Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

Kerry’s Diplomatic Double Standards

So, Secretary of State John Kerry is deeply upset and insulted that Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, criticized U.S. strategy and suggested that the United States is exuding weakness. One would think the former senator from Massachusetts would have a thicker skin, and might also consider if there was something to Yaalon’s remarks, however undiplomatic they might have been. Never mind, however. What is truly revealing is how Kerry acts in other circumstances when officials from other countries make similar statements castigating U.S. policy.

Here, for example, is Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, speaking earlier this month: “America no longer creates events in the region; rather it is the Muslims who create events and the Americans are forced to be another actor in decline, although not a dominant player. Meanwhile, the Americans have lost operational power against Syria today and this is a great proof for Muslims.” Kerry’s reaction? Crickets. Obama’s reaction? Nada. And, lest this be seen as an exception rather than the rule, here is an excerpt (and my analysis) of a statement from Tehran that went even further last month. And where is Kerry every time Iranian leaders encourage chants of “Death to America” after Friday prayers in central Tehran?

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So, Secretary of State John Kerry is deeply upset and insulted that Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, criticized U.S. strategy and suggested that the United States is exuding weakness. One would think the former senator from Massachusetts would have a thicker skin, and might also consider if there was something to Yaalon’s remarks, however undiplomatic they might have been. Never mind, however. What is truly revealing is how Kerry acts in other circumstances when officials from other countries make similar statements castigating U.S. policy.

Here, for example, is Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, speaking earlier this month: “America no longer creates events in the region; rather it is the Muslims who create events and the Americans are forced to be another actor in decline, although not a dominant player. Meanwhile, the Americans have lost operational power against Syria today and this is a great proof for Muslims.” Kerry’s reaction? Crickets. Obama’s reaction? Nada. And, lest this be seen as an exception rather than the rule, here is an excerpt (and my analysis) of a statement from Tehran that went even further last month. And where is Kerry every time Iranian leaders encourage chants of “Death to America” after Friday prayers in central Tehran?

The Obama administration’s heightened sensitivity to criticism doesn’t apply to the Palestinian Authority either. Kerry remains silent when his much-heralded partner in peace talks not only rejects American positions but also lionizes terrorists and murderers, hardly an attitude that advances U.S. interests in the region.

Bashing allies isn’t going to bring respect back to the United States on the world stage, nor is forcing allies to genuflect. Diplomatic temper tantrums aren’t going to imbue Kerry with an aura of competence that his policies and actions haven’t managed to achieve. Sometimes, tough words from friends are necessary, even with the moral inversion that currently underpins Obama and Kerry’s words and actions.

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What Is the Cost of Inaction?

Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been muted by concerns about the cost of any response. Germany has always been mercantile in its foreign policy—just remember its efforts to erode Iranian sanctions for the sake of short-term profit, even at the time National Intelligence Estimates agree that Iran was experimenting with nuclear bomb triggers. Germany, too, appears to have been the source of much of the chemical munitions Saddam Hussein used in the 1980s against the Kurds. It should not surprise, therefore, that German chancellor Angela Merkel is reluctant to impose biting sanctions on Russia in response to its aggression, for she rightly points out that Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond by cutting off gas shipments to Central and Eastern Europe.

Putin has leverage over the United States as well: Not only might he nationalize the operations of American companies doing business in Russia, but he also effectively holds U.S. military equipment hostage since much of it is being transshipped across Russia as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan.

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Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been muted by concerns about the cost of any response. Germany has always been mercantile in its foreign policy—just remember its efforts to erode Iranian sanctions for the sake of short-term profit, even at the time National Intelligence Estimates agree that Iran was experimenting with nuclear bomb triggers. Germany, too, appears to have been the source of much of the chemical munitions Saddam Hussein used in the 1980s against the Kurds. It should not surprise, therefore, that German chancellor Angela Merkel is reluctant to impose biting sanctions on Russia in response to its aggression, for she rightly points out that Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond by cutting off gas shipments to Central and Eastern Europe.

Putin has leverage over the United States as well: Not only might he nationalize the operations of American companies doing business in Russia, but he also effectively holds U.S. military equipment hostage since much of it is being transshipped across Russia as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan.

While the costs of doing something are high, it’s imperative that policymakers also question the cost of doing nothing. For years, a major argument against significant sanctions on Iran was what the result might be at the gas pump. But the idea that the status quo was and is tenable is nonsense: Should Iran develop nuclear weapons, then it would be in a position through blackmail or otherwise to drive up the price of oil even further. After all, who would stop Iran utilizing conventional forces to disrupt oil flow if Tehran boasted its own nuclear deterrent?

The situation is now similar with regard to Russia. There is no doubt that any response will be expensive. But a more important question is what will the expense be a decade down the line should Putin push into the Baltics or should he conclude that Western officials are so craven and such paper tigers that he can conduct pipeline blackmail anyway? Sometimes inaction may seem like the best of all short-term options, but seldom does it pay off in the long term.

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Another Such Isolation and We Are Undone

Secretary of State Kerry held a town hall yesterday, delivering remarks to students on “Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign” and then taking questions. The last question came from a woman named “Yulia,” a University of Georgia student originally from Kiev in Ukraine. She was disturbed by the rise in Putin’s approval ratings and the inability to inform the Russian public of the facts relating to Ukraine: 

QUESTION: … Given [Putin’s] policy in Ukraine, that’s frankly a little bit terrifying. And the fact that I heard the other day a statistic that only about 11 percent of Russians have regular access to the internet also makes it difficult for us to give them any other kind of message besides what they’re hearing from the likes of Dmitry Kiselev and (inaudible) and the kind of just nasty propaganda that’s being told about us.   

SECRETARY KERRY: … you’re right; [Putin's] approval ratings have gone up significantly. They’re at 70 percent or something. Everybody’s feeling great about flexing their muscles about this, quote, “achievement,” as they put it. But in the end, I think it’s going to be very costly if they continue to go down that kind of a road. Because it will wind up – I mean, the vote in the United Nations on a resolution the other day about this was 13 in favor of the resolution; one abstention, China; and one no, Russia. I call that isolation. [Emphasis added].  

I call it an un-adopted UN resolution. In UN parlance, the “no” from Russia was a “veto.” 

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Secretary of State Kerry held a town hall yesterday, delivering remarks to students on “Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign” and then taking questions. The last question came from a woman named “Yulia,” a University of Georgia student originally from Kiev in Ukraine. She was disturbed by the rise in Putin’s approval ratings and the inability to inform the Russian public of the facts relating to Ukraine: 

QUESTION: … Given [Putin’s] policy in Ukraine, that’s frankly a little bit terrifying. And the fact that I heard the other day a statistic that only about 11 percent of Russians have regular access to the internet also makes it difficult for us to give them any other kind of message besides what they’re hearing from the likes of Dmitry Kiselev and (inaudible) and the kind of just nasty propaganda that’s being told about us.   

SECRETARY KERRY: … you’re right; [Putin's] approval ratings have gone up significantly. They’re at 70 percent or something. Everybody’s feeling great about flexing their muscles about this, quote, “achievement,” as they put it. But in the end, I think it’s going to be very costly if they continue to go down that kind of a road. Because it will wind up – I mean, the vote in the United Nations on a resolution the other day about this was 13 in favor of the resolution; one abstention, China; and one no, Russia. I call that isolation. [Emphasis added].  

I call it an un-adopted UN resolution. In UN parlance, the “no” from Russia was a “veto.” 

The Obama administration prides itself on “isolating” U.S. adversaries. (1) North Korea: last year, after its third nuclear test, following a ballistic missile launch two months before, President Obama issued a written statement calling it “a highly provocative act” that violated numerous UN resolutions and agreements and threatened U.S. and international security, declaring North Korea “increasingly isolated.” (2) Syria: during the third 2012 presidential debate, Obama declared: “What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We’ve mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated.” (3) Iran: Obama declared at a 2012 press conference, “When I came into office, Iran was unified, on the move, had made substantial progress on its nuclear program … [currently] Iran is politically isolated.”

Now Russia joins the list: it is supposedly isolated because of an un-adopted UN resolution. 

They are laughing at the American president in North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Russia (literally in the latter case): do not cross President Obama, or he might “isolate” you. Meanwhile, the nuclear tests, ICBM launches, civilian massacres (using only conventional weapons), centrifuge whirrings, and cross-border military moves go on, undeterred by past or prospective Obama “isolations.”

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The Reverberations of American Weakness

Myopia is epidemic in Washington, and always has been. So too is compartmentalization. When a crisis occurs in Syria, anyone who’s anyone within government stumbles over themselves to get into the crisis meetings, and everything else falls off the radar screen. Two months ago, if someone in government called a meeting about Crimea, perhaps two or three people would show up, and one of them would be an intern hoping to avoid Xerox duty; today, any Crimea meeting would be packed. Those in the meetings will look at the immediate next steps for U.S. policy with regard to the immediate belligerents, but discussion does not go broader.

The real world is the polar opposite. What happens in Crimea doesn’t stay in Crimea. In 1994, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. In short, Russia recognized Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and the United States and Great Britain offered Ukraine security guarantees. In hindsight, only the Ukrainians kept their promise; everyone else broke their pledge.

The problem is not simply potential Russian aggressiveness against former Soviet states like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova, but rather the notion that U.S. and European security guarantees are meaningless: Russia invaded a sovereign state and Obama reacted by putting Russian President Vladimir Putin on the diplomatic equivalent of double-secret probation. Rogue states and America’s adversaries do not ignore the world around them. In Dancing With the Devil, I document how Iranian negotiators treat North Korea as an example to replicate, not a rogue to condemn. So, where might the next crisis be?

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Myopia is epidemic in Washington, and always has been. So too is compartmentalization. When a crisis occurs in Syria, anyone who’s anyone within government stumbles over themselves to get into the crisis meetings, and everything else falls off the radar screen. Two months ago, if someone in government called a meeting about Crimea, perhaps two or three people would show up, and one of them would be an intern hoping to avoid Xerox duty; today, any Crimea meeting would be packed. Those in the meetings will look at the immediate next steps for U.S. policy with regard to the immediate belligerents, but discussion does not go broader.

The real world is the polar opposite. What happens in Crimea doesn’t stay in Crimea. In 1994, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. In short, Russia recognized Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and the United States and Great Britain offered Ukraine security guarantees. In hindsight, only the Ukrainians kept their promise; everyone else broke their pledge.

The problem is not simply potential Russian aggressiveness against former Soviet states like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova, but rather the notion that U.S. and European security guarantees are meaningless: Russia invaded a sovereign state and Obama reacted by putting Russian President Vladimir Putin on the diplomatic equivalent of double-secret probation. Rogue states and America’s adversaries do not ignore the world around them. In Dancing With the Devil, I document how Iranian negotiators treat North Korea as an example to replicate, not a rogue to condemn. So, where might the next crisis be?

The Korean War initially broke out when Kim Il-song interpreted Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s “Defensive Perimeter” speech as a sign that the United States would no longer defend its ally on the Korean Peninsula. Is there any reason why President Obama believes Kim Jong-un, the dear leader’s grandson and new dear leader, will interpret Obama’s weakness any differently?

Likewise, Putin acted in Ukraine against the backdrop of stagnation in the Russian economy. Whipping up nationalist sentiment seems to have successfully distracted Russians from Putin’s own domestic incompetence. If sparking a crisis can distract from economic woes without fear of reprisal, why shouldn’t the Argentine government make its move against the Falkland Islands? After all, the age of Reagan and Thatcher is over. Israel, too, must recognize that American security guarantees aren’t worth the paper upon which they are written, even if Kerry returns from Geneva waving a paper and boasting that he has Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s signature upon it.

The greatest difference between left and right in America today when it comes to national security is that the left always demonizes power, while the right recognizes that power can be used for good or bad. What Obama and his supporters do not recognize, however, is the reverberations of American weakness. Altruistic powers will not fill the vacuum; dictatorships will. When a Niccolò Machiavelli challenges a Neville Chamberlain, not only will the Chamberlains not win, but death and destruction will follow.

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Where Were Mistakes Made on Russia, Turkey, and Iran?

One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

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One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

The same holds true with Turkey: Warning signs extend back well over a decade, but the State Department refused to recognize them. In 2004, I researched a piece—based on a lot of leakage and documentary contributions from Turkish journalists and government officials who could not speak publicly—about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s money laundering schemes and slush funds. The piece upset the Turkish government. According to Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara assured that there was nothing to the report. How comforting, except that they did not apparently do anything other than ask government officials who had every interest in covering up the financial irregularities. The ambassador at the time blindly accepted the idea that Erdoğan was a reformer; he did not ask who the sources were and upon what the allegations were based.

Hindsight, however, shows the initial concerns warranted and the specifics of the article accurate. Likewise, Daniel Fried, a senior American diplomat, described Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as little more than the Turkish version of a Christian Democratic Party. This, too, was nonsense but it would be useful to see how diplomats came to reach such a conclusion. Many other former ambassadors to Turkey, some of whom had long been cheerleaders for the Erdoğan experiment, have now come around to the recognition that there is rot in Ankara, and there is not a democratic bone in Erdoğan’s body. The question for the State Department is not about the fact that they were wrong—there is no shame in that—but, with the benefit of hindsight, what were the warning signs they missed? Where was trust misplaced? Where did sources mislead? Absent such introspection, it is unclear why anyone should expect more accurate reporting or analysis from the U.S. Embassy in Turkey or Bureau of European Affairs in the future.

Iran is a more politicized topic but, given what is at stake, a more serious one: It is wrong to suggest that there were no negotiations with Iran in the decades between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: There was plenty, but John Kerry and negotiator Wendy Sherman seem intent on reinventing the wheel without consideration to how the same people upon whom they now rely have in the past lied and cheated. That does not mean that history is bound to repeat, but repetition is much more likely if senior American officials do not care to learn from past mistakes.

Just as to a hammer everything looks like a nail, to the State Department everything seems a subject for talks. It should not surprise that Foggy Bottom does not want to consider its mistakes, because to do so might undermine the drive to dialogue. Introspection, however, does not diminish diplomacy; it simply makes it more effective. Perhaps, however, if the State Department is unwilling to do what’s necessary, it is time for Congress to exercise its oversight.

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George W. Bush, Still Living Rent-Free in Their Heads

Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

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Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

The White House was taken by surprise by Vladimir V. Putin’s decisions to invade Crimea, but also by China’s increasingly assertive declaration of exclusive rights to airspace and barren islands. Neither the economic pressure nor the cyberattacks that forced Iran to reconsider its approach have prevented North Korea’s stealthy revitalization of its nuclear and missile programs.

Followed by this:

“We’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas,” said one of Mr. Obama’s former senior national security aides, who would not speak on the record about his ex-boss.

“No one is arguing for military action, for bringing back George Bush’s chest-thumping,” the former aide said. At the same time, he said, the president’s oft-repeated lines that those who violate international norms will be “isolated” and “pay a heavy price” over the long term have sounded “more like predictions over time, and less like imminent threats.”

I don’t know who the source is obviously; since it’s in the New York Times he or she is anonymous. (How long until Times bylines are also anonymous? And how much would this benefit Tom Friedman?) But I sincerely hope this person’s view isn’t too widely shared among the Obama inner circle.

It was understandable to run against Bush in 2008. He was the sitting president of the other party, and his approval numbers were low. Additionally, the GOP candidate that year, John McCain, was considered even more hawkish than Bush. At the very least, he was more closely associated with the successful “surge” in Iraq than pretty much anyone except the president himself. Obama (who made a prediction on the surge that turned out to be completely and totally wrong) ran on his opposition to the Iraq war. So the contrast between the two candidates was clear, and it made sense for Obama to play up those differences. He felt he was on the right side of public opinion on them.

But that stark contrast had more or less evaporated by Obama’s reelection in 2012. He ran against Mitt Romney, who was certainly tougher on Putin’s Russia (Obama turned out to be wrong there too, as a pattern emerges) but who was otherwise hesitant to run too far to Obama’s right. Obama even used their debates to taunt Romney for being insufficiently bloodthirsty and too hesitant to blow stuff up. Obama ran as the bold assassin. Bin Laden is dead, or haven’t you heard?

More revealing is the fact that Democrats still slamming Bush aren’t actually criticizing Bush, but instead taking aim at the version of Bush they seemed to invent for electoral purposes but ended up believing was real. The power of propaganda can sometimes be most acutely felt by the propagandist. Bush didn’t bomb Iran in response to its nuclear pursuit, or Russia in response to its invasion of Georgia, etc.

And it’s a testament to the incoherence of leftist foreign policy that we’re also reminded of that by the White House–such as when Bush is portrayed as being too naïve for looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul. It’s no wonder the administration has no idea how to respond to the provocations of rogue states: if they want to do the opposite of Bush, but believe Bush is all over the map on policy, what space is left for them?

Not much. The Obama administration has boxed itself in by not giving up its long-stale and outdated campaign rhetoric. It’s disturbing to have to say this in 2014, but it’s time for Democrats still obsessed with Bush to just let it go.

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A New Twist on the Gaza “Cycle of Violence”

As far as most of the world is concerned, this week’s outbreak of fighting along the border between Gaza and southern Israel is just another boring chapter in a never-ending story that is usually dismissed as a “cycle of violence.” But while the terrorist rocket attacks from Gaza, the “work accident” in which a malfunctioning rocket took the lives of a few terrorists, and the Israeli counter-attacks all seem depressingly familiar, there was something new and particularly dangerous about this week’s events. The latest incidents not only were the first major outbreak in Gaza since 2012. The decision to attack Israel on this scale as well as the manner in which the parties are backing away from the abyss of all-out war both indicate that a major change for the worse is going on Gaza.

What’s so different about these attacks? First, it looks like Iran may have played a role in precipitating the missile barrage on Israeli cities, towns, and villages. Second, if reports are to be believed, rather than conducting indirect negotiations with the Hamas terrorist movement that rules Gaza in order to end the confrontation, this time the deal was with the even more extreme Islamic Jihad that is directly allied with Iran. If so, Gaza has now gone from being the independent Palestinian state-in-all-but-name ruled by an Islamist tyranny that Israel still could hold accountable for violence to one that is one step closer to chaos or, even worse, falling under the thumb of an Iranian auxiliary.

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As far as most of the world is concerned, this week’s outbreak of fighting along the border between Gaza and southern Israel is just another boring chapter in a never-ending story that is usually dismissed as a “cycle of violence.” But while the terrorist rocket attacks from Gaza, the “work accident” in which a malfunctioning rocket took the lives of a few terrorists, and the Israeli counter-attacks all seem depressingly familiar, there was something new and particularly dangerous about this week’s events. The latest incidents not only were the first major outbreak in Gaza since 2012. The decision to attack Israel on this scale as well as the manner in which the parties are backing away from the abyss of all-out war both indicate that a major change for the worse is going on Gaza.

What’s so different about these attacks? First, it looks like Iran may have played a role in precipitating the missile barrage on Israeli cities, towns, and villages. Second, if reports are to be believed, rather than conducting indirect negotiations with the Hamas terrorist movement that rules Gaza in order to end the confrontation, this time the deal was with the even more extreme Islamic Jihad that is directly allied with Iran. If so, Gaza has now gone from being the independent Palestinian state-in-all-but-name ruled by an Islamist tyranny that Israel still could hold accountable for violence to one that is one step closer to chaos or, even worse, falling under the thumb of an Iranian auxiliary.

While outside influences have always helped to exacerbate Palestinian terrorism in the past, the suspicion that Iran is playing a role in the rocket attacks is hard to avoid. Iran was Hamas’s leading supplier of arms and cash during the second intifada. But it broke with the group over the civil war in Syria when Hamas joined other Sunni groups in cutting off ties with the Assad regime in Damascus that is still closely aligned with Tehran. There has been some speculation that Hamas might reconcile with Iran now that it has become more isolated because Egypt’s new military government sees the Gaza enclave as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the fact that Assad has, with Iranian help, won in Syria, the argument between Hamas and Tehran seems pointless. But since Hamas has been forced by circumstances to abstain from regular attacks on Israel, Iran may prefer dealing with the far smaller and more militant Islamic Jihad.

That may mean that Israel’s capture of the Iranian arms ship Klos-C last week filled with missiles intended for Islamic Jihad to use against the Jewish state may have been the factor that caused the outbreak. Perhaps Iran or Islamic Jihad decided to remind the Israelis that they are still there and can inflict some damage if they are so inclined.

But more than that, the really serious aspect of this incident is that Hamas seems unable to keep Islamic Jihad in check. In the past, Israel rightly held Hamas, as the rulers of the strip, responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza. But if the only way for Israel to stop the fighting once it had given Islamic Jihad a necessary military response was to actually reach out to that group rather than Hamas via Egyptian emissaries, then we have entered a new era in Gaza that ought to scare everyone.

Like everything else that happens in the Middle East, Israel’s critics will claim the new prominence of Islamic Jihad is somehow the fault of the Jewish state. We will be told that if only the Israelis had dealt with Hamas and brought them into the peace process or been given concessions that would have empowered them to make compromises that could have helped end the conflict, then maybe Islamic Jihad wouldn’t have gained more support. In the same way, we were told that if the Israelis had bowed to the demands of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, Hamas wouldn’t have become powerful enough to seize the strip in a 2006 coup.

The problem, however, is not the fault of insufficient Israeli concessions but the reality of Palestinian politics. Hamas gained ground on Fatah because the latter was seen as too moderate and unwilling to shed as much Jewish blood as their Islamist rivals. Islamic Jihad is growing in influence because it is now seen as tougher and bloodier than Hamas. The support of Iran, which cares nothing for the Palestinians but has a vested interest in keeping up the level of violence against Israel and preventing any chance of peace, is the icing on the cake. In any case, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad reject an end to the conflict on any terms, meaning that any Israeli concessions to them would be as pointless as they are dangerous.

It is to be hoped that Israel’s response to the rocket attacks as well as its interdiction of the flow of Iranian arms to the Palestinians will make further fighting less likely or at least less costly. Israel has no good options in Gaza since re-occupying it would be politically impossible and inflicting serious damage on Hamas right now might only help make Iran and Islamic Jihad stronger.

But there should be no doubt about the fact that Iran’s growing influence—a development that is the inevitable byproduct of its apparent victory in Syria and its ability to force the United States to negotiate on Iranian terms on the nuclear issue—makes the Middle East a lot more dangerous. And if Iran has more to say about Palestinian politics via its Islamic Jihad ally, the already slim chances that Fatah can make peace with Israel just got a lot slimmer. 

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Re-Open the Lockerbie Case? Not If It Means Facing the Truth About Iran.

Could there be a worse week for new revelations about the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy to be unveiled? The report claiming that Iran rather than Libya was the culprit in the atrocity should raise eyebrows around the globe. But despite the persuasive case made for this theory, don’t expect the United States or any other Western country to heed the new evidence and re-open the case. With both the U.S. and its European allies desperate to reach a new nuclear deal with Tehran that will enable them to halt the sanctions on the Islamist regime, discussions about the true nature of the administration’s diplomatic partner are, to put it mildly, unwelcome. If Washington isn’t interested in drawing conclusions about Iran from the seizure of an arms ship bound for terrorist-run Gaza last week or even the latest threat from its Revolutionary Guard about destroying Israel uttered yesterday, why would anyone think the Obama administration would be willing to rethink its conclusions about a crime that was long thought to be solved?

To be fair to the administration, a lot of time has passed since the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that cost the lives of 259 passengers and crew and 11 persons on the ground. The U.S. and the West put a lot of energy into proving that agents of the Libyan Gaddafi regime were responsible. The Libyans were known state sponsors of terror and had an axe to grind against the U.S. at the time. After the conviction of a Libyan intelligence agent for these murders, even more energy was spent on vainly trying to persuade a Scottish court from letting him go home to Libya, where he eventually died of cancer. Why would anyone in the U.S. government want to admit that we were wrong all these years? Nor would most Americans think an investigation undertaken by a news organization like the reliably anti-American Al Jazeera, no matter how meticulous, would persuade them to rethink their long-held conclusions about the case.

But, as David Horovitz writes persuasively in the Times of Israel, Al Jazeera’s report is based on information from the same Iranian defector that accurately testified about the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 persons. Though the full truth about Lockerbie is yet to be uncovered, Horovitz is right to point out that if we accept the word of former Iranian intelligence agent Abolghasem Mesbahi about Tehran’s terrorist plot in South America, there’s no reason to dismiss his detailed claims about Lockerbie. The pieces here fit too well to allow us to merely shrug and move on.

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Could there be a worse week for new revelations about the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy to be unveiled? The report claiming that Iran rather than Libya was the culprit in the atrocity should raise eyebrows around the globe. But despite the persuasive case made for this theory, don’t expect the United States or any other Western country to heed the new evidence and re-open the case. With both the U.S. and its European allies desperate to reach a new nuclear deal with Tehran that will enable them to halt the sanctions on the Islamist regime, discussions about the true nature of the administration’s diplomatic partner are, to put it mildly, unwelcome. If Washington isn’t interested in drawing conclusions about Iran from the seizure of an arms ship bound for terrorist-run Gaza last week or even the latest threat from its Revolutionary Guard about destroying Israel uttered yesterday, why would anyone think the Obama administration would be willing to rethink its conclusions about a crime that was long thought to be solved?

To be fair to the administration, a lot of time has passed since the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that cost the lives of 259 passengers and crew and 11 persons on the ground. The U.S. and the West put a lot of energy into proving that agents of the Libyan Gaddafi regime were responsible. The Libyans were known state sponsors of terror and had an axe to grind against the U.S. at the time. After the conviction of a Libyan intelligence agent for these murders, even more energy was spent on vainly trying to persuade a Scottish court from letting him go home to Libya, where he eventually died of cancer. Why would anyone in the U.S. government want to admit that we were wrong all these years? Nor would most Americans think an investigation undertaken by a news organization like the reliably anti-American Al Jazeera, no matter how meticulous, would persuade them to rethink their long-held conclusions about the case.

But, as David Horovitz writes persuasively in the Times of Israel, Al Jazeera’s report is based on information from the same Iranian defector that accurately testified about the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 persons. Though the full truth about Lockerbie is yet to be uncovered, Horovitz is right to point out that if we accept the word of former Iranian intelligence agent Abolghasem Mesbahi about Tehran’s terrorist plot in South America, there’s no reason to dismiss his detailed claims about Lockerbie. The pieces here fit too well to allow us to merely shrug and move on.

But the problem isn’t Mesbahi’s credibility or even the embarrassment that a finding that debunked previous Western intelligence work on Lockerbie would cause in Washington and London. Rather, it’s the fact that the defector is pointing the finger at a government that the West wants very much to rehabilitate these days.

The United States and its European allies are deeply invested in the notion that Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s faux election last year marked a genuine change in the country’s political culture. Justifying a weak interim nuclear deal that granted Iran both significant sanctions relief and a tacit recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium was made possible not only by the arguments about Iran’s supposed desire for a new start with the West but also by a determination by the administration that it wanted to step away from confrontation with Tehran at all costs.

The president is so worried about hurting the delicate feelings of the anti-Semitic government in Tehran that he is willing to veto new sanctions legislation that would have strengthened his hand in the talks. This policy is difficult enough to justify in the face of Iran’s continued support for terrorism, its genocidal threats against Israel (which make its possession of nuclear weapons more than a theoretical security problem), and its long record of diplomatic deception. The last thing the president and Secretary of State Kerry want is to have the Lockerbie case disinterred and for the regime—many of whose leading players were active in the security apparatus at the time—indicted for mass murder of innocent Americans.

So don’t expect anyone in Washington to take the new evidence about Lockerbie seriously or even to pay lip service to the notion of re-opening the case. Horovitz is right that Al Jazeera’s report ought to justify a new investigation that will fearlessly follow the evidence to the guilty parties. But as long as making nice with Iran is one of the diplomatic priorities of the United States, the truth about Lockerbie is likely to be ignored.

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Does Obama Care About U.S. Hostages?

Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

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Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

While Tehran released the embassy hostages as soon as Reagan took his oath of office, the Iranian government was soon at it again, this time acting by its proxies in Lebanon. Hezbollah and affiliated groups seized a number of Americans, killing a few.  According to the Tower Commission report, Reagan obsessively peppered his staff with questions about their condition and the possibilities for their release. Reagan’s concern for the hostages ultimately led to the ill-advised arms-for-hostages scheme.

While many of the hostages returned home by the end of the Reagan presidency, Iranian-backed groups still held a few as George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency. Bush used his inaugural address to suggest that there could be U.S.-Iran reconciliation if Tehran showed goodwill by releasing American hostages. Bush followed up privately with UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar who in turn appointed United Nations bureaucrat Giandomenico Picco to serve as an intermediary with Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsajani. Newly appointed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei put the kibosh on new talks, and Rafsanjani refused to budge because to do so would be to admit Iranian complacency in an act for which Iran still wanted plausible deniability. Nevertheless, with time, the remaining Americans came home.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have undertaken a broader diplomatic initiative with Iran than any predecessor, including Jimmy Carter. In order to get Iran to the table for nuclear talks, Obama approved $7 billion in sanctions relief which, when combined by new investment, means a $20 billion windfall for Tehran. Iran was desperate for cash, its economy having contracted by 5.4 percent in the year before negotiations began. Obama, therefore, had the upper hand and huge leverage. Just as the United States offered incentives to show good will, so too might have Iran, if indeed there was any goodwill on the Iranian side. That Obama did not ask for the return of Americans held hostage or did not insist on their release as a precondition really does set Obama apart. He seems to be the first U.S. president who has not prioritized hostage release in its dealing with the world’s number one hostage-taking country. Absent any other reason offered, it is increasingly hard not to conclude that Obama and Kerry simply do not care about Americans held hostage, and are unwilling to hold the governments responsible accountable. That is a tragedy that no Nobel Prize can erase.  

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No Separating Iran’s Nukes From Terrorism

Yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the idea that there ought to be any connection between the interception of an Iranian arms shipment headed for Gaza and the United States pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran. Carney noted that U.S. and Israel had shared intelligence about the sailing of the Kos-C, which was filled with sophisticated and powerful M-302 missiles that had been shipped from Syria and also acknowledged that this provides more proof of Iran’s “bad behavior” as a state sponsor of international terrorism. But he insisted that American efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iran on its nuclear weapons program were a separate issue.

The administration position is that a tough stance on international terror is compatible with a more forthcoming diplomatic effort aimed at persuading Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition. While this sounds like an effort to defend a stance in which one hand of U.S. security policy doesn’t know — or care — what the other is doing, it’s conceit is more sophisticated than that. The subtext of the push for engagement with Iran is that nuclear diplomacy is a wedge by which the U.S. can ease the Islamist regime back into the international mainstream and make it easier for it to start acting like a responsible nation.

That sounds logical but it is exactly the sort of reasoning that Iran is counting on as it pursues its own two-track policy toward the West. The fallacy here is the assumption that Iran’s participation in international terror can somehow be separated from the nuclear threat. In fact, these are two elements of a common strategy aimed at destabilizing the Middle East and increasing Iranian influence. Treating one as if it had nothing to do with the other enables the president to rationalize a diplomatic strategy in which he deeply believes. But diplomacy that is based on willful ignorance of the other side’s goals is one that is doomed to failure. Rather than dismissing the Iranian arms shipment as irrelevant to the nuclear question, the president must shake off his ideological blinders and try to understand that the seizure of the ship is a clear warning of what lies ahead if he continues to blindly pursue engagement with Iran.

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Yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the idea that there ought to be any connection between the interception of an Iranian arms shipment headed for Gaza and the United States pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran. Carney noted that U.S. and Israel had shared intelligence about the sailing of the Kos-C, which was filled with sophisticated and powerful M-302 missiles that had been shipped from Syria and also acknowledged that this provides more proof of Iran’s “bad behavior” as a state sponsor of international terrorism. But he insisted that American efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iran on its nuclear weapons program were a separate issue.

The administration position is that a tough stance on international terror is compatible with a more forthcoming diplomatic effort aimed at persuading Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition. While this sounds like an effort to defend a stance in which one hand of U.S. security policy doesn’t know — or care — what the other is doing, it’s conceit is more sophisticated than that. The subtext of the push for engagement with Iran is that nuclear diplomacy is a wedge by which the U.S. can ease the Islamist regime back into the international mainstream and make it easier for it to start acting like a responsible nation.

That sounds logical but it is exactly the sort of reasoning that Iran is counting on as it pursues its own two-track policy toward the West. The fallacy here is the assumption that Iran’s participation in international terror can somehow be separated from the nuclear threat. In fact, these are two elements of a common strategy aimed at destabilizing the Middle East and increasing Iranian influence. Treating one as if it had nothing to do with the other enables the president to rationalize a diplomatic strategy in which he deeply believes. But diplomacy that is based on willful ignorance of the other side’s goals is one that is doomed to failure. Rather than dismissing the Iranian arms shipment as irrelevant to the nuclear question, the president must shake off his ideological blinders and try to understand that the seizure of the ship is a clear warning of what lies ahead if he continues to blindly pursue engagement with Iran.

Iran’s purpose in shipping missiles to Gaza is no secret. By reviving its alliance with the Hamas terrorists who rule the strip, Tehran is not only hoping to acquire the ability to veto any chance of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It must be seen in the context of a regional struggle for hegemony in which Iran can add Gaza to Syria and Lebanon as strategic outposts from which it can exert influence as well as inflict pain on Israel and the West. Even an Obama administration that is disinclined to think the worst of Iran or to engage in disputes with its leaders can grasp the danger that comes from Tehran moving its chess pieces around the international board in this manner. The regime’s Revolutionary Guard’s transfer of Syrian missiles to Gaza is not only a sign that it may believe the war it has waged along with Hezbollah (with Russian aid) to keep Iranian ally Bashar Assad is largely won but that it also wishes to open up a new front against the West in Gaza.

But to pretend that this threat can somehow be separated from the nuclear issue is testimony to the administration’s myopia about Iran than anything else. The point of Iran’s nuclear program is not just to create a weapon that would enhance the prestige of the Islamist government and secure its long-term survival despite the unhappiness of the Iranian people. It is also a means to extend and reinforce its effort to dominate the region via auxiliaries and allies. An Iran nuke does constitute an existential threat to Israel that has been repeatedly threatened with annihilation by the theocrats of Tehran. But even if that genocidal intent is never acted upon, a bomb gives the ayatollahs a way of creating a nuclear umbrella over Syria, Lebanon and perhaps Gaza and the West Bank (if Hamas ever succeeds in toppling the Palestinian Authority). That changes the balance of power in such a way as to threaten moderate Arab states as well as Israel. The missiles Iran sends to its terrorist allies may be not as frightening as its uranium enrichment program or heavy water plant but these are differences in scale not in purpose.

That’s why the arms shipment must be understood as more than a sideshow to the main event of nuclear diplomacy. The basis of hope for nuclear diplomacy is that Iran’s government is moderating and wishes to rejoin the family of nations. But what is really going on is a two-track policy in which Iran engages in off-and-on diplomatic activity designed to deceive Western leaders and undermine sanctions on the regime while at the same time actively building a weapon and seeking to dominate the region via terrorism and strategic alliances.

The seizure of the weapons ship ought to serve as a wake-up call to the West that nothing has changed in Iran. More to the point, even if they insist on pursuing the P5+1 diplomatic process, it must be done without any illusions about Iranian moderation or a desire for détente with the West. Iran’s deadly deception has been exposed. If the administration’s willful blindness about this prevails over common sense, it won’t make it any more likely that Iran will surrender its nuclear option. To the contrary, keeping the nuclear issue separate from that of the country’s sponsorship of international terror will only confirm the Islamist regime’s belief that it is succeeding in fooling the West.

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Iran Vindicates Israel’s Gaza Blockade

As COMMENTARY noted yesterday, the Israeli Navy seized a general cargo vessel carrying missiles apparently to the Gaza Strip. The weapons are Syrian, allegedly shipped to Hamas by Iran. However, the vessel itself is a Panamanian-flagged ship run by a Marshall Islands shipping company.

Yet so far, no one appears to have accused Israel of violating international law by interdicting the vessel in international waters. This is odd because stopping neutral vessels on the high seas violates fundamental principals of international law, with some narrow exceptions for piracy and the like not relevant here. The United States and a few other countries have tried to carve out a further exception for WMD proliferation through by spearheading the Proliferation Security Initiative — but to the extent that targets WMDs and their delivery systems, it is not obviously relevant here.

Of course, there is another situation in which non-hostile vessels can be stopped on the high seas — blockade running. Israel maintains a naval blockade of the strip. Under international law (as articulated in the the London Declaration Concerning the Laws of Naval War and the San Remo Principles) neutral vessels attempting to run such blockades can, be seized or even sunk on the high seas, or even in foreign waters. 

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As COMMENTARY noted yesterday, the Israeli Navy seized a general cargo vessel carrying missiles apparently to the Gaza Strip. The weapons are Syrian, allegedly shipped to Hamas by Iran. However, the vessel itself is a Panamanian-flagged ship run by a Marshall Islands shipping company.

Yet so far, no one appears to have accused Israel of violating international law by interdicting the vessel in international waters. This is odd because stopping neutral vessels on the high seas violates fundamental principals of international law, with some narrow exceptions for piracy and the like not relevant here. The United States and a few other countries have tried to carve out a further exception for WMD proliferation through by spearheading the Proliferation Security Initiative — but to the extent that targets WMDs and their delivery systems, it is not obviously relevant here.

Of course, there is another situation in which non-hostile vessels can be stopped on the high seas — blockade running. Israel maintains a naval blockade of the strip. Under international law (as articulated in the the London Declaration Concerning the Laws of Naval War and the San Remo Principles) neutral vessels attempting to run such blockades can, be seized or even sunk on the high seas, or even in foreign waters. 

Aside from the U.S., I am not sure any nation has endorsed Israel’s seizure. But given Israel’s armed activities certainly do not enjoy a presumption of legality from the international community, this silence comes quite close to an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the blockade.

Of course, much of the controversy over the “flotilla” incident of 2010 was premised on a denial of the validity of Israel’s blockade.  Current events illustrate how Israel’s position has become increasingly accepted. It also shows how the earlier flap with Turkey was merely contrived.

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Neo-Con Derangement Syndrome and Putin

These are hard times for liberal foreign policy analysts and pundits. The collapse of American credibility abroad in the last year after President Obama’s Syria debacle has now been compounded by the spectacle in the Ukraine as Vladimir Putin confidently dares the West to do something about his theft of Crimea from the Ukraine while knowing full well that they have neither the inclination or the ability to make him pay for aggression. Liberals don’t want to look honestly at the weakness and indecision that routinely paralyzes this administration. Nor can they, as perhaps some liberals might have in the past when Russian aggressors flew the flag of socialism and anti-imperialism, start rationalizing Putin’s actions as defensible. So what do they do? Attack neo-conservatives, of course.

In today’s Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky attempts the near impossible by seeking to turn the facts on their head by claiming those conservatives who rightly warned about the need to pay closer attention to are actually admirers of the Russian authoritarian. Yes, I’m not kidding. The conceit of this piece is so preposterous that it is almost a waste of time to refute it since it claims that those who were and are right about Putin are his secret admirers if not doppelgangers. Coming from the same crowd that mocked Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney for talking about the geostrategic threat from Putin’s Russia, this is what psychologists call deflection. Like all behaviors aimed at blaming others for your own mistakes, it is as false as it is weak. But it tells us a lot about the mindset on the left as they view a dangerous world that can’t be tamed by the magic of Barack Obama’s personality or Hillary Clinton’s comic “reset” button. Having profited from attacks on neoconservatives who were blamed for America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that these conflicts are off the front burner and the U.S. must deal with other challenges, all liberals have left is a strange form of neo-con derangement syndrome.

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These are hard times for liberal foreign policy analysts and pundits. The collapse of American credibility abroad in the last year after President Obama’s Syria debacle has now been compounded by the spectacle in the Ukraine as Vladimir Putin confidently dares the West to do something about his theft of Crimea from the Ukraine while knowing full well that they have neither the inclination or the ability to make him pay for aggression. Liberals don’t want to look honestly at the weakness and indecision that routinely paralyzes this administration. Nor can they, as perhaps some liberals might have in the past when Russian aggressors flew the flag of socialism and anti-imperialism, start rationalizing Putin’s actions as defensible. So what do they do? Attack neo-conservatives, of course.

In today’s Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky attempts the near impossible by seeking to turn the facts on their head by claiming those conservatives who rightly warned about the need to pay closer attention to are actually admirers of the Russian authoritarian. Yes, I’m not kidding. The conceit of this piece is so preposterous that it is almost a waste of time to refute it since it claims that those who were and are right about Putin are his secret admirers if not doppelgangers. Coming from the same crowd that mocked Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney for talking about the geostrategic threat from Putin’s Russia, this is what psychologists call deflection. Like all behaviors aimed at blaming others for your own mistakes, it is as false as it is weak. But it tells us a lot about the mindset on the left as they view a dangerous world that can’t be tamed by the magic of Barack Obama’s personality or Hillary Clinton’s comic “reset” button. Having profited from attacks on neoconservatives who were blamed for America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that these conflicts are off the front burner and the U.S. must deal with other challenges, all liberals have left is a strange form of neo-con derangement syndrome.

When conservatives contrast Obama’s weakness with Putin’s decisive action, they are not expressing admiration for the Russian dictator. What they are pointing out is that when faced with a ruthless opponent, the president’s Hamlet routine isn’t merely unimpressive; it’s a standing invitation to the bad guys to do their worst. And that is exactly what has happened in the Middle East as Iran has helped Bashar Assad hang on in Syria with a crucial assist from Russia despite President Obama’s occasional comments about him having to go and warnings that he will face retribution if he crosses a “red line” and uses chemical weapons on his own people. The foolish and probably futile pursuit of engagement, if not détente, with Iran over its nuclear program is illustrating the same principle. That’s also true of the prelude to what happened in the Ukraine as Putin decided that the U.S. is a paper tiger whose warnings can be flouted with impunity.

What conservatives want is a president who isn’t foolhardy but who is taken seriously when he issues warnings. Tomasky and liberals know Obama isn’t such a leader and they are uncomfortable about the growing evidence that life in an era where the U.S. thinks it is just another Western nation rather than the leader of the free world is a lot more dangerous than it needs to be.

Contrary to Tomasky, neoconservatives aren’t hyping the crisis in Ukraine to regain relevance. The liberal problem is that Obama’s failures are a reminder that his simplistic view of the world and obsessive belief in multilateral diplomacy is no substitute for American strength.

It’s true there’s no knowing what a President McCain or Romney would have done about Putin and no guarantee that they would have succeeded in thwarting his efforts to reassemble the old Tsarist/Soviet empire. But we do know they were thinking carefully about the potential for trouble with Moscow. That is obviously more than one can say about Obama when he dismissed Romney’s comments about Russia with a crack about the 1980’s.

What America needs isn’t another Putin but a tough president who believes in spreading freedom but is pragmatic enough to know when and how to stand up to dictators. While one can fault George W. Bush for his mistakes in Iraq and question whether McCain or Romney or any other conservative would have done better in this crisis, the one thing we do know is that Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry made egregious mistakes in their handling of Russia and that the people of Ukraine are paying the price for those blunders. Along with Putin, they are the ones who should be held accountable for their failures. Whatever blame necons get for Iraq, this is one debacle that is owned lock, stock and barrel by the Democrats and their liberal cheerleaders.

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Iran’s Gaza Arms Shipment and Obama’s Middle East Diplomacy

The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

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The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

Since 2011 Hamas and Iran have been at odds, as they have backed different sides in the Syrian civil war. In addition to pouring arms, money and some of its own forces into Damascus, Iran has deployed its Hezbollah terrorist proxies to back up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. But Hamas sided with Islamist rebels and broke with Tehran over the dispute. But prior to that Hamas looked to Iran as its principal supplier of arms and cash during the second intifada fighting with Israel. Though Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shi’ite, the two bonded over their mutual hatred for Israel and Jews.

Proof of the sophisticated nature of the arms pipeline between Tehran and Gaza came in 2002 when the Israeli Navy seized the Karine A, a ship that was loaded with Iranian missiles and various other types of military hardware intended for use by Hamas. Iran’s intentions were clear. They were prepared to back any force willing to fight Israel and to kill Jews in any manner possible.

The breakup of that alliance demonstrated Hamas’ belief that they no longer needed Iran’s assistance. But things have changed since the start of the Arab Spring when the Islamist group thought it could count on support from Egypt and Turkey to make up for the money and arms it got from Iran. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and its replacement by a military regime that seems determined to shut down the smuggling tunnels into Gaza has placed Hamas under tremendous financial pressure. It has also been disappointed by Turkey whose Islamist government talked big about backing Hamas but now seems too preoccupied with its own domestic troubles to do much to prop up Gaza. That leaves Iran, which seems to have prevailed in Syria and is ready and willing to step back into its old role as Hamas’ funder and arms supplier as well as being the chief instigator of mayhem along Israel’s southern border.

Iran’s re-entry into the Israel-Palestinian conflict is just one more reason why Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is bound to fail. He and President Obama continue to act as if Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas not only is ready to make peace but has the ability to withstand pressure from Hamas and the rejectionists in his own Fatah to make a deal stick. This is clearly untrue. But now that Hamas has Iran in its corner again, Abbas must understand that any hopes that his rivals in Gaza will collapse are mere pipe dreams. Iran’s backing for Hamas not only makes Kerry’s peace talks look like a fool’s errand, their money and munitions may also be a down payment on the launch of a third intifada.

The standard refrain of Israel-bashers is that more violence will be the fault of the Jewish state’s alleged intransigence. But the real reason for another intifada may have more to do with Iran’s geo-strategic ambitions than West Bank settlements. With Syria and Lebanon still firmly in Tehran’s grasp, adding Hamas to the list of its allies gives the ayatollahs one more weapon to wield in its quest for regional hegemony. Stopping the already remote chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is one of their goals. But Iran also sees this as a chance to further complicate Western efforts to exert pressure on their nuclear program.

President Obama may believe he is embarked on a diplomatic quest with Iran that will result in a new détente that will lessen the chances of conflict and allow the United States to ease out of a strategic role in which it stands beside both Israel and moderate Arab states. But Iran has very different goals. The seizure of the arms shipment is a wake-up call for Washington. But it is an open question as to whether President Obama and Secretary Kerry are too besotted with their hopes for détente with Iran to listen to reason.

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Netanyahu Doesn’t Take Obama’s Bait

The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

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The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

Back in May 2011, Obama chose to give a speech attacking Israel’s stand on the peace process and demanding that it accept the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations just as before Netanyahu arrived in Washington. Obama had picked fights with Israel in 2009 and 2010 over Jerusalem and settlements but this was a direct attack on the prime minister. Netanyahu’s response was just as direct. When he met with Obama in the White House, he launched into a lengthy lecture to the president about Israeli security that made it clear to the president that he would not take the insult lying down. Netanyahu doubled down on that the next day when he received more cheers while addressing a joint meeting of Congress than the president had ever gotten.

But this time, Netanyahu chose to ignore the president’s slights. There were no public or even off-the-record remarks from his party expressing anger. And in his speech to AIPAC today, Netanyahu barely mentioned the president.

Though Israel has been squabbling with the U.S. over the direction of the Iran nuclear talks, Netanyahu broke no new ground on the issue in his speech. He restated his concerns about Tehran continuing uranium enrichment during the nuclear talks. But he did not allude to the fact that the U.S. was letting this happen. While he repeated his vow to do anything necessary to defend Israeli security — a veiled threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — he kept his disagreements to a minimum and emphasized the joint concerns of the U.S. and Israel.

With regard to the topic on which Obama had been most critical — the peace process with the Palestinians — there was also no allusion to disagreement with Washington. To the contrary, Netanyahu spoke more about his desire for peace; his willingness to continue engaging in talks with the Palestinians and the advantages that peace would bring to Israel and the entire Middle East. Far from harping on the points where he and Obama disagree about the terms of a theoretical agreement, Netanyahu emphasized a key point where the U.S. had accepted Israel’s position: the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thus signaling their willingness to end the conflict rather than merely pausing it.

While Netanyahu went on to denounce the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against as both immoral and anti-Semitic, the key here was a disinclination to use his speech to engage in a tit-for-tat battle with the administration. Why was that?

Some Obama loyalists may claim that this shows that Netanyahu got the message from the president. It’s likely that Israel’s future participation in Kerry’s talks will be cited by some in this group as evidence that Obama’s spanking of the prime minister worked. But this is nonsense. Given that Israel had already signaled that it will accept Kerry’s framework for more talks, that explanation won’t hold water.

A better reason for Netanyahu’s decision to turn the other cheek is that, unlike the president, the prime minister has been paying attention to the currents currently roiling Palestinian politics and knows that Abbas’ inability to rally his people behind a peace agreement renders any potential U.S.-Israeli arguments moot.

It should be remembered that the net results of the 2011 dustup between the two men was pointless. Despite Obama’s best efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, Abbas still wouldn’t budge enough to even negotiate, let alone agree to peace terms. The same dynamic is unfolding today with Israel reportedly offering massive territorial withdrawals of up to 90 percent of the West Bank in the secret talks with the PA while the Palestinians are still tying themselves up in knots explaining why they can’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state or give up the right of return.

Far from needing to defend himself on the American stage as he felt it important to do in 2011, Netanyahu now understands that forbearance is the best way to respond to Obama’s provocations. Try as he might to put the onus for the lack of peace on the Jewish state, Netanyahu knows it will always be the Palestinians who say “no” to peace, not the Israelis.

Similarly, as much as he must have been itching to directly take on Obama’s appeasement of Tehran, Netanyahu realizes that it is Iran’s lust for a nuclear weapon that will do more to undermine the administration’s negotiating tactics than anything he can say.

By eschewing any desire to pressure the Palestinians to make peace, the president more or less guaranteed that Kerry must ultimately fail. And by knuckling under the Iranians in the interim agreement signed by Kerry last November, President Obama has also embarked on a path that cannot lead him to the achievement of his stated goals in the current round of talks.

Though Obama’s attacks did real damage to Israel’s position, the prime minister is right to refuse to take the bait. Netanyahu cannot have failed to see that, far from offering him the opportunity to effectively pressure the Israelis, the president is floundering in his second term especially on foreign policy. The most effective answer to Obama’s taunts is patience since events will soon overtake the president’s positions on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts, as well as in other debacles around the globe that have popped up because of Obama’s weak leadership. Though the disparity in the relative power of their positions inevitably means Netanyahu must worry about Obama’s barbs, the bottom line here is that it is the president and not the prime minister who is in big trouble.

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Obama, Ukraine and the Price of Weakness

There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

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There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

A world in which dictators do as they like despite clear American warnings — as President Obama did first in Syria and then again this week about attacks on Ukraine — is not only a far more dangerous place. It also creates a dynamic in which every such American warning or diplomatic initiative is discounted as mere rhetoric, even if those daring to defy the United States are not so well situated as Putin is with his bold stroke in the Crimea. That is especially true with regards to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of the U.S. diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are starkly different from those in the territories of the former Soviet Union. But the basic formula of a bold rogue regime that has no reason to fear the threats or the blandishments of either the U.S. or Europe is present in the P5+1 talks. Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy. The Obama administration gave up the formidable military, political and economic leverage they had over Iran last fall by signing an interim agreement with Iran that gave Tehran what it wanted in terms of recognizing their right to enrich uranium as well as loosening sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. If the Iranians had good reason to think they had nothing to fear from the Obama administration before this latest humiliation of the president at the hands of Putin, their conviction that they can be as tough as they like with him without worrying about a strong American response can only be greater today.

It is too late to save Ukraine from the theft of its territory. But it is not too late to reverse the U.S. retreat from the world stage that has been going on in the last years. President Obama can begin to regain some of his credibility by taking a strong stand on sanctions against Russia and sticking to it. But if he doesn’t no one should be under the illusion that it won’t affect Obama’s ability to prevail in the Iran talks. The cost of Obama-style weakness and isolationism will not be cheap, either for U.S. allies or for an American people who must now understand what it is like to live in a world where no one respects or fears their government.

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In America’s Absence, Israel Acts in Syria

Amid the Obama administration’s increasingly apparent dereliction of duty to America’s role on the world stage, it seems that, in the Middle East at least, Israel is taking on an increased level of responsibility in the effort to halt the proliferation of both weapons of mass destruction and terror groups. This has been particularly apparent when it comes to the ongoing crisis and instability in Syria and the reports today that Israel’s air force carried out strikes against Hezbollah strongholds on the Syrian border so as to disrupt efforts to transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon.

Given the refusal of the administration to take decisive action in Syria, the ongoing indication that Obama is seeking further withdrawals of U.S. troops–most significantly in Afghanistan–and now the cuts to the defense budget, it is clear that Western allies in the region are going to find themselves increasingly isolated. If this policy is to continue, Israel faces the prospect of being ever more alone in a region descending into worsening turmoil. The concern in places like Syria is not simply restricted to the fear of rogue regimes using stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons against their own people. Rather, with the growing strength of al-Qaeda-linked groups in these conflict zones, there is a real risk of the most devastating weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants prepared to use them indiscriminately.   

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Amid the Obama administration’s increasingly apparent dereliction of duty to America’s role on the world stage, it seems that, in the Middle East at least, Israel is taking on an increased level of responsibility in the effort to halt the proliferation of both weapons of mass destruction and terror groups. This has been particularly apparent when it comes to the ongoing crisis and instability in Syria and the reports today that Israel’s air force carried out strikes against Hezbollah strongholds on the Syrian border so as to disrupt efforts to transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon.

Given the refusal of the administration to take decisive action in Syria, the ongoing indication that Obama is seeking further withdrawals of U.S. troops–most significantly in Afghanistan–and now the cuts to the defense budget, it is clear that Western allies in the region are going to find themselves increasingly isolated. If this policy is to continue, Israel faces the prospect of being ever more alone in a region descending into worsening turmoil. The concern in places like Syria is not simply restricted to the fear of rogue regimes using stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons against their own people. Rather, with the growing strength of al-Qaeda-linked groups in these conflict zones, there is a real risk of the most devastating weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants prepared to use them indiscriminately.   

It is essentially only on account of Israel that the world does not currently face the unimaginable possibility of a Syria armed with nuclear weapons. Israel is widely understood to have been behind the 2007 strike on the North Korean-abetted nuclear program in Syria. Just as it was Israel that spared us all from the grim reality of life with a nuclear Iraq–no doubt with Saddam still in power to this day–when the Israelis took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. As such, it does not seem unreasonable to speculate that, had it not been for the Obama administration purposefully tying Israel’s hands, the Iranian nuclear threat and the risk of a nuclear domino effect across the region might already have been lifted by now.

This, then, is a reminder of how Israel acts as somewhat of a restraining force in the Middle East. It also reaffirms the wrongheadedness of the commonly heard assertion that Israel and its dispute with the Palestinians is a regional destabilizer, that without the “Israel problem” the region would calm down and the Islamic world would forget its enmity for America. The latest strike by the IAF against Hezbollah forces attempting to transfer Syrian weapons to its Iranian proxy army in Lebanon is yet another example of how in the absence of decisive American action, Israel instead is acting to prevent the further deterioration of security in the region.

It is also worth considering these facts in light of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to reach a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As part of efforts to reach an agreement it appears that the State Department has been pushing for an Israeli withdrawal from the strategically vital Jordan Valley, with the suggestion that American troops might take the place of the Israeli ones currently based there. This proposal seems all the more ludicrous given the Obama administration’s moves to cut back on both the defense budget and the U.S. military presence in the area as a whole. Israel cannot allow itself to be turned into a strategic basket case; it must maintain the means as well as the territory by which it is possible for it to go on defending itself.

But as we have been reminded of in recent days, Israel does not simply defend itself, it also acts to restrain dangerous extremist and rogue forces in the wider region. 

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Treaty Cheating: The New START Precedent

Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

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Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

The Obama administration recently acknowledged having concerns that Russia is in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, though it has yet to formally accuse Moscow of any violation. The apparent source of concern is Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile, dating back to 2008. The agreement prohibits Russia and the United States from producing, stockpiling or testing any cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

In their letter, Senate Armed Services Committee members Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) demanded to know whether McKeon was aware of the alleged treaty breach at the time when he was acting as a key White House representative on Capitol Hill during the push to secure Senate ratification of the New START treaty, according to the news publication.

“Based on your role as Vice President [Joe] Biden’s lead negotiator on the New START treaty and as one of the Obama administration’s primary liaisons with the Senate during the New START ratification process, we are interested in what you knew about potential violations of the INF treaty and what information was shared with the Senate,” the two senators said.

Wicker and Ayotte also want answers on why it took the Obama administration so many years to update Congress on its concerns about possible treaty transgressions by Moscow.

“If the administration knew about potential violations during consideration of the treaty and did not fully inform the Senate of these violations while it debated New START, this would represent a serious abrogation of the administration’s responsibilities,” states the letter, which was viewed by the Daily Beast.

New START was, from the beginning, a puzzling distraction from much more important nonproliferation issues. But the Obama administration, true to form, was substituting public relations for public policy. The president wanted to show that the two countries were resetting relations, and the deal, while otherwise useless, served the administration’s purposes.

New START looks even less promising in the rearview mirror, once the “reset” had completely crumbled and Vladimir Putin had thoroughly humiliated the president on the world stage. But even at the time it was both shallow and a foolish expenditure of political capital. But the legacy of New START changes in important ways if the president can’t claim to have been naively duped by Putin and if, instead, a top American negotiator pushed the treaty through with the knowledge that the Russians were simultaneously violating past arms agreements and therefore unlikely to comply with this one.

McKeon’s nomination aside, the issue goes to the heart of the concern over far more important agreements, like the Syria chemical-weapons deal and above all the Iranian nuclear deal. The hope has been that while Obama is being desperately out-negotiated by rogue regimes, if they don’t comply with those deals the White House will acknowledge so and act accordingly. That goes not just for Iran but for companies who enable Iran to violate sanctions. “We will come down on them like a ton of bricks,” Obama threatened recently.

But history shows that the president is, at times, more concerned with signing deals than with ensuring the intended outcome of those deals. The questions surrounding Brian McKeon and New START raise the possibility that the president’s critics are more on-target than even they thought.

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Why the President Don’t Get No Respect

“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

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“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

And neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem all that patient with Kerry’s diplomacy there, which they consider a vanity project. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon caused quite a stir by dismissing Kerry as a blundering obsessive with a messiah complex. While certainly impolitic, over time it appeared to be not so much a gaffe as a calculated, if indecorous, risk. Last month I quoted Shmuel Rosner’s explanation, which has plenty of logic: Yaalon “was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.”

It was, then, almost something of an intervention. This is the single most recognizable aspect of Kerry-as-diplomat: a man who will talk to everyone but listen to no one. The insult from Yaalon stung because it was true. It certainly didn’t help matters much when Susan Rice tweeted out her defense of Kerry that pleaded with others to stop making fun of Kerry and let him eat lunch at their table.

The episode was reminiscent of when Obama, anticipating criticism of letting Vice President Joe Biden handle important tasks, playfully warned “Nobody messes with Joe!” It was laughable, Rob Long commented at the time, “Because everybody messes with Joe.” He summed up the general attitude toward Biden’s oversight authority: “Biden couldn’t oversee a ham sandwich.”

Obama-era diplomacy ostensibly designed to increase respect for America abroad is having precisely the opposite effect. In fairness, however, there is much overlap between the world-on-fire conflicts and the administration’s negotiations. Syria is the prime example: a desire for a negotiated solution caused the administration to preempt its own military action in order to talk about getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Assad regime is, unsurprisingly, ignoring its responsibilities under the deal and letting the deadlines evaporate. While this is a case of America trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict, it’s clear that the Obama administration’s interlocutors think the president is a bit of a joke. A procession of empty threats will usually have that effect.

And the violence in Ukraine ended–or at least was greatly reduced–by a negotiating process that excluded the United States. The message is clear: productive diplomacy is conducted without the Obama administration. So it’s important to note that the impression of Obama as weak or not worth respecting abroad is not–as perhaps members of the administration might like to believe–a result of a lack of the use of force. It’s not solely about projecting strength; it’s also about projecting competence and trustworthiness. That the Obama White House doesn’t project any of the three helps explain his poll numbers abroad.

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Can Iran and Israel Put Aside “Differences?”

It is now time for Iran and Israel to bury their hostilities and differences. That at least is the contention put forward by Navid Hassibi in his piece published yesterday, Why Can’t Iran and Israel be Friends? Hassibi, who is currently a scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, lauds the idea that, as in the past, Iran and Israel might find shared national interests and areas of cooperation. Well who could possibly be opposed to such sentiments?

The problem with the argument here, however, is the strange suggestion of equivalence that this piece adopts. Hassibi talks of the two countries needing to set aside their “mutual hostility” so as to “look beyond their political differences.” Yet, such a tone is more than a little disingenuous. After all, what exactly are the political differences that we’re talking about here? Mainly it is that Israel thinks it should exist, while Iran has made quite clear that it thinks Israel shouldn’t. That’s the kind of “political differences” that are being faced.

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It is now time for Iran and Israel to bury their hostilities and differences. That at least is the contention put forward by Navid Hassibi in his piece published yesterday, Why Can’t Iran and Israel be Friends? Hassibi, who is currently a scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, lauds the idea that, as in the past, Iran and Israel might find shared national interests and areas of cooperation. Well who could possibly be opposed to such sentiments?

The problem with the argument here, however, is the strange suggestion of equivalence that this piece adopts. Hassibi talks of the two countries needing to set aside their “mutual hostility” so as to “look beyond their political differences.” Yet, such a tone is more than a little disingenuous. After all, what exactly are the political differences that we’re talking about here? Mainly it is that Israel thinks it should exist, while Iran has made quite clear that it thinks Israel shouldn’t. That’s the kind of “political differences” that are being faced.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that the piece in question was published via the Guardian, at the Tehran Bureau hosted on the newspaper’s website. The Tehran Bureau appears to be filled with news stories and opinion pieces devoted to showing the “other side” of life in Iran–arts and culture, feel-good pieces about growing moderation and openness in the country, the occasional murmur of concern about human rights or the economy. And if the Guardian is choosing to host the Tehran Bureau, then this alone surely raises some not unreasonable questions about what kind of agenda might be at play here.

Hassibi’s article is at pains to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that Iran and Israel, particularly prior to the Islamic revolution, engaged in a great deal of cooperation and maintained remarkably warm relations. But this is precisely the point. When the people governing Iran weren’t daily calling for the obliteration of the “Zionist entity” and arming Israel’s terrorist enemies to the teeth, Israel bore no ill will toward the Iranians whatsoever. But when Hassibi claims that there is “mutual hostility,” we are being dishonest with ourselves if we choose to forget that the regime in Iran is the same one that, as Douglas Murray once put it, “denies the last Holocaust while expressing an interest in committing the next one.”

Imagine the sense of surprise, then, at discovering Jewish acquaintances optimistically parading Hassibi’s opinion piece across the social media sphere, enthusiastically endorsing its claims and embracing its recommendations. Eager for any good news at all on this front, young liberal-minded Jews are ever ready to be convinced of these kinds of sentiments. The more lovely the story, the more ready they are to believe it. This idea about “mutual hostility” and both sides needing to set aside “political differences” chimes well with the kindergarten teachings they recall of how if one is only nice enough to others, then soon enough they will start to be nice back. It involves a sense of disbelief that anyone in the world is really bad, or could ever really mean it when they say they hate Jews. If Israel would only bury the hatchet, then all this unpleasantness with Iran could stop, and as the title of Hassibi’s piece suggests, everyone could just get on with being friends.   

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Robert Malley and the Shift to Appeasement

Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

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Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

At the time he was working for the Obama campaign, his defenders, including a gaggle of high-ranking Clinton foreign-policy officials, denounced Malley’s critics for what they claimed were unfair personal attacks. But the problem with Malley was never so much about his motives or his father’s role as a supporter of the Egyptian Communist Party and the Nasser regime as it was his own beliefs and policies.

By claiming as he did in an infamous article in the New York Review of Books in August of 2001 that the Camp David summit’s failure was Israel’s fault rather than that of Arafat, Malley demonstrated extraordinary bias against the Jewish state as well as a willingness to revise recent history to fit his personal agenda. Malley absolved Arafat from blame for refusing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. In doing so he not only flatly contradicted the testimony of President Bill Clinton and other U.S. officials present, but his justification of Arafat’s indefensible behavior also served to rationalize the Palestinian terror offensive that followed their rejection of peace.

In the years since then, Malley has remained a virulent critic of Israel and an advocate for recognition and acceptance of the Hamas terrorists who rule Gaza as well as engagement with Iran and other rejectionist states.

All this should have been enough to keep him out of any administration that professed friendship for Israel. But by putting him in charge of relations with the Gulf states, President Obama is also demonstrating that he is determined to continue a policy of downgrading relations with traditional allies in favor of better relations with Iran and other radicals. As much as Israel has cause for concern about the headlong rush to embrace Iran, the Saudis have just as much reason to worry, especially because of the administration’s failure to act in Syria, where Iran’s ally Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war to hold on to power. The Saudis are right to dismiss the president’s attempts to reassure them on Iran. Now that he has appointed a longtime advocate of embracing America’s foes, it’s not likely they will feel any better about U.S. policy.

The return to a position of influence of an Arafat apologist like Malley is one more sign of just how far the president has strayed from his campaign pledges on the Middle East. The U.S. drift toward appeasement of radical Islamists is no longer a matter of speculation but a fact. Any constraints on administration policies based in concern about alienating America’s allies are now a thing of the past.

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