Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

Assessing John Kerry

Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

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Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

Perhaps the only success to which Kerry can point is the deal for Syria to forfeit its chemical-weapons arsenal, never mind that a cynic could see the precedent as rogue leaders getting a free shot to kill 1,400 civilians before coming in from the cold. In recent weeks, however, even that deal appears to be less than meets the eye. Last month, the Syrian regime apparently again used chemical weapons, an incident blogged about at the time and an attack subsequently acknowledged by the State Department, even if the State Department spokesman declined to assess blame.

Subsequently, the Brown Moses Blog, which tends to be the most careful and credible open source resource on Syrian chemical weapons, has posted video outlining claims of a new attack in Al-Tamanah. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says Syria has complied with the removal or disposal of Syrian chemical material, it is important to remember that is based on what Syria has declared, and there is no way of knowing whether it includes all Syrian chemical munitions. Meanwhile, the OPCW has concluded “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in the aftermath of apparent regime attacks on civilians in northern Syria. And so, while Kerry celebrates, Syrians suffocate.

Let us hope that Kerry can redeem himself. But if there’s one lesson he might learn as he assesses his tenure so far, it’s that he isn’t the center of the world and desire and rhetoric aren’t enough to win success. Perhaps he might look at his failures and recognize that many problems are more complicated than he—or the staff charged with preparing him—seems to recognize. In the meantime, while he assesses where the United States was diplomatically when he took office and where it is today, he might remember the maxim for doctors could just as easily apply to himself: First, do no harm.

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Voice of America Needs a Strategy

Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”

VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

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Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”

VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

The Pashto service isn’t alone. Many Iranians have questioned why VOA’s Persian Service and Radio Farda have in the past (I haven’t followed it in recent years) seemed so sympathetic to pro-regime reformists. Indeed, many mocked them as “Radio Khatami.” While diplomats might understandably think more favorably toward Iranian reformists than Iranian hardliners, the fact of the matter is that neither represents the broad array of Iranians who are, at best, overwhelmingly apathetic toward the regime imposed upon them, if not actively hostile to it.

It’s clear that VOA should not be simply an ordinary news service. The private sector handles that better, and CNN, CNBC, and even Fox are increasingly available abroad. Even in autocratic countries like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, residents can access a plethora of satellite stations, even when such access isn’t really legal.

So, here’s a modest proposal: The Broadcasting Board of Governors should identify in each country hostile to the United States or behind an iron curtain what journalists in that country aren’t allowed to pursue. In Iran, it could be stories about the leaders’ moral and financial corruption, strong women, or the arguments of dissident religious leaders. In Turkey, journalists are not able to cover fully Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s corruption and that of his cronies, or explore fully Kurdish issues.

In Algeria, it could be interviews with refugees who have escaped their captivity in the Tindouf refugee camps or the plight of the Berbers; and in North Korea and Eritrea, it could be just about anything. Given limited resources, VOA broadcasting to that country should focus on those banned subjects. That would guarantee relevance, an audience, and invariably bolster American interests as well.

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Iraqis at the Polls

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

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I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

The second issue which the elections should resolve is the question of the presidency. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, remains paralyzed, impaired cognitively, and barely able to speak. Kurdish officials have released only two sets of photographs since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2012, and his family refuses him visitors or to release videos. Those who suggest Talabani is recuperating well have become the second coming of Saddam’s former Information Minister Muhammed Saeed “There are no Americans in Baghdad” al-Sahaf.

The only certainty from this new election is that it will usher in a new presidency. I have written before about the Masud Barzani option. Visiting Baghdad last month, I also heard rumors that Barzani’s uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, could fill the position, thereby creating a vacancy in the foreign ministry. While many Americans may hope that former Kurdish prime minister and Iraqi Minister of Planning Barham Salih could fit the bill for president, Barham has to overcome two hurdles working against him: First is that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he represents, has steadily hemorrhaged voter support. Many Iraqis would rightly question why the plum post of the presidency should go to the third-place finisher. Iraq, after all, isn’t like the European Union, where failed national politicians get plum posts as consolation prizes.

A greater obstacle for Barham is the animosity which Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani’s wife and the keeper of PUK finances, has for him. Simply put, she hates him and would do anything she can to scuttle any promotion for him. That is too bad, because if Hoshyar Zebari takes the presidency, Barham would make an excellent foreign minister. Hero is too small-minded to care, but short-sightedness has always been the Kurds’ No. 1 enemy. That said, many Iraqis question why the Kurds should automatically consider the presidency reserved for them. If the Kurds do succeed in taking the presidency, then it confirms the Lebanese confessional model in Iraq, a model that does not have a strong track record of preserving peace.

Many other issues remain unresolved which I will write about after the election: The situation in Kirkuk remains volatile, even as most across the political, ethnic, and sectarian spectrum acknowledge that Governor Najmaldin Karim has done an excellent job. The question of oil and, more broadly, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government remains unresolved. Sectarianism continues to eat away at Iraqi society, and al-Qaeda’s rise will challenge a third Maliki term or a new premier. All major Iraqi political figures utilize their sons and immediate family members to engage in what at best would appear to be a conflict of interest and at worst is blatant corruption.

Unless Maliki wins a majority outright rather than a plurality, Iraq is in for a rough ride. Should Maliki not top fifty percent of the vote, Iraqis can expect it to takes months if not more than a year to put together a new government. The bidding and brinkmanship will make previous Iraqi caucuses pale in comparison because the opposition will calculate that they either rid themselves of Maliki at this junction, or they live with him forever. Iraq’s Kurds will use that brinkmanship to up the ante on autonomy, unresolved issues relating to Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and power in Baghdad. Some sectarian parties—and not only those in Anbar and Mosul—might calculate that they can utilize violence to bolster their position at the negotiating table or, conversely, to undercut their opponents. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran will not hesitate to interfere for sectarian reasons and to support their respective proxies.

Let us hope that Iraqis—all Iraqis—have on Wednesday a successful election not marred by violence. But once the polls close and the ballots are pointed, the real struggle will begin. America no longer occupies Iraq, but it is essential to remain engaged in what will become a long period of diplomatic need.

UPDATE: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan late this afternoon Iraqi time released its first video of President Jalal Talabani since his stroke. While it depicts him as wheelchair bound and without speaking, it clearly shows him moving his arms. Still, he does not appear in any condition to exercise his functions as president.

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Khamenei Loves Carter’s Book on Women

Love Jimmy Carter or hate him, one thing is certain: The Iranian hostage crisis paralyzed his presidency and contributed heavily to his political downfall. A chapter of my new book examines in detail Carter administration outreach to Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis and while Carter made many mistakes, too often his critics ignore the very real belief at the time that Iran’s revolutionary authorities could do anything, including trying American diplomats before revolutionary tribunals and executing them.

The Islamic Revolution, of course, did many things. Despite the rhetoric of social justice that infuses the Islamic Republic’s religious rhetoric, it ushered in an increase in sectarianism and a rollback of basic human rights across Iranian society. Whereas women in Middle Eastern countries have long fought for new rights, the Islamic Republic was unique—at least until recently with the Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—in that women had to fight for rights which had been taken away from them. Nor are there many countries whose governments take pride in imprisoning and perhaps even executing rape victims.

So, it’s always slightly ironic when senior Iranian officials extol the Utopia they say their country has become for women. And so it was with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the self-professed deputy of the messiah on Earth, who gave a speech on women’s rights recently. The values the Islamic Republic hold dear in women?

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Love Jimmy Carter or hate him, one thing is certain: The Iranian hostage crisis paralyzed his presidency and contributed heavily to his political downfall. A chapter of my new book examines in detail Carter administration outreach to Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis and while Carter made many mistakes, too often his critics ignore the very real belief at the time that Iran’s revolutionary authorities could do anything, including trying American diplomats before revolutionary tribunals and executing them.

The Islamic Revolution, of course, did many things. Despite the rhetoric of social justice that infuses the Islamic Republic’s religious rhetoric, it ushered in an increase in sectarianism and a rollback of basic human rights across Iranian society. Whereas women in Middle Eastern countries have long fought for new rights, the Islamic Republic was unique—at least until recently with the Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—in that women had to fight for rights which had been taken away from them. Nor are there many countries whose governments take pride in imprisoning and perhaps even executing rape victims.

So, it’s always slightly ironic when senior Iranian officials extol the Utopia they say their country has become for women. And so it was with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the self-professed deputy of the messiah on Earth, who gave a speech on women’s rights recently. The values the Islamic Republic hold dear in women?

A mother who has offered two, three, four martyrs in the way of God and who has stood firm despite this, advises us to stand firm as well. One really feels humility in the face of such greatness. These are the realities about the women of our society which are very glorious and important realities. Well, this is thankfully the bright and shining part of the issue of women in our country.

He continues to lament women’s suffrage and the growing role in society that women have played in the West since the Industrial Revolution. He continues to cite none other than Jimmy Carter to describe the supposedly horrible state of women in the West:

I found it to be a very important writing. I have brought it to this meeting to read it for you. A book written by Jimmy Carter – the former president of America – has been published which is named “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, And Power”. Jimmy Carter says in this book, “Every year, 100,000 girls are sold as slaves in America where the owner of a brothel can buy girls – who are usually Latin American or African – at only 1000 dollars.” He also refers to the rapes which occur in colleges where only one case out of 25 cases is reported. He goes on to say that only one percent of rapists are put to trial in the army. One cries when one reads such things. We can see many such writings in newspapers. I see such writings as well, but I never base my opinions on them. However, these are realities. Jimmy Carter is a well-known personality after all and this is his book.

Khamenei is referring to Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. While Carter is right to point out a lack of progress in some aspects of Western society, he has little perspective or sense of balance about relative rights. He exaggerates or uses unreliable or discredited statistics to bash the West, and tends to embrace cultural relevancy and downplay the horrific violence and discrimination women face in the Middle East and broader Islamic world.

For example, he describes Saudi women as “bubbl[ing] over with pleasure as they extolled their enhanced status in Saudi society, with its special protection, plus freedom and privilege.” Indeed, he then observed “women in the Kingdom relish some customs that Westerners consider deprivations.” How unfortunate it is that a man who was once leader of the free world so readily considers individual liberty and freedom to choose how to live one’s life such a burden.

Carter also includes some potted history with regard to Iran, but he fails to mention the repressions Iranian women face. The closest he comes is to lament that Tehran—along with Sudan, Somalia, the island nations of Palau and Tonga, and the United States—have not ratified the UN’s The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. He neglects to realize that many Arab countries have ratified but then moved to exempt themselves from the Convention’s provisions, or ignored them altogether, nor mentions the reasons why the United States has not ratified the treaty, which have more to do with sovereignty than misogyny. Bashing Western freedom and whitewashing abuses in the Islamic world does not make an individual enlightened; it makes him or her a bigot, willing to condemn others to tyranny based on the location of their birth.

The arrogance of power—and life in an echo chamber—can lead to the moral miscalibration that appears to afflict our nation’s 39th president. But, if there was ever a time to stand up and engage in some serious introspection, it is probably when Iran’s supreme leader seems so enthusiastic to endorse your latest book.

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Why Does the Clarion Project Endorse Mujahedin al-Khalq?

The Clarion Project dedicates itself “to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.” Progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress as well as those close to the Muslim Brotherhood like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society of North America have condemned the group, more often than not by labeling it to try to stigmatize it and its supporters so as to avoid a much-needed debate on issues surrounding radical Islamism.

A truism of radical Islamism is that those most in its cross hairs are moderates. For all American officials talk about “green on blue” violence in Afghanistan, they often omit that rates of “green on green” violence is about three times as high. An extremist’s attempted assassination of then-14-year-old school girl Malala Yousefzai was followed by the silence of Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni activist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize precisely because the committee wanted to depict the Muslim Brotherhood, an affiliate of which she is a member, as a peaceful organization. CAIR, an unabashed supporter of Hamas, often keeps its powder dry to attack groups like the American Islamic Congress or the American Islamic Forum for Democracy precisely because they refuse to deny the links between terrorism and more extreme interpretations of Islam.

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The Clarion Project dedicates itself “to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.” Progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress as well as those close to the Muslim Brotherhood like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society of North America have condemned the group, more often than not by labeling it to try to stigmatize it and its supporters so as to avoid a much-needed debate on issues surrounding radical Islamism.

A truism of radical Islamism is that those most in its cross hairs are moderates. For all American officials talk about “green on blue” violence in Afghanistan, they often omit that rates of “green on green” violence is about three times as high. An extremist’s attempted assassination of then-14-year-old school girl Malala Yousefzai was followed by the silence of Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni activist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize precisely because the committee wanted to depict the Muslim Brotherhood, an affiliate of which she is a member, as a peaceful organization. CAIR, an unabashed supporter of Hamas, often keeps its powder dry to attack groups like the American Islamic Congress or the American Islamic Forum for Democracy precisely because they refuse to deny the links between terrorism and more extreme interpretations of Islam.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Clarion Project, as it is dedicated to countering radical Islam, lists  a number of progressive Muslim organizations. What is surprising is that they list among them the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the front organization of the Mujahedin al-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group. The Mujahedin al-Khalq may be a lot of things, but it is neither progressive nor is it non-violent. Progressive movements tend not to dictate to women who to marry and who to divorce. It has its roots in the same Islamist currents that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini drank from, and only abandoned the Islamic Republic when its revolutionary vortex turned on the movement. Then it attached itself to Saddam Hussein and allowed itself to be used almost as a mercenary organization against both Kurds and Iraqi Shi’ites.

That does not excuse Iran’s targeting of the group, but the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not always wise, unless those who criticize Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was too close to Iran really want to embrace Muqtada al-Sadr. To accept the Mujahedin al-Khalq as a moderate organization is analytically shallow given the group’s record of behavior, its dishonesty in its written work, its past targeting of Americans, and the fact that its rhetoric about democracy does not match its practice.

To counter Islamist radicalism and the totalitarianism and anti-liberalism it represents is a noble goal. And those on the front line are the moderate Muslim organizations that are willing to take on radicals like CAIR and weather the often-unhinged hostility of the progressive left in America. But to lump the Mujahedin al-Khalq in with progressive Muslim organizations not only erodes the credibility of Clarion, but tars legitimate progressive Muslim organizations that already have an uphill battle.

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A Righteous Man and the Imperative to Act

Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

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Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

Born Jan Kozielewski, he used Karski as his nom de guerre when after his escape from Soviet imprisonment (an army officer, he was captured when the Soviet Union invaded Poland as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact) and joined the Polish Home Army. During the course of his activities in the underground, Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit point for the Belzec death camp. In 1942 he brought proof of the reality of the Holocaust to first Britain and then the following year to the United States when, under the sponsorship of the free Polish government in exile, he spread the news of the extermination of the Jews to American leaders including Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and William Donovan, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. As he later told the story, in his own writings, Roosevelt was silent when Karski discussed the fate of the Jews, asking questions only about the conditions of horses in Poland. Frankfurter, a Jew, said that while he didn’t question Karski’s honesty, he nevertheless “could not believe him.” Karski was shocked at the Allied leaders’ refusal to act on his knowledge even to bomb the railroad tracks to the death camps when that became possible.

This is important because Karski’s reports not only make it abundantly clear that the nature of the Nazi war on the Jews was not a secret to the West but that it was also a matter of public record. Karski published an account of what was going on in Poland in 1944. The idea that no one knew about the Holocaust until the death camps were liberated in 1945 is a myth that was accepted as truth because few, either in positions of power or out of them, wanted to acknowledge that the Allies simply chose to ignore Karski’s accounts or treat them as irrelevant to their wartime mission of defeating Germany.

The question of what could have been done to rescue the Jews of Europe is still a sore point with many rightly pointing out that most of those murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators were beyond the help of the Allies. But the minimal attempts to foster rescue, such as the belated and underfunded War Refugee Board, did result in saving hundreds of thousands of Jews. Had Roosevelt’s administration treated the issue as one worth their time, it is simply implausible to assert that more lives could not have been saved.

But even if you don’t want to wade into those bitter historical arguments, Karski’s legacy demands attention. Since the Holocaust occurred, we have seen several instances of genocide. In each one of those cases, whether it was in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Sudan, the world once again wrung its collective hands and did nothing until it was too late. Today, Bashar Assad’s Syrian forces have killed more than a hundred thousand people and again the West, and in particular the United States, was unable to find the will to act even when a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons was crossed. Elsewhere, Iran, the leading international state sponsor of terror as well as one of the most vicious anti-Semitic regimes on the planet, plots to build a nuclear weapon. The West’s response is not to ensure that Iran’s plans, which could facilitate another Holocaust, are made impossible but only that they be delayed by a diplomatic process that seems aimed more at creating détente with the ayatollahs than at stopping them.

Jan Karski’s example, as well as the failure of those who chose not to listen to him, stands as a reminder that all the tears wept today about the Holocaust are meaningless if they are not accompanied by action to ensure that contemporary atrocities are not halted or prevented.

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Iran Promoted to UN Rights Bodies

Yesterday was business as usual at the United Nations, with Iran and a host of other despotic regimes winning seats on leading human-rights bodies. What should by any estimation be considered an astonishing inversion of the principles that the institution purports to champion somehow seems barely remarkable coming from the UN. For decades it has rendered its human-rights bodies Orwellian caricatures by handing them into the charge of the world’s worst human-rights abusers. It is completely absurd to imagine that the bodies that are supposed to be responsible for policing human rights can be administered by the very countries that ought to be subject to investigation.

The UN’s Commission on the Status of Women can now look forward to the assistance of the Iranians in fulfilling its worthy mission of promoting the welfare of the world’s women. Similarly, Iran will no doubt be eager to make itself useful in its new position on the UN’s NGO Committee, which is tasked with determining which NGOs are to be accredited by the UN. For years now tyrannical leaders have been seeking to use such positions of influence to drive out those NGOs that dare to publicize and criticize their shameful human-rights records. Iran’s ascent to a seat at this table is just another victory for the world’s dictators, hell-bent not only on tormenting their own peoples but also on ensuring that these crimes are kept far away from the world’s attention.

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Yesterday was business as usual at the United Nations, with Iran and a host of other despotic regimes winning seats on leading human-rights bodies. What should by any estimation be considered an astonishing inversion of the principles that the institution purports to champion somehow seems barely remarkable coming from the UN. For decades it has rendered its human-rights bodies Orwellian caricatures by handing them into the charge of the world’s worst human-rights abusers. It is completely absurd to imagine that the bodies that are supposed to be responsible for policing human rights can be administered by the very countries that ought to be subject to investigation.

The UN’s Commission on the Status of Women can now look forward to the assistance of the Iranians in fulfilling its worthy mission of promoting the welfare of the world’s women. Similarly, Iran will no doubt be eager to make itself useful in its new position on the UN’s NGO Committee, which is tasked with determining which NGOs are to be accredited by the UN. For years now tyrannical leaders have been seeking to use such positions of influence to drive out those NGOs that dare to publicize and criticize their shameful human-rights records. Iran’s ascent to a seat at this table is just another victory for the world’s dictators, hell-bent not only on tormenting their own peoples but also on ensuring that these crimes are kept far away from the world’s attention.

As for Iran’s newly found place in a forum supposedly devoted to women’s rights, this move would surely be deemed laughable if it weren’t also so tragic. The lot of women in Iran is particularly appalling. The mullahs’ regime there enforces one of the most draconian versions of Islamic religious law. Iran’s laws regulate everything from how women are to dress to the myriad areas of their lives that are to be governed by their husband’s consent. And women in Iran have fallen victim in large numbers to Iran’s liberal use of the death penalty, executed unsparingly for crimes ranging from adultery to drug-related offenses.

Not surprisingly, the monitoring group UN Watch has been particularly scathing in its assessment of these events. Hillel Neuer, the organization’s director, responded by announcing, “Today is a black day for human rights. By empowering the perpetrators over the victims, the UN harms the cause of human rights, betrays its founding principles, and undermines its own credibility.” The United States has similarly expressed its opposition to seeing Iran assume membership of these committees, just as administration officials have been compelled to protest Iran’s choice of one of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage takers for its new envoy to the UN. But given that move, and if the administration really finds the thought of Iran sitting on a human-rights body so deplorable, then why does the U.S. government continue to legitimate the regime in Iran by continuing to push the line that President Rouhani is a moderate with whom it is advisable to negotiate?

There is little point in American officials protesting this kind of thing as long as the UN continues to remain what it has long been: a club for the dictatorships that dominate its membership. Some protest the disproportionate power of the UN’s Security Council and the five permanent members that dominate that body. Yet the real travesty of the UN is that in the General Assembly and throughout its maze of committees and bodies, it gives a vote to regimes that don’t even allow their own people the most basic right to vote in free and fair elections.

Surely international law, and the human-rights norms these laws are supposed to protect, will remain a mockery so long as countries that have nothing but disregard for human rights and the rule of law continue to have equal say in halls of the international community. If the UN ever wanted to get serious about human rights, it would start by not letting the criminals assume the position of judge and jury.

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Turkey to Take Press Crackdown to New Level?

When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

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When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

Erdoğan’s record reinforces the fact that Turkey belongs nowhere near Europe. Liberal Turks will never again be in the majority in their country, and Erdoğan believes that so long as his Anatolian constituency blindly supports him, he can be the sultan in reality that he always was in spirit. Turks and Kurds deserve better, but until and unless they stand up more forcefully for their rights or until Turkey fractures–which, with current demographic trends and the Kurdish national resurgence Turkey eventually will–liberal Turks will never again know freedom in their own country.

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Why Smear Israel and Whitewash Iran?

The decision of the Obama administration to take a firm stand on Iran’s decision to send one of the participants in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran to serve as its ambassador to the United Nations may have surprised the Islamist regime. A year of diplomacy aimed at appeasing the Iranians and allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure must have convinced Tehran that there was almost nothing it could do to get a rise out of Washington. By denying the terrorist turned diplomat a visa, the president indicated that he understood there are limits to how far he can go toward accommodating the ayatollahs in an effort to get out of having to keep his campaign pledges on the nuclear issue. The dismay among some of the foreign-policy establishment about the latent hostility toward Iran that was illustrated by the anger over the appointment was palpable.

But those determined to push the dubious theory that the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year indicates a shift to moderation are undaunted. The New York Times has been a notable advocate for this position on both its editorial and news pages, but it surpassed itself today with the publication of a remarkable piece by two scholars alleging that not only is the Islamist regime changing but that Iran and Israel are like two ships passing in the night as the Jewish state becomes an extremist theocracy. That its thesis is an absurd libel of Israel and a whitewash of Iran is so obvious it is barely worth the effort to refute it. In short, Israel is a pluralist democracy where the rule of law prevails despite the ongoing war being waged against its existence by most of the Arab and Muslim world. Iran is a theocratic tyranny where free expression and freedom of religion are forbidden and women, gays, and minorities are brutally oppressed. Iran is also the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and its foreign policy is aimed at propping up one of the world’s worst tyrants in Syria’s Bashar Assad as well as Hezbollah and other terrorists seeking to destabilize the Middle East.

So while the argument that the Times featured today is so risible as to merit satire rather than a lengthy response, it is worth asking why the newspaper gives space to such laughable arguments. The answer is both simple and not particularly funny. Some portions of the foreign-policy establishment in this country—of which the Times remains a leading outlet—are deeply unhappy about the resilience of the U.S.-Israel alliance even after more than five years of Obama administration efforts to downgrade these ties and desirous of détente with Iran. Such articles say more about confidence in the success of the slow-motion betrayal of President Obama’s promise to stop Iran’s nuclear program than they do about either Israel or Iran.

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The decision of the Obama administration to take a firm stand on Iran’s decision to send one of the participants in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran to serve as its ambassador to the United Nations may have surprised the Islamist regime. A year of diplomacy aimed at appeasing the Iranians and allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure must have convinced Tehran that there was almost nothing it could do to get a rise out of Washington. By denying the terrorist turned diplomat a visa, the president indicated that he understood there are limits to how far he can go toward accommodating the ayatollahs in an effort to get out of having to keep his campaign pledges on the nuclear issue. The dismay among some of the foreign-policy establishment about the latent hostility toward Iran that was illustrated by the anger over the appointment was palpable.

But those determined to push the dubious theory that the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year indicates a shift to moderation are undaunted. The New York Times has been a notable advocate for this position on both its editorial and news pages, but it surpassed itself today with the publication of a remarkable piece by two scholars alleging that not only is the Islamist regime changing but that Iran and Israel are like two ships passing in the night as the Jewish state becomes an extremist theocracy. That its thesis is an absurd libel of Israel and a whitewash of Iran is so obvious it is barely worth the effort to refute it. In short, Israel is a pluralist democracy where the rule of law prevails despite the ongoing war being waged against its existence by most of the Arab and Muslim world. Iran is a theocratic tyranny where free expression and freedom of religion are forbidden and women, gays, and minorities are brutally oppressed. Iran is also the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and its foreign policy is aimed at propping up one of the world’s worst tyrants in Syria’s Bashar Assad as well as Hezbollah and other terrorists seeking to destabilize the Middle East.

So while the argument that the Times featured today is so risible as to merit satire rather than a lengthy response, it is worth asking why the newspaper gives space to such laughable arguments. The answer is both simple and not particularly funny. Some portions of the foreign-policy establishment in this country—of which the Times remains a leading outlet—are deeply unhappy about the resilience of the U.S.-Israel alliance even after more than five years of Obama administration efforts to downgrade these ties and desirous of détente with Iran. Such articles say more about confidence in the success of the slow-motion betrayal of President Obama’s promise to stop Iran’s nuclear program than they do about either Israel or Iran.

As for the notion that Israel is becoming more extremist and Iran more moderate, only by cherry-picking scattered facts about either nation can one possibly justify such an absurd pair of arguments. Suffice it to say that while Israel’s Orthodox population is growing and the conflict between some elements of the Haredi community and the rest of the country is troubling, there is simply no coherent analogy to be drawn between even the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Islamist leadership in Iran. While the Haredi leadership deserves criticism for the way it has discredited Judaism in the eyes of Israel’s secular majority as well its stances on education and universal military service, it is not guilty of terrorism. Moreover, despite the assumption that Israel is becoming more extreme, it must be pointed out that the political influence of the Haredim is at its lowest point in the country’s recent history as their parties have, for the first time in decades, been excluded from the government, even one led from the right by Benjamin Netanyahu. The authors assume that criticism from that government of U.S. pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians is a sign of extremism. But such sentiments merely represent realism on the part of an Israeli public—both secular and religious—that understands that the Palestinians aren’t interested in peace. Far from Israels government and people abandoning democracy as the authors charge, it is those Israelis who rationalize the anti-Semitic boycotts of the state who are seeking to overturn the verdicts of the ballot box by foreign pressure and economic warfare.

As for Iran, the authors can cite no real evidence that Rouhani’s election has changed the country. That’s because there is none. It remains a vicious tyranny and the clerics and their military followers show no sign of loosening the grip on power as the reaction to the 2009 Tehran protests illustrated.

But the willingness of the Times to give such prominent play to the authors’ ridiculous assertions does tell us a lot about how important the smearing of Israel and the whitewashing of Iran is to the success of a foreign policy aimed at détente with Tehran. While seemingly unimportant in the great scheme of things, the dustup about Iran’s U.N. appointment shows that Americans and in particular Congress has not yet been persuaded by Kerry to think well of Iran. Those who confidently predict, as do the authors of this travesty, that Israel’s alliance with the U.S. will not stand the test of time understand neither the lasting bonds between these two great democracies nor the difference between Israeli freedom and Iranian despotism.

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Hillary’s Best Defense: She’s Not John Kerry

Yesterday the Morning Joe crew supplied a moment of unintentional comedy when they tried to name Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishment as secretary of state. As noted over at Ace of Spades, “It’s funny watching the question of Hillary’s greatest accomplishment asked and laughingly rejected as ridiculous at first, then having it slowly dawn on the panel that none of them has an answer.”

One answer offered by the panel was that this great accomplishment shall be revealed by Clinton herself upon publication of her memoir. Her greatness is difficult for mere mortals to comprehend, but the former diplomat will try her best to help Americans understand what a privilege it has been to be served by Mrs. Clinton. Just because you didn’t see any accomplishments doesn’t mean they weren’t there; the Clintons work in mysterious ways.

But in fact we may have a preview of that revelation, provided by Byron York at the Washington Examiner. York writes that Clinton was on a panel last week moderated by Tom Friedman and was asked this very question. What was her great accomplishment? York quotes Hillary’s response:

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Yesterday the Morning Joe crew supplied a moment of unintentional comedy when they tried to name Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishment as secretary of state. As noted over at Ace of Spades, “It’s funny watching the question of Hillary’s greatest accomplishment asked and laughingly rejected as ridiculous at first, then having it slowly dawn on the panel that none of them has an answer.”

One answer offered by the panel was that this great accomplishment shall be revealed by Clinton herself upon publication of her memoir. Her greatness is difficult for mere mortals to comprehend, but the former diplomat will try her best to help Americans understand what a privilege it has been to be served by Mrs. Clinton. Just because you didn’t see any accomplishments doesn’t mean they weren’t there; the Clintons work in mysterious ways.

But in fact we may have a preview of that revelation, provided by Byron York at the Washington Examiner. York writes that Clinton was on a panel last week moderated by Tom Friedman and was asked this very question. What was her great accomplishment? York quotes Hillary’s response:

“We had the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we had two wars, we had continuing threats from all kinds of corners around the world,” Clinton said. Obama told her his top priority had to be dealing with the economic crisis, so he asked her to “represent us around the world.”

Clinton’s job was to “make it clear to the rest of the world that we were going to get our house in order.” But what did “in order” mean? Clinton described it this way: “We were going to stimulate and grow and get back to positive growth and work with our friends and partners.”

On the basis of that “stimulate and grow” policy, Clinton continued, the United States returned to strength and can now deal with foreign crises like the Ukraine without having to worry about a world economic collapse. “I think we really restored American leadership in the best sense,” she said. “That, you know, once again, people began to rely on us, to look at us as, you know, setting the values, setting the standards.”

Clinton, then, has no idea what she accomplished at State. But the answer offers an important clue as to how Clinton must manage the perception that she didn’t really do anything as secretary of state. In many ways, this was by design. Clinton knew she was considering a run for the presidency, and so didn’t want to take any risks at Foggy Bottom. She wasn’t there to accomplish big things; she was there to pad her resume and bide her time.

For this reason, you’ll recall, she lobbied against Susan Rice’s nomination as her successor in favor of the current secretary of state, John Kerry. Clinton’s caution as the nation’s chief diplomat meant she couldn’t afford to be followed by someone with competence and clear vision. She needed to be followed by someone like Kerry.

And the strategy is beginning to pay dividends. Not every secretary of state has to be Dean Acheson, and there’s something unfair about expecting greatness–and something dangerous in promoting it–in every secretary of state. Had Clinton not experienced major failures, such as the “reset” with Russia and collapse of security in Libya following her administration’s “leading from behind” intervention, she wouldn’t need any major accomplishments to justify her time there. It’s just that she could really use a better resume to at least offset the damage she did.

Kerry, however, doesn’t believe in diplomatic pacing or modesty; he wants to be present at the creation–of something. Hence his disastrous stream of diplomatic crises, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran to Syria to Russia. Kerry’s approach to American diplomacy is best understood as the Foggy Bottom version of the broken windows theory of economics. He will stimulate a demand for American diplomacy, whatever it takes. If there isn’t a four-alarm diplomatic fire–well, Kerry happens to have a box of matches on him.

It would be more helpful to Clinton if she could run against Kerry’s record as a contrast to her own. That’s tricky, but she’ll probably have to do so in some form. She might cast herself as more cynical toward Russia’s intentions, skeptical of Iranian “reform,” and supportive of Israel, for example, in a subtle but intentional way of responding to questions about her success by hinting that, at least, she did not set any raging fires. It’s not particularly compelling, but it’s the best she’s got.

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Iranian Navy Thumbs Nose at America

Thanks to Mehrdad Moarefian for flagging, but an Iranian battle group earlier this week docked in Djibouti for a three-day port call. While previously the Iranian navy docked in Port Sudan, the move to Djibouti should be a wake-up call regarding America’s shrinking military and diplomatic standing. After all, Djibouti is the site of a hugely important U.S. facility and serves as an important hub and logistical base for American activities throughout the region. It’s one thing for Iran to work with a rejectionist, failing state like Sudan; it’s quite another to enjoy port calls on the doorstep of an American base and with a government which so closely partners with the United States.

In the Persian original, the story gets worse, however: The Iranian ships had also paid a port call in Salaleh, Oman’s second most important city. That port call highlights Oman’s slow turn away from the past few decades when it was a reliable U.S. and pro-Western ally; I had previously talked about Oman’s growing flirtation with the Islamic Republic of Iran here, including its discussions of basing rights for Iran in exchange for cheap gas.

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Thanks to Mehrdad Moarefian for flagging, but an Iranian battle group earlier this week docked in Djibouti for a three-day port call. While previously the Iranian navy docked in Port Sudan, the move to Djibouti should be a wake-up call regarding America’s shrinking military and diplomatic standing. After all, Djibouti is the site of a hugely important U.S. facility and serves as an important hub and logistical base for American activities throughout the region. It’s one thing for Iran to work with a rejectionist, failing state like Sudan; it’s quite another to enjoy port calls on the doorstep of an American base and with a government which so closely partners with the United States.

In the Persian original, the story gets worse, however: The Iranian ships had also paid a port call in Salaleh, Oman’s second most important city. That port call highlights Oman’s slow turn away from the past few decades when it was a reliable U.S. and pro-Western ally; I had previously talked about Oman’s growing flirtation with the Islamic Republic of Iran here, including its discussions of basing rights for Iran in exchange for cheap gas.

Lastly, the Persian article notes that the Iranian navy’s mission was to help secure the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). Given the IRISL’s involvement in proliferation, shipping of arms, and use of false flags and false documents to cover up cargo and operations–all of which it has been sanctioned for–that the Iranian Navy now expedites and facilitates the activities of this sanctioned entity certainly suggests that reform of behavior is not on the Iranian regime’s agenda, despite Obama administration claims that its strategy is working to bring Iran in from the cold.

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Iran’s Gas Exports Rise 258 Percent

In the year prior to the start of the Obama administration’s preliminary talks with Iran, the Iranian Statistics Agency had reported that the Iranian economy had contracted 5.4 percent. Iranian authorities were desperate for cash in order to be able to make payroll; had they not, public protests might have made the 2009 protests look like a stroll in the park.

Providing $7 billion in sanctions relief to get Iran to the table largely fulfilled the Iranian government’s objectives before negotiations really even began: It was the diplomatic equivalent of giving a five-year-old dessert first and then expecting him to come and eat his spinach.

While Obama administration officials say that they can restore the sanctions regime should Iran not comply with its commitments, such a statement is doubtful given the windfall which the Iranian government is currently reaping. Take the latest Iranian report on its gas industry:

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In the year prior to the start of the Obama administration’s preliminary talks with Iran, the Iranian Statistics Agency had reported that the Iranian economy had contracted 5.4 percent. Iranian authorities were desperate for cash in order to be able to make payroll; had they not, public protests might have made the 2009 protests look like a stroll in the park.

Providing $7 billion in sanctions relief to get Iran to the table largely fulfilled the Iranian government’s objectives before negotiations really even began: It was the diplomatic equivalent of giving a five-year-old dessert first and then expecting him to come and eat his spinach.

While Obama administration officials say that they can restore the sanctions regime should Iran not comply with its commitments, such a statement is doubtful given the windfall which the Iranian government is currently reaping. Take the latest Iranian report on its gas industry:

Iran’s gas exports reached 195.000 barrels daily over the first 8 months of the last Iranian calender year (started from March 20-November 20). It then climbed to 504.000 barrels daily in the last four months of the year. Iran’s gas exports rose by 258 percent after signing the deal with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in November.  Iran’s gas exports earnings totaled $10.295 billion in 2013, raising by 15.93 percent

Let’s put this in perspective: If the official budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is around $5 billion per year, then Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have effectively bought that terrorist group two years for free. To be fair, the IRGC makes more money off-books through its smuggling activities and shell corporations, but so many of those are actually involved in the energy sector, so the problem might be even worse.

Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was taking the same action repeatedly, but expecting different results each time. Between 2000 and 2005, the European Union more than doubled trade with Iran in order to encourage reform; what it received was about 70 percent of that hard currency windfall interjected directly into Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs. Alas, rather than cripple and curtail Iran’s nuclear program and breakout capability, Obama’s policies might actually accelerate them should the Iranian regime feign grievance and walk away from the talks.

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The Iran Hostage Crisis and the Spirit of Youthful Rebellion

Let he who is without youthful indiscretions cast the first stone, according to Reuters’ new call for amnesty for the perpetrators of the Iran hostage crisis. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran is basically portrayed as a case of energetic youth getting carried away. 1979 was a crazy year. We had Blondie and the Bee Gees; they had revolutionary Islamist terror. We’ll all laugh about this one day.

And that day is today, if Reuters has anything to say about it. The report was inspired by the controversy surrounding Hamid Abutalebi, the man the “moderate” Iranian government has chosen to be its next envoy to the United Nations. The problem is that Abutalebi took part in the hostage crisis, and American officials aren’t thrilled about Abutalebi or the message this sends from the Iranian government. The State Department is hesitant to award Abutalebi a visa.

But Reuters is here to explain that just as Americans have left their bellbottoms behind, so too “age mellows some former captors of U.S. hostages,” as the Reuters headline claims. Yet as silly as this all sounds, the article actually deserves a wide reading for two contributions it makes to understanding how such media institutions operate. The first can be seen by juxtaposing the following two paragraphs. The story begins:

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Let he who is without youthful indiscretions cast the first stone, according to Reuters’ new call for amnesty for the perpetrators of the Iran hostage crisis. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran is basically portrayed as a case of energetic youth getting carried away. 1979 was a crazy year. We had Blondie and the Bee Gees; they had revolutionary Islamist terror. We’ll all laugh about this one day.

And that day is today, if Reuters has anything to say about it. The report was inspired by the controversy surrounding Hamid Abutalebi, the man the “moderate” Iranian government has chosen to be its next envoy to the United Nations. The problem is that Abutalebi took part in the hostage crisis, and American officials aren’t thrilled about Abutalebi or the message this sends from the Iranian government. The State Department is hesitant to award Abutalebi a visa.

But Reuters is here to explain that just as Americans have left their bellbottoms behind, so too “age mellows some former captors of U.S. hostages,” as the Reuters headline claims. Yet as silly as this all sounds, the article actually deserves a wide reading for two contributions it makes to understanding how such media institutions operate. The first can be seen by juxtaposing the following two paragraphs. The story begins:

Three decades after hardline students occupied the U.S. embassy and took diplomats hostage for 444 days, many of the now middle-aged revolutionaries are among the most vocal critics of Iran’s conservative establishment, officials and analysts said.

Later on in the story we read this:

But hardline U.S. lawmakers said on Tuesday they were concerned about his selection and called on the Obama administration to do what it can to prevent him from taking up the post in New York.

Notice what the two sentences just quoted have in common? The term “hardline.” It is how Reuters describes militant, violent extremists who stormed a foreign embassy and held its occupants hostage. And it is how Reuters describes members of the United States Congress who raise concerns about such violence. (In this way, Reuters is hardly alone in bludgeoning the English language into meaningless submission. Search the New York Times website for the word “ultraconservative,” for example, to see how the Times applies it to Republican critics of President Obama and Salafi Islamists.)

But there’s a second, more pressing problem with the story that becomes apparent only after wading through the entire piece. Here’s Reuters’ recounting of the hostage takers who are all grown up:

Among the hostage takers were Abbas Abdi, an adviser to Khatami, who in 1998 met former hostage Barry Rosen in Paris.

Abdi made no apology and said the past could not be altered. Instead “we must focus on building a better future”, he said.

In 2002 Abdi was arrested for having carried out a poll in collaboration with U.S. firm Gallup which showed that three quarters of Tehran’s citizens favored a thaw with Washington.

Reform leader Saeed Hajjarian survived an assassination attempt in 2000 by unidentified people but was gravely injured and has not recovered. Khatami’s younger brother Mohammad Reza and his deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh were also among the hostage takers. …

In a comment widely taken as a reference to the turmoil, former hostage taker Masumeh Ebtekar wrote on her blog Persian Paradox: “Those who were all devotees and trustees of the Islamic Revolution … felt that the Islamic Republic is facing a serious challenge to its basic principles and values.”

Ebterkar, who was Iran’s vice-president under Khatami, a post she resumed under Rouhani, was the public face of the siege, serving as a spokeswoman for the hostage-takers.

Aides to reformist candidates were jailed in the post-election unrest, including former hostage takers Mohsen Mirdamadi and Aminzadeh, on charges including “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the system”. …

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who was also a spokesman for the hostage takers, has also hinted he is no longer a hardliner.

Notice a name missing? Where’s Abutalebi? He is the figure at issue here, not his fellow hostage takers who have “hinted” they don’t hate America quite like they used to. Are we to believe that Abutalebi should be granted his visa and accepted into the company of his fellow international diplomats because people he may have known in 1979 are less violent than they once were?

We often encounter guilt by association, but Reuters wants us to accept Abutalebi’s innocence by association. His American counterparts have stopped taking in shows at CBGB and his fellow Iranians have stopped taking Americans hostage. The events of 1979 should be considered ancient history, apparently. Perhaps the State Department will find this argument persuasive. If so, they are more desperate for “engagement” than most of us ever thought they were.

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The Debate We Should Be Having About Rand Paul and Sanctions

Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

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Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

What Paul never contends is that Hitler’s ideology hinged on the idea of opposing Versailles. He was talking about Germany and Germans. In front of me is Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, where the author basically makes the same case and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, in which she writes that though Versailles’ impact had likely been exaggerated by German governments, it allowed political parties like the Nazis to tap into widespread “anger” and resentment. Sounds like that’s what Rand was saying.

True enough, though it’s worth noting that in Modern Times, Johnson has much more to say about the grievances unleashed by Versailles, and they center on the ethnic strife sparked by transferring Europe to the individual nation-state model from the age of empires–“self-determination,” in Johnson’s writing, which created more restive minority populations because there were more states. Where economic factors played a role, Johnson seems to put emphasis on the fact that more states also meant more poor states, especially in the immediate postwar period, and he notes that Germany was considered to have defaulted on its postwar obligations as well. If any aspect of Versailles encouraged German expansionism, Johnson appears to blame the fact that “under the Treaty it was forbidden to seek union with Germany, which made the Anschluss seem more attractive than it actually was.”

But I think Paul’s defenders here are on less steady ground in dismissing Paul’s comments as they relate to Pearl Harbor. He prefaced his sanctions comments–at least on Pearl Harbor–by saying sometimes sanctions “have made it worse.” Taken individually, sanctions on a nation can be treated this way. But it doesn’t always apply, and it applies perhaps less to Japan than almost any other scenario (Germany, Iraq, Iran, etc.).

As some have said since Paul’s comments, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a sort of preemptive strike to at least temporarily avert an American response to simultaneous Japanese aggression throughout the region, including on Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. But another important facet of this is that the sanctions weren’t a surprise to Japan, because they were in response to Japanese action. As the historian Ian Toll writes, Japan took action its leaders–reminded by Admiral Yamamoto, who initially wanted to avoid an unwinnable war–knew would precipitate sanctions, and the whole process would bring them toward war:

From his flagship, Nagato, usually anchored in Hiroshima Bay, Yamamoto continued to warn against joining with the Nazis. He reminded his government that Japan imported around four-fifths of its oil and steel from areas controlled by the Allies. To risk conflict, he wrote, was foolhardy, because “there is no chance of winning a war with the United States for some time to come.”

But Japan’s confused and divided government drifted toward war while refusing to face the strategic problems it posed. It signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in Berlin in September 1940. As Yamamoto had predicted, the American government quickly restricted and finally cut off exports of oil and other vital materials. The sanctions brought events to a head, because Japan had no domestic oil production to speak of, and would exhaust its stockpiles in about a year.

Yamamoto realized he had lost the fight to keep Japan out of war, and he fell in line with the planning process.

Yamamoto warned against the process because he wrongly thought his leaders wanted to avoid war, when in fact they provoked it. This doesn’t mean Paul is “blaming” the U.S. for the attack on Pearl Harbor (and by extension, American entry into World War II). But it raises questions about Paul’s selective use of history–and bad history does not usually inform good policy.

I have raised this issue with Paul before. When he made his major foreign-policy address a year ago, he advocated a greater emphasis on containment. But he conflated the Kennanite version of containment with the strategy that ultimately won the Cold War, which was far from the truth. In reality, Kennan’s ideas were central to the Truman administration’s decision to embrace containment, but his version of containment was so different that Kennan adamantly refused to take credit for it.

It is far from clear that a nuclear Iran would be containable the way the Soviet Union was–in fact, it’s unlikely. But Paul’s version of containment would not have even contained the Soviet Union. Paul’s habit of cherry-picking history to create precedents for his own preferred strategy seems to be present with his comments on Japanese sanctions and Pearl Harbor as well. It certainly doesn’t make him a blame-America-firster. But it does suggest unsound strategic judgment.

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A Tale of Two Terror Resolutions

On March 12-13, I attended Iraq’s “first international counterterrorism conference” in Baghdad. It wasn’t the most organized conference, but it did enjoy attendance from most European countries, many African, Arab, and Asian countries, and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar boycotted, and there was no high-level Turkish representation. The speeches were as one might predict: condemnations of terrorism, laments at international inaction, and frustration at growing sectarianism. The Iranian deputy foreign minister was tone deaf as he used his ten minutes at the podium to pursue the usual Iranian bugaboos, topics in which few others at the conference had any real interest, given the recognition that the problems facing Iraq and the Middle East can’t simply be blamed on those whom Iran sees as enemies.

Iraq has suffered immensely from terrorism over the past decade. While many American opponents of military action to oust Saddam Hussein blame that action for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intervening years, Iraqis recognize that the only ones to blame for deaths at the hands of terrorists are the terrorists themselves and those states who sponsor such terrorism.

Three thousand miles away, in Marrakech, Morocco, Arab interior ministers issued a declaration enunciating a “total rejection of terrorism,” regardless of cause or justification. While a lack of universal definition of terrorism will always undercut the fight against it, the good news is that so many Arab countries are now taking terrorism seriously now that they recognize that playing with fire has gotten them burned. Both Morocco and Iraq have been victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and while Morocco tends to have been more successful in rolling back radicalism and countering terrorism, both face neighbors intent on utilizing terror as a tool of foreign policy.

Algeria, for example, still subsidizes and shelters the Polisario Front, whose unnecessary camps increasingly are used as recruitment centers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Iraq faces the influx of not only Iranian-backed militias, but also Turkish and Saudi support for al-Qaeda factions in Al-Anbar, Mosul, and other large Sunni areas.

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On March 12-13, I attended Iraq’s “first international counterterrorism conference” in Baghdad. It wasn’t the most organized conference, but it did enjoy attendance from most European countries, many African, Arab, and Asian countries, and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar boycotted, and there was no high-level Turkish representation. The speeches were as one might predict: condemnations of terrorism, laments at international inaction, and frustration at growing sectarianism. The Iranian deputy foreign minister was tone deaf as he used his ten minutes at the podium to pursue the usual Iranian bugaboos, topics in which few others at the conference had any real interest, given the recognition that the problems facing Iraq and the Middle East can’t simply be blamed on those whom Iran sees as enemies.

Iraq has suffered immensely from terrorism over the past decade. While many American opponents of military action to oust Saddam Hussein blame that action for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intervening years, Iraqis recognize that the only ones to blame for deaths at the hands of terrorists are the terrorists themselves and those states who sponsor such terrorism.

Three thousand miles away, in Marrakech, Morocco, Arab interior ministers issued a declaration enunciating a “total rejection of terrorism,” regardless of cause or justification. While a lack of universal definition of terrorism will always undercut the fight against it, the good news is that so many Arab countries are now taking terrorism seriously now that they recognize that playing with fire has gotten them burned. Both Morocco and Iraq have been victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and while Morocco tends to have been more successful in rolling back radicalism and countering terrorism, both face neighbors intent on utilizing terror as a tool of foreign policy.

Algeria, for example, still subsidizes and shelters the Polisario Front, whose unnecessary camps increasingly are used as recruitment centers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Iraq faces the influx of not only Iranian-backed militias, but also Turkish and Saudi support for al-Qaeda factions in Al-Anbar, Mosul, and other large Sunni areas.

Still, problems remain that will continue to undercut any real progress in the fight against terrorism. First is the lack of any universally-recognized definition of terrorism. Here, the United States could take the lead but making any counterterrorism assistance granted to allies contingent on their acceptance of a definition of terrorism put forward by the United States.

Second is the continued attempt by Iran, Turkey, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to criminalize “Islamophobia,” by which they mean the association of Islam with terrorism. The problem isn’t Islam per se, but rather the interpretation of Islam embraced by radical factions, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafis. The battle is not one of civilizations, but rather one of theological interpretations. Denying that, and criminalizing debate, will only exacerbate terrorism rather than contain it.

Lastly, the United States must recognize that countries it has long considered top partners in the region—Qatar and Turkey—are now those, alongside Iran, who do the most to fan the flames of terrorism rather than contain it. Diplomatic nicety should not be a substitute for progress in fighting the scourge of terror. Perhaps rather than treat Turkey and Qatar with kid gloves, it is time to work through countries like Iraq and Morocco who recognize the problem and are no longer willing to sit by and ignore it.

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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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