshahr, once of the most decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq War. In the Iranian mind, Saddam Hussein had far greater American support in that war than reality would suggest (though any American support for Saddam while he occupied Iran was wrong). Therefore, by rebuffing the Americans, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his proxies could claim once again he had won a decisive victory against the Americans against the backdrop of Iraq. From Press TV:
The Almaty talks between Iran and the G5+1 have come and gone. And, despite statements to the contrary by American officials, there is no reason for optimism.
(In one chapter in my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes which Encounter will publish next year, I compare all the State Department statements evaluating its high stakes diplomacy with Iran, North Korea, and the PLO with declassified contemporaneous accounts and find that in most cases, the State Department spokesman simply lied in order to suggest momentum for future talks).
The United States offered concessions, which Iranian negotiators pocketed before walking away. While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s swatting down of Vice President Biden’s offer of negotiations made brief headlines, neither the New York Times nor Washington Post had the institutional memory to recall that, in the wake of President Obama’s outstretched hand, Khamenei had used a speech on the 30th anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure to say much the same thing and to issue the demand that the United States withdraw its forces from the Persian Gulf as a precondition to talks.
It was inevitable that in an era when John Kerry is the secretary of state and the State Department basically runs the Pentagon, America’s adversaries would begin to test U.S. resolve. Hence, the latest news out of Iran should not surprise:
Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said Tuesday that Iranian flotilla of warships entered the Pacific Ocean after passing through the Malaga region, one of the most important waterways around the world. On the sidelines of a national ceremony, Sayyari told IRNA that the Iranian flotilla is to be berthed at a Chinese port with the objective of strengthening friendly relations between Tehran and Beijing.
Iran and the West are participating in a new round of talks this week in Kazakhstan over Iran’s nuclear program. The odds of a breakthrough? Close to zero, for reasons that Iranian-American scholar Hussein Banai ably explains in this Los Angeles Times op-ed. He writes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that
he is increasingly paranoid about the implications of a “grand bargain” with the United States for his privileged position as the chief interpreter of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.
Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.
Continued enmity with the United States has time and again proved to be a convenient excuse for silencing the reformist opposition (as in the case of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which has simply become known as “the sedition”) and managing the increasingly fragmented conservative establishment.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ramsey Clark, the son of Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, to be his attorney general. The young Clark had pedigree, had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and had previous experience in government.
Clark took his oath of office shortly before his 40th birthday, and played a hand in much of Johnson-era civil right legislation. His real legacy, however, has been in his post-government career. Clark was an unabashed supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In the days after Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy, President Jimmy Carter dispatched Clark to Tehran with a letter for Khomeini (it was never delivered; Khomeini refused him entry, and Clark cooled his heels in Istanbul before heading home). After Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Clark embraced Saddam Hussein. He condemned the U.S. liberation of Kuwait, and accused most of the George H.W. Bush administration of complicity in war crimes.
In recent years, discussion of the Jewish festival of Purim—whose observance begins Saturday night—has been linked to the nation of Iran. That has had little to do with the fact that the saga of the Book of Esther takes place in ancient Persia or that the places that are believed by some to be the tombs of Esther and Mordechai are located in what is now Iran. Instead, the association with Iran has more to do with the clear link between the exterminationist agenda of Haman, the villain of the Purim tale, and that of Iran’s present day rulers. Both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who deny the truth of the Holocaust while plotting another genocide of the Jews with their nuclear project, are easily added to the list of evildoers who have been seen as latter-day Hamans throughout the long and often tragic course of modern Jewish history.
But for those who wish to either whitewash the Islamist regime or to dismiss the legitimate fears of their existential threat to Israel (as well as to the stability of the region and the security of the West), the identification of Iran’s tyrannical rulers serves to demonize a great nation that should be understood and not confronted. For veteran Iran apologist and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, the onset of Purim should cause us to think about other, more appealing Persians. Thus, Cohen devotes a column published today to the ancient Persian King Cyrus, whose famous cylinder is about to leave the British Museum on a tour of the United States. The cylinder that has been dubbed the first bill of human rights is proof, Cohen tells us, of the benign nature of the nation of Iran. The topic makes it possible for him to write an entire piece about the country without once using the “n” word–that in this case is “nuclear” and not a racial insult.
But this attempt to divert us from the deadly threat emanating from Iran is not only disingenuous; it misses a crucial point about the history of the nation that he is so desperate for us to love.
It is naïve and dangerously sectarian to assume—as American analysts who view Iraq through the military’s lens so often do—that Iraqi Shi‘ites are Fifth columnists, somehow more loyal to Iran than to Iraq. The simple fact of the matter is that the Shi‘ites are as much if not more victims of the Iranian regime as others. Because the interpretation of Shi‘ism that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed on Iran is outside the mainstream, the Islamic Republic is especially sensitive to theological dissent coming from Shi‘ites themselves. (I detail the theology behind this and give several examples in this 2008 book chapter from Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion).
Yesterday, Al-Sharqiyah, a London-based Iraqi television station, reported (and the Open Source Center translates an excerpt):
Sources from Al-Najaf Governorate, southwestern Iraq, have revealed that the Iranian authorities have arrested Iraqi Religious Scholar Ahmad al-Qubanshi, who is currently on a visit to Iran. Neither the sources, nor the Iranian authorities revealed the reasons behind the arrest of Al-Qubanshi. Al-Qubanshi is known for publishing, throughout the past thirty years, many books and studies in which he severely criticized the Iranian regime and the means of running Iran’s affairs.
Regimes that have self-confidence do not arrest those who express dissent.
Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal (and a former member of ‘JournoList’), has now penned two columns, here and here, arguing essentially that Chuck Hagel got Iran and other topics right when everyone else got them wrong. From his latest:
The former Republican senator from Nebraska has distinguished himself with subtle, well-thought-out, and accurate analyses of some of America’s greatest strategic challenges of the 21st century–especially the response to 9/11–while many of his harshest critics got these issues quite wrong… Hagel also delivered some of the earliest warnings about the potentially disastrous effects of George W. Bush’s ill-grounded “Axis of Evil” speech, in which the president needlessly alienated Tehran only days after the Iranians had actually delivered up aid and support to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan.
As Newsweek’s former diplomatic correspondent, Hirsh is well aware of the full range of facts; he just chooses to ignore them in pursuit of a political agenda and, by so doing, sullies the National Journal. What did Bush know and both Hagel and Hirsh ignore?
- The Karine-A. While Hagel was praising Iran and castigating his President for—gasp—harsh rhetoric, Iran was shipping 50 tons of weaponry to the Palestinian Authority in order to support terrorism and quash the fragile cease-fire.
- Iran’s covert nuclear enrichment facility which was yet to be exposed publicly, but was known in intelligence circles (including presumably the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on which Hagel served) and to the White House.
- North Korea-Iran cooperation of nuclear and missile proliferation is now well established. Iranian and North Korean scientists and nuclear engineers regularly attend each other’s tests and visit each other’s facilities.
After months of political debate the Senate Armed Services Committee may bring the Chuck Hagel saga closer to a resolution today. Yesterday, committee chair Carl Levin said he would schedule a vote for this afternoon but the ranking Republican member seems prepared to fight the former senator’s nomination as secretary of defense to the bitter end. With Democrats closing ranks behind the president’s choice to head the Pentagon, there doesn’t seem much chance that Hagel can be stopped in the committee. And with some Republicans, including John McCain, vowing not to support a filibuster of the nomination, it seems all but certain that Hagel will be confirmed perhaps as early as this week.
McCain made no secret of his antipathy for his former friend during a stormy confirmation hearing in which Hagel stumbled badly giving the impression that he was both unprepared and unqualified for the position. But McCain’s opposition to a GOP walkout from a committee vote as well as the filibuster may prevent opponents from using procedural tactics to stop the nomination going forward. The Arizonan feels that allowing the argument about Hagel to blow up relationships between the two parties in the committee or an attempt to stop the confirmation via filibuster —something that has rarely happened to any Cabinet nominee — would be unjustified. His concern for keeping things civil in the Senate deserves respect but given the stakes involved in this nomination, those Republicans who will seek to use every trick in the book to stop Hagel are justified.