Commentary Magazine


Topic: senior U.S. official

Flunking Foreign Policy 101

A Los Angeles Times news article notes that Obama’s blowup with Israel followed rebuffs in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil — and that the harsh treatment of Netanyahu was intended to send a broader message:

Arab diplomats say the United States has also not been seen as forceful in dealings with Lebanon, which has seen an increase in Syrian influence, or with Iran. The United States and Western allies have been pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear program, but they continue struggling to impose tough international sanctions. …

President Obama made little progress with the Chinese during his visit to Beijing in November. When Obama visited Saudi Arabia in June to raise money for the Palestinians, he was given a polite but firm no.

When Clinton visited Brazil this month to try to win support for tough new sanctions on Iran, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim announced in a public appearance with her that his country simply would not go along.

One senior U.S. official acknowledged that the tough U.S. position is not just about Israel and the settlements issue, but about “sending a message more broadly about what we’re willing to put up with. … This couldn’t continue.” [emphasis added]

Here’s a thought experiment, a kind of one-question foreign-policy exam: Assume you’re a superpower worried about not being seen as forceful in dealing with Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. Which of the following strategies might change that impression?

(a) Become more forceful in dealing with Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil; or

(b) Land hard on Israel — to show Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil how forceful you can be.

Obama chose “b.”

Lee Smith’s perceptive article describes one of the strategic consequences of that choice: he notes that the Obama administration has “all but announced that it has resigned itself to an Iranian nuclear program” and is moving toward a policy of “containment and deterrence” — and that such a policy will be undermined by Obama’s decision to land hard on Israel:

Of course, really effective deterrence would require us to make sure that our Israeli allies were perceived as highly volatile and unpredictable actors who might just take matters into their own hands and bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. That scenario would have a better chance of cornering Iran and its allies, compelling them to seek relief from us, the rational senior partner. Instead, we’ve just pulled off the strategic equivalent of beating our pit bull on a street corner to show the neighborhood tough guys that we mean business.

Substitute “ally” for “pit bull” in Smith’s last sentence and you have a pretty good summary of Obama’s foreign policy over the past year: if you were an ally, you were snubbed (the UK and Germany); your aid was cut off and your visas revoked (Honduras); your strategic defense was traded for magic reset beans (Poland, Georgia, and the Czech Republic); your free-trade agreement was withheld (Colombia); and your long-standing understandings and written commitments became “unenforceable” (Israel).

If you were an adversary (Iran, Syria, North Korea), you got an outstretched hand — with no deadline for shaking it and no serious consequences if you didn’t. It was only if you were an ally that you had to worry about Obama’s being forceful.

A Los Angeles Times news article notes that Obama’s blowup with Israel followed rebuffs in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil — and that the harsh treatment of Netanyahu was intended to send a broader message:

Arab diplomats say the United States has also not been seen as forceful in dealings with Lebanon, which has seen an increase in Syrian influence, or with Iran. The United States and Western allies have been pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear program, but they continue struggling to impose tough international sanctions. …

President Obama made little progress with the Chinese during his visit to Beijing in November. When Obama visited Saudi Arabia in June to raise money for the Palestinians, he was given a polite but firm no.

When Clinton visited Brazil this month to try to win support for tough new sanctions on Iran, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim announced in a public appearance with her that his country simply would not go along.

One senior U.S. official acknowledged that the tough U.S. position is not just about Israel and the settlements issue, but about “sending a message more broadly about what we’re willing to put up with. … This couldn’t continue.” [emphasis added]

Here’s a thought experiment, a kind of one-question foreign-policy exam: Assume you’re a superpower worried about not being seen as forceful in dealing with Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. Which of the following strategies might change that impression?

(a) Become more forceful in dealing with Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil; or

(b) Land hard on Israel — to show Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil how forceful you can be.

Obama chose “b.”

Lee Smith’s perceptive article describes one of the strategic consequences of that choice: he notes that the Obama administration has “all but announced that it has resigned itself to an Iranian nuclear program” and is moving toward a policy of “containment and deterrence” — and that such a policy will be undermined by Obama’s decision to land hard on Israel:

Of course, really effective deterrence would require us to make sure that our Israeli allies were perceived as highly volatile and unpredictable actors who might just take matters into their own hands and bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. That scenario would have a better chance of cornering Iran and its allies, compelling them to seek relief from us, the rational senior partner. Instead, we’ve just pulled off the strategic equivalent of beating our pit bull on a street corner to show the neighborhood tough guys that we mean business.

Substitute “ally” for “pit bull” in Smith’s last sentence and you have a pretty good summary of Obama’s foreign policy over the past year: if you were an ally, you were snubbed (the UK and Germany); your aid was cut off and your visas revoked (Honduras); your strategic defense was traded for magic reset beans (Poland, Georgia, and the Czech Republic); your free-trade agreement was withheld (Colombia); and your long-standing understandings and written commitments became “unenforceable” (Israel).

If you were an adversary (Iran, Syria, North Korea), you got an outstretched hand — with no deadline for shaking it and no serious consequences if you didn’t. It was only if you were an ally that you had to worry about Obama’s being forceful.

Read Less

Not Giving up Yet on Iranian Engagement

Good news: the Obama administration is getting ready to impose sanctions on Iran. Bad news: they are doing so in a half-hearted fashion without giving up the pipe dream of re-engaging a barbaric regime murdering its own people. No, really. They don’t want to topple the regime nor inflict much damage, just target those “elements” they think are the really bad guys. The Washington Post reports:

“We have never been attracted to the idea of trying to get the whole world to cordon off their economy,” said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We have to be deft at this, because it matters how the Iranian people interpret their isolation — whether they fault the regime or are fooled into thinking we are to blame.”

As a result, top officials show little apparent interest in legislation racing through Congress that would punish companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran. “Sanctions would not be an alternative to engagement,” another senior official said. “Our intention is to keep the door open.”

It is unclear how, exactly, we are going to target only the Revolutionary Guard, for example. And heaven forbid we should appear to aid the protestors. (“But officials insist that sanctions would not be linked to the protests. ‘It is only coincidental that at the same time we reached the deadline, the Iranian government has a bloody crackdown,’ said a third U.S. official. ‘It has only served to highlight the nature of the regime.'”) What is important is that we avoid being too harsh, too effective, or inflict too much damage because then the regime wouldn’t want to come back to the bargaining table:

Administration officials have not given up hope that the deal can be revived — they are encouraging Turkish efforts to bridge the gap — but they say the apparent turmoil it generated within the Iranian leadership is a useful side benefit of engagement. The effort to engage “has had an unsettling effect on people in the regime,” one official said. “It has made it more difficult to demonize the United States and say it has been the root of all evil.”

(Notice the defensive fixation that we must justify our own actions to the Iranian people, who are risking life and limb against a regime they know all to well is evil.) And in defending the engagement strategy, unnamed officials claim they’ve been making progress with China. Well, not exactly progress. The Chinese just “understand the argument but don’t have the sense of urgency that other countries have.” All that bowing and scraping for nothing, it seems.

If this seems ludicrous and full of the same otherwordly thinking that originally spurred the engagement gambit and frittered away a year (while the mullahs proceeded with their nuclear program), you are right. Whatever mumbo-jumbo they are talking about, it is not “crippling sanctions.” The mullahs will be delighted to know there are no serious consequences for their behavior. They will no doubt proceed full speed ahead with their nuclear plans. And for those who imagined that Obama would be tougher and smarter? Well, it was just their imagination.

Good news: the Obama administration is getting ready to impose sanctions on Iran. Bad news: they are doing so in a half-hearted fashion without giving up the pipe dream of re-engaging a barbaric regime murdering its own people. No, really. They don’t want to topple the regime nor inflict much damage, just target those “elements” they think are the really bad guys. The Washington Post reports:

“We have never been attracted to the idea of trying to get the whole world to cordon off their economy,” said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We have to be deft at this, because it matters how the Iranian people interpret their isolation — whether they fault the regime or are fooled into thinking we are to blame.”

As a result, top officials show little apparent interest in legislation racing through Congress that would punish companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran. “Sanctions would not be an alternative to engagement,” another senior official said. “Our intention is to keep the door open.”

It is unclear how, exactly, we are going to target only the Revolutionary Guard, for example. And heaven forbid we should appear to aid the protestors. (“But officials insist that sanctions would not be linked to the protests. ‘It is only coincidental that at the same time we reached the deadline, the Iranian government has a bloody crackdown,’ said a third U.S. official. ‘It has only served to highlight the nature of the regime.'”) What is important is that we avoid being too harsh, too effective, or inflict too much damage because then the regime wouldn’t want to come back to the bargaining table:

Administration officials have not given up hope that the deal can be revived — they are encouraging Turkish efforts to bridge the gap — but they say the apparent turmoil it generated within the Iranian leadership is a useful side benefit of engagement. The effort to engage “has had an unsettling effect on people in the regime,” one official said. “It has made it more difficult to demonize the United States and say it has been the root of all evil.”

(Notice the defensive fixation that we must justify our own actions to the Iranian people, who are risking life and limb against a regime they know all to well is evil.) And in defending the engagement strategy, unnamed officials claim they’ve been making progress with China. Well, not exactly progress. The Chinese just “understand the argument but don’t have the sense of urgency that other countries have.” All that bowing and scraping for nothing, it seems.

If this seems ludicrous and full of the same otherwordly thinking that originally spurred the engagement gambit and frittered away a year (while the mullahs proceeded with their nuclear program), you are right. Whatever mumbo-jumbo they are talking about, it is not “crippling sanctions.” The mullahs will be delighted to know there are no serious consequences for their behavior. They will no doubt proceed full speed ahead with their nuclear plans. And for those who imagined that Obama would be tougher and smarter? Well, it was just their imagination.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.