Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Kerry

Hamas and the New Middle East

The spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas may be part of an unfortunately regular pattern, but the recent events were also an indication of the new Middle East. That was clear earlier this week when Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published the tick-tock of how the attempts to strike a truce collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry was getting ready to pick up nuclear diplomacy with his Iranian interlocutors in Vienna when he offered to take a temporary diversion to the Middle East. But, each for their own reasons, “Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.”

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The spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas may be part of an unfortunately regular pattern, but the recent events were also an indication of the new Middle East. That was clear earlier this week when Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published the tick-tock of how the attempts to strike a truce collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry was getting ready to pick up nuclear diplomacy with his Iranian interlocutors in Vienna when he offered to take a temporary diversion to the Middle East. But, each for their own reasons, “Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.”

According to Ravid, the Israelis expected a visit from Kerry to be interpreted as pressure on Israel, a lesson probably learned from Kerry’s time as secretary of state thus far. The Egyptians, on the other hand, wanted to prove they could still play the role of mediator. But while that certainly could be true, it seems incomplete. The Egyptians, apparently, excluded Hamas from early deliberations to craft the truce. Whether the Egyptian leadership truly wanted a truce or not, it’s clear they were most concerned that the truce not undermine the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas or the Israeli leadership in favor of Hamas. As Avi Issacharoff writes in the Times of Israel:

Hamas wants this in order to bring an end to the blockade on Gaza, open the Rafah Border Crossing, and in many ways to ensure its own survival.

On Tuesday morning, many people in Israel raised an eyebrow at Hamas’s rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire. But if we examine the crisis from the prism of Egypt-Hamas relations, we can see things differently.

Cairo offered the organization the same language it rejected from the outset: quiet for quiet. But for Hamas, the big problem was the way the Egyptian ceasefire was presented: At the same time that Razi Hamid, Hamas representative in Gaza, received the Egyptian document, the initiative was already being published in the Egyptian media.

This was a humiliation for Hamas, since no one thought to consult with its leadership. And still, as even senior Hamas officials admit, there is no other mediator in the region. Just like real estate agents who have a monopoly on a certain area, Egypt has a monopoly on Israel-Hamas relations.

At the very least, the Egyptian leadership does not seem to be in any rush to see Hamas given any breathing space. And neither does Abbas, whose leverage over Hamas has become all the more important in light of the recent unity deal between Hamas and Fatah.

Abbas, arguably, had the most to lose in the continued Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas was able to essentially shut down the country, sending Israelis fleeing to bomb shelters and disrupting air travel and Israel’s economic activity and productivity. This is where Hamas’s relative weakness works to its advantage among its own people. Israel may have superior firepower, and both Israel and Fatah may have the United States in their corner, but Hamas can bring life to a (temporary) standstill in Israel at a moment’s notice. They can make the argument that Abbas’s cooperation with Israel and his participation in the peace talks has done nothing to bring about the ostensible goal of an independent Palestine.

Hamas doesn’t care about that, having made clear its objective has nothing to do with a two-state solution but with a genocidal war against the Jewish state. As such, its ability to disrupt and sabotage any attempts at a peaceful solution are crucial to its own raison d’être. By the same token, then, any weakening of Hamas helps both Abbas and any prospects, however remote, for a negotiated solution.

So while Egypt’s “failure” to step in and constructively play the role of mediator has been lamented, the priorities of the new regime in Cairo are actually geared much more toward those of the West. The defeat of Hamas, its diplomatic isolation, and the depletion of its terrorist capabilities are not just beneficial to Israel but also to Egypt, the Palestinian Authority structure in the West Bank, and America and its allies’ desire to limit Iranian influence in the region.

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Iran Negotiations: the Neverending Story

The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

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The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

Both sides had been prepared to talk until Sunday, the informal deadline for the negotiations. But two diplomats have told The Associated Press the talks will probably wind down Friday, because the differences won’t be bridged by Sunday.

The diplomats demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge confidential information. One said the two sides opposed going on until the final hours of the informal deadline because they felt that would give the impression they were desperate for a solution.

Two things we learn from that excerpt. One, the two sides are so far apart that they have no hope of meeting the deadline. Two, they don’t want to “give the impression” they’re desperate for a deal because, let’s face it, this process is pretty much just for show–hence the two sides being so far apart as to make continued talks meaningless in the near term.

Why might that be? We know, from Kerry’s past experience letting the Iranians run circles around him, that the American side would like some kind of deal–something that kicks the can down the road but produces a piece of paper the Obama White House can pretend solves a problem. But going by the administration’s talking points, the Iranians should want a deal far more. After all, despite President Obama’s best efforts, the Congress has instituted some sanctions, though Obama has worked assiduously to delay them or water them down.

Well, about those sanctions. Eli Lake has some bad news:

As U.S. and allied negotiators try to hammer out a nuclear deal with Iran this week in Vienna, they will have less economic leverage on their Iranian counterparts than they had a year ago.

That is the conclusion of a new study from Roubini Global Economics and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, two groups that have analyzed Iran’s economy—and the international sanctions imposed on the country’s banks, oil exports and leading regime figures.

Their report concludes that in the last year as the United States and other Western countries have begun to ease some of the sanctions on Iran as an inducement to negotiate an end to the country’s nuclear weapons program, the Iranian economy has begun to recover.

The recovery of Iran’s economy is a good thing for the Iranian people, who suffered a currency in free-fall, staggering inflation and a contraction of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But at the same time, the economic sanctions that President Obama has credited with forcing Iran to begin these negotiations have appeared to lose their bite, according to the study that is scheduled to be released Monday.

The administration has made this mistake elsewhere. When Kerry decided he wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he found a Palestinian leadership hesitant to even come to the table. In order to get negotiations started, Kerry pressured the Israeli government to make concessions, which included releasing terrorist murderers.

Everyone not born yesterday understood what would come next: the Palestinians would accept the concessions, come to the table, and with the deadline approaching find some pretext to walk away, pocketing the concessions without giving anything up and without coming close to a deal. When the talks collapsed, there was a high degree of probability that a Palestinian faction would instigate violence. And that’s exactly what happened.

The idea of “preconditions for negotiations,” in whatever form, is usually counterproductive. There are always exceptions, of course. But generally speaking anyone who needs concessions to even come to the negotiating table doesn’t really want to be at the negotiating table. In the case of Iran, unless their leadership feels squeezed economically time will be on their side.

Obama and Kerry had leverage: economic sanctions. They used up much of that leverage just to get the Iranians to the table, and now the Iranian leadership wants to run out the clock. Thanks to the weakening of the sanctions, and the lack of stronger sanctions to begin with, they’re in a position to do so. And Kerry seems prepared to play along.

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A Close Call, and a Warning, in Afghanistan

New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

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New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

If this had happened, it would have been a catastrophe of the first order. If Abdullah’s followers had resorted to force, it would have reignited the civil war that wrecked the country in the 1990s and provided an opening for the Taliban to seize power. Western aid would have been cut off and Afghanistan would have been on its own.

This dire outcome was only narrowly avoided by a timely phone call from President Obama to Abdullah and by Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparent success in defusing the crisis by negotiating a compromise that calls for all of the ballots to be recounted and for whoever loses the election to assume a new post as “chief executive” (i.e., prime minister) of the government led by the winning presidential candidate. The UN’s top representative in Kabul called it “not just a top-notch diplomatic achievement [but] close to a miracle.”

But the only reason that miracle occurred is that, with 30,000 troops still in Afghanistan and a commitment to keep 10,000 more after this year, the U.S. retains significant leverage to influence Afghan politics.

Imagine if this crisis had happened not in this presidential election but in the next one–in 2019. This is not much of a stretch since both this presidential election and the previous one, in 2009, were marred by accusations of fraud that threatened the foundation of Afghanistan’s fragile democracy. We can hope that no such crisis will occur next time around, but the reality is that the odds of such an imbroglio are high. Stable institutions in a country like Afghanistan, which has been wracked by nonstop conflict since 1979, take decades, not years, to develop.

It is, therefore, deeply unfortunate, and highly irresponsible, that President Obama has unilaterally pledged to give up America’s leverage in Afghanistan by removing our remaining troops by 2017. If he carries out this plan, and if it is not reversed by his successor (which will be hard to do: it’s always easier to maintain a troop commitment than to start a new one), the U.S. will have essentially no leverage on the conduct and aftermath of the 2019 election. In fact the U.S. would be consigning itself to the kind of spectator role it has assumed in Iraq since the pullout of U.S. troops at the end of 2011–and we know how that’s turned out.

It is imperative that Obama correct his blunder in pledging to remove troops by 2017. He should immediately announce that, should Afghanistan’s feuding politicos work out their difference and set up a government with widespread legitimacy that desired U.S. troops to continue serving in their country after 2017, he would accede to their request–or at least allow his successor to make the call. If the president doesn’t do that, he will be casting Afghanistan’s future into serious doubt.

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Kerry’s False Iran Talks Narrative

Who are the obstacles to a new nuclear deal between the West and Iran? According to the New York Times, it’s the extremists on both sides: Iranian mullahs and members of Congress, both of whom are said to want the negotiations to fail. But the problem here is that both the newspaper and the anonymous U.S. officials who were the sources for the piece assume the object of the exercise is a deal of any sort. Their American critics have a different goal: stopping Iran from getting a bomb.

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Who are the obstacles to a new nuclear deal between the West and Iran? According to the New York Times, it’s the extremists on both sides: Iranian mullahs and members of Congress, both of whom are said to want the negotiations to fail. But the problem here is that both the newspaper and the anonymous U.S. officials who were the sources for the piece assume the object of the exercise is a deal of any sort. Their American critics have a different goal: stopping Iran from getting a bomb.

The Times article advances the administration’s agenda in which it has sought to portray critics of the Iran talks as warmongers determined to thwart progress in the same way that hard-line ayatollahs might. But the facile analogy tells us more about Kerry’s mindset than anything else. Like Cold War-era liberals who urged the U.S. not to be too tough on Moscow, lest the real hardliners in the Kremlin get the best of the liberal Communists, the assumption that there is any real support in Tehran for reconciliation or willingness to give up their nuclear quest is probably a pointless diversion. Contrary to the Times, the recent statements of Iran’s supreme leader–in which he stated that his country intends to increase the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, not reduce them–did not so much blindside his envoys as it made clear that the belief that they would accommodate Western demands was always a delusion. The supposed leader of the Iranian moderates, President Hassan Rouhani, is a loyal servant of Ayatollah Khamenei and helped deceive the West in the past. Whatever issues divide the Iranians, they are united in an effort to bluff the Obama administration into giving them another diplomatic victory.

On the other hand, the members of the House and the Senate that have warned the White House that they will oppose any deal that leaves Iran with a nuclear capability are not the problem. There is no difference between the stated positions of Democrat Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and President Obama. Both have said they will not settle for an agreement that will allow Iran to get a bomb. Menendez and the broad bipartisan majority of both Houses of Congress have put on record their opposition to a weak deal that would leave Iran’s infrastructure in place with no credible guarantees to stop them from resuming their nuclear quest. But the motivation for the congressional critiques is not opposition to diplomacy per se so much as their understanding that administration diplomats have succumbed before to their zeal for a deal and may yet again.

At the heart of this dynamic is not the meme of extremists on both sides opposing compromise but the direction that the negotiations have taken. Kerry threw away the West’s formidable economic and military leverage over Iran last fall and signed an interim nuclear deal that tacitly recognized its right to enrich uranium and loosened sanctions in exchange for concessions that could be easily reversed. The Iranians had every expectation that this pattern would be repeated in the current round of talks and have understandably refused to back down and agree to anything that would really limit their ability to go nuclear.

This places Kerry in a bind. The administration desperately needs an agreement because neither President Obama nor America’s European allies have any appetite for continuing the existing sanctions on Iran’s economy, let alone toughening them (as Congress would like to do) in order to bring Tehran to its knees. Having started the process of unraveling support for sanctions last fall, getting the international community to agree to a genuine boycott of Iranian oil may be beyond the capacity of this administration.

That’s what Iran is counting on as it plays out the clock on the talks denying they will give Kerry any extra time during which he can somehow craft a deal. That leaves the U.S. vulnerable to a nuclear shakedown in which an agreement that would place no real obstacles in Iran’s place might be presented to the American people as proof that Obama kept his word to stop Iran. While most Americans are hazy about the details of these talks, they should not be deceived into thinking this is an issue on which reasonable people can split the difference. An agreement that allows Iran to keep its nuclear program (something that the president specifically vowed not to let happen) and gives it access to its nuclear stockpile with only a brief “break out” period standing between the ayatollahs and the bomb is not a compromise. It is a Western surrender that will put nuclear weapons within reach of the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.

As time winds down toward the moment when another Kerry cave-in becomes the only way a deal gets done, it is imperative that Congress sends a clear message that it will never pass any bill lifting sanctions on Iran unless the negotiations produce an accord that is something more than a Western fig leaf covering Iran’s nuclear ambition.

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U.S. Objective Should Be to Disarm Hamas

The United States has been a largely helpless spectator as the fighting between Israel and Hamas has continued this week. But rather than merely calling for restraint or trying to cajole Egypt into resuming its traditional role as broker between the two parties, Washington should be attempting to get at the heart of the problem: forcing the terrorists in Gaza to disarm.

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The United States has been a largely helpless spectator as the fighting between Israel and Hamas has continued this week. But rather than merely calling for restraint or trying to cajole Egypt into resuming its traditional role as broker between the two parties, Washington should be attempting to get at the heart of the problem: forcing the terrorists in Gaza to disarm.

Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly on his way to Cairo to persuade the military government there to play a more active role in diplomacy. However, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi takes almost as dim a view of the Obama administration as he does of Hamas, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood that he has been suppressing.

Sisi’s cooperation is crucial to ending the fighting quickly since in addition to demanding the release of terrorists by Israel, the Islamists want the border crossings from Gaza into Egypt opened. They also would like the Egyptians to facilitate the transfer of cash from Qatar and other foreign backers of Hamas. If Kerry’s message to Egypt is for Cairo to bend to Hamas’s wishes, it’s not clear whether Sisi will listen. But as much as Sisi accommodating Hamas in some way may seem the easy way out, it is doubtful that the Egyptian is so foolish as to think a rapprochement with Hamas will do his country or the cause of regional stability much good in the long run. Nor should Kerry be advocating such a policy.

The problem here is not whether Kerry helps construct another temporary fix that will merely set the region up for another round of rocket terrorism from Hamas the next time it wants to extract concessions from Israel or Egypt. Rather, the most constructive position that the U.S. could take would be for it to offer extensive help for Gaza but only if Hamas gets out of the terror business.

Just as the U.S. sought, with European and ultimately Russian assistance, for the Assad regime in Syria to be forced to give up its chemical weapons, so, too, now Washington should be working hard to force Hamas to give up its rocket arsenal.

To be sure, that may be something of a pipe dream. Hamas is at its very core a terrorist organization committed to violence and to use any tactics to achieve its goal of destroying Israel. But it must be understood that as much as the current conflict is driven by Hamas’s intransigent refusal to end the war on the Jewish state, its ability to go on fighting that war has been enabled by past decisions by the U.S. and Egypt to tolerate its hold on Gaza and to allow a status quo in which the Islamist group was allowed to not only stay in power but also to amass the arms with which it could seek to threaten the peace of the region.

Though Hamas is routinely depicted as being under terrible economic and military pressure, as Avi Isacharoff writes in the Times of Israel, it is quite content with its current position. Hamas’s leaders and their weapons stockpile are safe and sound in their bunkers and tunnels deep under Gaza’s civilian population centers. Their firing of rockets at Israel has boosted their popularity among a Palestinian people that is still fixated on their hatred of Jews and Zionism. And the rising toll of Palestinian civilians killed as the result of Israeli efforts to suppress the rocket fire has led to more sympathy for Hamas. Nor are they particularly daunted by the prospect of an Israeli ground operation in Gaza since they think it is unlikely to capture their key strongholds and bunkers and will only make Israel’s international position even more untenable and cause casualties on both sides to spike.

Thus, Hamas may feel like it can go on shooting at Israel indefinitely until Egypt or Israel gives up and makes a concession that will enable Hamas to declare victory, something that would also give it more leverage over their erstwhile Fatah partners in the Palestinian government. So while a cease-fire would be the best thing for civilians on both sides, it would be a catastrophe were the U.S. to be working toward a deal that would grant Hamas such a triumph.

As historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren wrote yesterday on CNN.com, the U.S. objective should be a deal that will call for Israel to lift its maritime blockade of Gaza and a massive infusion of foreign aid in exchange for the surrender of all of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and the return of control of the strip to the Palestinian Authority.

Without the demilitarization of Gaza and the end of its status as an independent Palestinian state in all but name—but one ruled by Islamist tyrants—there is no chance for peace for Gaza or the West Bank in the foreseeable future. Kerry, who devoted much of the last year to a futile and actually counter-productive round of peace talks that set in motion the series of events that led to the current fighting, must try and see beyond the immediate problems and realize that if the parties are not to be doomed to endless repetitions of this drama, the status quo in Gaza must be upended. If, instead, he signs on to yet another cease-fire proposal that will leave Hamas and its rockets in place, it will mean more than a guarantee of more fighting in the future. It will also ensure that any future peace efforts will be just as pointless as the ones Kerry just conducted. Rather than pressuring Egypt to help Hamas, Kerry should be marshaling international opinion behind a solution that will disarm the terrorists and give peace a chance.

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Kerry’s Afghanistan Breakthrough

It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

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It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

This is probably a bluff, but it’s a dangerous one because it threatens to reopen the deep fissures that fractured Afghanistan in the 1990s when Abdullah’s Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, fought a vicious civil war against the Taliban, whose ranks were (and are) made up of Pashtuns from the south and east. Ghani, who according to preliminary results won 56 percent of the vote, compared to Abdullah’s 44 percent, isn’t backing down either. He sees himself as the rightful next president of Afghanistan.

Enter Kerry. He flew into Kabul and in 12 hours of nonstop talks managed to get Abdullah and Ghani, both closeted in separate rooms of the U.S. Embassy along with their advisers, to agree on an internationally supervised procedure to audit all 8 million votes cast–a suspiciously high number, given that only 7 million or so voted in the first round of balloting.

If the process goes off as planned, and if it results in the seating of a government that is seen as legitimate (both admittedly big ifs), Kerry will have achieved a major diplomatic victory–one that could prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos. It will in fact be only his latest triumph in Afghanistan where he has had more luck than most American officials, even when he was still only a senator, in dealing with the difficult Hamid Karzai.

Why does Kerry seem more successful in Afghanistan than elsewhere–for example, in the Middle East, where he devoted so much energy to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” only to see another round of fighting break out between Israel and Hamas? Or in Ukraine where he has had little luck in getting the Russians to end their aggression by proxy?

The answers are pretty obvious but bear repeating. In Afghanistan Kerry has two advantages that he does not enjoy when negotiating with Iran or the Palestinian Authority or Russia: He has overwhelming American military force at his back and he has the luxury of dealing with actors who may have some differences but fundamentally share similar goals and outlooks.

Although their numbers are much reduced (and will fall further by the end of the year) the U.S. military still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, backed up by ample air power, making them the most formidable military force in the country. That gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.

Moreover, while Abdullah and Ghani bitterly disagree about which of them should be president, they are both widely seen as technocrats who want a democratic, Western-oriented, non-Taliban future for the country. That makes it possible, if not easy, for them to bridge their differences in the same way that union and corporate negotiators can do if led along by a skillful mediator.

Alas few if any of those preconditions exist elsewhere in the world, which makes it all the more mysterious that Kerry wants to expend so much energy on what are almost sure to be fruitless negotiations with adversaries who have no reason to reach agreement. He would be better advised to focus his efforts on mediating other disputes between relatively reasonable rivals, e.g., South Korea and Japan, rather than wasting his breathe trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program or the Palestinians to give up their dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

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Kerry’s Blunders Bode Ill For Iran Talks

While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

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While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, the P5+1 process is currently stalemated with a July 20 deadline looming over the negotiators. Iran and the West appear to be far apart on issues such as Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium and the number of centrifuges it would be allowed to keep in the future, the future of its plutonium nuclear plant as well as its mountainside Fordow plant where enrichment activities continue. That list doesn’t even include issues such as Iran’s secret military research facilities that have not been visited by United Nations inspectors or its ballistic missile program that might provide the ayatollahs with a delivery system for a bomb.

Going into the final weeks of talks (though the negotiations can always be extended by both sides), the Iranians have been sounding confident about their ability to stick to their existing positions that would guarantee them the ability to build a bomb despite Western concerns.

The Obama administration gave up much of its leverage over Iran last fall when it decided to loosen sanctions in an interim agreement that granted implicit recognition of Iran’s right to both enrichment and a formidable nuclear infrastructure. The Iranians were required to convert their stockpile of nuclear fuel to a state that couldn’t be used for a bomb. But that could be quickly reversed if the Islamist regime decided to attempt a “break out” to a weapon. Indeed, after beginning the process of unraveling the sanctions that had taken years to put in place, the U.S. position on the Iranian threat has been reduced to one that attempts to lengthen the breakout period rather than forcing Tehran to give up its enrichment or, as President Obama pledged in 2012, the end of its nuclear program.

Iran’s confidence also has to be boosted by the announcement that the P5+1 foreign ministers, a group that includes Secretary of State John Kerry, will be joining the talks in Vienna this week. That’s an ominous development since the weak interim agreement was only reached after Kerry parachuted into those talks in November.

Kerry’s presence is worrisome because he explained the U.S. retreat last fall as being motivated by his belief that even the weak deal he signed was better than no deal at all. To those who wondered why he had accepted Iran’s insistence on keeping its nuclear infrastructure, he merely replied that sticking to America’s demands was impossible. With Iran’s leaders insisting that they will never accept a major reduction in the number of centrifuges available to them, it’s hard to believe that Kerry will hold the line on that issue after his previous retreat.

Kerry’s blunders in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians should also raise alarms for those wondering how he will manage the Iranians in the coming weeks. Throughout that process, Kerry not only disregarded Israel’s security requirements but also continually backed down from demands made on the Palestinians, even those that were purely symbolic such as their need to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Kerry was also heedless of the consequences of his all-but-certain failure. The current violence can be directly traced not only to his foolish initiative but his decision not to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its decision to ally itself with Hamas rather than making peace with Israel.

At a time when, as Forbes’ Business Insider reports, European governments are already gutting sanctions on Iran even before the talks are concluded, Tehran heads into the final days of negotiations feeling it has the wind at its back. Just as Kerry helped set the stage for the revival of Hamas and a new round of violence, his zeal for a deal with Iran may lead to even more serious disasters in the negotiations that are about to unfold.

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John Kerry’s War

Being a pessimist means that having your predictions come true rarely brings much joy. That’s the situation I and many other Israelis and Palestinians are in right now–all those who warned that John Kerry’s insistence on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks would likely spark a new round of Palestinian-Israeli violence, but were drowned out by those who insist that talking never does any harm. It’s already too late to spare Israelis and Palestinians the bloody consequences of Kerry’s hubris. But it’s important to understand why such initiatives so frequently result in bloodshed, so that future secretaries of state can avoid a recurrence.

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Being a pessimist means that having your predictions come true rarely brings much joy. That’s the situation I and many other Israelis and Palestinians are in right now–all those who warned that John Kerry’s insistence on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks would likely spark a new round of Palestinian-Israeli violence, but were drowned out by those who insist that talking never does any harm. It’s already too late to spare Israelis and Palestinians the bloody consequences of Kerry’s hubris. But it’s important to understand why such initiatives so frequently result in bloodshed, so that future secretaries of state can avoid a recurrence.

First, as repeated efforts over the last 14 years have shown, Palestinians and Israelis aren’t ready to make a deal. Serious efforts were made at the Camp David talks in 2000, the Taba talks in 2001, the Livni-Qureia talks in 2007-08, the Olmert-Abbas talks in 2008, and, most recently, Kerry’s talks, but all failed because the gaps between the parties couldn’t be bridged. As Shmuel Rosner noted in a perceptive New York Times op-ed in May, that’s because many issues Westerners don’t much care about, and therefore imagine are easy to compromise on, are actually very important to the parties involved and thus impossible to compromise on. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, and until it does, negotiations will never bring peace.

But failed peace talks inevitably make violence more likely, for two main reasons. First, they force both sides to focus on their most passionate disagreements–the so-called “core issues” that go to the heart of both Israeli and Palestinian identity–rather than on less emotional issues. On more mundane issues, Israel and the Palestinian Authority can sometimes agree–as they did on a series of economic cooperation projects last June, before Kerry’s peace talks gummed up the works. But even if they don’t, it’s hard for people on either side to get too upset when their governments squabble over, say, sewage treatment. In contrast, people on both sides do get upset when their governments argue over, say, the “right of return,” because that’s an issue where both sides view the other’s narrative as negating their own existence.

Second, failed peace talks always result in both sides feeling that they’ve lost or conceded something important without receiving a suitable quid pro quo. Palestinians, for instance, were outraged when Kerry reportedly backed Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state, while Israelis were outraged by Kerry’s subsequent U-turn on the issue. Thus both sides ended up feeling as if their positions on this issue were undermined during the talks. The same goes for the Jordan Valley, where both Israelis and Palestinians felt Kerry’s proposals didn’t meet their respective needs, but now fear these proposals will serve as the starting point for additional concessions next time.

Added to this were the “gestures” Kerry demanded of both sides: that Israel free dozens of vicious killers and the PA temporarily refrain from joining international organizations. Though the price Kerry demanded of Israel was incomparably greater, neither side wanted to pay its assigned share. So when the talks collapsed, both felt they had made a sacrifice for nothing.

In short, failed peace talks exacerbate Israeli-Palestinian tensions rather than calming them. And when tensions rise, so does the likelihood of violence. That’s true in any situation, but doubly so for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because terrorist groups like Hamas are always happy to throw a match into a barrel of explosives. The unsurprising result is that spasms of violence, like the second intifada and the current war, have frequently followed failed peace talks.

So if Washington truly wants to avoid Israeli-Palestinian violence, the best thing it could do is stop trying to force both sides into talks that are doomed to fail. For contrary to the accepted wisdom, which holds that “political negotiations” are the best way to forestall violence, they’re actually the best way to make violence more likely.

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The Talking Secretary of State

Secretary of State John Kerry works hard, that’s for sure. He seems to spend more hours in the air—shuttling backwards and forwards between D.C. and the troubled parts of the world—than he does on the ground. One round of talks is rapidly followed by another. Keeping up to date with the issues of the day and the demands of the myriad diplomats that Secretary Kerry has to deal with is no doubt an impressive feat. There is just one small catch. At best, the most that Kerry ever has to show for his pains is an extension in the talks. Meanwhile the situation on the ground grows invariably worse.

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Secretary of State John Kerry works hard, that’s for sure. He seems to spend more hours in the air—shuttling backwards and forwards between D.C. and the troubled parts of the world—than he does on the ground. One round of talks is rapidly followed by another. Keeping up to date with the issues of the day and the demands of the myriad diplomats that Secretary Kerry has to deal with is no doubt an impressive feat. There is just one small catch. At best, the most that Kerry ever has to show for his pains is an extension in the talks. Meanwhile the situation on the ground grows invariably worse.

Most recently Kerry has been doing the rounds in Iraq and Egypt—two countries beset by turmoil and the strife stirred up by Islamic fanaticism. In neither case does the Obama administration have the faintest idea as to what to do and in both cases mixed signals and a complete weakness of resolve from Washington has only exacerbated existing problems. Particularly abysmal were Kerry’s ventures in Iraq. There he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday to discuss the possibility of the formation of a national unity government that would bring more Sunnis into his cabinet, although—given that Maliki’s pro-Shia factionalism has in no small part contributed to driving Iraq to its present position, teetering on the edge of a cataclysm—perhaps a resignation would be more in order.

Kerry should have had some leverage here. Mr. Maliki no longer controls most of his own country. The Kurds have significantly increased the chunk of Iraq that they control while ISIS have captured huge swaths of the northwest and are steadily moving toward Baghdad where at one point it looked as if Maliki would soon find himself under siege. Only a few days ago the Iraqi government was pleading for American assistance, but given that the Obama administration is unlikely to offer any more than its beloved drones, and that Iran is now stepping up its offers of support, Maliki suddenly finds that he is not so beholden to Kerry’s demands after all. Unsurprisingly then, Kerry and his requests were promptly dismissed.

On Sunday Kerry had been in Egypt, and in return for the significant financial and military aid that the U.S. is providing Egypt’s military government with, Kerry was to ask the generals if they wouldn’t mind laying off on the human-rights abuses a bit. The Egyptians took about as much notice of Kerry as the Iraqis. By Monday Kerry had his answer when Egyptian courts sentenced three foreign journalists to prison, with the government refusing to bow to outside pressure to intervene.

And this pattern of simply ignoring American begging has been repeated throughout the region, and indeed the world at large. Kerry’s strategy of talking has failed to yield results with the Assad regime in Syria, with the Israelis and Palestinians in the course of those ill-fated negotiations (that against all advice Kerry insisted upon wasting so much time, energy, and air miles on), with Putin over the Crimea, and now with Iran and the negotiations over its illegal nuclear enrichment program. There has been much talk of these latest negotiations being extended, although by all accounts a draft of an agreement with the Iranians is now being pieced together. But many are convinced that the deal will be a bad one and Iran’s neighbors are getting nervous. So they should be: Russia is currently in talks with the Iranians about assisting with the construction of a vast network of nuclear reactors.

Obama and his government washed-up at the White House with all kinds of grandiose ideas about the efficacy of soft power. Influence, it has been said, is simply so much more interesting than power. Well, the Middle East is certainly looking more interesting than it has in a long time, just not in a good way. The truth is that time and again America—the world’s only hyperpower when Obama took office—now has almost no influence at all, even over parties as weak as the Palestinian Authority. But then that’s the thing about soft power, in the end it is just soft. Kerry talks and talks, and initiates one round of fruitless negotiations after another. Yet those he is talking to are quite right in their assessment that they need only nod and smile politely and then not listen to a word the secretary of state has to say. When America is too timid to back up its words with any concrete actions, who needs to worry about what the United States thinks about anything anymore?

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Sacrificing the Kurds to Save a Narrative

Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

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Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

As Iraq continues to come apart, the Kurds are presented with an opportunity to realize genuine self-rule. That would mean Iraq would truly dissolve on Obama’s watch. The administration doesn’t want to deal with those optics, hence Kerry’s attempt to talk the Kurds into self-sacrifice:

In advance of Kerry’s arrival from Amman, Jordan, Barzani signaled yesterday that the “time is here” for the Kurds, a minority of 6.5 million, to decide on independence instead of what’s now a semi-autonomous state within Iraq. As fighting rages between extremists and Iraqi forces, the Kurds are in a position to be deal makers in political talks for a new government. …

A decision to go forward with independence would affect not only the future of about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 33 million, but also whether the nation of Iraq dissolves into a loose federation or disappears. Either outcome would be a tectonic shift in regional politics with implications for neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities.

The U.S. has said it wants Iraq to maintain its territorial integrity and seek a peaceful outcome through a new government that respects the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Obama administration would strongly oppose Kurdish independence now as “another nail in the coffin of the Baghdad government,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow in Washington at the Century Foundation and a former U.S. diplomat.

This is typical of the Obama administration. It pulls American influence back from an area of interest, which leaves a vacuum the administration then expects allies in the region–those left behind by Obama–to step into in order to mitigate the damage. Obama also takes allies for granted, acting as though they’ll never really be needed and then when they are, the president expects them to fall in line. And most of all, it trades away the freedom of others so Obama can uphold the illusion of stability.

It’s also characteristic of Obama in one more way: having almost no grasp of history–especially of the Middle East–he can’t learn from it, and instead gets policies flat wrong. He would do well to read Matti Friedman’s incisive piece in Mosaic this week. Friedman kicked off the discussion earlier in the month with an essay on Israel’s Mizrachim, a category broadly comprising Jews from Arab lands. Mosaic then, as per its custom, published a couple of learned responses. Friedman has followed up with a response of his own.

He begins by discussing how the advance of ISIS and similar fanatical groups throughout the Middle East is having a brutal effect on ethnic and religious minorities. They are virtually unprotected, and as such have no real influence on the events around them. “One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago,” Friedman writes. “Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.”

He then explains that the story of the Jews–and specifically Middle Eastern Jews–holds a lesson for the region’s other minorities:

When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

And of course if you want that piece of land to call your own and the power to defend it, you’ll need some powerful allies. When the British Mandate expired and Israel declared its independence, the realist fans of stability around Harry Truman wanted idealism, fairness, and moral courage sidelined to avoid disrupting the status quo. Truman would have none of it, and recognized Israel immediately. Now the Kurds face a similar–though certainly not identical–situation.

It’s also possible the Kurdish elite aren’t as enthusiastic about independence as they appear–that such talk is intended to boost the concessions they can wring from the U.S. for staying in Iraq. But they have probably learned the historical lesson Friedman writes about and the fact that they might never have a better chance to strike out on their own. If that’s the case, Kerry is asking quite a lot of them in seeking to save a narrative at the expense of Kurdish national aspirations.

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Too Late for Obama to Get Right with Egypt

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Read More

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Given that the regime led by President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is clearly ensconced in power and seems to have the support of most of its people, this decision is a good idea even if it comes far too late to do much to actually do the U.S. much good. President Obama’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government that Sisi overthrew was a mistake that was compounded by Washington’s futile efforts to head off the coup and then impose cuts in aid to Egypt’s military. These measures did nothing to make the military respect human rights or increase support for democracy in Egypt. But they did convince most Egyptians that the U.S. was out of touch with their desire to end the ill-fated experiment with an Islamist government. But by making this belated statement on the eve of the Cairo government’s sentencing of journalists for assisting the Brotherhood, Kerry lost whatever little leverage or standing he might have had in pushing Sisi not to go overboard in his campaign against the Brotherhood. Bad timing has been the hallmark of the administration’s path to its current dilemma. Obama stuck too long with the old regime led by Hosni Mubarak to suit most Egyptians who were ready for change during the 2011 Arab Spring protests that swept the country. But by pushing hard for Mubarak’s ouster after being on his side for so long convinced no one of America’s good intentions. But once Mubarak was out, the president shifted his ground and began working to pave the way for a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime against the wishes of the country’s military that hoped to avert that outcome. Washington was ruthless in threatening dire consequences against the army when it tried to stop the Brotherhood from winning Egypt’s first election and then seemed to support the Islamists once they were firmly in power. When a year of Mohamed Morsi’s government convinced tens of millions of Egyptians to take to the streets in the summer of 2013 to urge the Brotherhood’s ouster, Obama again waited too long to recognize this reality. He was seen as seeking to stop the mass movement aimed at averting the country’s slide into unchecked Islamist tyranny. When the U.S. punished the military government that overthrew Morsi to popular acclaim, that ended any chance of regaining American influence in the world’s most populous Arab nation. Sisi’s government’s ruthless suppression of the Brotherhood makes sense to Egyptians who understand that they must choose between the military and the Islamists. Sisi is right to regard the Brotherhood as a deadly foe that must be crushed now if Egypt is not going to have to face more violence in the future. But it hardly enhances the image of the U.S. as a friend to freedom everywhere for Obama to have finally given in on this point just as Sisi was imprisoning journalists and sentencing large numbers of Brotherhood members to death. Second guessing any president is easy, but the plain fact is that this administration has managed to mess up even those decisions that were correct. At this point, President Obama has alienated virtually everyone in Egypt. Sisi’s government has the power to help influence the Palestinians to reject Hamas as well as providing an anchor for regional stability if it survives, as it probably will, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to take back power. Though the U.S. retains the leverage that its large annual aid to the country gives it, there is little chance anyone in Cairo takes Obama’s admonitions seriously, even when he is right. Egypt is far from being the only foreign-policy disaster that can be laid at the feet of this president. The collapse in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, throwing away its leverage to stop Iran’s nuclear threat, abandoning Syria and then backing away from efforts to punish the Assad regime in Syria, and a foolish “reset” of relations with Russia that led to more aggression from Moscow loom larger than Obama’s streak of bad timing in Egypt. But, like those other examples, Egypt has highlighted the president’s inability to make a decision and his poor choices when he does make up his mind. Having first articulated his flawed vision of a new Middle East policy in a 2009 speech in Cairo, it is both ironic and fitting that Egypt is also a reminder of just how amateurish this administration’s approach to foreign policy has always been.

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The Consequences of Appeasing Hamas

Yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry rightly condemned the kidnapping of three Israeli teens by what both the U.S. and Israel believe to be Hamas terrorists. But Kerry’s willingness to reiterate standing U.S. policy that classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization rings false. After deciding in the last month that U.S. aid would continue to flow to the Palestinian Authority despite the fact that it is now run by a Fatah-Hamas coalition, the Obama administration cannot pretend that it is an innocent bystander as the Islamist rulers of Gaza revert to what even Kerry pointed out was a history of kidnapping.

By deciding to buy into the fiction that Hamas could be co-opted by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and help him unify the Palestinian people behind a push for peace, the U.S. didn’t just make a colossal error of judgment. In doing so, the administration abandoned a decades-long principled stand against the Islamist group that may not be resurrected even after this latest atrocity. Washington cannot be said to be directly responsible for Hamas’s decision to revert to terrorism even though the U.S. seemed to be saying that it could be trusted to behave. But the kidnapping illustrates once again what happens when terrorists are appeased. As such, the Obama administration must shoulder some of the responsibility for the violence that followed their seal of approval for Hamas’s presence in the Palestinian government.

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Yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry rightly condemned the kidnapping of three Israeli teens by what both the U.S. and Israel believe to be Hamas terrorists. But Kerry’s willingness to reiterate standing U.S. policy that classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization rings false. After deciding in the last month that U.S. aid would continue to flow to the Palestinian Authority despite the fact that it is now run by a Fatah-Hamas coalition, the Obama administration cannot pretend that it is an innocent bystander as the Islamist rulers of Gaza revert to what even Kerry pointed out was a history of kidnapping.

By deciding to buy into the fiction that Hamas could be co-opted by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and help him unify the Palestinian people behind a push for peace, the U.S. didn’t just make a colossal error of judgment. In doing so, the administration abandoned a decades-long principled stand against the Islamist group that may not be resurrected even after this latest atrocity. Washington cannot be said to be directly responsible for Hamas’s decision to revert to terrorism even though the U.S. seemed to be saying that it could be trusted to behave. But the kidnapping illustrates once again what happens when terrorists are appeased. As such, the Obama administration must shoulder some of the responsibility for the violence that followed their seal of approval for Hamas’s presence in the Palestinian government.

As I noted earlier, despite the decision of Abbas to embrace Hamas rather than Israel, the U.S. has chosen to treat that choice as an acceptable one. The conceit behind this policy was the notion that Hamas was too broke to pose much of a threat to Abbas’s Fatah faction and that its incorporation into the PA would strengthen the man they continued to call a peace partner, despite his lack of interest in negotiating with Israel. Tension between the two factions continued to simmer and may now overflow as Israel pressures Abbas to cooperate in the search for the kidnapped Israeli kids. But this spring the U.S. position toward both the PA and Hamas had become one that amounted to one in which Washington was resolutely determined to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil about the new Palestinian regime.

This faith in Abbas was partly the result of Obama’s unwillingness to look clearly at a man who has been determined to avoid signing a peace treaty at all costs since he succeeded Yasir Arafat in 2005. But it was also, at least in part, the function of the administration’s innate hostility to Abbas’s Israeli counterpart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president’s preference for the veteran terrorist associate now serving the 10th year of a five-year term of office over the man whose three election victories represent the will of Israeli democracy is no secret. But Obama’s antipathy for the prime minister has morphed in the past six years from a quirk to a clear liability for U.S. policymakers. It has blinded Washington to the reality of Palestinian politics, especially after Kerry’s initiative was torpedoed by Abbas’s end run around the U.S. talks by going back to the United Nations as well as by the pact with Hamas.

U.S. policymakers may chalk up the attempt to bolster Abbas even after his Hamas pact as just another well-intentioned effort that was doomed to failure by the intransigence of both sides in the conflict. But the decision to give a Hamas government Washington’s seal of approval may have more far-reaching consequences than the State Department realizes.

Though the kidnapping of the Israeli teens has a lot more to do with Hamas’s long-range plans to supplant Fatah in the West Bank than with U.S. policy, it did not escape their notice, nor that of anyone else, that in doing so the Americans had abandoned a core principle of peacemaking. If Hamas’s continued refusal to abandon its genocidal charter or to cease terrorism didn’t render any government it was part of ineligible for U.S. aid, is there anything the Palestinians can do that would motivate Washington to cut them off?

In this context, Kerry’s condemnation of the kidnapping means nothing more than Abbas’s belated decision to repudiate it. Unless the United States follows up this statement with a demand that Abbas throw Hamas out of his government, Palestinians may be forgiven for thinking that Kerry’s statement was a meaningless bow in the direction of Israel and its friends. The consequences of appeasing Hamas may be measured not only in the decision of the group to up the ante in the West Bank with a spectacular terror operation but in the end of any U.S. influence over the PA. Obama and Kerry may not have intended for their decision to treat Hamas as just another Palestinian political party to be a green light for more terrorism. But, like it or not, that’s exactly what has happened. The only question now is whether it is too late for the administration to walk this terrible error back.

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Does Obama Believe He Is Irrelevant?

I agree with Andrew McCarthy over at National Review that George W. Bush deserves some of the blame for the cascade of events in which Iraq now finds itself. Bush thought by agreeing to a drawdown and withdrawal of combat troops, he would be doing the gentlemanly thing and would allow his successor a fresh start. Alas, it is always a mistake to try to force international problems to conform to the American political calendar, and that is exactly what Bush did.

But those on the left who circulate talking points absolving President Barack Obama of any responsibility for what has happened in Iraq, and those who those who propagate them, seem to suggest that Obama and his national security team are irrelevant. Iraq’s fate was decided in 2003, they imply, and Obama bears no responsibility for what has occurred since he won the presidency. That is wrong: While the world does not revolve around Washington, American decisions can and do matter as does the choice of inaction.

Obama has at least been principled in his objection to the Iraq war. Unlike Secretary of State John Kerry or his predecessor in Foggy Bottom, Hillary Clinton, Obama was not for it before he was against it. But his disdain for George W. Bush’s decision to use force to oust Saddam Hussein trumped any desire to reach the best possible outcome. He was cynical: By refusing to take yes for an answer in retaining any U.S. forces in training or support capacities in Iraq (the Iraqi government was willing to grant immunity, but the White House demand to have the Iraqi parliament ratify that was both unnecessary and a bridge too far) Obama condemned Iraq to greater bloodshed. For Obama, it was a political calculation: He would fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw from the “bad war” completely. If Iraq fell apart, he could blame Bush. And if it managed to hold together, he could claim credit for having the foresight to leave. In effect, he was willing to gamble a country of great geopolitical interest and a state in which the United States had invested heavily in blood and treasure for cynical political motives. He treated Iraqis like pawns, and forfeited the responsibility to make decisions which could nudge Iraq toward a more stable, pro-Western outcome.

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I agree with Andrew McCarthy over at National Review that George W. Bush deserves some of the blame for the cascade of events in which Iraq now finds itself. Bush thought by agreeing to a drawdown and withdrawal of combat troops, he would be doing the gentlemanly thing and would allow his successor a fresh start. Alas, it is always a mistake to try to force international problems to conform to the American political calendar, and that is exactly what Bush did.

But those on the left who circulate talking points absolving President Barack Obama of any responsibility for what has happened in Iraq, and those who those who propagate them, seem to suggest that Obama and his national security team are irrelevant. Iraq’s fate was decided in 2003, they imply, and Obama bears no responsibility for what has occurred since he won the presidency. That is wrong: While the world does not revolve around Washington, American decisions can and do matter as does the choice of inaction.

Obama has at least been principled in his objection to the Iraq war. Unlike Secretary of State John Kerry or his predecessor in Foggy Bottom, Hillary Clinton, Obama was not for it before he was against it. But his disdain for George W. Bush’s decision to use force to oust Saddam Hussein trumped any desire to reach the best possible outcome. He was cynical: By refusing to take yes for an answer in retaining any U.S. forces in training or support capacities in Iraq (the Iraqi government was willing to grant immunity, but the White House demand to have the Iraqi parliament ratify that was both unnecessary and a bridge too far) Obama condemned Iraq to greater bloodshed. For Obama, it was a political calculation: He would fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw from the “bad war” completely. If Iraq fell apart, he could blame Bush. And if it managed to hold together, he could claim credit for having the foresight to leave. In effect, he was willing to gamble a country of great geopolitical interest and a state in which the United States had invested heavily in blood and treasure for cynical political motives. He treated Iraqis like pawns, and forfeited the responsibility to make decisions which could nudge Iraq toward a more stable, pro-Western outcome.

Working in the Pentagon between September 2002 and April 2004, I was involved (admittedly, at a pretty low level) in many policy debates. A few I came out on the winning side. Most—including with regard to the longer term occupation of Iraq—the team on which I served lost. But taking the cards we were dealt and seeking the best possible outcome given that new hand was a guiding principle. Unfortunately, Obama stopped engaging the moment he entered the White House because of a 2003 decision with which he disagreed. Leadership is not claiming the buck stopped ten years ago; leadership is about making decisions and taking responsibility for them now.

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Obama’s International Legacy: Fait Accompli

President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

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President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

With United States power in retreat and with populists and dictators across the globe concluding that they can act with impunity, never has the danger been so real, not only in the current crisis spots but in Taiwan, the Falkland Islands, the Baltics, and other lands aggressors and dictators crave. All that matters in the new world order is brute strength and the will to use it. The most intractable diplomatic problems will no longer be solved by diplomacy, but rather by unilateralism. Of course, some critics might say unilateralism is simply what America engaged in for decades. That’s more propaganda than reality but, even if so, moral equivalency is a disease. America believed it acted for good; China and Russia clearly do not–their motivations are purely cynical.

One of the most surprising things I encountered when researching my recent study on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups was that, while the military spends more time in the classroom or the training ground going over its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department has never really conducted a full lessons-learned review with the diplomats who actually drive policy. Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Unfortunately, that seems to apply to the State Department, not only in the current administration but in the last ten or so.

It would be wrong to blame all chaos on Obama. He may have ceded the ground, but ultimately it is the dictators who are to blame. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time for President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other top administration officials to sit back and consider the state of the world and what the United States might have done differently at key inflection points in order to prevent the current situation. Only then can the United States learn from its mistakes and seek to salvage what is left.

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Clinton’s Task: Spin the Unspinnable

Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, was apparently assembled “with an assist”–according to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani–from what Clinton calls her “book team.” And if Kakutani’s review is any indication, Clinton’s team was burdened by its task.

The book is understood to be Clinton’s campaign manifesto, and the book’s release–officially, tomorrow–is being treated as a campaign launch. Clinton has been dogged by one question in particular: What did she accomplish as secretary of state? She has even been unable to answer the question herself. And though I (like Clinton, presumably) haven’t read her book, early indications are that her book team was unable to answer it as well.

After an undistinguished and at times dismal term as secretary of state, the book had two basic objectives: show Clinton to have accomplished something–anything really; and dispel the image Clinton cultivated of using the prestigious perch as an Instagram-based travelogue. Readers of the Times review will encounter, early on, the following sentence: “The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

This sounds promising. A few paragraphs later, however, they will be told: “For readers who are less policy-oriented, there are personal tidbits strewn lightly throughout, like small chocolate Easter eggs.” It is unthinkable that a great many readers will press on past that sentence, instead reaching for the ginger ale to calm the rising tide of nausea that accompanies particularly greasy Clinton-worship. For those who couldn’t tough it out, spoiler alert: there are precisely zero examples in the review of anything that even approaches portraying Hillary “as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

Oh well. What about Hillary’s other defenders in the press, perhaps those with a steady interest and experience in foreign affairs and issues relating to human rights? Enter Nicholas Kristof. He uses his Sunday column to defend Hillary Clinton’s tenure at State. It is a brutally awkward attempted complement that begins to absentmindedly sound more like a personal indictment. It is the Michael Scott wedding toast of pro-Hillary columns.

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Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, was apparently assembled “with an assist”–according to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani–from what Clinton calls her “book team.” And if Kakutani’s review is any indication, Clinton’s team was burdened by its task.

The book is understood to be Clinton’s campaign manifesto, and the book’s release–officially, tomorrow–is being treated as a campaign launch. Clinton has been dogged by one question in particular: What did she accomplish as secretary of state? She has even been unable to answer the question herself. And though I (like Clinton, presumably) haven’t read her book, early indications are that her book team was unable to answer it as well.

After an undistinguished and at times dismal term as secretary of state, the book had two basic objectives: show Clinton to have accomplished something–anything really; and dispel the image Clinton cultivated of using the prestigious perch as an Instagram-based travelogue. Readers of the Times review will encounter, early on, the following sentence: “The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

This sounds promising. A few paragraphs later, however, they will be told: “For readers who are less policy-oriented, there are personal tidbits strewn lightly throughout, like small chocolate Easter eggs.” It is unthinkable that a great many readers will press on past that sentence, instead reaching for the ginger ale to calm the rising tide of nausea that accompanies particularly greasy Clinton-worship. For those who couldn’t tough it out, spoiler alert: there are precisely zero examples in the review of anything that even approaches portraying Hillary “as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

Oh well. What about Hillary’s other defenders in the press, perhaps those with a steady interest and experience in foreign affairs and issues relating to human rights? Enter Nicholas Kristof. He uses his Sunday column to defend Hillary Clinton’s tenure at State. It is a brutally awkward attempted complement that begins to absentmindedly sound more like a personal indictment. It is the Michael Scott wedding toast of pro-Hillary columns.

“When politicians have trouble spinning their own glories, that’s a problem,” he begins. That is correct. He continues:

So it was bizarre that Hillary Rodham Clinton, asked at a forum in April about her legacy at the State Department, had trouble articulating it. That feeds into a narrative — awaiting her memoir on Tuesday — that she may have been glamorous as secretary of state but didn’t actually accomplish much.

In fact, that’s dead wrong, for Clinton achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy — just not the traditional kind. She didn’t craft a coalition of allies, like James Baker, one of the most admired secretaries of state. She didn’t seal a landmark peace agreement, nor is there a recognizable “Hillary Clinton doctrine.”

Uh-oh. Is it possible Clinton “achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy” yet that legacy was, at the same time, so subtle as to be unidentifiable even to Hillary herself? Apparently so. But what follows are a series of claims Kristof then, in the next breath, debunks himself.

For example, Kristof says “Clinton recognized that our future will be more about Asia than Europe, and she pushed hard to rebalance our relations.” Yet here’s his very next sentence: “She didn’t fully deliver on this ‘pivot’ — generally she was more successful at shaping agendas than delivering on them — but the basic instinct to turn our ship of state to face our Pacific future was sound and overdue.” She didn’t accomplish her goal, but that’s OK because she recognized, along with everyone else in the entire world, that China is important.

“She was often more hawkish than the White House,” Kristof argues, and notes Clinton’s support for arming Syrian rebels. This was “vetoed” by Obama, Kristof rightly explains, so it’s a bit unclear what part of nonexistent policies established this “hefty legacy” we keep hearing about.

Later, Kristof returns to the well-worn topic of Clinton prioritizing (translation: giving speeches about) the rights of women and girls worldwide. And here’s Kristof’s example: “The kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls in April was the kind of issue Clinton was out front of.” Yes, well, here’s the thing: Clinton wasn’t secretary of state anymore in April; John Kerry was.

It appears Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state was so forgettable as to be literally forgotten by her defenders. She is not in office currently, and her impact is, apparently, indistinguishable from when she was actually in office. This is the Clinton “legacy,” such as it is. Even the best “book team” can only dress it up so much.

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Kerry’s Implausible Antiterror Assurances

John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas. 

For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces). 

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John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas. 

For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces). 

The reasons for this forbearance are a bit mysterious–it’s not as if U.S. intelligence doesn’t have good actionable intelligence on the location inside Pakistan of senior Taliban commanders and it’s not as if those commanders aren’t plotting regular attacks on American forces. Most likely the U.S. has refrained from targeting them for fear of offending Pakistani sensitivities, because the Taliban are so closely linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. There is also undoubted concern about operating drones in urban areas where the Taliban hide and where the risk of civilian casualties is much greater.

Whatever the cause, it’s a fact that the U.S. has not tried to kill senior Taliban commanders such as those just released from Guantanamo as long as they have stayed out of Afghanistan. This is unlikely to change in the future, especially now that the U.S. is beginning its pullout from Afghanistan. So as long as the Taliban Five don’t infiltrate Afghanistan–as long as they stay in Pakistan, or even Qatar, to organize attacks–they are de facto freed of the threat of American retaliation. 

The Bergdahl swap may still be defensible on “leave no man behind” grounds. But Kerry and other senior administration officials need to level about the fact that our imperfect intelligence will not allow us to know as soon as the Taliban Five return to terrorism and our self-imposed limitations on the use of force in all likelihood will not allow us to kill them if they do.

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“Lebanonization” and Other Bogus Defenses of Obama’s Hamas Policy

The Obama administration’s strategy to deflect criticism of its support for Hamas’s role in the emerging Palestinian government is becoming clear. American officials will accuse Israel of hypocrisy, and rely on the media to parrot the accusation. There are two elements to the charge, and neither–as would be expected from an Obama-Kerry brainstorm–have merit. But they are revealing nonetheless.

Today’s New York Times story on the matter includes both charges. The first: “The Israeli government, [Kerry] noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.” The implication is that Israel is in no place to protest American funding of a government including Hamas since they are doing so themselves. Yet to suggest that tax remittances are the same, or should be considered the same, as foreign aid is absurd on its face–and, frankly, rather embarrassing for Kerry who may not understand basic economics himself but can afford to hire someone who does.

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The Obama administration’s strategy to deflect criticism of its support for Hamas’s role in the emerging Palestinian government is becoming clear. American officials will accuse Israel of hypocrisy, and rely on the media to parrot the accusation. There are two elements to the charge, and neither–as would be expected from an Obama-Kerry brainstorm–have merit. But they are revealing nonetheless.

Today’s New York Times story on the matter includes both charges. The first: “The Israeli government, [Kerry] noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.” The implication is that Israel is in no place to protest American funding of a government including Hamas since they are doing so themselves. Yet to suggest that tax remittances are the same, or should be considered the same, as foreign aid is absurd on its face–and, frankly, rather embarrassing for Kerry who may not understand basic economics himself but can afford to hire someone who does.

Additionally, the United States and Israel often have different approaches to the Palestinians because of the different roles the two play. Generally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed ending American aid to the Palestinian Authority, and has gone to bat for Obama by lobbying Congress to back off such proposals. The reason is the Palestinians have two primary choices for leadership: Fatah and Hamas. Until now Hamas has been excluded from the broader government, which means any money that flows to Mahmoud Abbas may have been misused in any number of ways, but it at least propped up the far superior alternative to Hamas.

Had Fatah been abandoned by the West, Hamas would have taken over the West Bank too. It can be argued that this process incentivizes Abbas’s misbehavior because it signals to him that he can get away with virtually anything. But actions have consequences, and the consequences of setting Abbas adrift would be disastrous.

The whole point of propping up Abbas was to fund the PA instead of Hamas, in an effort to weaken the latter. Funding a Palestinian government that includes Hamas is, strategically, the opposite of what the United States has been doing. It is not hypocritical of Israel to point this out. Indeed, it should not need pointing out. But if the geniuses running the White House and State Department insist on behaving as though they were born yesterday, they can expect the leaders of the nations that will bear the brunt of the consequences to treat them as such.

The other accusation of hypocrisy concerns the so-called “Lebanonization” of the Palestinian Authority. Here’s the Times:

Nothing illustrated the complexity of the situation for the United States better than Mr. Kerry’s backdrop: He was in Lebanon to underscore American support for the Lebanese government — which includes the Islamic militant group, Hezbollah.

This argument has gained some traction recently, but its popularity is truly puzzling. The implication here is that the United States supports the Lebanese government even though the terrorist group Hezbollah is an influential part of that government. Therefore, how can Israel oppose American support for a similar government in the Palestinian territories when it does not push back against American support for Lebanon?

Can anyone at the State Department guess the difference between the Palestinians and Lebanon? Show of hands? If you said, “The Israeli government is not involved in land-for-peace negotiations, including the possibility of ceding control of holy places and uprooting Israelis from ancient Jewish land, with the Lebanese,” then you get a gold star.

As the Times story notes, this is really a preliminary confrontation. There will supposedly be elections within the next six months or so, and Hamas will want to participate. Wouldn’t that be dangerous? Sure, but here’s an American official putting everyone at ease:

“Can a group that has a political party and a militia of 20,000 troops run in an election?” a senior administration official said. “These are issues that are going to have be dealt with down the road.”

We’ll find out together! It’ll be exciting. Of course, we already know the answer, since Hamas has already participated in elections in what was widely viewed as a mistake back in 2006. And Hamas currently governs its own province of the territories, the Gaza Strip. The Americans have already seen this movie, but they still can’t wait to see how it ends.

That, of course, could be the one silver lining. If Hamas enters the government and Israel refuses to negotiate with them, it’ll put the onus back where it belongs: on the Palestinian leadership to prove it can build a state that would coexist side by side with a Jewish state. It’ll be John Kerry’s chance to prove the Israelis wrong, though I don’t think they’ll be holding their breath.

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Edward Snowden’s Ego Trip

I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

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I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

“The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia,” he said in a second excerpt broadcast on NBC’s “Today Show.” “I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America, and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport. So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, ‘Please ask the State Department.’ ”

That comment drew a sharp reaction from Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the same program. “For a supposedly smart guy, that’s a pretty dumb answer, frankly,” Mr. Kerry said. He added: “He can come home, but he’s a fugitive from justice, which is why he’s not being permitted to fly around the world. It’s that simple.”

Indeed, Secretary Kerry is on the mark. Snowden’s comment is a dumb thing to say, though it’s less likely that Snowden is stupid enough to believe it and more likely that he just assumes the American media and his cheerleaders back in the States are stupid enough to believe it. Kerry isn’t buying it, but his response to Snowden wasn’t done. Later in that story, Kerry adds:

“The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country, where he has taken refuge,” he said. “He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance, come back here and stand in our system of justice and make his case. But instead he is just sitting there taking potshots at his country, violating his oath that he took when he took on the job he took.”

Shots fired, as they say. Snowden probably thinks this is some sort of victory, since it shows that he got under Kerry’s skin. But it won’t help Snowden or his followers that Washington is pushing back and engaging in the battle to define and frame Snowden and his antics. It may not lure him back home to face the consequences of his actions, but it’s still worth engaging Snowden’s selective smearing of American institutions for the benefit of states like China and Russia.

And the provocations go in both directions. It appears President Obama got under Snowden’s skin as well, leading Snowden to protest that he’s not just some low-level techie but a masterful weapon created by the elite minds at America’s espionage organizations:

“They’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career here or there to distract from the totality of my experience,” he said, “which is that I’ve worked for the Central Intelligence Agency undercover overseas, I’ve worked for the National Security Agency undercover overseas and I’ve worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy, where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.” …

“I am a technical specialist,” he said. “I am a technical expert. I don’t work with people. I don’t recruit agents. What I do is I put systems to work for the United States. And I’ve done that at all levels from — from the bottom on the ground all the way to the top. Now, the government might deny these things, they might frame it in certain ways and say, ‘Oh well, you know, he’s — he’s a low level analyst.’ ”

How dare the president deny the “totality of [Snowden’s] experience.” Surely he’s aware of the work Snowden does when he powers down his laptop, jumps into the nearest phone booth, and emerges with cape flowing. Doesn’t the president know he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? That he’s the hero Gotham deserves? That he is the terror that flaps in the night?

I’m not sure if Snowden thinks it helps his case to declare that he is a defector of far greater significance than he’s been given credit for thus far. And to be honest, this cry for attention and validation is almost endearing. He just wants to be appreciated, to give his perpetual adolescence some meaning. Kerry’s quest to get Snowden to “man up” is probably futile, but good for Kerry for pointing it out–and for referring to Snowden’s new home as an “authoritarian country.” It’s a welcome dose of clear-eyed straight talk from Foggy Bottom.

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Netanyahu’s Uncomfortable Fig Leaf

Israel’s far-left Meretz Party doesn’t often offer much in the way of insight about either the Middle East peace process or the country’s government, but today one of the group’s leaders, MK Nitzan Horowitz spoke at least a partial truth when he referred to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as nothing more than a “fig leaf” for Prime Minister Netanyahu. In an interview with the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, the head of what is left of the once dominant “peace camp” decried Livni’s continued presence in the Cabinet. Horowitz’s evaluation of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a man of peace and willingness to place a good deal of the blame for the collapse of the peace process on Netanyahu is divorced from the facts and explains why his party and its allies retain only a small sliver of support from the Israeli public. But his comments were generally on target with respect to the anomalous position of Livni inside the government of the man who has been her nemesis.

An earlier Times of Israel report documented the blowback inside the country’s government about Livni’s decision to meet with Abbas in London last week even though Netanyahu had suspended negotiations with the PA after its alliance with Hamas. Reportedly, Netanyahu was livid at her insubordination and wanted to fire her. But after calming down, the prime minister realized that if he made Livni and her small parliamentary faction walk the plank, she would generate a coalition crisis that would leave him with only a small majority in the Knesset. That would put him at the mercy of his right-wing partner/antagonist Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party, who used Livni’s excursion to both call for her resignation and to posture at the prime minister’s expense to the voters.

In the end, Livni accomplished nothing with her mission to Abbas. He is no more willing to budge an inch toward peace now than he was throughout the long months of negotiations during which his representatives stonewalled the eager Livni, who headed Israel’s delegation. But the dustup involving the prime minister and the woman who has always thought that she, and not Netanyahu, should be leading the country is interesting because it illustrates just how wrongheaded the critics who bash Israel’s government as inflexibly right-wing really are.

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Israel’s far-left Meretz Party doesn’t often offer much in the way of insight about either the Middle East peace process or the country’s government, but today one of the group’s leaders, MK Nitzan Horowitz spoke at least a partial truth when he referred to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as nothing more than a “fig leaf” for Prime Minister Netanyahu. In an interview with the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, the head of what is left of the once dominant “peace camp” decried Livni’s continued presence in the Cabinet. Horowitz’s evaluation of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a man of peace and willingness to place a good deal of the blame for the collapse of the peace process on Netanyahu is divorced from the facts and explains why his party and its allies retain only a small sliver of support from the Israeli public. But his comments were generally on target with respect to the anomalous position of Livni inside the government of the man who has been her nemesis.

An earlier Times of Israel report documented the blowback inside the country’s government about Livni’s decision to meet with Abbas in London last week even though Netanyahu had suspended negotiations with the PA after its alliance with Hamas. Reportedly, Netanyahu was livid at her insubordination and wanted to fire her. But after calming down, the prime minister realized that if he made Livni and her small parliamentary faction walk the plank, she would generate a coalition crisis that would leave him with only a small majority in the Knesset. That would put him at the mercy of his right-wing partner/antagonist Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party, who used Livni’s excursion to both call for her resignation and to posture at the prime minister’s expense to the voters.

In the end, Livni accomplished nothing with her mission to Abbas. He is no more willing to budge an inch toward peace now than he was throughout the long months of negotiations during which his representatives stonewalled the eager Livni, who headed Israel’s delegation. But the dustup involving the prime minister and the woman who has always thought that she, and not Netanyahu, should be leading the country is interesting because it illustrates just how wrongheaded the critics who bash Israel’s government as inflexibly right-wing really are.

Americans who buy into the mainstream media’s reflexive dismissal of Netanyahu as “hard-line” (a word that many readers may think is his first name) and intransigent need to understand that the term tells us nothing about his policies. He began his current term in office in 2013, by offering Livni a major Cabinet post (the Justice Ministry) and the portfolio for peace talks with the Palestinians. Doing so was more or less the equivalent of President Obama choosing Mitt Romney to be secretary of state. Such alliances are, of course, less unusual in parliamentary systems, and especially so in Israel where no party has ever won an absolute majority in the Knesset. But it should be understood that Livni campaigned in the last election as a critic of Netanyahu’s peace policies and was then given an opportunity to prove him wrong by being handed the chance to strike a deal with Abbas. While the failure of the initiative championed by Secretary of State John Kerry is rightly considered to be his fiasco, the unwillingness of the Palestinians to come even close to satisfying Livni—the one Israeli that the Obama administration thought was most likely to make peace—tells us everything we need to know about the Palestinians’ responsibility for the collapse of the talks.

Rather than being the beard for Netanyahu whose purpose it is to fool the world into thinking that Israel wanted peace as Meretz and other leftists think, Livni’s presence at the table with the Palestinians is actually the proof that if Abbas wanted peace and an independent state, he could have it.  Livni doesn’t have Netanyahu’s confidence but he did let her conduct the negotiations without too much interference. If he was concerned that she would give away too much to the Palestinians or the American team led by Martin Indyk that is intractably hostile to the Israeli government, he had nothing to worry about. The Palestinians never gave her chance.

Some may think she is serving as a fig leaf for Netanyahu, but if they thought more seriously about her role in the peace process over the past year they would realize that her presence in the government did nothing to ease criticism from Washington or from the usual suspects who like to bash the Jewish state. Instead, she proved her theories and those of other Netanyahu critics wrong by trying and failing to get the Palestinians to take yes for an answer. If she stays in the government, and given her history of rank opportunism and love of office, there’s no reason to think she won’t, it will be to continue to serve as a warning to Netanyahu’s detractors that their accusations of Israeli intransigence are without a factual basis. That isn’t a particularly comfortable role for her or Netanyahu. But it does illustrate how foolish those who still laud Abbas as a man of peace really are.

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The Obama Presidency Descends Into Farce

According to the Washington Post:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of ­instances” in recent months.

“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.

“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”

We have now reached the farcical stage in the Obama presidency.

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According to the Washington Post:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of ­instances” in recent months.

“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.

“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”

We have now reached the farcical stage in the Obama presidency.

Does Secretary Kerry understand how much of a joke it is for him to threaten “consequences” if evidence of new chemical weapons by the Assad regime turns out to be true? Given the Obama administration’s track record on Syria–with “red lines” drawn and erased, with its refusal to arm opposition groups early on, with agreeing to negotiations that have empowered the Syrian regime–it is better that Mr. Kerry keep his mouth shut than to speak and provoke ridicule.

The president and his secretary of state’s words long ago were emptied of meaning. So please, for your sake and ours, give up on the bluster. It only makes a shameful situation worse. 

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