Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nicolas Sarkozy

Bonne Chance, M. le President

The French have a genius for many things: food, art, couture, wine, décor among them. There is no city on earth—except my native New York—that I enjoy being in more than Paris. But not even the greatest admirers of la belle France would say the French have a genius for politics. Ever since a revolution based on liberté, égalité , fraternité produced only—in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase—“a pile of corpses and a tyrant,” French politics has been, more often than not, a mess. Three kingdoms, two empires, and five republics have yet to produce long-term democratic stability of the sort the English-speaking peoples have taken for granted for generations.

Yesterday, the French electorate gave Nicolas Sarkozy the boot from the Élysée Palace and voted in François Hollande, a socialist who admits that he “doesn’t like rich people.” Sarkozy’s loss is not altogether surprising, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this morning, because he failed to keep nearly all his election promises from five years ago.

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The French have a genius for many things: food, art, couture, wine, décor among them. There is no city on earth—except my native New York—that I enjoy being in more than Paris. But not even the greatest admirers of la belle France would say the French have a genius for politics. Ever since a revolution based on liberté, égalité , fraternité produced only—in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase—“a pile of corpses and a tyrant,” French politics has been, more often than not, a mess. Three kingdoms, two empires, and five republics have yet to produce long-term democratic stability of the sort the English-speaking peoples have taken for granted for generations.

Yesterday, the French electorate gave Nicolas Sarkozy the boot from the Élysée Palace and voted in François Hollande, a socialist who admits that he “doesn’t like rich people.” Sarkozy’s loss is not altogether surprising, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this morning, because he failed to keep nearly all his election promises from five years ago.

But Hollande wants to raise taxes on those earning more than 1,000,000 euros to 75 percent, and repeal one of Sarkozy’s few accomplishments, increasing the retirement age for young people from 60 to 62. With the French government already controlling 56 percent of the country’s GDP, Hollande wants to increase the size of France’s notorious civil service to stimulate the economy. (It’s not a coincidence that English borrowed the word bureaucrat from the French.)

Even Barack Obama, the most profligate, statist, and stimulus-mad president in American history, has urged Hollande not to abandon austerity, although White House motives might not be wholly selfless here.

It will be interesting to see if Hollande has any real choice. When François Mitterrand tried to implement a traditional socialist agenda after winning the French presidency in 1981, the currency markets tanked the French franc and forced him to back off. Thirty years on, Hollande faces many more problems than Mitterrand did: still stronger markets; the fact that France is now part of the euro system, limiting its ability to play currency games; Angela Merkel (how would you like to bring a bad report card home to her?); and the fact that France does not tax its citizens living abroad. The French expatriate community in Britain is large and will, undoubtedly, get still larger and quickly, if Hollande passes confiscatory taxes on the rich.

With the European crisis by no means at an end, the new président de la République has his work cut out for him, to put it mildly.

 

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Obama Will Miss Sarkozy’s Stand on Iran

Much of the analysis of the victory of Francois Hollande and the Socialists in the French presidential election will focus on the impact of the change in power on the European economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably miss Nicolas Sarkozy more than many of his compatriots as she attempts to hold the line for a fiscal policy that will try to save Europe and the euro from being dragged down by spendthrift nations like Greece. But President Obama may wind up missing him just as much if not more.

While some American liberals may assume that President Obama’s affection for the spirit of European social democracy will put him in natural sympathy with Hollande, there is no telling whether the chemistry between them will turn out to be positive. More important than that is the fact that Sarkozy’s leadership on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat allowed Obama, as he said of his stance on Libya, to “lead from behind.” Without Sarkozy pushing the European Union toward tough sanctions on Tehran, the West would not have gone as far as it already has toward pressuring the Iranians. With Sarkozy gone that will put more pressure on Obama to assume a leadership role as the P5+1 talks proceed this summer that he would probably prefer not to take.

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Much of the analysis of the victory of Francois Hollande and the Socialists in the French presidential election will focus on the impact of the change in power on the European economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably miss Nicolas Sarkozy more than many of his compatriots as she attempts to hold the line for a fiscal policy that will try to save Europe and the euro from being dragged down by spendthrift nations like Greece. But President Obama may wind up missing him just as much if not more.

While some American liberals may assume that President Obama’s affection for the spirit of European social democracy will put him in natural sympathy with Hollande, there is no telling whether the chemistry between them will turn out to be positive. More important than that is the fact that Sarkozy’s leadership on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat allowed Obama, as he said of his stance on Libya, to “lead from behind.” Without Sarkozy pushing the European Union toward tough sanctions on Tehran, the West would not have gone as far as it already has toward pressuring the Iranians. With Sarkozy gone that will put more pressure on Obama to assume a leadership role as the P5+1 talks proceed this summer that he would probably prefer not to take.

The assumption up until now is that President Obama was going to spend the next six months hiding behind the ongoing negotiations with Iran and allow the EU to take the lead as it has throughout this process. To the surprise of many, the Europeans have been consistently ahead of Washington when it came to doing more than talking about stopping Iran. For this, Sarkozy deserved much of the credit. But his exit will create a void on the issue that Hollande is not likely to fill even if, at least on the surface, his position is not much different from that of his predecessor.

That will leave EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is already in charge of the P5+1 talks, with a much freer hand to craft a deal that will please the ayatollahs more than President Obama. Though few believe the Iranians would actually make good on any promises made in the talks, there is a strong possibility they would be willing to agree, at least in principle, to an accord that would satisfy Europeans who are eager to back down from their threat of an oil embargo later this year. No other European leader, including a beleaguered British Prime Minister David Cameron, is likely to fill Sarkozy’s shoes on this point and stop Ashton from playing the Iranians’ game.

A deal with Iran that leaves their nuclear program intact with only promises about the export of refined uranium might be something a re-elected Obama would approve but not while he is fighting for re-election. The president has been defending the “window of diplomacy” that he thinks has opened up with Iran, but it is doubtful he would want to defend a flawed or weak deal with Tehran on the campaign trail. It would serve his purposes far better for Ashton to keep talking than to be faced with her acceptance of something that he would be hard pressed to justify to the American public. If that happens, it will be Obama who is left holding the bag on a diplomatic disaster and ruing the day the French electorate sent Sarkozy packing.

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Hollande Win Will Boost Anti-Israel Left

The head of the CRIF, the head of the umbrella group representing French Jewry, is coming under criticism for saying a victory for Socialist Party presidential candidate Francois Hollande is a potential disaster for Israel. Richard Prasquier stated in an opinion column published last week in Haaretz that anti-Israel elements within the Socialist Party will be able to exert disproportionate influence in a Hollande administration.

While Prasquier said Hollande had expressed friendship for Israel, he left little doubt that the strong ties between the Jewish community and incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy left some Jews worried about the consequences if the polls are right and the Socialist wins on Sunday. Of special concern was the fact that while Sarkozy has been the most ardent European opponent of a nuclear Iran, Hollande is untested on the issue and will govern with the support of leftist foes of Israel who will play a large role in his government.

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The head of the CRIF, the head of the umbrella group representing French Jewry, is coming under criticism for saying a victory for Socialist Party presidential candidate Francois Hollande is a potential disaster for Israel. Richard Prasquier stated in an opinion column published last week in Haaretz that anti-Israel elements within the Socialist Party will be able to exert disproportionate influence in a Hollande administration.

While Prasquier said Hollande had expressed friendship for Israel, he left little doubt that the strong ties between the Jewish community and incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy left some Jews worried about the consequences if the polls are right and the Socialist wins on Sunday. Of special concern was the fact that while Sarkozy has been the most ardent European opponent of a nuclear Iran, Hollande is untested on the issue and will govern with the support of leftist foes of Israel who will play a large role in his government.

While Prasquier has landed in hot water for his candor, there’s little doubt he was telling the truth. Though there is probably little difference between the views of Sarkozy — who is well-known for his dislike of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — about the moribund Middle East peace process, Sarkozy’s leadership on Iran will be missed if he loses. Without Sarkozy pushing the West to make good on its threat of an oil embargo of Iran, it is entirely possible that European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will have the leeway to make an unsatisfactory deal with the Iranians that will not resolve the problem but will spike plans for stepped up sanctions.

Just as telling is Prasquier’s description of France’s political alignment:

The main question that arises for the Jewish community, if François Hollande becomes the president of France, is the influence that might be exerted by those Socialist leaders who have negative views towards Israel’s policies. Beyond the Socialists, but still in Hollande’s camp, are the leftist parties and the Greens who express a deep hostility towards Israel and are at the forefront of every anti-Israel demonstration, declaration and petition. The fact that Jean Luc Melenchon, the charismatic leader of the renewed Communist party, only managed a disappointing 11 percent result, might well reduce its impact on French foreign policy, but I expect a surge in leftist and Communist manifestations of anti-Zionism.

Tellingly, Prasquier plays down the influence of Marine Le Pen’s far right party that did so well in the first round of the French elections. Though support for a grouping that has been a font of anti-Semitism isn’t good news, he rightly points out that it is not the National Front that is French Jewry’s biggest problem these days. As the recent terrorist attack in Toulouse illustrated, the Jews have more to fear from radical Islamists and Israel-haters than the traditional anti-Semitism of the old French right which has little influence on the government. But if the anti-Zionists of the left regain influence, prospects for good relations between France and Israel as well as for French support for stopping Iran will decrease. Given Hollande’s lead in the polls, it appears Prasquier’s fears will soon be put to the test.

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Sarkozy’s Defeat Might be a Victory for Iran

For Americans, picking favorites in French elections is a difficult task. The political combat between the inheritors of Charles De Gaulle’s centrist faction, the socialists and their more marginal foes on both the right and the left generally leaves Americans cold in a way that the equally remote battles of Conservatives and Laborites in Britain does not. Though Americans may have viewed Nicolas Sarkozy with more affection than his predecessor Jacques Chirac — whose opposition to American foreign policy inspired intense hostility on these shores — it isn’t likely that his departure from the Elysee Palace would generate much grief here. But the French election will have a not insignificant influence on a number of issues that are important to Americans. As Seth noted, Sarkozy’s defeat would be a blow to the joint effort he undertook with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to promote an austerity-first fiscal approach that would save the Eurozone. But the triumph of Francois Hollande and the Socialists might have an even bigger impact on the ability of the West to present a united front to Iran.

Sarkozy may share President Obama’s antipathy for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is also true that France’s stance on Middle East peace under his administration has been no more helpful than it might be under the Socialists. However, Sarkozy has been a stalwart opponent of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, often getting far ahead of the United States on the issue and helping to buttress the shaky determination of the European Union to take a firm stand. As Tony Karon points out in Time Magazine, it is almost a certainty that Hollande would not be interested in staking out such a tough position or using his influence to keep the EU in line on the matter.

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For Americans, picking favorites in French elections is a difficult task. The political combat between the inheritors of Charles De Gaulle’s centrist faction, the socialists and their more marginal foes on both the right and the left generally leaves Americans cold in a way that the equally remote battles of Conservatives and Laborites in Britain does not. Though Americans may have viewed Nicolas Sarkozy with more affection than his predecessor Jacques Chirac — whose opposition to American foreign policy inspired intense hostility on these shores — it isn’t likely that his departure from the Elysee Palace would generate much grief here. But the French election will have a not insignificant influence on a number of issues that are important to Americans. As Seth noted, Sarkozy’s defeat would be a blow to the joint effort he undertook with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to promote an austerity-first fiscal approach that would save the Eurozone. But the triumph of Francois Hollande and the Socialists might have an even bigger impact on the ability of the West to present a united front to Iran.

Sarkozy may share President Obama’s antipathy for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is also true that France’s stance on Middle East peace under his administration has been no more helpful than it might be under the Socialists. However, Sarkozy has been a stalwart opponent of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, often getting far ahead of the United States on the issue and helping to buttress the shaky determination of the European Union to take a firm stand. As Tony Karon points out in Time Magazine, it is almost a certainty that Hollande would not be interested in staking out such a tough position or using his influence to keep the EU in line on the matter.

Though the EU push for negotiations with Iran may be a doubtful strategy, it must be conceded that, although Tehran may intend to use the P5+1 talks to run out the clock, Sarkozy’s approach to the issue has been largely exemplary in his devotion to ensuring the nuclear threat is ended by any agreement. As Karon points out, without Sarkozy, the dynamic within the EU will change for the worse:

Sarkozy has been the leading voice of skepticism over negotiations among Western leaders, and he has taken the lead in pressing both the Obama administration and European governments to adopt the sanctions targeting Iran’s energy exports and banking sector that have had a painful impact on the Iranian economy. Britain supports France’s zero-enrichment demand, but hasn’t been quite as activist in promoting it. London is also more likely, analysts say, to go along with the consensus if Western powers can fashion an interim deal that offers concrete progress in reinforcing barriers to Iran using its nuclear program to create weapons, even if that leaves the issue of Iran’s ongoing enrichment to 3.5 percent unresolved for now. A nuclear compromise involving steps to diminish the danger of weaponization in the near term, but which leaves Iran with the capacity to enrich uranium and at the same time eases international pressure on Tehran, is precisely what the Israelis fear right now. And Sarkozy, while rejecting Israel’s threat to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could be more willing to push back against a compromise on the enrichment issue than Hollande would be.

Sarkozy’s departure would come at a crucial time in the talks. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s obvious interest in making the dispute disappear without an Iranian surrender needs to be balanced by strong opposition from France.

All this means the May 6 French runoff may be just as important for Israel, the United States and Iran as it is for France.

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French-German Rift Puts Voters and Markets On Edge

The dominoes continue to fall. The deepening of the Eurozone economic crisis claimed the sitting governments of Greece and then of Italy, and the biggest domino yet–French President Nicolas Sarkozy–trailed French socialist Francois Hollande after the first round of voting during the weekend. As the French political class began preparing this morning for the upcoming runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy, they were greeted with the expected news of the collapse of the Dutch government.

This latest is the most significant for France, if only because the Netherlands was generally supportive of the austerity-first budget strategy promoted by Germany and backed by Sarkozy. But the political currents began pulling the French president as well, who was sufficiently spooked by the events of the past week, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

Following the weekend political developments in France and the Netherlands, the German-inspired fiscal pact, agreed by Eurozone leaders in Brussels in December, could also be delayed or thrown into question.

In a U-turn from his earlier stance, Mr. Sarkozy has used recent campaign rallies to call for changing the course of Eurozone policies to ensure they are also designed to stimulate growth.

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The dominoes continue to fall. The deepening of the Eurozone economic crisis claimed the sitting governments of Greece and then of Italy, and the biggest domino yet–French President Nicolas Sarkozy–trailed French socialist Francois Hollande after the first round of voting during the weekend. As the French political class began preparing this morning for the upcoming runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy, they were greeted with the expected news of the collapse of the Dutch government.

This latest is the most significant for France, if only because the Netherlands was generally supportive of the austerity-first budget strategy promoted by Germany and backed by Sarkozy. But the political currents began pulling the French president as well, who was sufficiently spooked by the events of the past week, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

Following the weekend political developments in France and the Netherlands, the German-inspired fiscal pact, agreed by Eurozone leaders in Brussels in December, could also be delayed or thrown into question.

In a U-turn from his earlier stance, Mr. Sarkozy has used recent campaign rallies to call for changing the course of Eurozone policies to ensure they are also designed to stimulate growth.

The blame game has commenced, with predictable parameters. The Journal’s editorial notes that because Sarkozy’s chances for success in the runoff election hinge on his ability to woo right-wing voters who supported neither Hollande nor Sarkozy in the first round, his “appeal will probably include a combination of anti-immigration riffs and more attacks on the European Central Bank (which has become the modern French substitute for running against the Germans).” The feeling is mutual, writes Mathieu von Rohr for Der Spiegel:

This election is a referendum on Sarkozy’s presidency…. His first-round result is poor, as was expected — Sarkozy is the first incumbent in the Fifth Republic who didn’t win the first round. It is an expression of the almost physical revulsion that many people feel for him.

If there’s any immediate relevance for President Obama’s reelection campaign, it’s that he probably cannot afford a Eurozone collapse or another serious financial crisis in Europe. A big question will be how the markets react and how nervous they get. In February, global markets rose on just the expectations that a Greek deal was imminent. In the near-term, this week’s events won’t calm anyone’s nerves, and the markets today predictably signaled their discontent. Long-term, a French-German split would likely be a headache for everyone on both sides of the Atlantic.

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What Happens When You Assume

When I pulled up the home page of the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz this morning, I was greeted with a somewhat humorous sight. The top headline, in large print, was: “Israeli security forces evacuate settlers from Hebron house.” Immediately to the right of that headline was this one: “Haaretz Editorial: The Israeli government gave in to the settlers.” Oops.

It appears Haaretz was expecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to evict the residents of a house in Hebron who the government says are not there legally. So the editors wrote a blistering editorial excoriating Netanyahu for what they assumed he would (or would not) do. It’s true that Netanyahu had recently indicated that he was not yet ready to evict the settlers. But that is a common tactic used by the government to ensure that the soldiers carrying out the evictions are not met with organized resistance. It’s not the first time the Israeli authorities have done this–it’s not even the first time they’ve done this in Hebron. Should Haaretz have assumed that Netanyahu would not evict Jews from Hebron? Just the opposite–Netanyahu has a track record of willingness to move Jews out of Hebron. He even signed an agreement with Yasser Arafat during the Clinton administration relinquishing some control over Hebron.

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When I pulled up the home page of the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz this morning, I was greeted with a somewhat humorous sight. The top headline, in large print, was: “Israeli security forces evacuate settlers from Hebron house.” Immediately to the right of that headline was this one: “Haaretz Editorial: The Israeli government gave in to the settlers.” Oops.

It appears Haaretz was expecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to evict the residents of a house in Hebron who the government says are not there legally. So the editors wrote a blistering editorial excoriating Netanyahu for what they assumed he would (or would not) do. It’s true that Netanyahu had recently indicated that he was not yet ready to evict the settlers. But that is a common tactic used by the government to ensure that the soldiers carrying out the evictions are not met with organized resistance. It’s not the first time the Israeli authorities have done this–it’s not even the first time they’ve done this in Hebron. Should Haaretz have assumed that Netanyahu would not evict Jews from Hebron? Just the opposite–Netanyahu has a track record of willingness to move Jews out of Hebron. He even signed an agreement with Yasser Arafat during the Clinton administration relinquishing some control over Hebron.

Should Haaretz have assumed Netanyahu wouldn’t respond to political pressure to turn parts of Jewish holy cities over to the Palestinians? No again. As the editorial itself notes, during his first term as prime minister Netanyahu “ordered the settlers to evacuate Ras al Amud,” a neighborhood in Jerusalem. (Netanyahu once even indicated, in a 2010 speech, that Jerusalem could be on the table for negotiations–an unprecedented move.)

What else surprised the Haaretz editorialists? They write that Netanyahu was ignoring the West Bank military prosecutor’s opinion, which includes a “warning of violence.” Yet, as the article on the evacuation notes, the mission was carried out “without any unusual events”–code for “peacefully.” It continues to surprise the media that settlers aren’t violent fanatics. (The picture accompanying the article shows a young Jewish mother pushing a stroller with a couple of young children walking peacefully next to her. Because Haaretz would generally post the most violent picture they have of any incident involving settlers, it would appear they were unable to locate anything but peaceful cooperation.)

Personal dislike of Netanyahu by the left has, since the very beginning of Netanyahu’s career, perverted the newsgathering and political processes to such an extent as to present a picture wholly unrelated to reality. In November, after President Obama and French President Sarkozy were caught trying to prove to each other who dislikes Netanyahu more, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl asked a good question: “Why do Sarkozy and Obama hate Netanyahu?”

He argued that Netanyahu has been responsive all along to Obama’s initiatives, even when Netanyahu didn’t like them. He agreed to settlement freezes, declared he would evict squatters, agreed to immediate negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, and even announced his support for an independent Palestinian state. (The list is even longer than this, but Diehl was on the right track.) But what about the Palestinians? Diehl went on:

Abbas, it’s fair to say, has gone from resisting U.S. and French diplomacy to actively seeking to undermine it. Yet it is Netanyahu whom Sarkozy finds “unbearable,” and whom Obama groans at having to “deal with every day.” If there is an explanation for this, it must be personal; in substance, it makes little sense.

It is personal, not to mention petty and counterproductive. Netanyahu’s commitment to peace and the rule of law is only surprising to those, like the president and the Haaretz editorialists, who allow personal animus, rather than a fair reading of the facts, to guide them.

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Lebanon: Too Quiet?

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

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Morning Commentary

It looks like Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier misread the judicial system in Haiti. Just days after he mysteriously returned to the country after a 25-year exile, the former Haitian dictator was arrested for corruption, theft of public funds, and human rights abuses that he allegedly committed during his vicious 15-year reign: “Two days after his return to the country he left following a brutal 15-year rule, a noisy crowd of his supporters protested outside the state prosecutor’s office while he was questioned over accusations that he stole public funds and committed human rights abuses after taking over as president from his father in 1971.”

Time for another article about the futility of the peace process. At Pajamas Media, David Solway is understandably pessimistic that the Palestinian Authority will agree to the conditions necessary for a successful completion of the negotiations, at least at the moment: “Peace in the Middle East is, in any sober analysis, probably and at the very least generations away from accomplishment. Peace may emerge after another thirty or fifty years of grinding exhaustion or a major outbreak of hostilities that leaves the belligerents incapable of pursuing so debilitating a struggle. And this is a best case scenario.”

The media is now wondering why the media covers Palin so obsessively: “And so, to Mr. Douthat’s chicken-and-egg dilemma — which came first: Ms. Palin or the media’s sometimes obsessive coverage of her? — we might want to add a third actor: the audience,” writes Nate Silver. He notes that a Politico poll from last month found that 59 percent of Americans have a strong opinion on Palin, and so any coverage of her is likely to elicit a lot of interest from the general public.

The American Jewish Committee will honor German Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s support for Israel with its Light Unto the Nations Award at a ceremony in Berlin today: “Chancellor Merkel is a true light unto the nations,” said AJC executive director David Harris. “Her outspoken support for the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the values of human freedom and human dignity are hallmarks of Chancellor Merkel’s visionary political leadership.” Former recipients include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Ricky Gervais’s performance at last weekend’s Golden Globe awards may have been panned by the mainstream media, but it’s also earned him folk-hero status among conservatives. Instead of taking the predictable swipes at people like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, Gervais turned the tables by relentlessly ridiculing the Hollywood elite in the audience: “It is an honour to be here in a room full of what I consider to be the most important people on the planet: actors. They’re just better than ordinary people, aren’t they?” If you haven’t seen the videos of his performance yet, they’re worth watching.

It looks like Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier misread the judicial system in Haiti. Just days after he mysteriously returned to the country after a 25-year exile, the former Haitian dictator was arrested for corruption, theft of public funds, and human rights abuses that he allegedly committed during his vicious 15-year reign: “Two days after his return to the country he left following a brutal 15-year rule, a noisy crowd of his supporters protested outside the state prosecutor’s office while he was questioned over accusations that he stole public funds and committed human rights abuses after taking over as president from his father in 1971.”

Time for another article about the futility of the peace process. At Pajamas Media, David Solway is understandably pessimistic that the Palestinian Authority will agree to the conditions necessary for a successful completion of the negotiations, at least at the moment: “Peace in the Middle East is, in any sober analysis, probably and at the very least generations away from accomplishment. Peace may emerge after another thirty or fifty years of grinding exhaustion or a major outbreak of hostilities that leaves the belligerents incapable of pursuing so debilitating a struggle. And this is a best case scenario.”

The media is now wondering why the media covers Palin so obsessively: “And so, to Mr. Douthat’s chicken-and-egg dilemma — which came first: Ms. Palin or the media’s sometimes obsessive coverage of her? — we might want to add a third actor: the audience,” writes Nate Silver. He notes that a Politico poll from last month found that 59 percent of Americans have a strong opinion on Palin, and so any coverage of her is likely to elicit a lot of interest from the general public.

The American Jewish Committee will honor German Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s support for Israel with its Light Unto the Nations Award at a ceremony in Berlin today: “Chancellor Merkel is a true light unto the nations,” said AJC executive director David Harris. “Her outspoken support for the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the values of human freedom and human dignity are hallmarks of Chancellor Merkel’s visionary political leadership.” Former recipients include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Ricky Gervais’s performance at last weekend’s Golden Globe awards may have been panned by the mainstream media, but it’s also earned him folk-hero status among conservatives. Instead of taking the predictable swipes at people like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, Gervais turned the tables by relentlessly ridiculing the Hollywood elite in the audience: “It is an honour to be here in a room full of what I consider to be the most important people on the planet: actors. They’re just better than ordinary people, aren’t they?” If you haven’t seen the videos of his performance yet, they’re worth watching.

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Obama Snubs Britain Yet Again

He just can’t help himself. President Obama has apparently dissed Britain once again by declaring that “[w]e don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people” during a White House appearance with the French president. And the British press has taken notice:

Barack Obama has declared that France is America’s greatest ally, undermining Britain’s Special Relationship with the U.S.

The President risked offending British troops in Afghanistan by saying that French president Nicolas Sarkozy is a ‘stronger friend’ than David Cameron.

The remarks, during a White House appearance with Mr Sarkozy, will reinforce the widely-held view in British diplomatic circles that Mr Obama has less interest in the Special Relationship than any other recent American leader.

Whether or not Obama meant any offense by the statement, he obviously should have realized that his past coldness toward Britain has made the it highly sensitive to any perceived slights from the White House. The president previously declined to meet with former prime minister Gordon Brown, removed the bust of Winston Churchill from his office, and famously gave Queen Elizabeth an iPod with photos of himself on it as a gift. His latest amateur diplomatic slip-up has sparked a bit of anti-French bad-mouthing from both British lawmakers and foreign-policy experts in Washington:

Tory MP Patrick Mercer, a former commander of the Sherwood Foresters regiment, said: “I’m getting a bit fed up with the American President using terms like ‘best ally’ so loosely.

“It’s Britain that has had more than 300 servicemen killed in Afghanistan, not France.

“That to my mind is a lot more powerful than any political gesture making.”

The remarks also angered conservatives in Washington.

Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre For Freedom at the Heritage Foundation think-tank, said: “Quite what the French have done to merit this kind of high praise from the U.S. President is difficult to fathom.

“And if the White House means what it says this represents an extraordinary sea change in foreign policy.” Dr Gardiner, a former aide to Lady Thatcher, added: “To suggest that Paris and not London is Washington’s strongest partner is simply ludicrous.

“Such a remark is not only factually wrong but insulting to Britain, not least coming just a few years after the French knifed Washington in the back over the war in Iraq.”

And it’s not hard to see why Obama’s statement provoked such a response. As the Daily Mail notes, the UK has lost nearly seven times as many troops as France in the global war on terror. I’d say that the president should choose his words more carefully next time, but in light of his numerous diplomatic flaps with Britain, I’m not sure if he has it in him.

He just can’t help himself. President Obama has apparently dissed Britain once again by declaring that “[w]e don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people” during a White House appearance with the French president. And the British press has taken notice:

Barack Obama has declared that France is America’s greatest ally, undermining Britain’s Special Relationship with the U.S.

The President risked offending British troops in Afghanistan by saying that French president Nicolas Sarkozy is a ‘stronger friend’ than David Cameron.

The remarks, during a White House appearance with Mr Sarkozy, will reinforce the widely-held view in British diplomatic circles that Mr Obama has less interest in the Special Relationship than any other recent American leader.

Whether or not Obama meant any offense by the statement, he obviously should have realized that his past coldness toward Britain has made the it highly sensitive to any perceived slights from the White House. The president previously declined to meet with former prime minister Gordon Brown, removed the bust of Winston Churchill from his office, and famously gave Queen Elizabeth an iPod with photos of himself on it as a gift. His latest amateur diplomatic slip-up has sparked a bit of anti-French bad-mouthing from both British lawmakers and foreign-policy experts in Washington:

Tory MP Patrick Mercer, a former commander of the Sherwood Foresters regiment, said: “I’m getting a bit fed up with the American President using terms like ‘best ally’ so loosely.

“It’s Britain that has had more than 300 servicemen killed in Afghanistan, not France.

“That to my mind is a lot more powerful than any political gesture making.”

The remarks also angered conservatives in Washington.

Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre For Freedom at the Heritage Foundation think-tank, said: “Quite what the French have done to merit this kind of high praise from the U.S. President is difficult to fathom.

“And if the White House means what it says this represents an extraordinary sea change in foreign policy.” Dr Gardiner, a former aide to Lady Thatcher, added: “To suggest that Paris and not London is Washington’s strongest partner is simply ludicrous.

“Such a remark is not only factually wrong but insulting to Britain, not least coming just a few years after the French knifed Washington in the back over the war in Iraq.”

And it’s not hard to see why Obama’s statement provoked such a response. As the Daily Mail notes, the UK has lost nearly seven times as many troops as France in the global war on terror. I’d say that the president should choose his words more carefully next time, but in light of his numerous diplomatic flaps with Britain, I’m not sure if he has it in him.

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Plus Ça Change

A poignant development illustrates the disintegration of the rarefied post-Cold War order we have inhabited since the early 1990s. Against the backdrop of shocks to that order over the past year and half, this little event may seem minor. But it is emblematic of the actions our strategic opponents no longer fear to take openly.

President Obama, currently in Indonesia, will attend the G-20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 11-12. Dmitry Medvedev arrives in Seoul today for a state visit and will hold bilateral talks with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak prior to the summit. These discussions – in which Korean security and global economic policy are expected to be major topics – continue the theme of Medvedev’s summit with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in October. Each case involves the Russian president talking over the biggest of global and regional issues with key American allies, in advance of the general summits to be held this month (the G-20 meeting in Seoul and the NATO summit in Lisbon).

But that’s not the most telling aspect of Russia’s posture for the G-20 summit in Seoul. That aspect is to be observed down the road in Inchon, from the pier where the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the missile cruiser Varyag, will be moored throughout the summit. The unambiguous signal from this visit is underscored by the report that South Korea will turn over to Varyag a set of artifacts Russia has been requesting for years: a battle flag and remnants of weapons from Varyag’s namesake, which participated in the Russo-Japanese War more than a century ago.

The earlier Varyag, attacked in Inchon in 1904 by a Japanese task force, was scuttled by the captain rather than being surrendered to the more powerful Japanese flotilla. Artifacts recovered from it by the Japanese have been stored in Inchon for decades – and each year since 1996, the modern cruiser Varyag has visited Inchon in February to commemorate the battle. Besides the latent bellicosity of bringing a warship to a G-20 summit, Russia is dealing a symbolic slap to Japan: occupying, under the aegis of a U.S. ally and an international body, the position in which a Japanese force once inflicted defeat on Russian ships.

To the American mind, the era before World War I seems to have existed across an unbridgeable historical divide. In a geopolitical sense, in particular, we have believed for decades that we inhabit a different order now. The old territorial resentments seem antique and irrelevant for global technological powers; we think of these obsessions as the province of benighted tribal cultures. But it shouldn’t surprise us to see Russia reverting to this age-old pattern. What we have to understand – but probably don’t today – is that this isn’t a meaningless gesture from Russia: it’s a marking of territory. This is how Russia operates. It all matters.

A poignant development illustrates the disintegration of the rarefied post-Cold War order we have inhabited since the early 1990s. Against the backdrop of shocks to that order over the past year and half, this little event may seem minor. But it is emblematic of the actions our strategic opponents no longer fear to take openly.

President Obama, currently in Indonesia, will attend the G-20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 11-12. Dmitry Medvedev arrives in Seoul today for a state visit and will hold bilateral talks with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak prior to the summit. These discussions – in which Korean security and global economic policy are expected to be major topics – continue the theme of Medvedev’s summit with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in October. Each case involves the Russian president talking over the biggest of global and regional issues with key American allies, in advance of the general summits to be held this month (the G-20 meeting in Seoul and the NATO summit in Lisbon).

But that’s not the most telling aspect of Russia’s posture for the G-20 summit in Seoul. That aspect is to be observed down the road in Inchon, from the pier where the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the missile cruiser Varyag, will be moored throughout the summit. The unambiguous signal from this visit is underscored by the report that South Korea will turn over to Varyag a set of artifacts Russia has been requesting for years: a battle flag and remnants of weapons from Varyag’s namesake, which participated in the Russo-Japanese War more than a century ago.

The earlier Varyag, attacked in Inchon in 1904 by a Japanese task force, was scuttled by the captain rather than being surrendered to the more powerful Japanese flotilla. Artifacts recovered from it by the Japanese have been stored in Inchon for decades – and each year since 1996, the modern cruiser Varyag has visited Inchon in February to commemorate the battle. Besides the latent bellicosity of bringing a warship to a G-20 summit, Russia is dealing a symbolic slap to Japan: occupying, under the aegis of a U.S. ally and an international body, the position in which a Japanese force once inflicted defeat on Russian ships.

To the American mind, the era before World War I seems to have existed across an unbridgeable historical divide. In a geopolitical sense, in particular, we have believed for decades that we inhabit a different order now. The old territorial resentments seem antique and irrelevant for global technological powers; we think of these obsessions as the province of benighted tribal cultures. But it shouldn’t surprise us to see Russia reverting to this age-old pattern. What we have to understand – but probably don’t today – is that this isn’t a meaningless gesture from Russia: it’s a marking of territory. This is how Russia operates. It all matters.

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Better Than Nothing

Nicolas Sarkozy made some widely reported, albeit cryptic, comments on Iran to an audience of foreign ambassadors:

“If a credible agreement cannot be reached, Iran’s isolation would only worsen,” Sarkozy said. “And in the face of worsening threat, we would have to organize ourselves to protect and defend states that feel threatened. … Everybody knows that there are serious consequences to a policy that would allow Iran to follow its nuclear path,” Sarkozy said. “It would see a general proliferation in the region or even military conflict.”

Does “organize” mean take military action? Well, he seems to hint at that, by warning of “military conflict,” though it is far from certain he’s talking about initiating military action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

But ambiguity is not necessarily ill-advised in this circumstance — given that no one knows where Obama is on any of this — but it is something, and a vast improvement over the Obami, who dare never answer the “What if?” question. (That would be, “What if, as everyone expects, the flimsy sanctions don’t induce the mullahs to give up their nuclear ambitions?”) Recently, we’ve seen some half-hearted attempts to put the use of force back on the table, but the equivocation and hesitancy convey that the Obami don’t have their hearts in it.

It’s certainly sobering that even a lukewarm suggestion that such a threat may be in the offing should come from the French president. It made headlines precisely because such comments have been rare from Western officials, and entirely absent from Obama’s public remarks. Now he’s set for a foreign policy address, supposedly to focus on Iraq, when he returns from vacation. It’s not inconceivable he would use the opportunity to talk about another regime, which, like Saddam’s, also oppresses its people, violates human rights and nuclear-nonproliferation accords, funds terrorism, and threatens its neighbors. But what are the chances of that?

Nicolas Sarkozy made some widely reported, albeit cryptic, comments on Iran to an audience of foreign ambassadors:

“If a credible agreement cannot be reached, Iran’s isolation would only worsen,” Sarkozy said. “And in the face of worsening threat, we would have to organize ourselves to protect and defend states that feel threatened. … Everybody knows that there are serious consequences to a policy that would allow Iran to follow its nuclear path,” Sarkozy said. “It would see a general proliferation in the region or even military conflict.”

Does “organize” mean take military action? Well, he seems to hint at that, by warning of “military conflict,” though it is far from certain he’s talking about initiating military action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

But ambiguity is not necessarily ill-advised in this circumstance — given that no one knows where Obama is on any of this — but it is something, and a vast improvement over the Obami, who dare never answer the “What if?” question. (That would be, “What if, as everyone expects, the flimsy sanctions don’t induce the mullahs to give up their nuclear ambitions?”) Recently, we’ve seen some half-hearted attempts to put the use of force back on the table, but the equivocation and hesitancy convey that the Obami don’t have their hearts in it.

It’s certainly sobering that even a lukewarm suggestion that such a threat may be in the offing should come from the French president. It made headlines precisely because such comments have been rare from Western officials, and entirely absent from Obama’s public remarks. Now he’s set for a foreign policy address, supposedly to focus on Iraq, when he returns from vacation. It’s not inconceivable he would use the opportunity to talk about another regime, which, like Saddam’s, also oppresses its people, violates human rights and nuclear-nonproliferation accords, funds terrorism, and threatens its neighbors. But what are the chances of that?

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We Only Expected Competence

It somehow has never dawned on the Obama devotees who like to cite the administration’s “inherited mess” that this president’s failures don’t exactly reflect the overcautiousness of a leader constrained by a crisis. Taking over one-sixth of the private sector in an unintelligible health-care scheme is not an indication of tied hands; it’s a demonstration of unbridled recklessness. So too is dumping unprecedented billions into a liberal wish-list and calling it a stimulus. And so is cooking up financial reform that makes growth impossible and charges responsible banks with the task of bailing out irresponsible ones.

But it is Barack Obama’s most devoted supporters who should be most offended by the White House’s newest spin on the president’s shortcomings. Obama, we are now told, could never have lived up to people’s expectations of him.

Of the two excuses, the second is the more ignoble. The first merely passes the buck to another politician; the second places the blame at the feet of everyone else.  We’re not just talking about Americans, either. On Thursday, the European Commission’s president José Manuel Barroso told an interviewer that he was disappointed in the EU-America relationship under Obama. The administration’s response: “Senior U.S. figures said Obama could never live up to Europe’s sky-high expectations.”

I’m sure that will put transatlantic relations on the road to recovery in no time. But more to the point, it was candidate Barack Obama who vowed to accomplish the impossible. He said he would close Guantanamo Bay, lower the sea levels, end partisanship, elevate America’s standing in the world, and forge a new global order built on common humanity. With the exception of the laughably deluded, most everyone else’s expectations were fairly modest.

Americans, liberal and conservative, expected a president who could tell an interviewer what was actually in the biggest piece of legislation we’ve seen since FDR; one who would consider our employment crisis his first priority, not a nuisance standing in the way of a predetermined agenda; a leader who was unequivocal about military decisions, be they to escalate or drawdown; a statesman who didn’t immediately alienate our allies.

And as for those allies, Europe wanted an American president who would acknowledge the historic and ideological bonds between liberal democracies; one who wouldn’t preach financial prodigality while the continent adopted emergency austerity measures; one who would, in the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, “live in a real world, not a virtual world,” and who would consequently place the threat of a nuclear Iran before the pet cause of non-proliferation.

These bare minimums — our own and Europe’s — don’t even speak to an expectation of excellence, let alone a fantasy of “sky-high” miracle-working. They constitute a simple wish for competence in the most powerful office in the world.

Even if Obama didn’t hold that job, his excuse would be odd. Imagine a man who is up for a sales job at a company in crisis. He tells his prospective boss that not only will he rescue sales but he’ll also lower costs, turn out a better product, get the competition to cooperate instead of compete, raise wages, improve the food in the company commissary, and redecorate the offices to boot. This man then gets hired. For a year, sales continue to lag, and everything else stays the same. The new employee explains that the guy who used to have his job left behind an unconscionable mess, which has made it very hard to do the things he had promised in the interview phase. After a year and a half, sales hit an historic low, the product is being recalled, competitors have formed a guild and are pulling ahead, everyone at the company has taken a salary hit, a few people have gotten food poisoning in the commissary, and the offices are more dilapidated than ever. On top of that, vendors can’t get him on the phone, he’s insulted his co-workers, and he’s taken more vacation time than the company allows. The boss finally asks him what’s gone wrong. “I could never have lived up to your expectations,” the man says.

Looking ahead to midterm elections, Obama recently told a Kansas City audience, “You’re going to face a choice in November and I want everybody to be very clear about what that choice is – the choice between the policies that got us into this mess in the first place and the policies that are getting us out of this mess.” Which mess is that? The stimulus mess? The ObamaCare mess? The financial-regulation mess? The European-allies mess? The Israel-relationship mess? The Karzai-relationship mess? The civilian-military mess? We’re facing a lot of messes that don’t have a thing to do with conservative policies. Even the housing-loan policies that led to the bust and recession are liberal policies, whether or not Bush embraced them.

The administration is now telling Americans not to expect much and to keep Democrats in office. “Despair and stasis” doesn’t quite have the ring of a successful campaign slogan, does it?

It somehow has never dawned on the Obama devotees who like to cite the administration’s “inherited mess” that this president’s failures don’t exactly reflect the overcautiousness of a leader constrained by a crisis. Taking over one-sixth of the private sector in an unintelligible health-care scheme is not an indication of tied hands; it’s a demonstration of unbridled recklessness. So too is dumping unprecedented billions into a liberal wish-list and calling it a stimulus. And so is cooking up financial reform that makes growth impossible and charges responsible banks with the task of bailing out irresponsible ones.

But it is Barack Obama’s most devoted supporters who should be most offended by the White House’s newest spin on the president’s shortcomings. Obama, we are now told, could never have lived up to people’s expectations of him.

Of the two excuses, the second is the more ignoble. The first merely passes the buck to another politician; the second places the blame at the feet of everyone else.  We’re not just talking about Americans, either. On Thursday, the European Commission’s president José Manuel Barroso told an interviewer that he was disappointed in the EU-America relationship under Obama. The administration’s response: “Senior U.S. figures said Obama could never live up to Europe’s sky-high expectations.”

I’m sure that will put transatlantic relations on the road to recovery in no time. But more to the point, it was candidate Barack Obama who vowed to accomplish the impossible. He said he would close Guantanamo Bay, lower the sea levels, end partisanship, elevate America’s standing in the world, and forge a new global order built on common humanity. With the exception of the laughably deluded, most everyone else’s expectations were fairly modest.

Americans, liberal and conservative, expected a president who could tell an interviewer what was actually in the biggest piece of legislation we’ve seen since FDR; one who would consider our employment crisis his first priority, not a nuisance standing in the way of a predetermined agenda; a leader who was unequivocal about military decisions, be they to escalate or drawdown; a statesman who didn’t immediately alienate our allies.

And as for those allies, Europe wanted an American president who would acknowledge the historic and ideological bonds between liberal democracies; one who wouldn’t preach financial prodigality while the continent adopted emergency austerity measures; one who would, in the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, “live in a real world, not a virtual world,” and who would consequently place the threat of a nuclear Iran before the pet cause of non-proliferation.

These bare minimums — our own and Europe’s — don’t even speak to an expectation of excellence, let alone a fantasy of “sky-high” miracle-working. They constitute a simple wish for competence in the most powerful office in the world.

Even if Obama didn’t hold that job, his excuse would be odd. Imagine a man who is up for a sales job at a company in crisis. He tells his prospective boss that not only will he rescue sales but he’ll also lower costs, turn out a better product, get the competition to cooperate instead of compete, raise wages, improve the food in the company commissary, and redecorate the offices to boot. This man then gets hired. For a year, sales continue to lag, and everything else stays the same. The new employee explains that the guy who used to have his job left behind an unconscionable mess, which has made it very hard to do the things he had promised in the interview phase. After a year and a half, sales hit an historic low, the product is being recalled, competitors have formed a guild and are pulling ahead, everyone at the company has taken a salary hit, a few people have gotten food poisoning in the commissary, and the offices are more dilapidated than ever. On top of that, vendors can’t get him on the phone, he’s insulted his co-workers, and he’s taken more vacation time than the company allows. The boss finally asks him what’s gone wrong. “I could never have lived up to your expectations,” the man says.

Looking ahead to midterm elections, Obama recently told a Kansas City audience, “You’re going to face a choice in November and I want everybody to be very clear about what that choice is – the choice between the policies that got us into this mess in the first place and the policies that are getting us out of this mess.” Which mess is that? The stimulus mess? The ObamaCare mess? The financial-regulation mess? The European-allies mess? The Israel-relationship mess? The Karzai-relationship mess? The civilian-military mess? We’re facing a lot of messes that don’t have a thing to do with conservative policies. Even the housing-loan policies that led to the bust and recession are liberal policies, whether or not Bush embraced them.

The administration is now telling Americans not to expect much and to keep Democrats in office. “Despair and stasis” doesn’t quite have the ring of a successful campaign slogan, does it?

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Michael Barone explains young Americans’ economic outlook in the Obama era: “The programs of the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership will increase government’s share of the economy and will tend to choke off private sector economic growth. We’ve already lost 8 million private sector jobs but no public sector jobs. We’ll probably create more public sector jobs. … But a nation with an ever larger public sector and an inhibited-growth private sector is a nation with fewer openings for people who want work that will benefit others. Fewer opportunities for young people who want to choose their future, just as they choose their iPod playlists and Facebook friends. Fewer opportunities for people to choose their future.”

Bill Kristol explains the economic-growth outlook in the Obama era: “Can you have a serious recovery when your — when taxes are being raised quite a lot, interest rates are going up, and the regulatory burden’s getting heavier? Those are just facts. I mean, taxes are going up. Interest rates are going up, intermediate and long-term rates, and they’re going to keep on going up because of the deficit. And the regulatory burden is getting heavier. That — I don’t know what economic theory tells you get good growth with those things going on.”

The farce of nuclear disarmament in the Obama era: “Iran said on Sunday it will host a nuclear disarmament conference this month to be attended by China, which has been resisting new sanctions against Tehran over its atomic ambitions. ‘This is an international conference and Iran, which advocates nuclear disarmament, is calling on all nations to disarm,’ Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told the official IRNA news agency.”

Syria-Israel relations in the Obama era (which look an awful lot like they always have): “A report submitted a few weeks ago to French President Nicolas Sarkozy by two of his top diplomats concludes that there is no chance to renew substantial negotiations between Israel and Syria in the near future, Haaretz has learned. The officials had visited the Middle East recently to investigate the possibility of French mediation between the two countries.” Agreeing to return our ambassador to Damascus apparently accomplished nothing.

Non-leadership on human rights in the Obama era: “Other nations should make clear that Burma would indeed be welcomed back — but only if it frees all political prisoners and ceases its war crimes against national minorities. … Together, these nations could exert real influence. They could tighten financial sanctions to really pinch top leaders and the entities they control; they could push the machinery of the United Nations to investigate the regime’s crimes, such as forced labor and mass rape. Now would be a good moment, in other words, to unite and use the leverage that is lying unused on the table.”

Another competitive Blue State in the Obama era: “As soon as former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that he was running for governor, the race was seen by national Republicans as another possible high-profile pickup, a view almost immediately shared by political prognosticators. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report adjusted its rating of the race Thursday from solidly Democratic to one short of ‘Toss Up’ — saying Ehrlich is expected to run a ‘competitive’ contest against Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).”

Another prominent Blue State Democratic governor is in trouble in the Obama era: “Few politicians are as close to Obama as the Massachusetts Democratic governor, or have deeper ties to the president and his core team of advisers. And almost no one faces a tougher re-election battle this year than [Deval] Patrick, whose disapproval ratings would be considered near-terminal if not for the three-way race that he currently finds himself in.”

Not-at-all-smart diplomacy in the Obama era: “Barack Obama is in danger of reversing all the progress his predecessors, including George W. Bush, made in forging closer U.S. ties with India. Preoccupied with China and the Middle East, the Obama administration has allotted little room on its schedule for India, and failed to get much done in the short time it did make. Hosting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the November state visit, the administration managed to produce cordial photo ops, but the agreements reached on education, energy cooperation, and the like dealt with trivia.”

The voice of sanity in the Obama era: “The head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee said Sunday that several domestic threats against the government are “real” but not as great as dangers posed by foreign terrorists. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) emphasized that the government is taking seriously the arrest of militia members and threats to lawmakers and governors but cautioned that people should not ‘overstate’ them.”

Michael Barone explains young Americans’ economic outlook in the Obama era: “The programs of the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership will increase government’s share of the economy and will tend to choke off private sector economic growth. We’ve already lost 8 million private sector jobs but no public sector jobs. We’ll probably create more public sector jobs. … But a nation with an ever larger public sector and an inhibited-growth private sector is a nation with fewer openings for people who want work that will benefit others. Fewer opportunities for young people who want to choose their future, just as they choose their iPod playlists and Facebook friends. Fewer opportunities for people to choose their future.”

Bill Kristol explains the economic-growth outlook in the Obama era: “Can you have a serious recovery when your — when taxes are being raised quite a lot, interest rates are going up, and the regulatory burden’s getting heavier? Those are just facts. I mean, taxes are going up. Interest rates are going up, intermediate and long-term rates, and they’re going to keep on going up because of the deficit. And the regulatory burden is getting heavier. That — I don’t know what economic theory tells you get good growth with those things going on.”

The farce of nuclear disarmament in the Obama era: “Iran said on Sunday it will host a nuclear disarmament conference this month to be attended by China, which has been resisting new sanctions against Tehran over its atomic ambitions. ‘This is an international conference and Iran, which advocates nuclear disarmament, is calling on all nations to disarm,’ Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told the official IRNA news agency.”

Syria-Israel relations in the Obama era (which look an awful lot like they always have): “A report submitted a few weeks ago to French President Nicolas Sarkozy by two of his top diplomats concludes that there is no chance to renew substantial negotiations between Israel and Syria in the near future, Haaretz has learned. The officials had visited the Middle East recently to investigate the possibility of French mediation between the two countries.” Agreeing to return our ambassador to Damascus apparently accomplished nothing.

Non-leadership on human rights in the Obama era: “Other nations should make clear that Burma would indeed be welcomed back — but only if it frees all political prisoners and ceases its war crimes against national minorities. … Together, these nations could exert real influence. They could tighten financial sanctions to really pinch top leaders and the entities they control; they could push the machinery of the United Nations to investigate the regime’s crimes, such as forced labor and mass rape. Now would be a good moment, in other words, to unite and use the leverage that is lying unused on the table.”

Another competitive Blue State in the Obama era: “As soon as former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that he was running for governor, the race was seen by national Republicans as another possible high-profile pickup, a view almost immediately shared by political prognosticators. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report adjusted its rating of the race Thursday from solidly Democratic to one short of ‘Toss Up’ — saying Ehrlich is expected to run a ‘competitive’ contest against Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).”

Another prominent Blue State Democratic governor is in trouble in the Obama era: “Few politicians are as close to Obama as the Massachusetts Democratic governor, or have deeper ties to the president and his core team of advisers. And almost no one faces a tougher re-election battle this year than [Deval] Patrick, whose disapproval ratings would be considered near-terminal if not for the three-way race that he currently finds himself in.”

Not-at-all-smart diplomacy in the Obama era: “Barack Obama is in danger of reversing all the progress his predecessors, including George W. Bush, made in forging closer U.S. ties with India. Preoccupied with China and the Middle East, the Obama administration has allotted little room on its schedule for India, and failed to get much done in the short time it did make. Hosting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the November state visit, the administration managed to produce cordial photo ops, but the agreements reached on education, energy cooperation, and the like dealt with trivia.”

The voice of sanity in the Obama era: “The head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee said Sunday that several domestic threats against the government are “real” but not as great as dangers posed by foreign terrorists. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) emphasized that the government is taking seriously the arrest of militia members and threats to lawmakers and governors but cautioned that people should not ‘overstate’ them.”

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Sarkozy Has Figured It Out Too

As this report explains, “The American and French presidents called for quick action on sanctions against Iran on Tuesday, with U.S. President Barack Obama saying he believed such penalties could be approved by the United Nations in a matter of weeks.” But French President Nicolas Sarkozy can barely conceal his unease with Obama’s lackadaisical attitude toward the mullahs:

Mr. Sarkozy has been one of the strongest advocates for sanctions against Iran among the Western allies. “The time has come to take decisions,” he said at the news conference. “Iran cannot continue its mad race.”

Despite the public harmony, U.S. analysts who have discussed the issue with French leaders said Paris has grown concerned that Mr. Obama may be repeating the path of the Bush administration, which failed to halt Iran’s nuclear program through U.N. sanctions.

“There’s worry on Iran,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO during both the Bush and Obama administrations. “The French… want to play hardball and they want to push, and I think they worry a little bit about where is the administration’s bottom line. Yes, we’re pushing sanctions, but what then?”

And then Obama’ s hamhanded diplomacy hasn’t helped matters any. (“The meeting between the two presidents comes at a tense time in bilateral relations. Mr. Sarkozy appeared publicly supportive of Mr. Obama’s candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. But relations have cooled as a result of perceived diplomatic snubs — the Obamas didn’t have dinner with the Sarkozys during their June visit to Paris, for example — and policy differences.”) So much for enhancing our relationship with allies.

Others are similarly perturbed that Obama’s sanctions approach is too little and too late. Danielle Pletka explains that in Obama’s obsession with engaging the Iranian regime:

He was unwilling to take no for an answer. How else to explain Mr. Obama’s lack of interest in the Iranian people’s democratic protests against the regime. Or his seeming indifference to Tehran’s failure to meet repeated international deadlines to respond to an offer endorsed by all five permanent U.N. Security Council members (and Germany) to allow Iran to enrich uranium in Russia, receiving back enriched fuel rods that do not lend themselves to weapons production. One might have hoped the administration was using that time to build international consensus for a plan B. But apparently that’s not the case.

So Obama goes through the motions, but with little indication that China or Russia will be joining in a unified sanctions effort or that the sanctions will be commensurate with the goal — persuading the mullahs to give up their nuclear ambitions. We are engaged now in a massive charade — Obama pretends to be serious about preventing a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic state, our allies nervously eye one another, and the mullahs proceed with nary a care that they might face their own existential threat (give up the nukes or perish). But the kabuki dance must end soon.

After bludgeoning Israel over Jerusalem and making clear to all onlookers that there is nothing currently “rock solid” about the U.S. relationship with Israel, Obama nevertheless expects the Jewish state to continue to play along with the engagement/sanctions pantomime. However, if the Israeli government has learned anything over the last week, it is to appreciate just how deeply disingenuous is the Obama administration, and how little the Jewish state can rely on the Obami for its security. The Obama administration is dedicated to reorienting America away from its alliance with Israel and elevating (it imagines) its status in the Muslim World and within international organizations, which have little interest in doing whatever is necessary to enforce existing sanctions, let alone enacting new ones to prevent the mullahs’ acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Certainly, Netanyahu shares Sarkozy’s skepticism. Now he must consider just how much longer to indulge the Obami’s creep toward containment. And for those here in the U.S. who correctly perceive that the unacceptable is on the verge of happening, the question remains: what, if anything, can be done to shake the administration from its slumber?

As this report explains, “The American and French presidents called for quick action on sanctions against Iran on Tuesday, with U.S. President Barack Obama saying he believed such penalties could be approved by the United Nations in a matter of weeks.” But French President Nicolas Sarkozy can barely conceal his unease with Obama’s lackadaisical attitude toward the mullahs:

Mr. Sarkozy has been one of the strongest advocates for sanctions against Iran among the Western allies. “The time has come to take decisions,” he said at the news conference. “Iran cannot continue its mad race.”

Despite the public harmony, U.S. analysts who have discussed the issue with French leaders said Paris has grown concerned that Mr. Obama may be repeating the path of the Bush administration, which failed to halt Iran’s nuclear program through U.N. sanctions.

“There’s worry on Iran,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO during both the Bush and Obama administrations. “The French… want to play hardball and they want to push, and I think they worry a little bit about where is the administration’s bottom line. Yes, we’re pushing sanctions, but what then?”

And then Obama’ s hamhanded diplomacy hasn’t helped matters any. (“The meeting between the two presidents comes at a tense time in bilateral relations. Mr. Sarkozy appeared publicly supportive of Mr. Obama’s candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. But relations have cooled as a result of perceived diplomatic snubs — the Obamas didn’t have dinner with the Sarkozys during their June visit to Paris, for example — and policy differences.”) So much for enhancing our relationship with allies.

Others are similarly perturbed that Obama’s sanctions approach is too little and too late. Danielle Pletka explains that in Obama’s obsession with engaging the Iranian regime:

He was unwilling to take no for an answer. How else to explain Mr. Obama’s lack of interest in the Iranian people’s democratic protests against the regime. Or his seeming indifference to Tehran’s failure to meet repeated international deadlines to respond to an offer endorsed by all five permanent U.N. Security Council members (and Germany) to allow Iran to enrich uranium in Russia, receiving back enriched fuel rods that do not lend themselves to weapons production. One might have hoped the administration was using that time to build international consensus for a plan B. But apparently that’s not the case.

So Obama goes through the motions, but with little indication that China or Russia will be joining in a unified sanctions effort or that the sanctions will be commensurate with the goal — persuading the mullahs to give up their nuclear ambitions. We are engaged now in a massive charade — Obama pretends to be serious about preventing a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic state, our allies nervously eye one another, and the mullahs proceed with nary a care that they might face their own existential threat (give up the nukes or perish). But the kabuki dance must end soon.

After bludgeoning Israel over Jerusalem and making clear to all onlookers that there is nothing currently “rock solid” about the U.S. relationship with Israel, Obama nevertheless expects the Jewish state to continue to play along with the engagement/sanctions pantomime. However, if the Israeli government has learned anything over the last week, it is to appreciate just how deeply disingenuous is the Obama administration, and how little the Jewish state can rely on the Obami for its security. The Obama administration is dedicated to reorienting America away from its alliance with Israel and elevating (it imagines) its status in the Muslim World and within international organizations, which have little interest in doing whatever is necessary to enforce existing sanctions, let alone enacting new ones to prevent the mullahs’ acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Certainly, Netanyahu shares Sarkozy’s skepticism. Now he must consider just how much longer to indulge the Obami’s creep toward containment. And for those here in the U.S. who correctly perceive that the unacceptable is on the verge of happening, the question remains: what, if anything, can be done to shake the administration from its slumber?

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Allies Be Wary

Robert Kagan says Israel shouldn’t take it personally:

Israelis shouldn’t feel that they have been singled out. In Britain, people are talking about the end of the “special relationship” with America and worrying that Obama has no great regard for the British, despite their ongoing sacrifices in Afghanistan. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has openly criticized Obama for months (and is finally being rewarded with a private dinner, presumably to mend fences). In Eastern and Central Europe, there has been fear since the administration canceled long-planned missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic that the United States may no longer be a reliable guarantor of security.

And that’s just the beginning of the scorned-ally list. As Kagan notes, the Obami are infatuated with engaging foes — Iran, China, Russia, and a hodge-podge of despotic regimes. He explains:

The president has shown seemingly limitless patience with the Russians as they stall an arms-control deal that could have been done in December. He accepted a year of Iranian insults and refusal to negotiate before hesitantly moving toward sanctions. The administration continues to woo Syria and Burma without much sign of reciprocation in Damascus or Rangoon. Yet Obama angrily orders a near-rupture of relations with Israel for a minor infraction like the recent settlement dispute — and after the Israeli prime minister publicly apologized.

This may be the one great innovation of Obama foreign policy. While displaying more continuity than discontinuity in his policies toward Afghanistan, Iraq and the war against terrorism, and garnering as a result considerable bipartisan support for those policies, Obama appears to be departing from a 60-year-old American grand strategy when it comes to allies.

It is therefore not purely a matter of Middle East policy when Obama kicks Israel in the shins. It is a emblematic of and further warning to our allies around the globe that they are dispensable and vulnerable. And the message to our foes? Hang in there — the Obami may deliver precisely what you want. Just make a very big fuss. It’s what passes for smart diplomacy. It’s what makes for a dangerous world.

The ironies are plentiful. Obama was to “restore our place in the world,” but our allies are learning not to trust us. As Kagan notes, Obama is a “multilateralism” fan but lays none of the groundwork to forge meaningful alliances among democratic powers. Obama was the one with the “superior temperament” but reacts in highly personalized terms and angrily — feigned or not, is a matter of speculation — when it suits his purposes. The Obami are enamored of “international law” but choose not to abide by our commitments to allies (Eastern Europe on missile defense, Israel on settlements) nor to enforce in any meaningful way those international agreements and resolutions that rogue states ignore. Hypocrisy? Perhaps.

At the heart of this a fundamental lack of seriousness and attention — in time, thought, and resources — to evaluate the world as it is and plot out a strategic course to get us from Point A to Point B. So we have a series of failed gambits, left strewn by the side of the road — engagement with Iran, reset with Russia, bullying with Israel. In none have we perceived correctly the motives of those involvement or devised realistic policies designed to further our interests. It is one herky-jerky stunt after another, leaving allies confused and foes emboldened.

The Obami were desperate, we are told, to preserve the proximity talks, given their meager record on foreign policy. But in their desperation, they have amply demonstrated why that record is so meager and why we are quickly losing credibility with friends and enemies alike.

Robert Kagan says Israel shouldn’t take it personally:

Israelis shouldn’t feel that they have been singled out. In Britain, people are talking about the end of the “special relationship” with America and worrying that Obama has no great regard for the British, despite their ongoing sacrifices in Afghanistan. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has openly criticized Obama for months (and is finally being rewarded with a private dinner, presumably to mend fences). In Eastern and Central Europe, there has been fear since the administration canceled long-planned missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic that the United States may no longer be a reliable guarantor of security.

And that’s just the beginning of the scorned-ally list. As Kagan notes, the Obami are infatuated with engaging foes — Iran, China, Russia, and a hodge-podge of despotic regimes. He explains:

The president has shown seemingly limitless patience with the Russians as they stall an arms-control deal that could have been done in December. He accepted a year of Iranian insults and refusal to negotiate before hesitantly moving toward sanctions. The administration continues to woo Syria and Burma without much sign of reciprocation in Damascus or Rangoon. Yet Obama angrily orders a near-rupture of relations with Israel for a minor infraction like the recent settlement dispute — and after the Israeli prime minister publicly apologized.

This may be the one great innovation of Obama foreign policy. While displaying more continuity than discontinuity in his policies toward Afghanistan, Iraq and the war against terrorism, and garnering as a result considerable bipartisan support for those policies, Obama appears to be departing from a 60-year-old American grand strategy when it comes to allies.

It is therefore not purely a matter of Middle East policy when Obama kicks Israel in the shins. It is a emblematic of and further warning to our allies around the globe that they are dispensable and vulnerable. And the message to our foes? Hang in there — the Obami may deliver precisely what you want. Just make a very big fuss. It’s what passes for smart diplomacy. It’s what makes for a dangerous world.

The ironies are plentiful. Obama was to “restore our place in the world,” but our allies are learning not to trust us. As Kagan notes, Obama is a “multilateralism” fan but lays none of the groundwork to forge meaningful alliances among democratic powers. Obama was the one with the “superior temperament” but reacts in highly personalized terms and angrily — feigned or not, is a matter of speculation — when it suits his purposes. The Obami are enamored of “international law” but choose not to abide by our commitments to allies (Eastern Europe on missile defense, Israel on settlements) nor to enforce in any meaningful way those international agreements and resolutions that rogue states ignore. Hypocrisy? Perhaps.

At the heart of this a fundamental lack of seriousness and attention — in time, thought, and resources — to evaluate the world as it is and plot out a strategic course to get us from Point A to Point B. So we have a series of failed gambits, left strewn by the side of the road — engagement with Iran, reset with Russia, bullying with Israel. In none have we perceived correctly the motives of those involvement or devised realistic policies designed to further our interests. It is one herky-jerky stunt after another, leaving allies confused and foes emboldened.

The Obami were desperate, we are told, to preserve the proximity talks, given their meager record on foreign policy. But in their desperation, they have amply demonstrated why that record is so meager and why we are quickly losing credibility with friends and enemies alike.

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More Peace in Our Time

Another year brings another wintertime oil dispute between Russia and an Eastern European client. In January 2009 it was Ukraine; this year it’s Belarus. Although oil has surged to more than $80 a barrel since the threats and counter-threats began on December 31, Russia is reassuring European customers that the dispute won’t affect their access to refined petroleum. Other concerns, however, are likely to surpass this one in the capitals of Western Europe if Russia’s career of subjugating Belarus continues at its current pace.

Alexander Lukashenko’s government in Minsk was a holdout last year against inclusion in Moscow’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), incurring painful Russian sanctions on its dairy industry with its determined resistance. But after Russia put thousands of troops in Belarus in September, for its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, Lukashenko changed his mind and joined the CSTO. He then committed Belarus to participation in the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), announced by Dmitry Medvedev in February 2009, as an armed counterweight to NATO. Democracy groups in Belarus oppose all these developments, taking as a given that the CRRF will be used to suppress dissent in CSTO nations. (The Belarusian KGB will, predictably, be an element of the CRRF.)

In another wearisome echo of the region’s perennial dynamics, tiny Lithuania could be effectively crippled by the current oil dispute. Lithuania closed its last 1980s-era nuclear plant on December 31 as a price of admission to the EU,and now relies for electric-power generation on Russian oil from Belarus. Foreseeing this vulnerability, Nicolas Sarkozy gamely brought up the EU’s concern about it with Medvedev in late 2008, a venture in mediation that Medvedev summarily rebuffed.

In Belarus’s eyes, however, EU leaders have done even less than that to bolster Minsk’s independence from Moscow. Granted, the EU adopted its “Eastern Partnership” initiative in May 2009, with Belarus as one of the six former-Soviet targets. But this hasn’t produced any effective EU communication on the topics of Minsk joining the CSTO in November, or Russia’s fraternal determination to form a customs union with Belarus. With both developments having substantial implications for the Partnership’s objectives – vague and underfunded though they may be – the EU’s silence on them has been more informative than its abstract policy proclamations.

I agree with Max Boot that our European allies are more resilient and resourceful than their reputation with some American pundits would indicate. But their stately-paced, ineffective responses to events in Eastern Europe suggest that they are as subject as anyone to a dangerous, bureaucratized complacency. Only one force – American military might – has ever kept Europe in stasis during periods of geopolitical perturbation like the current Russian campaign. Perhaps the unity of the EU’s major nations will survive an accelerated Russian campaign, even without the context of U.S. dominance. But we have no historical justification for believing that it will. The EU has a number of tests facing it; Russia’s peculiar concept of power and security may well be the biggest one.

Another year brings another wintertime oil dispute between Russia and an Eastern European client. In January 2009 it was Ukraine; this year it’s Belarus. Although oil has surged to more than $80 a barrel since the threats and counter-threats began on December 31, Russia is reassuring European customers that the dispute won’t affect their access to refined petroleum. Other concerns, however, are likely to surpass this one in the capitals of Western Europe if Russia’s career of subjugating Belarus continues at its current pace.

Alexander Lukashenko’s government in Minsk was a holdout last year against inclusion in Moscow’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), incurring painful Russian sanctions on its dairy industry with its determined resistance. But after Russia put thousands of troops in Belarus in September, for its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, Lukashenko changed his mind and joined the CSTO. He then committed Belarus to participation in the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), announced by Dmitry Medvedev in February 2009, as an armed counterweight to NATO. Democracy groups in Belarus oppose all these developments, taking as a given that the CRRF will be used to suppress dissent in CSTO nations. (The Belarusian KGB will, predictably, be an element of the CRRF.)

In another wearisome echo of the region’s perennial dynamics, tiny Lithuania could be effectively crippled by the current oil dispute. Lithuania closed its last 1980s-era nuclear plant on December 31 as a price of admission to the EU,and now relies for electric-power generation on Russian oil from Belarus. Foreseeing this vulnerability, Nicolas Sarkozy gamely brought up the EU’s concern about it with Medvedev in late 2008, a venture in mediation that Medvedev summarily rebuffed.

In Belarus’s eyes, however, EU leaders have done even less than that to bolster Minsk’s independence from Moscow. Granted, the EU adopted its “Eastern Partnership” initiative in May 2009, with Belarus as one of the six former-Soviet targets. But this hasn’t produced any effective EU communication on the topics of Minsk joining the CSTO in November, or Russia’s fraternal determination to form a customs union with Belarus. With both developments having substantial implications for the Partnership’s objectives – vague and underfunded though they may be – the EU’s silence on them has been more informative than its abstract policy proclamations.

I agree with Max Boot that our European allies are more resilient and resourceful than their reputation with some American pundits would indicate. But their stately-paced, ineffective responses to events in Eastern Europe suggest that they are as subject as anyone to a dangerous, bureaucratized complacency. Only one force – American military might – has ever kept Europe in stasis during periods of geopolitical perturbation like the current Russian campaign. Perhaps the unity of the EU’s major nations will survive an accelerated Russian campaign, even without the context of U.S. dominance. But we have no historical justification for believing that it will. The EU has a number of tests facing it; Russia’s peculiar concept of power and security may well be the biggest one.

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The French Emissions Debacle

The French constitutional council may have blocked the president’s carbon tax for the wrong reasons late last night, but the message France unintentionally relayed about emissions-curbing taxes is still worth noting, especially as the United States may consider similar ones.

In an eleventh-hour decision, the court ruled the 17-euros charge for each ton of carbon emissions violated “the principle of tax equality” because it excluded 93 percent of industrial emissions.

Notably, exemptions would have been extended to the core of French industry, including power plants, steel factories, airlines, and public transportation. These very industries helped the great Charles de Gaulle restore France as a functional world power. They also helped him mitigate the appeal of communism. So crucial have these industries been to French standing that it is no wonder they were completely or partially excluded from the planned emissions tax.

The council’s decision is even more notable considering just who Sarkozy’s taxes would have hit: the average French citizen. The most taxed items would have been gasoline and heating fuel. To allay what certainly would have been inevitable popular angst, Nicolas Sarkozy intended to offer tax reductions or “green cheques” to low-income families.

Now, members of Sarkozy’s party have put themselves in an awkward position as they rework the proposal for mid-January. If they pursue the same measures but with more equal application, they will burden essential industries; and if they don’t harangue industry, their emissions efforts will be feebler — especially embarrassing in the context of France’s pre-Copenhagen posturing.

But de Gaulle would caution Sarkozy and his followers that a weakened industrial sector means a weakened France. And as the United States considers similar measures, lawmakers should remember that principle doesn’t apply to France alone.

The French constitutional council may have blocked the president’s carbon tax for the wrong reasons late last night, but the message France unintentionally relayed about emissions-curbing taxes is still worth noting, especially as the United States may consider similar ones.

In an eleventh-hour decision, the court ruled the 17-euros charge for each ton of carbon emissions violated “the principle of tax equality” because it excluded 93 percent of industrial emissions.

Notably, exemptions would have been extended to the core of French industry, including power plants, steel factories, airlines, and public transportation. These very industries helped the great Charles de Gaulle restore France as a functional world power. They also helped him mitigate the appeal of communism. So crucial have these industries been to French standing that it is no wonder they were completely or partially excluded from the planned emissions tax.

The council’s decision is even more notable considering just who Sarkozy’s taxes would have hit: the average French citizen. The most taxed items would have been gasoline and heating fuel. To allay what certainly would have been inevitable popular angst, Nicolas Sarkozy intended to offer tax reductions or “green cheques” to low-income families.

Now, members of Sarkozy’s party have put themselves in an awkward position as they rework the proposal for mid-January. If they pursue the same measures but with more equal application, they will burden essential industries; and if they don’t harangue industry, their emissions efforts will be feebler — especially embarrassing in the context of France’s pre-Copenhagen posturing.

But de Gaulle would caution Sarkozy and his followers that a weakened industrial sector means a weakened France. And as the United States considers similar measures, lawmakers should remember that principle doesn’t apply to France alone.

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Assad Returns as the Strong Horse

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis. Read More

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis.

Hariri and his allies in parliament resisted an extraordinary amount of pressure on these points for months before caving in, but cave in they did. They didn’t have much choice. The national army isn’t strong enough to disarm Hezbollah, and unlike Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei, Hariri doesn’t have his own private army. Hezbollah militiamen surrounded his house last year and firebombed his TV station when the government shut down its illegal surveillance system at the airport. At the end of the day, Hariri has to do what Hezbollah and its friends say unless someone with a bigger stick covers his back when push comes to shove.

No one has Hariri’s or Lebanon’s back, not anymore. He and his allies in the “March 14″ coalition have sensed this for some time, which is why Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has grudgingly softened his opposition to Assad and Hezbollah lately. When Hariri went to Damascus, everyone in the country, aside from useless newswire reporters, understood it meant Syria has re-emerged as the strong horse in Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt is another member of what David Schenker calls the Murdered Fathers Club. Assad’s ruthless late father, Hafez Assad, put Jumblatt through a similarly gruesome experience back in the 70s during the civil war. First Assad murdered Walid’s father, Kamal, then summoned the surviving Jumblatt to Damascus and forced him to shake hands and pledge his allegiance. Who can even imagine what that must have felt like? Hariri knows now, and Jumblatt still tells everyone he meets all about it.

Hariri generally doesn’t like having long conversations with journalists on the record because he doesn’t want to calculate how everything he says will be simultaneously interpreted in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Israel, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia. I can’t say I blame him. He lives under virtual house arrest as it is, with barely more freedom of movement than Hassan Nasrallah. Here is something he said, though, back when it was safer for him to do so: “Action must be taken against Syria, like isolation, to make the Syrians understand that killing members of [Lebanon's] parliament will have consequences.”

The U.S. and France did effectively isolate Assad with Saudi assistance when George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac were in charge, but presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy think they can save the Middle East by “engaging” its most toxic leaders. Syria, therefore, is no longer isolated. Lebanon’s little anti-Syrian government doesn’t stand a chance under these circumstances, especially not when Hezbollah is the dominant military power in the country.

“It’s a dangerous game these people are playing,” Lebanese activist and political analyst Eli Khoury said last time I spoke with him in Beirut, “but I think it’s only a matter of time until the newcomers burn their fingers with the same realities that we’ve seen over and over again. I’ve seen every strategy: Kissinger’s step-by-step approach, full engagement — which means sleeping with the enemy, basically — and the solid stand as with the Bush Administration. I’ve seen them all. The only one that works so far in my opinion, aside from some real stupid and dumb mistakes, is the severing of relationships. It made the Syrians behave.”

It did make the Syrians behave a bit for a while, but now the U.S., France, and Saudi Arabia are bringing Assad in from the cold and giving him cocoa. His influence, naturally, is rising again, in Lebanon and everywhere else. That’s good news for Hezbollah, of course, which means it’s also good news for Iran. It’s bad news for the Lebanese, the Americans, the French, the Saudis, and the Israelis. None of this was inevitable, but — in Lebanon, at least — it was predictable.

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Damascus Reverts to Form

Well, that didn’t last long. Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced he would resume peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions, but now he suddenly says it’s impossible. “What we lack is an Israeli partner,” he said, “who is ready to go forward and ready to come to a result.”

As an absolute dictator and a state sponsor of terrorism, Assad is in no position to boohoo about how the region’s only mature liberal democracy supposedly isn’t a peace partner — but he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think he could get away with it. If even the United States, of all countries, is behaving as though Israel were the problem, why shouldn’t he play along?

In a different historical context, it might be amusing, as Baghdad Bob’s alternate-universe pronouncements were, to listen to the tyrannical Assad talk as though he’s the Syrian equivalent of Israel’s dovish Shimon Peres, while the elected Israeli prime minister is a Jewish Yasir Arafat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though, is acting as though the first part were true.

Sarkozy is working hard to boost France’s influence in the Middle East by carving out a role for himself as a mediator between Israelis and Arabs. When Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that they would hold talks, they did it through him. And this weekend Sarkozy offered to host Assad, Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a summit in Paris. He can’t host any such thing, however, if the belligerents on the Arab side are shut out. So Assad has to be brought in from the cold, whether he’s earned it or not.

He hasn’t. And now that his reputation is getting an undeserved scrubbing, brace yourself for the worst sort of passive-aggressive Orwellian grandstanding. Read More

Well, that didn’t last long. Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced he would resume peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions, but now he suddenly says it’s impossible. “What we lack is an Israeli partner,” he said, “who is ready to go forward and ready to come to a result.”

As an absolute dictator and a state sponsor of terrorism, Assad is in no position to boohoo about how the region’s only mature liberal democracy supposedly isn’t a peace partner — but he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think he could get away with it. If even the United States, of all countries, is behaving as though Israel were the problem, why shouldn’t he play along?

In a different historical context, it might be amusing, as Baghdad Bob’s alternate-universe pronouncements were, to listen to the tyrannical Assad talk as though he’s the Syrian equivalent of Israel’s dovish Shimon Peres, while the elected Israeli prime minister is a Jewish Yasir Arafat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though, is acting as though the first part were true.

Sarkozy is working hard to boost France’s influence in the Middle East by carving out a role for himself as a mediator between Israelis and Arabs. When Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that they would hold talks, they did it through him. And this weekend Sarkozy offered to host Assad, Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a summit in Paris. He can’t host any such thing, however, if the belligerents on the Arab side are shut out. So Assad has to be brought in from the cold, whether he’s earned it or not.

He hasn’t. And now that his reputation is getting an undeserved scrubbing, brace yourself for the worst sort of passive-aggressive Orwellian grandstanding.

“What Obama said about peace was a good thing,” he said. “We agree with him on the principles, but as I said, what’s the action plan? The sponsor has to draw up an action plan.”

Notice what he’s done here? He’s portraying himself as though not only Netanyahu but also Barack Obama were less interested in peace than he is. It should be obvious, though, that Assad isn’t serious. He supports terrorist organizations that kill Americans, Israelis, Iraqis, and Lebanese — not exactly the sort of behavior one associates with leaders who agree with Barack Obama “on the principles.” Yet he’s blaming the United States for his own roguish behavior, because the U.S. does not have an “action plan.”

“Assad said that while relations with the United States had improved,” Reuters reports, “issues such as continued U.S. sanctions against Syria were hindering any joint work towards peace in the Middle East.” Got that? If the United States doesn’t drop sanctions against Syria, Assad will continue burning the Middle East with terrorist proxies.

“The Syrian regime is temperamentally incapable of issuing a statement that doesn’t sound like a threat,” Lee Smith noted last week in the Weekly Standard. Assad sure knows how to say it, though. It’s rather extraordinary that he can actually threaten to murder people in so many countries while sounding as if he were asking why we all can’t just get along. At least Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bigoted and hysterical fulminations are honestly hostile. We best get used to Assad’s act, though, unless and until Obama and Sarkozy realize there’s nothing to be gained from politely “engaging” this man.

Assad backs terrorists and thugs who have killed Lebanon’s former prime minister, members of Lebanon’s parliament, American soldiers, and civilians as well as soldiers in Iraq and in Israel – all acts of war. Say what you will about former French President Jacques Chirac. Unlike with the generally improved Sarkozy, Chirac’s relationship with Syria’s fascist and terrorist government was appropriately terrible.

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Re: Clinton, McCain, and Obama: “We Stand United”

As Gordon has noted, today’s joint statement on Darfur, by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain, places pressure on the next president to address the ongoing slaughter in Darfur come January. Let’s hope the conflict remains a “Day 1 issue”. For as Gordon also pointed out, nowhere in today’s statement, do the candidates refer to a specific plan to end the violence.

They used the term “unstinting resolve,” which would be assuring if countless issued statements on Darfur were not already riddled with such diplospeak. This August 2007 joint statement on Darfur from Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy called for “quick and decisive action.” This January 2007 joint statement issued by the World Health Organization and various UN departments speaks of “solid guarantees.” This joint statement on Darfur from back in 2004 signed by former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer and his New Zealand counterpart Phil Goff calls on governments to act “immediately and effectively.” This 2006 joint statement from Tony Blair and Chair of the African Union, Alpha Konare “strongly urge[d]” militias to stop fighting.

Yet, despite all these pleas, the UN has continued to defer to China, while the U.S. has continued to comply with the world’s request for multilateralism. Which means that nothing has been done. So it’s important to remember that, once upon a time, a genuine Darfur proposal was on the table: Senators John McCain and Bob Dole laid out a six-step course of action in 2006, including the establishment of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone.

Since then, global inaction has led to the slaying of untold numbers of innocents. We know that John McCain has long felt the urgent need to be forceful and decisive about the massacre in Darfur. It remains to be seen if Hillary and Obama feel the same, or are content to pen scathing reviews of the Sudanese government, its Chinese and Russian sponsors, and the Janjaweed militias.

As Gordon has noted, today’s joint statement on Darfur, by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain, places pressure on the next president to address the ongoing slaughter in Darfur come January. Let’s hope the conflict remains a “Day 1 issue”. For as Gordon also pointed out, nowhere in today’s statement, do the candidates refer to a specific plan to end the violence.

They used the term “unstinting resolve,” which would be assuring if countless issued statements on Darfur were not already riddled with such diplospeak. This August 2007 joint statement on Darfur from Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy called for “quick and decisive action.” This January 2007 joint statement issued by the World Health Organization and various UN departments speaks of “solid guarantees.” This joint statement on Darfur from back in 2004 signed by former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer and his New Zealand counterpart Phil Goff calls on governments to act “immediately and effectively.” This 2006 joint statement from Tony Blair and Chair of the African Union, Alpha Konare “strongly urge[d]” militias to stop fighting.

Yet, despite all these pleas, the UN has continued to defer to China, while the U.S. has continued to comply with the world’s request for multilateralism. Which means that nothing has been done. So it’s important to remember that, once upon a time, a genuine Darfur proposal was on the table: Senators John McCain and Bob Dole laid out a six-step course of action in 2006, including the establishment of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone.

Since then, global inaction has led to the slaying of untold numbers of innocents. We know that John McCain has long felt the urgent need to be forceful and decisive about the massacre in Darfur. It remains to be seen if Hillary and Obama feel the same, or are content to pen scathing reviews of the Sudanese government, its Chinese and Russian sponsors, and the Janjaweed militias.

Read Less




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