Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mikhail Gorbachev

Hashtag Diplomacy Jumps the Shark

The Obama administration’s “hashtag diplomacy” has been under criticism for some time, though condemnation of its participation in the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Nigeria’s Islamist terror group Boko Haram–tweeting messages along with the tag #BringBackOurGirls–was especially voluble this weekend. I agree with Jonathan on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to join the hashtag campaign: it’s harmless; she’s a political celebrity without the power to do more than speak out anyway; and while she certainly can simply tell her husband to “bring back our girls” in private, doing so publicly is more meaningful, and possibly more effective.

However, it is decidedly not harmless when a Western leader who really can order troops decides his or her contribution will be to play a hashtag game. I’m looking at you, British Prime Minister David Cameron, head of the government while representing the party once led by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In fairness to Cameron, he was on a television talk show when another guest, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, asked him if he’d like to hold the sign and mug for the cameras. I’m not sure how it would have looked if he’d said no. At the same time, he shows no understanding of just how silly it looks to have a Western leader join this campaign, which should be reserved for those who can’t do more than make a sad face and throw up their hands.

Just who is Cameron telling to “bring back our girls”? The terrified parents of these children are certainly getting the impression that they’re on their own, as the New York Times reports:

Desperate parents have entered the forest themselves, armed only with bows and arrows. Officials say the military is searching there but there have been no results so far.

So parents have in some cases taken bows and arrows into enemy terrain to hunt for their children, because the guys commanding the most powerful and technologically advanced armies in the world are holding up cardboard signs and looking glumly into the camera, as if Boko Haram will be moved to charity by the ostentatiously pathetic nature of it all.

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The Obama administration’s “hashtag diplomacy” has been under criticism for some time, though condemnation of its participation in the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Nigeria’s Islamist terror group Boko Haram–tweeting messages along with the tag #BringBackOurGirls–was especially voluble this weekend. I agree with Jonathan on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to join the hashtag campaign: it’s harmless; she’s a political celebrity without the power to do more than speak out anyway; and while she certainly can simply tell her husband to “bring back our girls” in private, doing so publicly is more meaningful, and possibly more effective.

However, it is decidedly not harmless when a Western leader who really can order troops decides his or her contribution will be to play a hashtag game. I’m looking at you, British Prime Minister David Cameron, head of the government while representing the party once led by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In fairness to Cameron, he was on a television talk show when another guest, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, asked him if he’d like to hold the sign and mug for the cameras. I’m not sure how it would have looked if he’d said no. At the same time, he shows no understanding of just how silly it looks to have a Western leader join this campaign, which should be reserved for those who can’t do more than make a sad face and throw up their hands.

Just who is Cameron telling to “bring back our girls”? The terrified parents of these children are certainly getting the impression that they’re on their own, as the New York Times reports:

Desperate parents have entered the forest themselves, armed only with bows and arrows. Officials say the military is searching there but there have been no results so far.

So parents have in some cases taken bows and arrows into enemy terrain to hunt for their children, because the guys commanding the most powerful and technologically advanced armies in the world are holding up cardboard signs and looking glumly into the camera, as if Boko Haram will be moved to charity by the ostentatiously pathetic nature of it all.

A world leader holding up a sign asking someone to please do something is an unnecessary, if implicit, admission of the intent to do nothing. This has been a running complaint of Western leaders, especially Barack Obama, of late. He has taken to declaring he wouldn’t use force without even being asked. It just became second nature for the president to insist that there wasn’t much to be done.

Although it is an imperfect analogy, it’s striking to contrast this with Ken Adelman’s piece at Politico about Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. It was derided, of course, as “star wars” by its critics and no one was sure it could even be done. But Adelman, who traveled with Reagan to his famous Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, notes that the Soviet leader was worried enough about SDI that he made it the focus of that meeting. He would give Reagan the dramatic nuclear cuts he wanted, but the deal had to include getting rid of SDI:

Reagan was furious with Gorbachev’s last-minute qualification. And he would not compromise on SDI, no matter the incentives. With all that we have achieved, he in essence told his Soviet counterpart, you throw in this roadblock and everything’s out the window. There’s absolutely no way we will give up research to find a defensive weapon against nuclear missiles.

“Am I wrong?” the president then scribbled on a note to George Schultz, his secretary of state. “No,” was the reply, whispered in his ear. “You are right.”

Adelman notes that the meeting was not considered a success because the two sides didn’t come to an agreement. But it was a success. SDI didn’t bring down the Soviet Union, but it played a role by accelerating Soviet reforms that the system could not, in the end, handle. Adelman quotes Margaret Thatcher as writing in her memoirs that Gorbachev was “so alarmed” by SDI that it made Reagan’s decision on SDI the “single most important of his presidency.”

Development of a missile shield is not the same as deploying forces in harm’s way, of course. But the point is less about the action taken than the willingness to make your enemies believe you’re capable of taking action. I’m reminded of a different Thatcher quote from another edition of her memoirs, when discussing members of her own party who behave as though they’ve already lost to the other side. “Retreat as a tactic is sometimes necessary; retreat as a settled policy eats at the soul.”

Cameron–and other Western leaders, including Obama–would do well to take that to heart. They should stop feeling so helpless, because they aren’t. But at the very least, they should stop acting so helpless.

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Margaret Thatcher

One of the giants who walked the earth in my lifetime, Margaret Thatcher, has died at the age of 87.

With the exception of Winston Churchill, she was, without question, the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century. Before she went to 10 Downing Street in 1979, Britain had been in seemingly irreversible decline, its empire gone, its industry ramshackle, its politics in thrall to the trade unions. Britain was the sick man of Europe. By the time she left office, in 1990, all that had changed. The power of the unions had been broken, the British economy was expanding rapidly, the government had sold off previously socialized industries. The United Kingdom was, once again, one of the great nations of the world.

Like all great people of determination and principle, she was savagely criticized. She was called “La pasionaria of privilege” and “Attila the hen.” But, thoroughly at home in the rough and tumble of the House of Commons, it didn’t bother her a bit. She was delighted when Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed her “the iron lady.” Along with Ronald Reagan, with whom she developed a very close relationship, she changed the whole tone of international politics and helped bring the Cold War to an end with the collapse of Communism and the success of free-market capitalism. The world was a different, and better, place after her premiership.

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One of the giants who walked the earth in my lifetime, Margaret Thatcher, has died at the age of 87.

With the exception of Winston Churchill, she was, without question, the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century. Before she went to 10 Downing Street in 1979, Britain had been in seemingly irreversible decline, its empire gone, its industry ramshackle, its politics in thrall to the trade unions. Britain was the sick man of Europe. By the time she left office, in 1990, all that had changed. The power of the unions had been broken, the British economy was expanding rapidly, the government had sold off previously socialized industries. The United Kingdom was, once again, one of the great nations of the world.

Like all great people of determination and principle, she was savagely criticized. She was called “La pasionaria of privilege” and “Attila the hen.” But, thoroughly at home in the rough and tumble of the House of Commons, it didn’t bother her a bit. She was delighted when Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed her “the iron lady.” Along with Ronald Reagan, with whom she developed a very close relationship, she changed the whole tone of international politics and helped bring the Cold War to an end with the collapse of Communism and the success of free-market capitalism. The world was a different, and better, place after her premiership.

Perhaps her finest moment was when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. Thousands of miles away from Britain, inhabited by a few thousand sheep farmers, cold and rainy, many thought the islands not worth the price that would have to be paid to recover them. But Margaret Thatcher, convening a cabinet meeting on the subject after the news of the invasion, said simply, “Gentlemen, we shall have to fight.”

And fight they did. It cost millions of pounds and hundreds of lives, but Britain recovered the islands and defeated naked aggression. The results elsewhere were enormously positive. Not only did the people of the Falklands keep the government they wanted, but the junta ruling Argentina fell and democracy returned to that much misgoverned country. The victory greatly raised British spirits and national pride, which badly needed raising. Thatcher called an election following the military triumph and enjoyed a political one.

Like all great political leaders, Margaret Thatcher was a great personality. Like FDR, Churchill, and Reagan, people who never met her still felt they knew her almost personally. She was far more than just a name in a headline. And that is why, along with her accomplishments, Margaret Thatcher is immortal, one who will be written about and argued about for as long as the 20th century itself is. After all, she has already been the subject of a great Hollywood movie. Can you imagine anyone making a movie about Edward Heath or Harold Wilson?

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“Tear Down This Wall” 25 Years Later

In the summer of 1986, the Berlin Wall turned 25. On its anniversary, noting the general measure of grudging acceptance the wall had earned among Germans on both sides, a British journalist wrote that in all likelihood, the wall “will still be there for the 50th anniversary.” That would have been last year, but as we know the wall couldn’t make it another half-decade. Today, then, is the 25th anniversary of perhaps the most significant moment in the life of the wall aside from its construction and destruction: Ronald Reagan’s speech imploring Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down.

In his own book on the fall of the wall, William F. Buckley wrote—with what one imagines to be a not-insignificant amount of gleeful satisfaction—of the various arguments Reagan’s advisers employed to try to talk him out of those two famous sentences:

The president must not speak those words. They would harm Gorbachev and get in the way of continuing Soviet reforms. And if Reagan used such language, it would harm him. Any demand so importunate, so outrageous and inflammatory, was among other things “not presidential.”

The late Peter Rodman, the erudite and esteemed national security affairs deputy, was one of those aides. In his own account, Rodman admitted that “the whole affair is a vivid example of a president’s possessing a strategic and moral insight that escaped his experts. Reagan’s intuition about Gorbachev was undoubtedly right.”

And that is what was both impressive and misunderstood about Reagan’s speech. He wasn’t there primarily to rile up a crowd, or be some kind of folk hero. Reagan was having a public conversation with Gorbachev. He appealed to the Soviet leader’s better angels–to Gorbachev the revolutionary, the reformer.

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In the summer of 1986, the Berlin Wall turned 25. On its anniversary, noting the general measure of grudging acceptance the wall had earned among Germans on both sides, a British journalist wrote that in all likelihood, the wall “will still be there for the 50th anniversary.” That would have been last year, but as we know the wall couldn’t make it another half-decade. Today, then, is the 25th anniversary of perhaps the most significant moment in the life of the wall aside from its construction and destruction: Ronald Reagan’s speech imploring Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down.

In his own book on the fall of the wall, William F. Buckley wrote—with what one imagines to be a not-insignificant amount of gleeful satisfaction—of the various arguments Reagan’s advisers employed to try to talk him out of those two famous sentences:

The president must not speak those words. They would harm Gorbachev and get in the way of continuing Soviet reforms. And if Reagan used such language, it would harm him. Any demand so importunate, so outrageous and inflammatory, was among other things “not presidential.”

The late Peter Rodman, the erudite and esteemed national security affairs deputy, was one of those aides. In his own account, Rodman admitted that “the whole affair is a vivid example of a president’s possessing a strategic and moral insight that escaped his experts. Reagan’s intuition about Gorbachev was undoubtedly right.”

And that is what was both impressive and misunderstood about Reagan’s speech. He wasn’t there primarily to rile up a crowd, or be some kind of folk hero. Reagan was having a public conversation with Gorbachev. He appealed to the Soviet leader’s better angels–to Gorbachev the revolutionary, the reformer.

The other thing Reagan understood better than most was the importance of symbolism. Reagan insisted on keeping the controversial lines in the speech because in his mind he had no choice. As American Ambassador Richard Burt explained, quoted by Romesh Ratnesar, “There’s no way [Reagan] can stand there in front of the wall and not make that statement.”

Reagan’s speech did not bring down the wall, but it was a memorable and vivid expression of what did. And, perhaps as much in retrospect as at the time, it taught the public something about Reagan, the man they thought they had known pretty well after nearly two full terms as president. As Ratnesar retells it, Reagan knew exactly what he was doing at that wall, as evidenced by his exchange with the press on his way to deliver the speech:

“Mr. President,” NBC’s Chris Wallace shouted as Reagan was being escorted back outside, “some of these demonstrators think Gorbachev is more a man of peace than you are.” Reagan stopped and looked back over his shoulder. He said, “They just have to learn, don’t they?”

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Obama’s Moment to Redefine the Modern Middle East

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution. Read More

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution.

Unfortunately, instead of someone like Bush, who had served as an ambassador, CIA director, and vice president, we have in the Oval Office a president with no foreign-policy credentials. This president seems to think that the entire region revolves around the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Already Obama missed a crucial opportunity in the summer of 2009 to encourage the Green Revolution in Iran. Let us hope that will be a learning experience. This time around, we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

For all his lack of experience, Obama is no newcomer to the job. He is a fast learner, and he has a gift for rhetoric the likes of which always eluded George H.W. Bush. This may very well be his moment: the moment for redefining the modern Middle East. He should seize it — if he’s not too distracted with the domestic priorities that as usual dominated the State of the Union.

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Saudi Glasnost Cities Illustrate Tyranny’s Dilemma

Is it possible for a tyrannical system to modernize its society and economy while keeping its people in check? In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to save the Soviet Union for Communism by such an effort. Nevertheless, with help from Western businesses (of whom George Will once rightly said that they “loved commerce more than they loathed communism”), the gerontocracy that ruled Communist China succeeded in transforming the economy of its country while maintaining an iron grip on power in the world’s most populous nation.

But as difficult as such changes are for secular ideological tyrannies, the challenge is even greater for those ruled by religion. And that is the dilemma faced by Saudi Arabia. Yesterday’s New York Times unveiled the plans for four new cities to be built in the Arabian desert whose purpose is to provide an outlet for the growing population of educated but underemployed Saudis. The cities, the first of which is to bear the catchy name of King Abdullah Economic City, are, as the Times notes, a dreary throwback to previous planned cities such as Brasilia or the urban monstrosities built by the Soviets in the 1930s. But the purpose of these cities is more reminiscent of Gorbachev’s glasnost than Stalin’s experiments. The Saudis want them to be places where a less-repressive form of Islam than the fanatical brand of Wahhabism that is the norm in the rest of the country will exist. They hope that the slight openings to freedom that will supposedly blossom there will satisfy their restive people and boost their economy without threatening the monarchy or the Islamist faith that has been an indispensable element in their regime’s hold on power.

But, as the article relates, the difficulties of opening the slightest crack toward a free society are enormous. Once the floodgates of freedom are even slightly ajar, it is hard to hold back the forces of change. That is why it is unlikely that much will come of this development in terms of real reform.

Those who deplore or fear the spread of democracy in the Arab world rightly note that the only current alternative to authoritarian regimes like the Saudi monarchy is an even more repressive Islamist movement. But the creation of institutions in which Islamist rules don’t always apply and that engineer a modern economy might mean that more liberal forces will appear.

The strength of religious extremism in Saudi Arabia may make that a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the Arabs deserve something better their current choices, in which the repressed anger of the people is always wrongly focused on outside forces, such as the West or Israel.

Is it possible for a tyrannical system to modernize its society and economy while keeping its people in check? In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to save the Soviet Union for Communism by such an effort. Nevertheless, with help from Western businesses (of whom George Will once rightly said that they “loved commerce more than they loathed communism”), the gerontocracy that ruled Communist China succeeded in transforming the economy of its country while maintaining an iron grip on power in the world’s most populous nation.

But as difficult as such changes are for secular ideological tyrannies, the challenge is even greater for those ruled by religion. And that is the dilemma faced by Saudi Arabia. Yesterday’s New York Times unveiled the plans for four new cities to be built in the Arabian desert whose purpose is to provide an outlet for the growing population of educated but underemployed Saudis. The cities, the first of which is to bear the catchy name of King Abdullah Economic City, are, as the Times notes, a dreary throwback to previous planned cities such as Brasilia or the urban monstrosities built by the Soviets in the 1930s. But the purpose of these cities is more reminiscent of Gorbachev’s glasnost than Stalin’s experiments. The Saudis want them to be places where a less-repressive form of Islam than the fanatical brand of Wahhabism that is the norm in the rest of the country will exist. They hope that the slight openings to freedom that will supposedly blossom there will satisfy their restive people and boost their economy without threatening the monarchy or the Islamist faith that has been an indispensable element in their regime’s hold on power.

But, as the article relates, the difficulties of opening the slightest crack toward a free society are enormous. Once the floodgates of freedom are even slightly ajar, it is hard to hold back the forces of change. That is why it is unlikely that much will come of this development in terms of real reform.

Those who deplore or fear the spread of democracy in the Arab world rightly note that the only current alternative to authoritarian regimes like the Saudi monarchy is an even more repressive Islamist movement. But the creation of institutions in which Islamist rules don’t always apply and that engineer a modern economy might mean that more liberal forces will appear.

The strength of religious extremism in Saudi Arabia may make that a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the Arabs deserve something better their current choices, in which the repressed anger of the people is always wrongly focused on outside forces, such as the West or Israel.

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Will Reality Intrude into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Summit?

It’s not clear whether the Obama administration is practicing misdirection on a grand scale or is genuinely confused about which nuclear threats are real and which are not. But what is clear is that we’re not dealing with the real ones. Paul Wolfowitz explains:

Unfortunately, President Obama’s talk about a world free of nuclear weapons seems to have little connection to the passive U.S. responses to North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear activities.

There is certainly room for additional reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, but it is unlikely to have any effect on those countries. Indeed, if the new treaty constrains U.S. missile defense efforts, it could be counterproductive. Although President Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons—believing it dangerous to rely indefinitely on a balance of nuclear terror—when Mikhail Gorbachev offered to eliminate ballistic missiles in exchange for eliminating missile defenses, Reagan refused the deal.

We should be focusing on, as Wolfowitz notes, developing our own missile defense and coming up with a backup plan when sanctions fail to thwart the Iranians’ nuclear ambitions. But there is little sign Obama is interested in either. Does he really imagine that a START deal or Ukraine’s offer to give up its stockpile of enriched uranium will induce the mullahs or the North Koreans to throw in the towel on their own plans? If so, the naiveté is stunning. Or perhaps this simply fills the time while we’re not doing anything about the Iranian menace. That’s a more cynical but equally naive approach, for it imagines there will never be a moment of reckoning when Iran goes nuclear, followed by a Middle East nuclear arms race and a legacy for Obama as “the president who let the mullahs get the bomb.”

We keep waiting for the voice of sanity to be heard — an “emperor has no clothes” moment when the charade of nuclear nonproliferation summitry is disturbed and the West is forced to confront in a serious manner the actual threat not only to Israel and the Middle East but to the entire civilized world. It hasn’t happened yet. And time is running out.

It’s not clear whether the Obama administration is practicing misdirection on a grand scale or is genuinely confused about which nuclear threats are real and which are not. But what is clear is that we’re not dealing with the real ones. Paul Wolfowitz explains:

Unfortunately, President Obama’s talk about a world free of nuclear weapons seems to have little connection to the passive U.S. responses to North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear activities.

There is certainly room for additional reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, but it is unlikely to have any effect on those countries. Indeed, if the new treaty constrains U.S. missile defense efforts, it could be counterproductive. Although President Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons—believing it dangerous to rely indefinitely on a balance of nuclear terror—when Mikhail Gorbachev offered to eliminate ballistic missiles in exchange for eliminating missile defenses, Reagan refused the deal.

We should be focusing on, as Wolfowitz notes, developing our own missile defense and coming up with a backup plan when sanctions fail to thwart the Iranians’ nuclear ambitions. But there is little sign Obama is interested in either. Does he really imagine that a START deal or Ukraine’s offer to give up its stockpile of enriched uranium will induce the mullahs or the North Koreans to throw in the towel on their own plans? If so, the naiveté is stunning. Or perhaps this simply fills the time while we’re not doing anything about the Iranian menace. That’s a more cynical but equally naive approach, for it imagines there will never be a moment of reckoning when Iran goes nuclear, followed by a Middle East nuclear arms race and a legacy for Obama as “the president who let the mullahs get the bomb.”

We keep waiting for the voice of sanity to be heard — an “emperor has no clothes” moment when the charade of nuclear nonproliferation summitry is disturbed and the West is forced to confront in a serious manner the actual threat not only to Israel and the Middle East but to the entire civilized world. It hasn’t happened yet. And time is running out.

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Obama’s Role Model?

David Brooks reports today that, like a lot of other Democrats, Barack Obama has become a born-again believer in the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The Democratic candidate tells Brooks: “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush. I don’t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm. I don’t have a lot of complaints with their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

This new-found admiration conveniently overlooks some decisions by the elder President Bush that were roundly and correctly criticized at the time by many liberals as well as conservatives: decisions such as the botched aftermath of the Gulf War, which resulted in Shiites and Kurds getting slaughtered after they heeded the President’s call to rise up; the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech in which he urged Ukrainians to remain part of a dissolving Soviet Union; and the failure to intervene in Bosnia.

Instead, Obama focuses on a couple of the high points of the Bush presidency, even though the elder Bush’s realpolitik doctrine was as responsible for his failures as for his successes. But even taking Obama’s compliments at face value, how likely is it that he could or would replicate such achievements?

Although everyone supported Operation Desert Storm after its success became evident, it was a different story when Bush asked Congress to authorize the mission. Even after winning United Nations approval, he had trouble getting a Democrat-dominated Congress to sign off. The vote in favor of the war resolution was 52-47 in the Senate, with 45 Democrats voting nay. Only 10 Democrats voted for the resolution, mostly conservative Southerners. Even such moderates as Sam Nunn opposed the use of force. How likely is it that if Barack Obama-the most liberal member of the Senate last year-had been in the Senate that year that he would have voted for the resolution?

As for the other Bush administration achievement that he cites-”their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall”-that was made possible by the long personal experience and contacts built up by the President over the course of many years on the international stage as an ambassador to China and the UN, CIA director, and vice president. That allowed Bush to conduct adroit diplomacy with Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, and other world leaders. Obama has almost no experience in international affairs beyond having lived in Indonesia as a child; certainly he has never held a job in any field related to foreign affairs before entering the Senate three years ago. Granted, he is charming and charismatic. But what are the odds that he can replicate the kind of skilled diplomacy pursued by an old hand like George H.W. Bush?

The more likely comparison is not to Bush but to two previous Democratic nominees who had no experience in foreign policy before entering the White House: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In both cases they learned on the job and gradually improved, but the world paid a high price for their stumbles from Iran (Carter) to Somalia (Clinton).

David Brooks reports today that, like a lot of other Democrats, Barack Obama has become a born-again believer in the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The Democratic candidate tells Brooks: “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush. I don’t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm. I don’t have a lot of complaints with their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

This new-found admiration conveniently overlooks some decisions by the elder President Bush that were roundly and correctly criticized at the time by many liberals as well as conservatives: decisions such as the botched aftermath of the Gulf War, which resulted in Shiites and Kurds getting slaughtered after they heeded the President’s call to rise up; the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech in which he urged Ukrainians to remain part of a dissolving Soviet Union; and the failure to intervene in Bosnia.

Instead, Obama focuses on a couple of the high points of the Bush presidency, even though the elder Bush’s realpolitik doctrine was as responsible for his failures as for his successes. But even taking Obama’s compliments at face value, how likely is it that he could or would replicate such achievements?

Although everyone supported Operation Desert Storm after its success became evident, it was a different story when Bush asked Congress to authorize the mission. Even after winning United Nations approval, he had trouble getting a Democrat-dominated Congress to sign off. The vote in favor of the war resolution was 52-47 in the Senate, with 45 Democrats voting nay. Only 10 Democrats voted for the resolution, mostly conservative Southerners. Even such moderates as Sam Nunn opposed the use of force. How likely is it that if Barack Obama-the most liberal member of the Senate last year-had been in the Senate that year that he would have voted for the resolution?

As for the other Bush administration achievement that he cites-”their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall”-that was made possible by the long personal experience and contacts built up by the President over the course of many years on the international stage as an ambassador to China and the UN, CIA director, and vice president. That allowed Bush to conduct adroit diplomacy with Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, and other world leaders. Obama has almost no experience in international affairs beyond having lived in Indonesia as a child; certainly he has never held a job in any field related to foreign affairs before entering the Senate three years ago. Granted, he is charming and charismatic. But what are the odds that he can replicate the kind of skilled diplomacy pursued by an old hand like George H.W. Bush?

The more likely comparison is not to Bush but to two previous Democratic nominees who had no experience in foreign policy before entering the White House: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In both cases they learned on the job and gradually improved, but the world paid a high price for their stumbles from Iran (Carter) to Somalia (Clinton).

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Streisand in Jerusalem

Israeli President Shimon Peres has announced the impressive list of luminaries who will attend the upcoming conference celebrating Israel’s 60th birthday. They include George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, Vaclav Havel, Alan Dershowitz, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.

While these VIP’s will highlight Israel’s many successes in a variety of sectors, the conference will also pay respect to the challenges that Israel has yet to overcome. At least this is how I’m interpreting the invitation of Barbra Streisand, whose rendition of Avinu Malkeinu promises to be a low point in Israel’s cultural history.

So, here’s to a more hopeful Israeli future–which, in my book, means inviting an 82-year-old Bob Dylan to play Hava Negila at the 75th celebration. (Frankly, even Bill Clinton returning for a repeat performance of “Imagine” might be an improvement.)

Israeli President Shimon Peres has announced the impressive list of luminaries who will attend the upcoming conference celebrating Israel’s 60th birthday. They include George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, Vaclav Havel, Alan Dershowitz, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.

While these VIP’s will highlight Israel’s many successes in a variety of sectors, the conference will also pay respect to the challenges that Israel has yet to overcome. At least this is how I’m interpreting the invitation of Barbra Streisand, whose rendition of Avinu Malkeinu promises to be a low point in Israel’s cultural history.

So, here’s to a more hopeful Israeli future–which, in my book, means inviting an 82-year-old Bob Dylan to play Hava Negila at the 75th celebration. (Frankly, even Bill Clinton returning for a repeat performance of “Imagine” might be an improvement.)

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Destroying Missiles

On Sunday, Russia and the United States jointly urged all countries to destroy medium-range nuclear-capable missiles. The call came in a joint declaration published by Moscow’s foreign ministry.

At present, Russia and the United States are parties to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. In February of this year, the Kremlin called for the termination of the INF agreement, as the pact is called. Sergei Ivanov, then defense minister, said: “Today, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel all have short-range or intermediate-range missiles.” Ivanov continued, “Only two countries do not have the right to have them, the United States and Russia. This cannot go on forever.”

Ivanov was right, but that was not the Kremlin’s reason for threatening to pull out. A few days after Ivanov spoke in February, General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian general staff, made the point that Russia’s decision whether to terminate the INF pact would depend on Washington’s missile defense plans. Sunday’s joint declaration indicates that the Bush administration was able to get Moscow to step back from maintaining its extreme position.

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On Sunday, Russia and the United States jointly urged all countries to destroy medium-range nuclear-capable missiles. The call came in a joint declaration published by Moscow’s foreign ministry.

At present, Russia and the United States are parties to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. In February of this year, the Kremlin called for the termination of the INF agreement, as the pact is called. Sergei Ivanov, then defense minister, said: “Today, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel all have short-range or intermediate-range missiles.” Ivanov continued, “Only two countries do not have the right to have them, the United States and Russia. This cannot go on forever.”

Ivanov was right, but that was not the Kremlin’s reason for threatening to pull out. A few days after Ivanov spoke in February, General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian general staff, made the point that Russia’s decision whether to terminate the INF pact would depend on Washington’s missile defense plans. Sunday’s joint declaration indicates that the Bush administration was able to get Moscow to step back from maintaining its extreme position.

It’s one thing for Washington to influence the Kremlin to moderate its tone. It’s another to persuade a whole range of nations to give up the delivery systems for their most destructive weapons when some of them have little stake in the current international system—and when others even talk about upending it. Moreover, none of the new missile countries will give up intermediate range missiles while both Russia and the United States maintain arsenals of longer-range ones. A missile-destruction agreement will, as a practical matter, have to include all missile nations and virtually all ground- and sea-based missiles.

Should the United States and Russia even try to abolish missiles? We thought the stakes were high during the cold war, but at least the Soviets were deterrable. They did not use their thousands of warheads against America because, in addition to other reasons, they knew America could make good on Barry Goldwater’s threat to lob a nuke into the men’s room in the Kremlin—and a big one into just about every other lavatory and latrine in the USSR. Perhaps the new missile nations will be afraid of our weapons—but with rogue states added to the cast, perhaps not. So now is not a bad time to think anew about deterrence, missile defense, and even abolition.

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“Fatal Strikes”?

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is capable of great feats of productivity when it wishes to draw a crowd to an international crisis. Especially, it goes without saying, when the crisis affords an opportunity to slander Israel. Last summer, only three weeks into the Israel-Hizballah war, HRW released a sensational 49-page report that declared, “Our research shows that Israel’s claim that Hizballah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let alone justify, Israel’s indiscriminate warfare.” It added that “these attacks constitute war crimes,” and concluded that “in some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted civilians.”

Those are serious charges to inject into the middle of a war, especially one as saturated with media coverage as any conflict involving the Jewish state (in a recent Harvard study, Marvin Kalb noted that the Israel-Hizballah war summoned the heaviest international media coverage since the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991). None of HRW’s calumnies, it should be added, has been substantiated in a credible way.

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) is capable of great feats of productivity when it wishes to draw a crowd to an international crisis. Especially, it goes without saying, when the crisis affords an opportunity to slander Israel. Last summer, only three weeks into the Israel-Hizballah war, HRW released a sensational 49-page report that declared, “Our research shows that Israel’s claim that Hizballah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let alone justify, Israel’s indiscriminate warfare.” It added that “these attacks constitute war crimes,” and concluded that “in some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted civilians.”

Those are serious charges to inject into the middle of a war, especially one as saturated with media coverage as any conflict involving the Jewish state (in a recent Harvard study, Marvin Kalb noted that the Israel-Hizballah war summoned the heaviest international media coverage since the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991). None of HRW’s calumnies, it should be added, has been substantiated in a credible way.

But sensationalism and good timing, after all, were precisely the point, and attacking the legitimacy of the Israeli war effort proved highly effective in getting Human Rights Watch into the headlines. To that end, the report was titled “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon.” Is this a straight-to-video action movie, or an objective report on a serious subject? But never mind.

What is relevant about all this is that HRW has just announced the release, thirteen months (!) after its libelous claims against Israel, of the companion study to “Fatal Strikes,” this one about Hizbollah’s violations. The media frenzy that surrounded the war last summer has long since subsided, but Hizballah has seen to it that HRW does get a little bit of publicity for its efforts: The press conference in Beirut announcing the study had to be cancelled because of security threats. But HRW is a courageous and principled organization, and will not be deterred from finally, and no doubt cathartically, releasing its report over a year late and into an indifferent media environment. The Hizballah study has just been posted on HRW’s website and it is much more boringly titled than the hit piece on Israel: “Civilians Under Assault.” You may wish to be sitting down to hear this news, but Human Rights Watch has concluded, after thirteen months of investigation and dozens of pages of analysis, that Hizballah fired rockets at Israeli civilians.

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Mahmoud, Hugo, Kim, Fidel, Barack, and Hillary

The Miami Herald calls it one of the “biggest dust-ups of the presidential race so far,” and the sprinkling continues.

At the YouTube Democratic presidential debate on Monday, Barack Obama was asked whether he would meet with the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and Iran without preconditions. “I would,” he replied, saying it was a “disgrace” that we were not. Hillary Clinton, for her part, demurred, saying that “Certainly, we’re not going to just have our President meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and you know, the president of North Korea, Iran, and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”

Obama has subsequently called Hillary’s stance “Bush-Cheney lite.” Clinton has called the Illinois Senator’s comments “irresponsible and frankly naive.”

Thus far, conservatives and conservative outlets have tended at least implicitly to side with Clinton. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney of Massachusetts called Obama’s statement “outrageous,” saying it “suggests an agenda that is not in keeping with an agenda focused on building friendships with our allies.” Investor’s Business Daily said it bespeaks an inability to handle “curveballs,” reinforcing “the idea that [Obama is] an inexperienced lightweight.”

As for Clinton’s entourage, it has weighed in with arguments of its own. At the behest of Hillary’s campaign organization, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, held a conference call with reporters in which she characterized Hillary’s approach as meaning that we should not engage in talks without preparation. “Without having done the diplomatic spade work, it would not really prove anything,” Albright said.

What are the real issues here, and who is right?

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The Miami Herald calls it one of the “biggest dust-ups of the presidential race so far,” and the sprinkling continues.

At the YouTube Democratic presidential debate on Monday, Barack Obama was asked whether he would meet with the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and Iran without preconditions. “I would,” he replied, saying it was a “disgrace” that we were not. Hillary Clinton, for her part, demurred, saying that “Certainly, we’re not going to just have our President meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and you know, the president of North Korea, Iran, and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”

Obama has subsequently called Hillary’s stance “Bush-Cheney lite.” Clinton has called the Illinois Senator’s comments “irresponsible and frankly naive.”

Thus far, conservatives and conservative outlets have tended at least implicitly to side with Clinton. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney of Massachusetts called Obama’s statement “outrageous,” saying it “suggests an agenda that is not in keeping with an agenda focused on building friendships with our allies.” Investor’s Business Daily said it bespeaks an inability to handle “curveballs,” reinforcing “the idea that [Obama is] an inexperienced lightweight.”

As for Clinton’s entourage, it has weighed in with arguments of its own. At the behest of Hillary’s campaign organization, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, held a conference call with reporters in which she characterized Hillary’s approach as meaning that we should not engage in talks without preparation. “Without having done the diplomatic spade work, it would not really prove anything,” Albright said.

What are the real issues here, and who is right?

Albright’s comments make plain that Hillary, like Obama, would engage these four odious regimes in talks, only she would do so with diplomatic preparation. In other words, before the U.S. President would sit down with a Kim Jong Il or a Hugo Chavez, an agenda would first be hammered out, and the two sides would have some agreements in place before the leaders gathered at the table. In this way, in Clinton’s words, she would not put “the power and prestige of the United States President” at risk “by rushing into meetings.” Obama, by contrast, would meet with an Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or a Fidel Castro without any sort of diplomatic spadework.

Paradoxically, that might seem a preferable approach. Under it, a President could tell things as they are, declare directly, say, to Ahmadinejad in front of the world that his denial of the Holocaust is disgusting, reprehensible, and unacceptable and his pursuit of nuclear weapons something the U.S. will never abide. Meeting with Chavez, Castro, Kim Jong Il and the rest, Obama could engage in Reaganesque theater on the world stage—the equivalent of traveling to Berlin and demanding Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.”

Now let’s see what Hillary and her people have in mind when they talk about diplomatic “spadework.” They don’t say. But diplomacy and negotiation imply give and take, concessions from both sides. Will the U.S. come out the winner, or will the mere fact of interchange confer legitimacy, and a propaganda victory, on pariah regimes?

Of course, in attacking Hillary’s unwillingness to talk to dictators as “Bushy-Cheney lite,” Obama is signaling that he himself has no diplomatic agenda beyond talk itself. That would indeed be the worst of all worlds, but is it worse than, or materially different from, what Hillary has in mind?

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Boris Yeltsin’s Ambiguous Legacy

Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?

Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.

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Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?

Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.

Nonetheless, despised as he was at home, and in sharp contrast to his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev, having few if any admirers abroad, Yeltsin still had achievements that are far more significant than many of his critics have ever been willing to acknowledge.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin was an example of a rare but not entirely unknown species: an honest Communist, a man of integrity like Gorbachev, but, unlike Gorbachev, far more earthy and practical and not so deeply in the grip of Communism’s ideological inanities. This is not to suggest that Yeltsin in his early years was in any way a heretic. After he became head of the Sverdlovsk party apparatus in 1976, his speeches were as fawning toward the “deep and profound” Leonid Brezhnev as those of any other Communist apparatchik.

Appointed by Gorbachev to run the Moscow party machine in 1985, at the dawn of the era of perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin used his Moscow perch to declare war on the hidebound and highly recalcitrant local bureaucracy. His vigorous attacks on the establishment’s privileges gained him an appeal across the strata of the nominally classless Soviet society that rapidly outstripped Gorbachev’s. His rise as an authentic leader coincided with so many other tectonic shifts that it was little appreciated in the West, particularly a West that was in the grip of a Gorbomania that the Russian populace never shared or grasped.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin appears initially to have been convinced that the Soviet system could be repaired by shining a spotlight on corruption, malingering, and privilege. But unlike Gorbachev, as he ran into a brick wall of resistance from conservative elements above and desperate bureaucratic infighters below, his essentially pragmatic disposition led him to jettison cherished dogmas with relative ease. By the close of 1991, when the Soviet system dissolved, Gorbachev was pushed aside, and power fell into the hands of Russia’s first-ever democratically elected president.

Russia’s problems in every sphere were so acute that no leader, no matter how wise and no matter how stalwart, could have successfully grappled with all of them at once. And Yeltsin was not always wise or stalwart. Certainly, his personal shortcomings, including his drinking, must be weighed in the balance. But Yeltsin’s real and imputed character flaws must be placed in context. Many of Yeltsin’s critics suffered from amnesia with respect to the USSR’s recent and not-so-recent past. If one considers the morass that was Russian society under Communist rule, not to mention the rivers of blood that were flowing there another five or so decades earlier, the Yeltsin era appears in a rather favorable light.

Russia held more than a half-dozen democratic elections under Yeltsin’s tutelage, and his rule was followed by the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president; these were no small accomplishments for what had been recently a totalitarian regime. By the end of his presidency, he left Russia with a press that was freer and more vigorous than anything throughout its long history of dictatorship and oppression. He presided over the dismantlement of a cutting-edge army that once drained the coffers of the government. Russia, at the turn of the millennium, was no longer a military-industrial state.

It is unquestionably true that millions were thrust into poverty by the transition to a market economy, and thousands upon thousands were unduly enriched, but it is too easily forgotten that virtually the entire citizenry lived in poverty under the old regime, while a privileged elite governed every last detail of their life and squeezed every last breath out of society.

In the end, Leon Aron was quite persuasive when he argued in his biography that Yeltsin would have had to work “miracles” in order to transform Russia in the way that his foreign critics, and much of the Russian populace, seem to have assumed was possible. Russia under Yeltsin may not have done all that well, but in comparison to what it was before him, and in comparison to the resurgent authoritarianism that has come after under Vladimir Putin, it did well enough. That is Boris Yeltsin’s ambiguous legacy.

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