Commentary Magazine


Topic: sanctions

Iran’s Motive in Talks? Money, Not Peace

One of the greatest mistakes American diplomats make across administrations is projection, assuming that diplomatic adversaries share American motives in coming to the table. North Korea, for example, often seeks bilateral talks with the United States not to resolve its nuclear issue or formalize peace on the Korean Peninsula, but rather to suggest to its citizens that it alone speaks for Koreans and South Korea is an illegitimate state and a puppet of the United States. More recently, the Taliban feigned interest in talks not to end the violence in Afghanistan, but rather to suggest that they had an equal if not superior claim to be the rightful government of Afghanistan rather than Afghanistan’s democratically elected government. And if they could get master terrorists sprung from Guantanamo Bay in the process, all the better.

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One of the greatest mistakes American diplomats make across administrations is projection, assuming that diplomatic adversaries share American motives in coming to the table. North Korea, for example, often seeks bilateral talks with the United States not to resolve its nuclear issue or formalize peace on the Korean Peninsula, but rather to suggest to its citizens that it alone speaks for Koreans and South Korea is an illegitimate state and a puppet of the United States. More recently, the Taliban feigned interest in talks not to end the violence in Afghanistan, but rather to suggest that they had an equal if not superior claim to be the rightful government of Afghanistan rather than Afghanistan’s democratically elected government. And if they could get master terrorists sprung from Guantanamo Bay in the process, all the better.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that Iran’s main motive has been money as well—specifically, eroding sanctions and jumpstarting the economy—and that it has absolutely no interest in reaching a nuclear accord. Prior to Iran entering talks, it had reported a 5.4 percent reduction in its gross domestic product over the previous year. Soon after talks began, it announced a 258 percent rise in gas exports.

Now, President Rouhani has released new figures, apparently as a way to generate support for his strategy of talks with the United States. Importantly, he acknowledges that the Iranian economy had actually been worse in the run-up to talks, with a 5.8 percent retraction in GDP rather than 5.4 percent. However, according to Iran’s Central Bank, first quarter economic growth is up 4.8 percent, not a bad turn around.

The United States won the Cold War when it effectively bankrupted the Soviet Union. With the price of oil in free fall, well below the predicted level at which Iranian officials calculated their budget, the same could be true with Iran. Tehran is increasingly desperate for cash. That could be leverage negotiators could exploit. First, in a throwback to the post-Lockerbie Libya sanctions, they could unilaterally prohibit European carriers from flying to Tehran, and prevent Iranian aircraft from using European airports. Russia might not play along, but Western consumers infatuated with dictator-chic willing to shell out thousands of dollars for high-end tours to Iran probably won’t want to transit through Moscow or trust the safety record of Iran Air. Infusing cash to a regime ratcheting up executions and sponsoring terrorism isn’t dialogue of civilizations; it is accessory to murder.

But the hard currency provided by well-meaning tourists or curious Western businessmen is nothing compared to the money released by the West simply to reward Iran for sitting at the table. In effect, Obama, Kerry, and Undersecretary Wendy Sherman are giving Rouhani his jackpot without ever calling his bluff. In negotiations, it’s imperative not to lose sight of the big picture. Alas, while Obama and Kerry seek to suggest that their talks and subsidies have made the world safer, and while former Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden aide Jake Sullivan peddles that snake oil to Republicans in Congress, the big picture is this: The U.S. strategy has become one of subsidizing Iran’s nuclear program rather than eliminating it. That is diplomatic and security malpractice in the extreme.

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Don’t Pay Iran for Stonewalling

So, the unalterable deadline to conclude a nuclear agreement with Iran has come and gone, and Secretary of State John Kerry has voided yet another administration red line, hemorrhaging U.S. credibility in the process. The worse aspect of the extension, however, is the Obama administration’s agreement to pay Iran $700 million per month from frozen accounts holding oil revenue.

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So, the unalterable deadline to conclude a nuclear agreement with Iran has come and gone, and Secretary of State John Kerry has voided yet another administration red line, hemorrhaging U.S. credibility in the process. The worse aspect of the extension, however, is the Obama administration’s agreement to pay Iran $700 million per month from frozen accounts holding oil revenue.

It’s hard to believe, but when it comes to negotiations with rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea, the State Department has never conducted a “lessons learned” exercise to consider after the fact why its negotiations failed with terror sponsors and aspiring nuclear powers. My book, Dancing With the Devil, examines the history of U.S. talks not only with Iran and North Korea, but also Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the Taliban, Pakistan and, of course, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

When looking at all these cases, one lesson becomes clear: offering money or goods as an incentive never works. Palestinian terror has grown proportional to Palestinian aid. In the years before 9/11, the State Department actually suggested providing aid to the Taliban to keep them at the table and to test their good will. The United States and its KEDO partners provided over a billion dollars in aid to North Korea in the wake of the 1994 Agreed Framework. North Korea diverted food and heavy fuel aid, and doubled down on its nuclear program.

The disputes with Iran are not simply some misunderstanding. Nor are they a matter of Iranian rights. After all, Iran enjoyed its rights fully until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005, after several sanctions-free years of trying to resolve problems relating to Iran’s behavior, finally found Iran in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement. Iran made an agreement, it broke it, and ever since, it has been paying the consequences of its own decisions. The disputes with Iran are rooted in Iranian decision-making.

Now, rather than coming clean, they are playing Obama and the West. Iran’s internal situation suggests that the money Obama and his partners offer is more likely to undercut any agreement rather than enable it. In the year before negotiations began, the Iranian economy shrank 5.3 percent. It was desperate for cash, and the $7 billion in sanctions relief, not a desire for conflict resolution, was President Rouhani’s chief goal in talks. Despite this influx, the drop in the price of oil below the $90/barrel at which the Iranian government set its budget keeps the Iranian economy on thin ice.

Dragging out the talks with constant subsidy not only nets Iran the $700 million per month, but an exponentially higher amount that comes with the erosion of sanctions and the scramble of German and other European companies for a foothold in the Iranian market. Simply put, Obama is eating out of Khamenei’s palm.

So if offering money and incentives don’t work, what’s the alternative? There have been times when Iran has been forced to reverse course: Ayatollah Khomeini released the 52 American diplomats he seized not because of the persistence of diplomacy, but rather because Iraq’s invasion made Iran’s isolation too great to bear. Likewise, in 1982, Khomeini promised to engage in the Iran-Iraq War until Jerusalem (not Baghdad) was liberated. There followed six more years a stalemate that came at the cost of several hundred thousand Iranian lives. Finally, Khomeini got on the radio and said he would accept a ceasefire, although he likened it to drinking from a chalice of poison. Drinking from that chalice, however, was worth it if it meant the survival of his regime.

The question for Obama is this, if he is serious about denying Iran a nuclear-weapons capability: What in his strategy raised Iran’s isolation to the level it was in 1980, and what in his strategy forces Khamenei to drink from that proverbial chalice? Whatever that might be, giving Tehran a $700 million monthly subsidy with the only caveat that its diplomats must come and enjoy a few days each month of fruitless talks at a five-star hotel surely isn’t it.

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Why Obama Should Have Skipped Burma

President Obama arrived in Burma on his trip through Asia to meet with Burmese leaders and gauge the country’s Democratic progress. He shouldn’t have. His presence papers over a the massive human-rights abuses of Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims that flirt all too seriously with becoming a full-blown genocide. Obama should have canceled his visit.

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President Obama arrived in Burma on his trip through Asia to meet with Burmese leaders and gauge the country’s Democratic progress. He shouldn’t have. His presence papers over a the massive human-rights abuses of Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims that flirt all too seriously with becoming a full-blown genocide. Obama should have canceled his visit.

Although the predominantly Buddhist Burmese establishment’s treatment of the Rohingya has long been objectionable, it is now taking place against the backdrop of presidential visits and increased diplomatic and economic ties with the U.S. Additionally, the oppression of the Rohingya appears to have gotten markedly worse over the past year–as the Burmese government has taken advantage of the sanctions relief given by the West.

To be sure, the Burmese governing military junta did take steps toward democratic rule, and the political system has enjoyed more openness as a result. The most high-profile change has been the freeing from house arrest of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who now has a seat in parliament. But the Obama administration, which badly flubbed its early diplomatic outreach to Burma before Hillary Clinton had more luck on a second try, seemed desperate for a foreign-policy win. Suu Kyi understood this, as did others who advised the Obama administration to proceed with caution, and to make sure the Burmese government was really earning its sanctions relief and legitimization among the international community.

Suu Kyi was right to be skeptical about the Obama administration’s ability to navigate the nuances of Burmese politics and appreciate the need for incremental progress over photo ops. She is not keeping silent about her concerns, as the Wall Street Journal reports, and the impression that the Obama administration embraced her democratic idealism only to advance their desire for upgraded bilateral ties and then abandon them when they began to be seen as impediments:

The country’s democratic evolution over the past four years has stumbled amid recent setbacks, creating a division between Mr. Obama and Ms. Suu Kyi, the former political prisoner who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle to end decades of military rule that impoverished her country.

Their disagreement over progress since the military started a transition to civilian rule in 2010 is striking, given the Obama administration for years based its policies toward Myanmar around Ms. Suu Kyi’s ideas and political experience.

In a news conference last week, Ms. Suu Kyi said the U.S. was optimistic about progress. She said she would “challenge those who talk so much about the reform process” to show her what significant steps have been taken toward democratization over the past two years.

It’s worth going into some detail on that democratic “stumbling.” It’s far worse than it sounds. First, there’s the anti-Rohingya violence: “Religious violence since 2012 has killed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims and displaced more than 140,000 in Rakhine State. Survivors live as virtual prisoners in camps or in segregated villages, subject to restrictions on travel, and, in some areas, marriage and the number of babies they can have.”

More recently, there’s been a campaign of ethnic cleansing that warrants more than a tsk-tsk from Obama. The Burmese government has decided to classify the more than 1 million Rohingya as ethnic Bengalis. That is, they want to make official their denial of the existence of Burmese Rohingya. They have used the census as the means to do so:

Almost all Rohingya were excluded from a U.N.-funded nationwide census earlier this year, the first in three decades, because they did not want to register as Bengalis. And Thein Sein is considering a “Rakhine Action Plan” that would make people who identify themselves as Rohingya not only ineligible for citizenship but candidates for detainment and possible deportation. …

Many villages were placed under lockdown, with police checkpoints set up to make sure only those who have cooperated could leave, more than a dozen residents confirmed in telephone interviews with The Associated Press.

In other villages, the names of influential residents were posted on community boards with verbal warnings that they face up to two years in jail if they fail to convince others to take part in the registration process, Lewa said. Other Rohingya say officials forced them to sign the papers at gunpoint, or threatened that they would end up in camps like those outside Sittwe if they didn’t comply, she said. In some cases residents say authorities have shown up after midnight and broken down doors to catch residents by surprise and pressure them to hand over family lists.

Meanwhile, the sanctions relief is mainly helping those in power, as the AP reports today: “The military controls the parliament and is blocking popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s path to the presidency. Business conglomerates linked to the old guard remain the engines of the economy and the main beneficiaries of more than $10 billion in post-junta foreign investment and aid.”

It looks as though the Obama administration got played. There’s no question conditions have improved somewhat. But the Burmese leaders, especially President Thein Sein, made a bet the international community has made before, and will again: the Obama administration and its European partners will have a far easier time reducing sanctions than reapplying them should backsliding occur. And they also know the president’s preference for photo ops and desperate diplomacy in place of the hard slog of serious progress. Obama’s visit to Burma today was a mistake; but it’s doubtful he ever seriously considered taking a stand and admitting the great Burmese opening is mostly a façade covering up monstrous crimes while the world turns its gaze.

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The Media Would Like You to Forget Their Embarrassing Putin Worship

Yesterday Russia unveiled its latest engine of propaganda. Called Sputnik, it appears aimed at a foreign audience and mimics the listicle and clickbait model of attracting web traffic. It has, of course, come under some gleeful mockery from Western news outlets that cover world affairs. The joke, however, is on those “real” publications.

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Yesterday Russia unveiled its latest engine of propaganda. Called Sputnik, it appears aimed at a foreign audience and mimics the listicle and clickbait model of attracting web traffic. It has, of course, come under some gleeful mockery from Western news outlets that cover world affairs. The joke, however, is on those “real” publications.

The best example was Foreign Policy magazine. FP published a (very good) piece on Sputnik and its propensity for imitating BuzzFeed. To tease the article, the FP Twitter account sent out the following snarky tweet: “How long until we get a listicle about Vladimir Putin’s top 10 stud moments from the Kremlin’s new propaganda outlet?” with a link to the article.

The FP tweet is a textbook case of the media’s failures of self-awareness, for one reason: Foreign Policy has already published such an homage to the “stud” Putin. Twice, in fact. Here is a May 2012 slideshow titled “Putin Forever” and subtitled “He’s the president of Russia. He’s a race-car driver. He’s a blackbelt in judo. He’s Vladimir Putin.” May 2012 wasn’t exactly another era, no matter how fast the news cycles tend to move these days. But Foreign Policy had been at it for years. Here’s their 2010 slideshow lavishing creepy praise on the blood-soaked tinpot autocrat, titled “Last Action Hero.”

So Foreign Policy’s readers can be forgiven for wondering what FP suddenly finds so distasteful about their former crush. Indeed, Foreign Policy has already run the kind of ridiculous pro-Putin propaganda that Putin’s actual propaganda outlet has yet to run with.

I don’t mean to pick on FP exclusively. Although they were by far the most effusive in their love letters to Putin’s manliness, they were far from the only journalists to turn their website into a shrine to the former KGB-nik. As I’ve pointed out in the past, outlets that traditionally cater to terrorists and dictators, such as Reuters, had done so. The usually far more levelheaded Atlantic did as well. (“Vladimir Putin, Action Man.”)

These days when it comes to Russia, the Atlantic is thankfully running journalism again. And it shows just how much has changed since Putin pivoted from targeting journalists and pro-American heads of state to the gay-rights and feminist movements, and was standing up to not the media’s perennial target in George W. Bush but their new hero, Barack Obama. Forced to pick sides, the media reluctantly, but finally, sided against Putin, joining those of us on the right who were correct about Putin from the beginning but dismissed by a starry-eyed mainstream press drooling over photos of Putin riding horses while shirtless.

On Friday the Atlantic ran a superb piece by Peter Pomerantsev on the Kremlin’s master of propaganda, Vladislav Surkov. It’s about far more than just information, however. Pomerantsev explains the centralized nature of Surkov’s job, guiding an entire Potemkin political system:

The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.

The result is that Putin is doing to Russia what he found it so easy to do, for about a decade, to a foreign audience: manipulate the scenery so that onlookers saw what they wanted to see. (And what Putin wanted them to see.) The conflict in Ukraine, in which Russia has invaded its neighbor and captured the Crimean peninsula, seems to have finally fully broken the spell.

President Obama was badly fooled by Putin in his first term on missile defense, and badly fooled by Putin in his second term on Syria and Iran. It made for an apparently awkward scene at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. According to Politico, the two met and spoke on three separate occasions at the summit on Ukraine. The White House is communicating its intent to increase sanctions on Russia if it keeps invading Ukraine. From reports, it seems Putin was able to stop himself from laughing his face off, at least while Obama was in the room.

But what’s so striking about this newfound anti-Putin toughness on the part of both Obama and the press is just how late in the game it is. Putin took the reins in Moscow at the turn of the century. His militarism is not new; his antidemocratic political tendencies are not new; his crackdown on the press isn’t new; his violations of U.S.-Russian agreements aren’t new; his anti-Americanism isn’t new; and his explicit actions against American interests aren’t new. What’s new is that a Western media and political class that enabled him all these years want credit for pretending they were on the right side of this issue all along.

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Is Ukraine Too Pro-West for the West?

In commenting on Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech, “The Case for Conservative Realism,” I mentioned that his preference for George Kennan’s version of containment over Harry Truman’s was a weak point in his analysis of global power projection. It was, of course, a nod to the “realist” part of “conservative realism.” But it would require un-learning an important lesson from the Cold War about America in the world, and he repeated this mistake more explicitly in his reference to the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Paul said:

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In commenting on Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech, “The Case for Conservative Realism,” I mentioned that his preference for George Kennan’s version of containment over Harry Truman’s was a weak point in his analysis of global power projection. It was, of course, a nod to the “realist” part of “conservative realism.” But it would require un-learning an important lesson from the Cold War about America in the world, and he repeated this mistake more explicitly in his reference to the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Paul said:

We need to use sanctions and defense spending to achieve a diplomatic settlement that takes into account Russia’s long-standing ties with Ukraine and allows Kiev to develop its relations both with Russia and the West.

As Kissinger put it: “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”

This part of the speech was a combination of great power politics and something of a straw man. The straw man is the suggestion that we in the West are contemplating not allowing Ukraine to develop relations with Russia. On the contrary, the West’s position is that Ukraine should be free to choose its path. Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine–more than once–in order to prevent this. And the great power politics part of this section of the speech expressly contradicted the principle that Ukraine should be free to choose.

What if Ukraine doesn’t want to serve “as a bridge between” the West and Russia? What if Kiev simply wants to act as an independent nation pursuing its interests, rather than be the messenger boy between American realists and the Putin government? That’s what Ukraine appears to have done in this week’s parliamentary elections, in which pro-European parties dominated the early returns. As Simon Shuster reports:

On Sunday night, as the votes in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections were being tallied, President Petro Poroshenko went on television to congratulate his citizens on the successful ballot and, citing early results, to highlight one of the milestones the country had crossed: Ukraine’s Communist Party, a political holdover from the nation’s Soviet past that had always championed close ties with Russia, had failed to win a single parliamentary seat.

“For that I congratulate you,” the Ukrainian leader told his countrymen. “The people’s judgment, which is higher than all but the judgment of God, has issued a death sentence to the Communist Party of Ukraine.” For the first time since the Russian revolution of 1917 swept across Ukraine and turned it into a Soviet satellite, there would be no communists in the nation’s parliament.

Their defeat, though largely symbolic, epitomized the transformation of Ukraine that began with this year’s revolution and, in many respects, ended with the ballot on Sunday. If the communists and other pro-Russian parties had enormous influence in Ukraine before the uprising and a firm base of support in the eastern half of the country, they are now all but irrelevant. The pro-Western leaders of the revolution, by contrast, saw a resounding victory over the weekend for their agenda of European integration. “More than three-quarters of voters who cast their ballots showed firm and irreversible support for Ukraine’s course toward Europe,” Poroshenko said in his televised address.

Right-wing and populist parties too were trounced. Ukrainian voters had repudiated Moscow’s influence as well as that of revanchist agitators. And the pro-Russian rebels have, in response, pushed forward with their own upcoming elections, which Russia backs. Shuster was effusive on the voters’ clear desire to set Ukraine on a path to Europe: “That path will not be easy, as Western leaders are hardly eager to welcome Ukraine’s failing economy and its 45 million citizens into the E.U. But the national consensus behind European integration, and the lasting break with Russia that this agenda entails, is now stronger than at any point in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.”

This is, in fact, quite historic. And it should be inspiring to the West. But the realists could take it or leave it, since they believe stability lies in bloodless great-power rivalry and a balancing that amounts to the recognition of spheres of influence. To read Paul’s speech, it is actually possible for Ukraine to be too pro-Western. To much of the conservative foreign-policy world, this is odd indeed.

And it’s also a pleasant surprise, considering the treatment of the Ukrainians during all this. The West stood by as Russia invaded, again and again, to chip away at Ukraine’s territory and create frozen conflicts in the border regions Putin wouldn’t go so far as to annex. The Obama administration yawned, and agreed to give the Ukrainians fighting for their country MREs, as if they could fling combat rations at the invading Russian forces to repel them. Europe was slow to agree to serious economic sanctions on Moscow.

All is apparently forgiven. Ukrainians seem to have made their choice. They want to join the West, not serve as a realist tool of stability, a bridge to be walked all over. How the West responds to this outstretched hand will say much about its ebbing moral authority.

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Europe’s Iran Pivot

With the November 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s illegal nuclear program fast approaching, there is every reason to suspect that the Obama administration may be about to sign off on a woefully inadequate deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. As we saw with the interim agreement last fall, Iran received an easing of sanctions in return for what were essentially token concessions–concessions that Iran has already failed to stand by, with international inspectors still being blocked from such key sites as those at Parchin. With the prospect of the administration making a deal with the Iranians that would bring down what remains of the sanctions regime, European businesses are gearing up to resume economic ties with Iran, while the Iranian lobby in Europe is working overtime.

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With the November 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s illegal nuclear program fast approaching, there is every reason to suspect that the Obama administration may be about to sign off on a woefully inadequate deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. As we saw with the interim agreement last fall, Iran received an easing of sanctions in return for what were essentially token concessions–concessions that Iran has already failed to stand by, with international inspectors still being blocked from such key sites as those at Parchin. With the prospect of the administration making a deal with the Iranians that would bring down what remains of the sanctions regime, European businesses are gearing up to resume economic ties with Iran, while the Iranian lobby in Europe is working overtime.

Despite the fact that Tehran appears in no mood to make any kind of serious compromise on its nuclear program, with the initial six-month negotiating period having already been extended once, the administration has now run out of time for a diplomatic process that never showed any real sign of going anywhere to begin with. But now it appears that both the Iranians and their European trading partners anticipate that a lifting of the sanctions could be imminent. Indeed, earlier this month two separate trade fairs held in Iran featured a host of European companies, with businesses from Spain, France, Italy, Denmark, Britain, and Germany.

But it is also in Europe itself that commercial relations are being reestablished. In both Britain and Germany, concerted efforts are underway to revive Europe’s economic ties with Iran, and friends of the regime in Tehran are playing a leading role in lobbying for normalization. Perhaps most significant so far has been the gathering of the Europe-Iran Forum in London last week, which was officially convened in anticipation of the “expected rollback of the current international sanctions against Iran.”

Nor was this some fringe event. Such prestigious names as Sotheby’s auction house and Dentons law firm turned out for the gathering, and they were accompanied by senior figures such as the chief executive of WPP Martin Sorrell, the director of the Middle East and North Africa department of Britain’s Foreign Office Edward Oakden, the former French Foreign Minister Hubert Verdine, Britain’s former ambassador to Iran Richard Dalton, and of course, Tehran’s most prominent advocate in the UK: former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. To give a sense of just what an enthusiastic proponent for Iran Straw has now become it is worth recalling that earlier this year during a meeting in parliament he asserted that, “Tehran feels like Madrid or Athens rather than Cairo or Mumbai.” A ridiculous claim, when the public executions and state enforced oppression in Iran’s capital makes Athens under the Junta of 1960s, or Franco’s Madrid for that matter, look positively liberal.

As it was, a touch of the Iranian attitude toward press freedom even appeared to find its way into the proceedings at the Europe-Iran Forum meeting. For while Iran’s state controlled media outlets attended in force, the Wall Street Journal’s  Sohrab Ahmari was denied access on the grounds that there wasn’t space. And such initiatives as this one appear to only be the beginning. Last week it was also announced that a ten-man delegation of Iranian business figures will be traveling to Germany next month and will be making visits to Berlin, Hanover, and Hamburg. And it is particularly noteworthy that included in this delegation organized by the German-Iran Chamber of Commerce are key figures from sanctioned industries such as gas and oil, as well as from Iran’s financial sector.

The problem is that, just as European business is seeking to read the signals being put out by Washington, so too are the Iranians carefully watching attitudes in other parts of the West. As Tommy Steiner of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya recently told the Jerusalem Post: “overly eager, not to say drooling, business executives might send a different message to Iran – suggesting they are open for business with Iran no matter what. That is the kind of message that could kill the negotiations.”

The reality is that perceived weakness on the part of the Obama administration is being read by both the Iranians and the Europeans, with each having a knock-on effect upon the other, so working to undermine the international consensus for a tough stance on Iran. And while there may still be multiple UN Security Council resolutions in place prohibiting Iran’s nuclear program, the end result of Obama’s negotiations with Iran may be to achieve nothing more than the erosion of the international consensus that made those resolutions possible.

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Iran Negotiations Are Bearing Fruit (for Iran)

President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted nuclear outreach to Iran is finally bearing fruit, although perhaps not in the way the White House expected. Certainly, when it comes to the fundamental issues relating to Iranian centrifuges and the duration of any extra inspection regime, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and they will remain so: Iran recognizes that despite senior American officials’ protestations to the contrary, the White House would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

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President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted nuclear outreach to Iran is finally bearing fruit, although perhaps not in the way the White House expected. Certainly, when it comes to the fundamental issues relating to Iranian centrifuges and the duration of any extra inspection regime, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and they will remain so: Iran recognizes that despite senior American officials’ protestations to the contrary, the White House would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

When it comes to the Iranian economy, however, the negotiations have been nothing but positive. According to Iran’s Central Bank, the Iranian economy contracted by 5.4 percent in the Iranian calendar year ending on March 20, 2013. Obama’s team promised Iran perhaps $7 billion in sanctions relief just to come to the table to negotiate. Such relief was strategically inept, the equivalent of giving a little kid desert first and then inviting him to the table to eat his spinach. If the Iranian leadership’s goal was economic relief, they achieved it even before talks began.

The Obama administration has assured that sanctions relief was reversible, and if Iran didn’t play ball, they’d be back in the same dire position they had put themselves into before. That, of course, was nonsense. Momentum matters in international relations, as does greed. Once sanctions were loosened, it would be near impossible to ratchet up significant pressure again.

For Iran, the decision to talk rather than to compromise is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider the latest headlines:

  • Iran has announced that in the first five months of the Iranian year (March 21-August 21, 2014), trade volume has increased 136 percent.
  • The deputy finance minister announced yesterday that foreigners’ willingness to invest in Iran has increased 500 percent. In addition, Iran has announced that they have received more than 300 European and Arab trade delegations.
  • Iranian officials singled out Qatar, the tiny, gas-wealthy Persian Gulf emirate that increasingly finances terrorist groups and encourages the growth of radical Islamism abroad, for its willingness to invest in Iran.

Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran more than doubled. At the same time, the price of oil quintupled. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. As Iran redoubles its investment in its military, nuclear, and ballistic missile programs, the region will be paying the price for years to come for allowing Iran such a cash windfall without winning anything in exchange.

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Sanctions and Appeasement: 1941 and 2014

There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

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There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

The executive director of the “realist” Center for the National Interest think tank is clearly opposed to Western sanctions on Russia. Instead, he says, the U.S. should be offering the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin some carrots along with the threat of a stick or two. He worries that that the constant attacks on Russian policy combined with President Obama’s lack of credibility will not only not deter Putin from more adventurism; he thinks it might actually impel Moscow to do the unthinkable and launch invasions of former Soviet republics that are today NATO allies of the U.S. like the Baltic states.

Saunders is right that no matter what policy the administration pursues, without Russia believing that Obama is serious about stopping them, nothing will work. In that sense, sanctions may well ultimately fail.

But Saunders’ argument that the only applicable precedent for the standoff with Russia today is the failed attempt by the United States to force Japan to cease its campaign of aggression in Asia is completely off the mark.

Saunders is correct that the U.S.-Japan dispute involved miscalculations on both sides. President Franklin Roosevelt feared that Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific would ultimately end in armed conflict. Yet the oil embargo imposed on the Japanese Empire and the seizure of their assets in the U.S. was an attempt to give Tokyo a chance to back down before it was too late. Rather than seizing an opportunity for negotiations that might have provided them with a chance to avoid a suicidal war, Japanese militarists saw the sanctions as a challenge to their legitimacy that must be met with further aggression. Hence, rather than slow down the path to war, the embargo may have speeded it up.

From this, Saunders draws the lesson that great powers can’t be deterred by economic sanctions, only incited to up the ante in a game of international poker. The Japanese wrongly thought Roosevelt was bluffing and believed the U.S. was too materialistic and spiritually weak to wage a war of annihilation against them. Perhaps, similarly, the Russians today believe, not without some justification, that the Obama administration will ultimately back down if push comes to shove. The fear that Iran has the same evaluation of Obama’s character and fortitude makes the current nuclear negotiations with Tehran all the more perilous.

But the analogy with Japan gives Putin and Russia too much credit. Japan was vulnerable to economic sanctions because of its lack of national resources and dependence on oil imports. But it was also an expanding empire with a crack military machine whose hunger for great power status and hemispheric hegemony was such that it could not be stopped by negotiations or bought off. It had been waging an active genocidal war of aggression in China since 1937 and its occupation of Indochina (today’s Vietnam) illustrated its intentions to expand even further. There was never any chance that anything short of war would ever force Japan to give up its Chinese conquests or their dream of Pacific domination.

By contrast, as dangerous as Putin might be, his nation is a shell of a once formidable empire with a ramshackle military that struggled to deal with Chechen rebels and is now flummoxed by the ragtag army opposing them in eastern Ukraine. Though it stole a march on the Ukrainians and seized Crimea with ease, the Russians appear to be in retreat with little sign that they would dare risk a conflict with the West by attacking members of NATO. Putin would like to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. But if the U.S. and its European allies were sufficiently determined to punish Russia—something that is still in doubt even after the atrocity of the shooting down of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine by Russian loyalists—Moscow would be put in a difficult spot with little alternative but to back down.

But Saunders, stuck as he is in his realist mindset, seems to miss a broader point about the arc of American foreign policy than just the narrow question of the utility of sanctions. The “proud empire” of Japan that the U.S. sought to deter was an ally of Nazi Germany and already guilty of unimaginable atrocities when sanctions were imposed on them. A U.S. deal that would have left them in possession of China was not an option, even for an American government that would have preferred not to fight. The notion of a reasonable accommodation between the U.S. and Japan was not merely far-fetched but immoral, something that Roosevelt, though hopeful of staying out of the war that had already begun in Europe and Asia, seemed to understand. Just as appeasement of Japan’s ally Germany failed, so, too, would the course of action that Saunders seems to think would have been a good idea.

America’s embrace of sanctions against nations like Japan and Russia is a function of its values and interests, not merely a calculated effort to pursue a great power agenda. Feeding the appetite of nations like Japan and Russia for small nations never works. While some policymakers are too glib about using World War Two-era analogies about the dangers of appeasement, rethinking the virtues of such a discreditable course of action is even more misguided.

Saunders’ fears of a too-forceful use of American economic power is not only misplaced with respect to Russia; the idea that the goal of these confrontations is splitting the difference with aggressors is his real mistake. Offering Japan enough carrots in order to avoid an attack on U.S. territories would have been a disaster. The same is true of any misguided effort to buy off Putin.

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On Casualty Figures in Gaza

The numbers killed in Gaza, at least according to the international media, continue to rise. Several journalists and analysts have already suggested that the civilian casualty figures released by Hamas and/or the Palestinian Authority should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, they should, but this is nothing new. There’s a hunger for facts and figures which drives media and any number of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Too often, journalists and diplomats will accept figures coming from a self-declared authority regardless of how rigorous or politicized data collection is.

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The numbers killed in Gaza, at least according to the international media, continue to rise. Several journalists and analysts have already suggested that the civilian casualty figures released by Hamas and/or the Palestinian Authority should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, they should, but this is nothing new. There’s a hunger for facts and figures which drives media and any number of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Too often, journalists and diplomats will accept figures coming from a self-declared authority regardless of how rigorous or politicized data collection is.

Sometimes, incompetence and negligence combine to lead to inaccuracy. In 1997, while working in Tajikistan, I met with the head of the Tajik Bureau of Statistics. Tajikistan was in the midst of a civil war and it was the poorest former Soviet republic by far. And yet the Tajikistan Bureau of Statistics was churning out complete datasets, information which the World Bank and International Monetary Fund incorporated into their reports, as would the international press should anything in Tajikistan become newsworthy. When I asked the chief how he managed to do it, he was uncharacteristically blunt. “I make them up,” he told me. But if the U.S. government would give him computers and fund his operation, he could try to be accurate. In the meantime, any report using Tajik statistics would be corrupted by the equivalent of “garbage-in, garbage-out.”

Sometimes, organizations simply don’t care if faulty statistics pollute their reports. The notion that sanctions killed 500,000 Iraqi children has become part of progressive folklore, a statistic often trotted out to excuse any sort of coercion against dictatorial, anti-American, or rogue regimes. Unfortunately, it’s nonsense.

The idea that sanctions were killing innocent Iraqis was the central pillar of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s influence operations. He repeatedly claimed that United Nations sanctions had killed more than a million. There were many groups in the United States which latched onto such figures and amplified them. The U.S.-based International Action Coalition, for example, claimed that the economic embargo upon Iraq had killed 1.4 million people by 1997.

Thousands did die, but not the numbers bandied about in the press and simply because of sanctions: There was plenty of food available; Saddam just refused to allow it to be distributed to Shi‘ites and other populations he disliked. All the while, he exported UN-provided baby formula for profit.

While pundits accepted Saddam’s line and news agencies like CNN dutifully broadcast images of sick and dying children (all the while knowing the inaccuracy of their narrative), Iraq expert Amatzia Baram compared the country’s population growth rates across censuses and found Iraq’s growth rate between 1977 and 1987 (35.8 percent) and between 1987 and 1997 (35.1 percent) proved that there had been no death on the scale Iraq claimed.

So how did the claim of more than a million sanctions-related deaths in Iraq persist? In 1999, UNICEF released a glossy report that found that sanctions had contributed to the deaths of one million Iraqis. The devil, however, was in the details—and in the UN’s capriciousness. Because the Iraqi government did not give UNICEF researchers free access, UNICEF decided to take statistics provided by Saddam Hussein’s Ministry of Health, which it accepted uncritically. More on the whole episode, here. When Saddam Hussein fell, however, and the exaggeration and inaccuracies of the claims of more than one million sanctions-related deaths including 500,000 children was exposed as a fraud, no major outlet bothered to publish a retraction let alone question whether bad statistics were worse than no statistics.

In Gaza, it’s déjà vu all over again. CNN and other outlets cite statistics provided by the United Nations with regard to Palestinian casualties, never questioning where and how the UN was able to gather and confirm such numbers. In reality, the UN simply parroted the figures provided it by Palestinian authorities or Hamas-controlled organizations. While there is no doubt Palestinians have died in the current operations, it seems it’s the Jenin Massacre all over again. Remember that one? Palestinian officials duped the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Samantha Power, and countless European foreign ministries. Nor does the media ever stop and question the notion of civilians to Hamas. Hamas violates the Geneva Convention in that its members do not wear uniforms and it fires from civilian areas. Even Israeli human rights groups—B’Tselem, for example—embrace a restrictive definition of combatant which enables the classification of many Hamas activists as “civilian.” As far as Hamas is concerned, every person not in uniform is a civilian.

There’s a tendency among the media to engage in moral equivalency and promote the idea that the Hamas and Palestinian claims on one hand, and the Israeli narrative on the other are equally valid. This is nonsense, especially given the long history of Palestinian politicization of statistics. This article, for example, decisively shows how the Palestinian Authority manipulates—and in some cases has even recalled—demographic statistics in order to ensure they conform with a political narrative the Palestinian Authority finds expedient and to which American diplomats respond.

More Gazans have died in the ongoing conflict—one their elected government initiated with kidnapping attempts and missile launches—than Israelis, but count me dubious about the numbers of deaths reported in the Gaza Strip. When deaths of non-combatants do occur, that is tragic, but that is also war. To accept such statistics from a terrorist group either directly or laundered through organizations like the United Nations without the capacity for independent confirmation is foolish. It promotes not truth but propaganda. And given previous errors—from a half million dead Iraqi babies to hundreds dead in Jenin—it suggests the media simply does not care to learn from its previous mistakes.

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Putin, Europe, and Historical Amnesia

The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

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The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

It’s been less than a full week since the crash happened, so perhaps the appropriate Western response is still coming. I hope so. But it sure doesn’t look like it. Instead the West appears to be as pusillanimous as ever in the face of Russian aggression.

A meeting of European Union foreign ministers could not even agree to impose an arms embargo on Russia, because the French don’t want to refund 1.1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) that Russia has paid for the first of two Mistral-class amphibious assault warships due to be delivered in October. “We should have had an arms embargo quite some time ago,” said Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. “To deliver arms to Russia in this situation is somewhat difficult to defend, to put it mildly.”

Just as difficult to comprehend is Europe’s willingness to continue serving as a financial outlet for rich Russians and big Russian companies. British Prime Minister David Cameron talks tough (“Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbors”), but he’s not rushing to impose unilateral sanctions on Russia either–something that could bite given the level of Russian investment in the City of London as well as in British properties of various sorts ranging from football clubs to swank apartments.

Naturally Europeans offer lots of excuses for inaction–for example one hears that sanctions now would lead Putin’s minions to discontinue their cooperation with crash-site investigators. Note how something that should be done as a matter of course–giving investigators access to a crime scene–is now being held hostage to the whims of drunken Russian thugs.

The U.S. is little better. While President Obama has imposed slightly stiffer sanctions than the Europeans, even he has not ordered the kind of “sectoral” sanctions that he has threatened (another red line crossed with impunity!). Only such sanctions would really punish Russia by denying Russian companies and individuals access to U.S. financial markets and to dollar-denominated trades.

All of this is entirely predictable, of course, but dismaying nevertheless. In a sense, the worse that Russian misconduct is, the less likely it is to be punished because the more evil that Putin does–the more territory his minions seize, the more innocents they kill–the more that the Europeans are afraid to provoke him. He’s a bad man, they figure; why mess with him?

The result, of course, is only to encourage Putin to commit further crimes. We’ve seen this movie before–it played across the continent in the 1930s and it didn’t have a happy ending. It says something about our historical amnesia that we are so ready to watch a repeat performance.

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Russia’s Provocation Demands Tougher Action

President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

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President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

The potential impact of his statement was further dissipated by the fact that he said repeatedly that “our immediate focus will be on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts.” As if this were the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 which vanished without a trace. Actually we know with a high degree of certainty what happened with flight 17: As even Obama conceded, it was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with the help of the Russian state. As he noted, “we have confidence in saying that that shot was taken within a territory that is controlled by the Russian separatists.” Moreover, he said, “a group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.”

But still he refused to draw the obvious conclusion: that Russia is ultimately responsible for a war crime–the shooting down of flight 17 as well as broader aggression against Ukraine. Instead, he tried to make it appear as if there is blame all around: “Russia, these separatists, and Ukraine all have the capacity to put an end to the fighting.” That’s like blaming both Hamas and Israel equally for the fighting now going on in Gaza–an act of moral myopia that fails to recognize the culpability of an aggressor (Russia, Hamas) and the responsibility of a nation under attack (Ukraine, Israel) to respond with all due force to defend itself.

Failing to pin the responsibility on Russia as squarely as he should have done, Obama naturally failed to lay out a clear response to Russia’s aggression. He ruled out the possibility of providing any military help to Ukraine to defend itself: “We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic States, giving them reassurances that we are prepared to do whatever is required to meet our alliance obligations.” In short, no military equipment and no advisers for Ukraine. Let them eat MREs!

He didn’t even call for “sectoral” sanctions (for example, freezing all Russian financial institutions out of the U.S. and imposing secondary sanctions on foreign firms that do business with Russia, as we’ve done with Iran)–steps that could really hurt the Russian economy. Instead he expressed satisfaction with the very limited and ineffectual sanctions announced so far: “We feel confident that at this point the sanctions that we’ve put in place are imposing a cost on Russia … I think Treasury, in consultation with our European partners, have done a good job so far on that issue.”

Really? Obama thinks the sanctions have been good so far? Admittedly a new round of measures was just announced this week so it’s too early to judge their impact, but there is no sign of Russia backing off its illegal and brazen aggression. Indeed just today Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, released a video appearing to show a Russian Grad rocket launcher shelling Ukrainian territory.

It is wishful thinking to imagine that the shooting down of flight 17 will, by itself, cause Russia to end its attacks on Ukrainian territory. To force Russia to back off will require a massive effort on the part of the West. Admittedly Obama’s statement on Friday was only an initial stab at a response; tougher measures may be coming. But his words give little confidence that the type of massive response needed to force Russia into retreating will ever occur.

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Lacking Achievements, Hillary Invents One

Last month, in writing about the challenge Hillary Clinton will face in running for president after presiding over foreign-policy disasters at the State Department, I gave her too much credit. With regard to Iran, I said she’d probably act as though she had been “skeptical of Iranian ‘reform,’” since she didn’t negotiate the naïve deal with the Islamic Republic; John Kerry did.

I suppose I had momentarily forgotten she’s a Clinton. This week she reminded us. She won’t merely pretend to have been privately wary of the Iranians. She will just make stuff up and rewrite history, counting on the media’s investment in her election and fear of crossing her to cover for her distortions. Like the daring woman who dodged a phantom shower of gunfire in Bosnia, Hillary is back casting herself as the heroic defender of freedom she has never been. Josh Rogin reports on Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee this week:

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Last month, in writing about the challenge Hillary Clinton will face in running for president after presiding over foreign-policy disasters at the State Department, I gave her too much credit. With regard to Iran, I said she’d probably act as though she had been “skeptical of Iranian ‘reform,’” since she didn’t negotiate the naïve deal with the Islamic Republic; John Kerry did.

I suppose I had momentarily forgotten she’s a Clinton. This week she reminded us. She won’t merely pretend to have been privately wary of the Iranians. She will just make stuff up and rewrite history, counting on the media’s investment in her election and fear of crossing her to cover for her distortions. Like the daring woman who dodged a phantom shower of gunfire in Bosnia, Hillary is back casting herself as the heroic defender of freedom she has never been. Josh Rogin reports on Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee this week:

Hillary Clinton is now claiming to be the architect of crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy. But during her tenure as Secretary of State, her department repeatedly opposed or tried to water down an array of measures that were pushed into law by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Rogin offers a corrective:

What Clinton didn’t mention was that top officials from her own State Department—in conjunction with the rest of the Obama administration—often worked hard against many of the measures she’s now championing. Some bills Foggy Bottom slowed down; others, the State Department lobbied to be made less strict; still others were opposed outright by Clinton’s deputies, only to be overruled by large majorities in the House and the Senate. …

The most egregious example of the administration’s effort to slow down the sanctions drive came in late 2011, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez openly chastised top administration officials for opposing an amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran that he had co-authored with Sen. Mark Kirk. Leading administration officials including Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman publicly expressed “strong opposition” (PDF) to the amendment, arguing that it would anger allies by opening them up for punishment if they did not significantly reduce their imports of Iranian oil.

Clinton’s top deputies fought the amendment at every step of the legislative process. Clinton’s #2 at the State Department, Bill Burns, even joined an emergency meeting with top senators to urge them to drop the amendment. They refused. The amendment later passed the Senate 100-0. Menendez said at the time that the administration had negotiated on the amendment in bad faith.

The record is quite clear: Hillary Clinton was a powerful obstacle to effective Iran sanctions. It is a tribute to the hard work and determination of those like Kirk and Menendez to be able to get any sanctions through Clinton and Obama’s dedicated obstruction of efforts to use sanctions to stop or slow Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon.

The whole incident is a preview of what 2016 will be like if Hillary does decide to accept her party’s coronation as its new cult leader. The Clinton campaign would indeed be a fairytale ending to a storybook career–just not in the way those terms are traditionally understood. The campaign narrative will be, at best, historical fiction–though closer to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter than the West Wing, in terms of its relationship to the real world.

As Rogin reported, and as ABC News picked up on last night, Kirk is pushing back:

“I worked for months to round-up the votes [in the UN Security Council],” Clinton said. “In the end we were successful… And then building on the framework established by the Security Council, with the help of Congress, the Obama administration imposed some of the most stringent, crippling sanctions on top of the international ones.”

Those sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table earlier this year.

“Secretary Clinton’s comments are a blatant revision of history,” said Kirk, who with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., co-sponsored several sanctions bills in recent years. “The fact is the Obama administration has opposed sanctions against Iran led by Senator Menendez and me every step of the way.”

It’s significant that Kirk is speaking up, because he is neither a conservative firebrand (he is the moderate Republican holding President Obama’s former Senate seat) nor a serial self-promoter, unlike so many of his colleagues. He is also not contemplating running against Clinton for the presidency in 2016.

He is speaking out, quite simply, because Clinton is selling a self-aggrandizing fantasy to the public in hopes of deceiving her way into the White House. In the process, she is demeaning those really responsible for the sanctions. But the silver lining is that her attempt to rewrite history indicates her awareness of just how out of step she is with the American public.

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A Deal to Let Iran Cheat More Efficiently

To understand the pointlessness of the nuclear negotiations now underway in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P5+1, it’s enough to read a new report leaked to Reuters earlier this week by the UN Panel of Experts that monitors nuclear sanctions on Iran. The report found “a decrease” in Iran’s efforts “to procure items for prohibited programs” since President Hassan Rouhani took office mid-2013 and optimistically declared this might stem from “the new political environment in Iran and diplomatic progress towards a comprehensive solution.”

Now let’s remove the rose-colored glasses and consider the facts: Under the “moderate” Rouhani–the man the world has declared it can do a deal with–Iran has continued trying to smuggle in parts for the illicit nuclear program it denies having; at most, it has decreased the pace a bit. And, as the report later admits, maybe not even that: It may simply have developed “more sophisticated” methods of “concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities.” Alternatively, it may have reduced its smuggling effort because, as the report further acknowledged, it has “demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously”–not a capability it would need if it were planning to give up its nuclear program.

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To understand the pointlessness of the nuclear negotiations now underway in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P5+1, it’s enough to read a new report leaked to Reuters earlier this week by the UN Panel of Experts that monitors nuclear sanctions on Iran. The report found “a decrease” in Iran’s efforts “to procure items for prohibited programs” since President Hassan Rouhani took office mid-2013 and optimistically declared this might stem from “the new political environment in Iran and diplomatic progress towards a comprehensive solution.”

Now let’s remove the rose-colored glasses and consider the facts: Under the “moderate” Rouhani–the man the world has declared it can do a deal with–Iran has continued trying to smuggle in parts for the illicit nuclear program it denies having; at most, it has decreased the pace a bit. And, as the report later admits, maybe not even that: It may simply have developed “more sophisticated” methods of “concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities.” Alternatively, it may have reduced its smuggling effort because, as the report further acknowledged, it has “demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously”–not a capability it would need if it were planning to give up its nuclear program.

In short, Iran has continued cheating its way to nuclear capability even while signing an interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1 in January and conducting months of “productive” negotiations on a permanent agreement. So even if a permanent deal is signed in the next few months, why would anyone imagine Iran would suddenly stop cheating and actually abide by the agreed-upon limits to its nuclear program? On the contrary, it would be able to cheat much more efficiently, unimpeded by the sanctions now in place.

Then there’s Rouhani’s own statement on Sunday that Iran’s nuclear technology actually isn’t “up for negotiation” at all; “We have nothing to put on the table and offer to them but transparency.” Even if one dismisses the first half of that statement as standard pre-negotiation posturing, there’s a real problem with elevating transparency from the status of a necessary precondition for a deal to a substantive Iranian concession equivalent to actually dismantling parts of its program–because, as also became clear this week, Iran’s idea of “transparency” doesn’t match that of the rest of the world.

Under an agreement signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency in November, Iran was supposed to answer various questions about its nuclear program by today. Iran says it has complied fully, but the IAEA doesn’t agree: It still wants more information about one of the most crucial issues of all–Iran’s experiments with explosive bridge wire detonators, which can be used to trigger nuclear bombs. The parties also haven’t reached any agreement on resolving other outstanding questions that weren’t covered by November’s deal. Due to these twin impasses, Monday’s meeting between IAEA and Iranian officials broke up without even an agreement on when to meet again.

Yet there’s no reason to believe Iran won’t stonewall any new agreement on transparency just as it has the previous ones–especially when it can do so with little fear of consequences, since the sanctions regime, once disabled, is unlikely to be reestablished for anything short of a nuclear explosion.

There are many other reasons for disliking the nuclear deal now under discussion, including those detailed by Michael Rubin and Jonathan Tobin earlier this week. But the simplest reason of all is that, as its past behavior shows, Iran can’t be trusted to honor any such agreement: It will simply continue merrily cheating its way to a nuclear bomb. And a sanctions-ending deal will make it easier for Tehran to do so.

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The Business of Statecraft and the Abandonment of Ukraine

The news in Ukraine gets bleaker, but a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. What has turned into a civil war in eastern Ukraine cannot go back to its designation as a series of “protests,” nor can Vladimir Putin’s Russia plausibly go back to feigning nonintervention. Pro-Russian forces have reportedly shot down two Ukrainian government helicopters, at least one of them with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Ukrainian intelligence service is claiming that those “separatists” probably didn’t have shoulder-fired missile launchers stocked away in the linen closet for a rainy day, a sentiment based on some pretty sound logic. This is not Occupy Slavyansk. And yet, the West–especially Europe, quelle surprise–is acting as if it were. As Angela Merkel meets today with President Obama in Washington to discuss the next steps in the synchronized frowning that has characterized the response to Russian aggression thus far, the Wall Street Journal reports she is delivering some bad news for Kiev, with a predictable explanation.

“Angela Merkel is carrying a clear message from Germany’s business lobby to the White House: No more sanctions,” according to the Journal. “Several of the biggest names in German business,” including Siemens, Adidas, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank, “have made their opposition to broader economic sanctions against Russia clear in recent weeks, both in public and in private.” The Journal goes on to explain that, essentially, we have a new answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question. If you want to talk to Europe, call the CEO of Adidas:

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The news in Ukraine gets bleaker, but a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. What has turned into a civil war in eastern Ukraine cannot go back to its designation as a series of “protests,” nor can Vladimir Putin’s Russia plausibly go back to feigning nonintervention. Pro-Russian forces have reportedly shot down two Ukrainian government helicopters, at least one of them with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Ukrainian intelligence service is claiming that those “separatists” probably didn’t have shoulder-fired missile launchers stocked away in the linen closet for a rainy day, a sentiment based on some pretty sound logic. This is not Occupy Slavyansk. And yet, the West–especially Europe, quelle surprise–is acting as if it were. As Angela Merkel meets today with President Obama in Washington to discuss the next steps in the synchronized frowning that has characterized the response to Russian aggression thus far, the Wall Street Journal reports she is delivering some bad news for Kiev, with a predictable explanation.

“Angela Merkel is carrying a clear message from Germany’s business lobby to the White House: No more sanctions,” according to the Journal. “Several of the biggest names in German business,” including Siemens, Adidas, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank, “have made their opposition to broader economic sanctions against Russia clear in recent weeks, both in public and in private.” The Journal goes on to explain that, essentially, we have a new answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question. If you want to talk to Europe, call the CEO of Adidas:

In most countries, it would be highly unusual for corporate executives to inject themselves into geopolitics and matters of national security with the forcefulness that a number of German business leaders have. But many of Germany’s largest companies have substantial Russian operations, built in some cases over decades, and worry that tough economic sanctions would rob them of a key growth market when their home market—Europe—is stagnant.

That has led to intense pressure on Berlin. Germany’s chancellor has repeatedly criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine and warned the Kremlin it would face serious consequences if it doesn’t change course. Yet Ms. Merkel has stopped short of endorsing broader economic sanctions, opting instead to impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals with close ties to the Kremlin.

It’s easy to begin, at least, with some sympathy for Merkel. Thanks to the EU’s fiscal troubles, Germany has taken the role of Europe’s financial backstop. It’s a mostly thankless job that earns the German government, when they try to fix the messes caused by other reckless European countries, obnoxious and offensive Nazi comparisons. This resistance to German hegemony is, for obvious reasons, coded into the continent’s DNA. Germany’s response has often been resignation to the role: to simply sign the checks while letting France command Europe’s military decisions.

Because of all that, Germany’s economic policy does not exist in a vacuum. Whether as penance for past sins or a paternal responsibility to Europe’s wayward sons, Germany must consider others when setting policy, ever mindful that Berlin can absorb losses others cannot.

However: there’s a limit to such excuses, and it’s not clear that long-term this would even be the right economic approach, let alone the right moral approach, which it plainly is not. After all, is constant political and military turmoil in major energy producers good for global markets and trade in the long run? And how will it affect European markets for expansionist powers to continue encroaching on Europe’s borders? (There are concerns Russia could target Moldova next, which is west of Ukraine.)

The state system in place is far from perfect, but allowing it to be undermined is unlikely to be good for business. After all, Merkel surely remembers how Germany came to be economically successful and the EU common market broadly integrated, and it began with throwing off the yoke of Russian tyranny and imperialism.

Merkel knows this not only because she is the head of government of the country that has basically become Europe’s central banker. She knows this because she grew up in East Germany. And here is where the moral and the material meet. It can’t be good for Europe’s economic future to yawn at Europe’s steady destabilization. But it certainly isn’t right. Merkel is where she is because there is no more East Germany, no more suffocating control by Moscow. Other independent states with sovereign borders deserve the same, no matter what the management at Adidas thinks.

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Putin and His Billions

The New York Times on Sunday had a fascinating article on Vladimir Putin’s personal fortune, which has been estimated as high as $40 billion. What made the article truly dismaying, however, was not its detailed speculation about the extent to which Putin has looted the Russian state. This was depressing but hardly shocking. 

I was far more dismayed by this sentence: “So far, the American government has not imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a ‘nuclear’ escalation, as several put it.”

So let me get this straight: Putin can invade neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine. He can oppress his own people and steal from them. He can shore up a murderous despot in Syria and block effective action against the Iranian mullahs over their nuclear program. But the West thinks that trying to sanction and freeze his ill-gotten billions is too risky an escalation?

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The New York Times on Sunday had a fascinating article on Vladimir Putin’s personal fortune, which has been estimated as high as $40 billion. What made the article truly dismaying, however, was not its detailed speculation about the extent to which Putin has looted the Russian state. This was depressing but hardly shocking. 

I was far more dismayed by this sentence: “So far, the American government has not imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a ‘nuclear’ escalation, as several put it.”

So let me get this straight: Putin can invade neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine. He can oppress his own people and steal from them. He can shore up a murderous despot in Syria and block effective action against the Iranian mullahs over their nuclear program. But the West thinks that trying to sanction and freeze his ill-gotten billions is too risky an escalation?

If you want to know why Putin is able to get away with his brazen aggression, here it is in a nutshell: a fundamental failure of will on the part of the U.S. and its European allies. Obviously nobody favors nuclear or even conventional military retaliation–we are not going to war with Russia unless it crosses some future line. 

But surely Putin has already crossed enough lines to justify the most severe possible economic sanctions we can inflict–including doing everything possible to deny him and his cronies the use of their illicitly acquired fortunes. The fact that we are willing to impose limited sanctions on some Putin pals but not on the master of the Kremlin himself says volumes about how fecklessly we are acting in the face of continuing and escalating aggression.

The big difference between the current masters of the Kremlin and their Soviet predecessors is that today’s crew are much more vulnerable to Western retaliation because they have so much money and property stored in the West. But it seems we are voluntarily giving up this leverage until sometime in the future. Are we waiting for Putin to invade Poland?

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Does Ukraine Exist?

The latest reporting out of Ukraine is a good demonstration of just how much Vladimir Putin has accomplished without the kind of military incursion he sent into Georgia in 2008. And it raises basic questions about what, exactly, Ukraine’s status is, especially in light of the deal that the U.S., EU, Russia, and Ukraine have reached to turn the heat down slightly in the eastern part of the country.

According to the New York Times, the agreement “calls for armed pro-Russian bands to give up the government buildings they have seized in eastern Ukraine” in return for a general, but not unconditional, amnesty for pro-Russian agitators. There are a couple of catches, however. Russia will play a role in monitoring the evacuation of public buildings, and, more importantly, that’s where Russian obligations end:

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The latest reporting out of Ukraine is a good demonstration of just how much Vladimir Putin has accomplished without the kind of military incursion he sent into Georgia in 2008. And it raises basic questions about what, exactly, Ukraine’s status is, especially in light of the deal that the U.S., EU, Russia, and Ukraine have reached to turn the heat down slightly in the eastern part of the country.

According to the New York Times, the agreement “calls for armed pro-Russian bands to give up the government buildings they have seized in eastern Ukraine” in return for a general, but not unconditional, amnesty for pro-Russian agitators. There are a couple of catches, however. Russia will play a role in monitoring the evacuation of public buildings, and, more importantly, that’s where Russian obligations end:

But the agreement, described in a joint statement, does not specifically require Russia to remove the approximately 40,000 troops it has on Ukraine’s border, as President Obama has demanded.

Nor does it commit Russia to holding direct talks with the interim Ukrainian government, which has been another American demand. The agreement also does not mention the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula last month.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been met with grudging acceptance, it seems. There may not have been much the West could have realistically done to prevent that, but Russia has learned a lesson: create facts on the ground, and the U.S. and EU will frown at Putin from afar. It’s a price Putin is willing to pay.

And the question remains how many more times Putin will seek to trade that toothless opprobrium for another patch of Ukrainian territory. As Jamie Dettmer and Anna Nemtsova detailed today in separate reports, the Ukrainian military can’t even seem to get in the way of Russian separatists or protesters, let alone Russian military reinforcements should they be needed. “Pro-Russian separatists seized a column of armored vehicles from Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Kramatorsk on Wednesday,” Dettmer writes. He then references Nemtsova’s dispatch: “Reports of Ukrainian paratroopers defecting and handing over half-a-dozen carriers without firing a shot have triggered alarm in Kiev, with government officials rejecting eye-witness accounts of the surrender.”

Dettmer and Nemtsova’s colleagues, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, co-filed a report today asking if Ukraine is in danger of losing Odessa. Here’s the key sentence: “If forces loyal to Putin can successfully disrupt Odessa, it could effectively cut the county (sic) of Ukraine in two.” If all Putin needs to take a major port city like Odessa and completely redraw the map of the two countries is for “pro-Russian forces” to “disrupt” the city, what kind of governance currently presides over Ukraine?

The answer could be “a weak government.” But even that seems optimistic at this point. The Ukrainian government doesn’t have much (if any) control over its citizens; it arguably doesn’t have fully defined borders; its power to enter into national agreements with other states–a common requirement for state status–is questionable at best; and the Ukrainian troops are by turns refusing to fight and in some cases switching sides.

Ukraine has not descended into total anarchy, of course. But it’s important for Western leaders to make sure they accurately understand Putin’s intentions. They will be tempted to declare a modest victory, or at least claim they have denied Putin a further victory, if the rest of Ukrainian territory stays moderately intact. Yet while I sympathize with Max’s contention that Putin appears desirous of expanding Russia’s borders deeper into Ukraine, it’s not clear that Putin sees that as the best-case scenario.

Taking on more territory is costly, and sanctions make it more so. Expanding Russia means Moscow has to govern a restive region that just seceded from another country. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea has had another effect: Putin’s threats are being heeded. So the Ukrainian government is virtually powerless to stop pro-Russian regions from asserting, under the claim of federalism, a kind of autonomy that would require Kiev to pick up the check for a part of the country that would be a Russian province in all but name.

Why wouldn’t this be Putin’s endgame? It would demonstrate Putin’s control over Ukrainian governance while essentially charging Kiev rent. It wouldn’t be a Greater Russia, but it would also mean Putin could destabilize Ukraine and exert a pro-Russian policymaking role beyond Russia’s borders without isolating Russia’s business class any more than it is. And it would keep Ukraine hovering somewhere between a failed state and a non-state–in other words, in Putin’s pocket.

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Iranian Navy Thumbs Nose at America

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran’s Gas Exports Rise 258 Percent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Debate We Should Be Having About Rand Paul and Sanctions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Much-Improved Slate of Russia Sanctions

Now that’s more like it. After an anemic first round of sanctions on Monday, targeting only 11 Ukrainian and Russian individuals, today President Obama announced wider-ranging sanctions in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea.

Facing asset freezes and travel bans are 20 more people including Putin pals such as Viktor Ivanon, an old KGB man who now heads the Federal Drug Control Service; Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff; Alexei Gromov, the first deputy chief of staff; Vladimir Yakunin, chairman of the state-owned Russian Railways; Vladimir Kozhin, head of administration to Putin; and Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg, two of the biggest contractors behind the Sochi Olympics. These are people who have close relationships with Putin–including close financial relationships–so sanctioning them will get Kremlin’s attention.

Possibly even more significant is the fact that a Russian bank–Bank Rossiya, which has $10 billion in assets and is known to be owned and used by members of Putin’s inner circle–is being frozen out of dollar-denominated transactions. This is a major blow to the bank and a warning of more to come if other Russian financial institutions are added to the sanctions list.

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Now that’s more like it. After an anemic first round of sanctions on Monday, targeting only 11 Ukrainian and Russian individuals, today President Obama announced wider-ranging sanctions in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea.

Facing asset freezes and travel bans are 20 more people including Putin pals such as Viktor Ivanon, an old KGB man who now heads the Federal Drug Control Service; Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff; Alexei Gromov, the first deputy chief of staff; Vladimir Yakunin, chairman of the state-owned Russian Railways; Vladimir Kozhin, head of administration to Putin; and Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg, two of the biggest contractors behind the Sochi Olympics. These are people who have close relationships with Putin–including close financial relationships–so sanctioning them will get Kremlin’s attention.

Possibly even more significant is the fact that a Russian bank–Bank Rossiya, which has $10 billion in assets and is known to be owned and used by members of Putin’s inner circle–is being frozen out of dollar-denominated transactions. This is a major blow to the bank and a warning of more to come if other Russian financial institutions are added to the sanctions list.

There is of course more that can be done to punish Russia for the illegal annexation of Crimea, although much of it will require cooperation from our European allies which may not be forthcoming. France should immediately cancel the production of two amphibious assault ships being built in a French shipyard for the Russian navy. Britain should freeze the assets of Putin’s cronies which are held in the city of London. Britain and France will be deeply reluctant to take such action because it will come with an obvious price to their own economies, but this is where American diplomacy must come in: Obama and Secretary of State Kerry must convince our European friends that we had better hang together in pressuring Putin lest he get the idea that he can slice off further parts of Ukraine with impunity.

There are also military steps that could be taken, such as providing equipment, training, intelligence, and advice to Ukraine to enable it to defend its borders; positioning more U.S. troops in Poland and the Baltic Republics; and rolling back planned cuts in the U.S. defense budget. Those are all hard-sells, for one reason or another: NATO is afraid that aiding Ukraine will tempt Putin into further aggression, while rolling back defense cuts will run into opposition in Congress. There is no doubt that retaliation will come in one form or another–extending beyond Putin’s farcical announcement that nine senior U.S. officials will be denied entry to Russia. (As if they were planning a vacation in Novosibirsk.)

But the imperative of standing up to Russia and making clear to the entire world–especially to states such as Iran and China–that aggression does not pay should override concerns about Russian retaliation. The issue here extends far beyond Crimea or even Russia. It is a question of what kind of world we want to live in: a world where states more or less abide by the dictates of international law or a world where the law of the jungle prevails.

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