Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. foreign policy

The Consequences of the Obama Foreign-Policy Vacuum

The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

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The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires isn’t much less of a fantasy than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pretensions. Yet the news that Russia is sending aircraft to the government of Iraq as well as expert personnel to help deploy them is yet another indication that Moscow’s desire to reassert itself on the world stage is no empty boast. Like the Russians’ opportunistic efforts to cozy up to an Egyptian government that has become thoroughly alienated from the United States and its successful aid program that has helped prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, the Russian foothold in Iraq is just the latest indication of what happens when the United States makes a conscious decision to abandon its responsibilities.

The delivery of a dozen jets won’t alter the balance of power in the region or probably even improve the Iraqi government’s faltering military efforts. Nor does this one move, even when placed in the context of Russia’s other attempts to worm its way back into international relevance, give Putin the kind of power that Leonid Brezhnev once wielded. At this moment, the U.S. is not discouraging efforts to aid the cause of the Baghdad government even if it means Iran or even Syria is attempting to exploit the implosion of Iraq.

Moreover, the confusing and shifting alliances of the factions fighting in Syria and Iraq makes it hard to see any foreign interventions as signifying anything more than a chaotic scrum in which the United States has no real friends or much to gain.

But what must be understood about these developments is that they all stem from the power vacuum that has developed in the region as the Obama administration tried to ease itself out of a conflict in which it no longer believed. The abandonment of Iraq by the U.S. was depicted as President Obama “ending” a war that wearied and depressed Americans. The war had been essentially won by the time Obama took office by means of a surge that the president had claimed could never work. But he and his vice president happily took credit for President Bush’s decision and then proceeded to bug out, just as they seem prepared to leave Afghanistan now.

But wars don’t end just because Americans and their presidents want them to be finished. Similarly, just because this administration thought that it could back away from American interests and allies without paying a cost, that didn’t mean that the implementation of such a policy would not wind up setting the stage for chaos.

Liberal thinkers thought the post-American Middle East would be one in which a healthy multilateralism would replace cowboy diplomacy to produce a more stable world that would no longer be dominated by the U.S. But the result of this pullback has created the opposite result. In the absence of a strong U.S. presence, Iraq has disintegrated. Iran is more powerful than ever and, via its Syrian and Lebanese surrogates, is causing Arab moderates to fear for their future even as insurgents like ISIS are having the same effect. The decision of the Russians to parachute into this disaster is just one more indication of how bad things have gotten.

After years of dithering, measures like Obama’s decision to fund Syrian opposition factions won’t repair the damage that his previous prevarications have caused. When you create a vacuum like the one that the U.S. created in the last few years, all sorts of unexpected and unpleasant things are bound to happen. Iraq’s would-be worldwide caliph will provide fodder for American comics but, as Putin seems to understand, the trouble that was created by Obama’s desire to pull back from the world stage is just getting started.

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Polish Complaint About U.S. Has Merit

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

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Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

Moscow’s motive in seeking to undermine Polish-U.S. relations at a time when its aggression against Ukraine has the democracies of Eastern Europe worrying about the future is clear. Poles are rightly obsessing about Russia’s possible meddling in their internal affairs and whether the center-right pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk will survive this crisis. Yet the more important question for Americans is whether Sikorski’s colorful and, at times, vulgar, backlash at what he feels has been the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude toward its Polish ally is justified.

Predictably, isolationists and critics of U.S. engagement on behalf of the embattled democracies bordering Russia are labeling Sikorski as an ungrateful wretch. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison claims that the U.S. is already doing everything it can for Poland and that Sikorski’s complaint about the “worthless alliance” is contradicted by the facts since U.S. presidents have repeatedly pledged this country to the defense of Poland since it joined NATO after the Cold War.

But what Larison and anyone else inclined to dismiss Sikorski’s lament need to understand is that Poland’s situation and history require more than the routine pro-forma reassurances Warsaw has gotten from Washington. After five and half years of U.S. retreat under President Obama, including repeated instances in which it has cut off the Poles and other regional democrats at the knees, it’s little wonder that Sikorski is questioning the value of his country’s alliance with the U.S. Moreover, the fact that one of the most pro-American figures in Eastern European politics is speaking in this manner, even if it did come from an off-the-record illegal tape, ought to alarm Americans who think the president’s feckless appeasement of Russia doesn’t have consequences.

Sikorski is not just any Polish politician. He is a distinguished journalist who was educated in the West and left Poland during the period of Soviet dominance during the Cold War. Since his return to his country he has shown himself to be a consistent voice in favor of a strong alliance with the West and the United States that would guarantee defense of the freedom of his nation and others in the region. But in the last few years he has had to contend with an Obama administration more intent on their farcical attempt to “reset” relations with Russia than in shoring up ties to friendly nations like Poland that are threatened by Moscow. Obama’s cancellation of the plan to install missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009 was the first indication that he had little interest in bolstering Eastern European democracies against Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. Since then relations with Poland have been continuously undermined by the administration’s desire to avoid tension with the Putin regime.

The futility of such efforts was demonstrated this year as Putin reacted to the fall of an ally in Ukraine with the seizure of Crimea and efforts to undermine that country’s sovereignty over its eastern regions that border Russia. Since then the U.S. talked the talk about supporting democracy and resisting aggression. President Obama even visited Poland this spring to restate his willingness to defend that country. But it’s hard to argue with Sikorski’s question about whether the Polish effort to play along with U.S. diplomacy on this and other issues has done more harm than good. If Poles assume that the Americans will save them from winding up under the thumb of a resurgent Russian empire, Sikorski seems to think Obama’s record proves this belief to be a hindrance to improving the situation.

As the recorded conversation apparently took place before the attacks on Ukraine began and the growing antagonism between the U.S. and Russia, perhaps Poles feel a bit better about American intentions today. But if, as many suspect, the release of the tapes is a Russian ploy to topple a pro-American government in Warsaw, perhaps Sikorski’s worries about Poland’s future are not as off the mark as some are suggesting. What Putin wants is to line his borders with governments that are oriented toward Moscow rather than the West. While the inclusion of Poland and the Baltic republics in NATO ought to make any Russian plans for re-writing the outcome of the Cold War a pipe dream, Moscow’s adventurism and Obama’s “lead from behind” response to other international crises is rightly causing many in the region to question America’s ability to stay the course.

Rather than joining in the gang tackle of Sikorski, Americans should be pondering how it is that their government has alienated so many allies while engaging in futile efforts at engaging our foes. The U.S. alliance with Poland may not be worthless, but there is little question that it is worth a lot less since Barack Obama became president.

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Key to Obama’s Diplomacy? Giving Up

While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

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While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

The administration trumpeted the interim deal signed with Iran last November as proof that the president’s belief in engagement with Iran was vindicated. But the point of the P5+1 process by which the West talked with Iran was not to merely negotiate with the Islamist regime but to get it to surrender its nuclear ambitions. In order to get the deal with the ayatollahs, the U.S. had to give in on the centerpiece of its previous demands: that Iran cease enriching uranium, a position that already had the imprimatur of United Nations resolutions. The administration also discarded any effort to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for international terrorism.

Fast forward a few months to the next stage in the diplomatic process with Iran and it looks like the same pattern is being repeated. Rather than focus on getting Tehran to abandon its nuclear program—something that President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign—the U.S. is again solely obsessed with being able to achieve any sort of an agreement, even if all it will accomplish is to slightly lengthen the “break out” time Iran would need in order to use its stockpiles of fuel to create a weapon.

That same trait was clearly on display in the Bergdahl talks. Rather than defend U.S. interests or to create a template that would stabilize Afghanistan, the only thing the administration wanted was Bergdahl’s freedom and demonstrated that they were prepared to pay an exorbitant price in order to get it.

It should be understood that liberating any American soldier held by the enemy, no matter the circumstances surround his captivity, was very much the president’s obligation. But the problem with the deal for Bergdahl was not just the price but that it reflected a desire on the part of the administration to bug out of the Afghanistan conflict. Though concessions are part of any negotiation, the Taliban seemed to be informed by the same mindset that the Iranians have shown in their dealings with the Obama foreign-policy team. They understood that if they stood their ground and made demands, Obama would eventually cave in to them, no matter how outrageous those positions were.

Taken together, the Iran and Bergdahl negotiations show that discussions of Obama’s weakness are not about metaphors or apology tours that are rooted in symbolism rather than substance. The last year of American foreign policy has proven that the key to the president’s diplomacy is that he gives up when pressed by opponents. The two negotiations aren’t merely bad policy. They show he will always allow his zeal for a deal and desire to abandon American interests to prevail over principle.

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Europe’s Lurch Right Is Bad for the Jews … and the United States

The huge gains made by far-right nationalist parties in the European Union elections last week have a lot of people on the continent and elsewhere scared. The results threaten to undermine the hard-won European unity that has been achieved since the end of World War Two. The gains made by such parties across the board are the result of a variety of different local dynamics, but the common theme is hostility to immigrants and other religious minorities. Though center-right parties will still predominate in the EU parliament, the election threatens to further exacerbate an atmosphere in Europe in which anger against perceived outsiders morphs from localized violence to a general spirit of isolationism. The fact that many of these parties, such as France’s National Front, have flirted with anti-Semitism while others, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, have openly embraced it seems to illustrate the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. That last week ended with a murderous attack on Jews in Belgium also raised the fear level of embattled Jewish communities in Europe.

But there are some who are looking for a silver lining amid this dismal news. When some Jews look at Europe’s far right parties, they see a potential ally against Islamists since the nationalists there are often obsessed with what they see as a threat to their culture and national identity from the large populations of immigrants from Muslim countries. This leads some Americans who are on the right to believe that even though the EU nationalists are clearly hostile to Jews and Israel, they may nevertheless help secure Europe against Islamist influence and thus help preserve the West against those who are trying to overthrow it. While there is a superficial logic to this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sort of thinking, it is a grave mistake. European Jews wouldn’t be the only piece of collateral damage in the blowup of Western democracy. The far right’s victory would weaken American influence and create a far more dangerous world for all of us.

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The huge gains made by far-right nationalist parties in the European Union elections last week have a lot of people on the continent and elsewhere scared. The results threaten to undermine the hard-won European unity that has been achieved since the end of World War Two. The gains made by such parties across the board are the result of a variety of different local dynamics, but the common theme is hostility to immigrants and other religious minorities. Though center-right parties will still predominate in the EU parliament, the election threatens to further exacerbate an atmosphere in Europe in which anger against perceived outsiders morphs from localized violence to a general spirit of isolationism. The fact that many of these parties, such as France’s National Front, have flirted with anti-Semitism while others, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, have openly embraced it seems to illustrate the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. That last week ended with a murderous attack on Jews in Belgium also raised the fear level of embattled Jewish communities in Europe.

But there are some who are looking for a silver lining amid this dismal news. When some Jews look at Europe’s far right parties, they see a potential ally against Islamists since the nationalists there are often obsessed with what they see as a threat to their culture and national identity from the large populations of immigrants from Muslim countries. This leads some Americans who are on the right to believe that even though the EU nationalists are clearly hostile to Jews and Israel, they may nevertheless help secure Europe against Islamist influence and thus help preserve the West against those who are trying to overthrow it. While there is a superficial logic to this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sort of thinking, it is a grave mistake. European Jews wouldn’t be the only piece of collateral damage in the blowup of Western democracy. The far right’s victory would weaken American influence and create a far more dangerous world for all of us.

As much as the lurch right seems to represent a backlash among Europeans against outside influences, let’s put aside any illusion that these parties are really capable of routing Islamist influences. Nothing short of a turn to open fascism can evict Muslim immigrants from Europe. The rising influence of these communities and the anti-Semitism they help fuel stems not only from their numbers but also from the way the Jew-hatred they brought with them dovetails with traditional European anti-Semitism. Hostility to Israel and Jewish interests unites academics and other elites with those on the far right and Muslims. Euro nationalists of various stripes are not likely to be able to achieve their objectives with respect to Muslim immigrants because of the huge numbers involved and the resistance to that project from the traditional parties of the left and the center. But their fomenting of hate against religious minorities is likely to be more successful when it is directed against the far less numerous Jews. Though the far right and Muslims are locked in a never-ending fight, Jews are more vulnerable and easily caught in the crossfire of that conflict.

Just as important is the potential that these parties will splinter Europe in ways that are profoundly damaging to the defense of Western democracy. Small government conservatives in the United States may sympathize with those Europeans who bristle at being ruled by unaccountable EU bureaucrats in Brussels. But as much as the EU seems to be a perfect combination of the perils of big social democratic governments, a Europe that is worried about appeasing anger on the right is one that is likely to opt out of the collective security arrangements that have guaranteed the peace of the world since 1945. The EU is already a weak partner of the United States. But the increasing influence of rightist parties is liable to have a far greater impact on the ability of the U.S. to count on being able to use NATO to resist threats to collective security around the globe and in Europe as the Russian assault on Ukraine has proved.

The rise of the European right won’t do much to undermine the assault on the West from Islamists, but it could undermine any hope that the U.S. will be able to defend Western interests. European anti-Semites are, in fact, natural allies of their Muslim antagonists when it comes to making life difficult for European Jews and isolating Israel. This is an ominous development that should be viewed with horror by precisely those in the West who have rightly worried most about the way Islamists are gaining ground in Europe.

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Boko Haram and the Liberal Elites

Some on the right are mocking the Twitter offensive being conducted by the administration and the liberal and Hollywood elite against the Boko Haram terrorists who abducted 300 Nigerian girls from a school and then boasted this week that they would sell them into slavery. While everyone agrees that the mass kidnapping and the effort to stop girls from being educated is outrageous, some people think there’s something slightly absurd about the fact that it seems as if the principal response of the West to this latest instance of Islamist depredations is to tweet about it. They’re right about that.

Let’s specify that making fun of the first lady for joining in the chorus of #bringbackourgirls tweets is both mean-spirited and beside the point. It is to the credit of Mrs. Obama that she would attempt to use her enormous international prestige to help dramatize the plight of the girls and add further force to the anger about the crime. Neither she nor any of the Hollywood stars that are use their Twitter accounts to put themselves on the side of those seeking to undo this injustice have anything to apologize about. Considering that all too many of this same group often devote their public utterances to inconsequential affairs or, worse, peddling the conventional wisdom about issues in the form of liberal platitudes, none of them can do much about Boko Harm other than stating their opposition–and good for them for doing so.

But once we’ve defended the backlash of outrage on Twitter, it is time to admit that Rush Limbaugh may have had a point when he noted last week that some of those who have done their bit for the abducted girls on Twitter may be under the delusion that doing so actually constitutes something important or even a tangible response to the crime. Much like the isolationists who must now explain why they think it is appropriate for the U.S. to try to do something about the 300 girls but still advocate a retreat from engagement in the war against Islamist terror, liberals must examine the disconnect between their outrage and the weak foreign policy of the Obama administration that they have cheered.

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Some on the right are mocking the Twitter offensive being conducted by the administration and the liberal and Hollywood elite against the Boko Haram terrorists who abducted 300 Nigerian girls from a school and then boasted this week that they would sell them into slavery. While everyone agrees that the mass kidnapping and the effort to stop girls from being educated is outrageous, some people think there’s something slightly absurd about the fact that it seems as if the principal response of the West to this latest instance of Islamist depredations is to tweet about it. They’re right about that.

Let’s specify that making fun of the first lady for joining in the chorus of #bringbackourgirls tweets is both mean-spirited and beside the point. It is to the credit of Mrs. Obama that she would attempt to use her enormous international prestige to help dramatize the plight of the girls and add further force to the anger about the crime. Neither she nor any of the Hollywood stars that are use their Twitter accounts to put themselves on the side of those seeking to undo this injustice have anything to apologize about. Considering that all too many of this same group often devote their public utterances to inconsequential affairs or, worse, peddling the conventional wisdom about issues in the form of liberal platitudes, none of them can do much about Boko Harm other than stating their opposition–and good for them for doing so.

But once we’ve defended the backlash of outrage on Twitter, it is time to admit that Rush Limbaugh may have had a point when he noted last week that some of those who have done their bit for the abducted girls on Twitter may be under the delusion that doing so actually constitutes something important or even a tangible response to the crime. Much like the isolationists who must now explain why they think it is appropriate for the U.S. to try to do something about the 300 girls but still advocate a retreat from engagement in the war against Islamist terror, liberals must examine the disconnect between their outrage and the weak foreign policy of the Obama administration that they have cheered.

Is it too much to ask that anyone who is angry about Boko Haram needs to understand that getting the girls back or helping the millions of other men, women, and children threatened by Islamist terror requires more than a hashtag and a selfie? Though the left still mocks neoconservatives as “warmongers,” do those flocking to Twitter really think anything short of force will rescue the girls, if indeed that is still possible after both the Nigerian government and the rest of the world has dithered about their fate in recent weeks?

Social media is an effective marketing and informational tool but terrorists are defeated by force, not sternly worded tweets. We’d all like to believe, as the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof does, that education would defeat Boko Haram in the long run. But an administration that waited years before designated this al-Qaeda affiliate as a terrorist group, and whose “lead from behind” tactics created the power vacuum in Libya that led to it being armed, cannot evade some of the responsibility for the fact that it now operates with apparent impunity.

Like it or not, the West is locked in a long war with Islamist terror. Retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan won’t end it. Nor will détente with Iran or pressure on Israel. It will require patience that democracies often lack and a willingness to maintain both vigilance and an aggressive policy that keeps America engaged even when we’d rather stay at home and tend our own gardens. But most of all it will require Americans, both the ordinary person in the street as well as the Hollywood elite, to understand that incidents like the Boko Haram abduction can’t be isolated from a conflict they would rather forget or pretend was merely a function of Bush administration policy.

So tweet about the girls all you want, Hollywood. But while you’re tweeting about the girls in between attending fundraisers for the president who has weakened our ability to influence events abroad, just remember that if you really want to help the girls and the countless other potential victims of Islamist terror, you need to also support a strong America and the use of force to defend the values we all believe in.

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Boko Haram and the Isolationists

When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

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When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

The story of the abducted girls of Nigeria seized our attention because of the enormity of this crime, the brazen nature of the criminals who openly brag of their “right” to kidnap and abuse girls, and, as our Michael Rubin aptly pointed out yesterday, the religious motivation behind their crime. It is also a neatly contained sort of tale that allows television news to do what it does best: pull on our heartstrings with a human-interest story. After all, Americans weren’t particularly bothered by Boko Haram’s reign of terror in part of Nigeria that had taken the lives of thousands of people, including children before this week. But since this lurid crime is more easily understood than Boko Haram’s previous depredations or the complexities of the Syrian civil war, everyone, including those who are generally opposed to any sort of U.S. involvement in foreign squabbles, is prepared to use the full power of the Pentagon to save these children.

This tells us a lot about how easily manipulated we are by images but it also ought to make us think twice of the implications of a rising tide of isolationist spirit that has influenced American decision making in recent years. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have drained the public of its appetite for foreign adventures, especially in the Middle East.

But let’s say that we accept, even though we shouldn’t, President Obama’s cowardly excuses that he is doing the best he can and that after prevaricating for so long on Syria, there’s nothing that can be done now. Let’s pose another not entirely hypothetical question: What will be the American public’s attitude if, in the coming years after the last American troops have left Afghanistan, the Taliban sweeps to victory and returns to power in Kabul in an orgy not just of murder but of rape in which women and girls are once again the particular objects of their hostility? If Afghan girls are once again being imprisoned in their homes or sold into slavery, will the same people who are today calling out the Marines on behalf of the Nigerian kidnapping victims be crying out for America not to stand by in silence? Don’t bet on it.

Perhaps it is too much to ask people to be consistent. But the isolationists who want no part of the global war being waged on the West by Islamist terrorists need to remember that the consequences of our indifference to their crimes are serious. The U.S. may not be able to solve every problem in the world or be its policeman. Yet neither can we pretend that the horrors perpetrated by these Islamists have nothing to do with us. Anyone expressing outrage about Nigeria should remember that the U.S. has made a conscious decision to ignore crimes just as bad in Syria and have set in motion a train of events that may lead to even worse in Afghanistan.

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Biden’s Engagement Flip-Flop

I had started writing my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, before Barack Obama won the presidency and chose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. No matter: The book isn’t a partisan polemic. Bungling diplomacy toward international rogues has been a bipartisan problem. Still, as senator, Biden spoke often about diplomacy and rogues and so he provided a rich, documentary record of his views on the topic.

As we near the 25th anniversary if the Tiananmen Square massacre, China is beginning its predictable, preliminary crackdown on dissidents and all who might want to mark that occasion. The events of June 4, 1989 were truly horrific. What is quite interesting, however, is how critical and outspoken Biden was about the George H.W. Bush administration renewing ties with China just a couple years later. Speaking on the Senate floor, Biden declared, “What President Bush and Secretary Baker have been seeking to engage is the world’s last major Communist regime; it is a regime marked by brutality at home and irresponsibility abroad; and it is a regime the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease.” I find little to argue with Biden, at least his 1991 incarnation.

As I documented in my book, Biden also complained that diplomacy involving Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic left too many in the former Yugoslavia off the hook, and that he would have rather have seen a continuation if not a ratcheting up of more coercive pressure on them rather than turning to diplomacy when the Clinton administration did.

How strange it is then, or at least inconsistent, that Biden has been full-throated in his desire to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, participated in the secret talks in Oman that opened that door. Even before the nuclear deal is finalized, Iran has already pocketed several billion dollars in sanctions relief and new economic investment. As the nuclear deal takes shape, it is becoming increasingly apparent that everything it commits Iran to is reversible, and readily so. In the meantime, it legitimizes and, indeed, rewards a regime whose human-rights record is as atrocious as China’s, and whose young students, women, and whose political and religious dissidents suffer the humiliation of Tiananmen Square on an almost daily basis. Indeed, none other than Amnesty International has noted the increase in public executions since the supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, took office.

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I had started writing my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, before Barack Obama won the presidency and chose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. No matter: The book isn’t a partisan polemic. Bungling diplomacy toward international rogues has been a bipartisan problem. Still, as senator, Biden spoke often about diplomacy and rogues and so he provided a rich, documentary record of his views on the topic.

As we near the 25th anniversary if the Tiananmen Square massacre, China is beginning its predictable, preliminary crackdown on dissidents and all who might want to mark that occasion. The events of June 4, 1989 were truly horrific. What is quite interesting, however, is how critical and outspoken Biden was about the George H.W. Bush administration renewing ties with China just a couple years later. Speaking on the Senate floor, Biden declared, “What President Bush and Secretary Baker have been seeking to engage is the world’s last major Communist regime; it is a regime marked by brutality at home and irresponsibility abroad; and it is a regime the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease.” I find little to argue with Biden, at least his 1991 incarnation.

As I documented in my book, Biden also complained that diplomacy involving Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic left too many in the former Yugoslavia off the hook, and that he would have rather have seen a continuation if not a ratcheting up of more coercive pressure on them rather than turning to diplomacy when the Clinton administration did.

How strange it is then, or at least inconsistent, that Biden has been full-throated in his desire to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, participated in the secret talks in Oman that opened that door. Even before the nuclear deal is finalized, Iran has already pocketed several billion dollars in sanctions relief and new economic investment. As the nuclear deal takes shape, it is becoming increasingly apparent that everything it commits Iran to is reversible, and readily so. In the meantime, it legitimizes and, indeed, rewards a regime whose human-rights record is as atrocious as China’s, and whose young students, women, and whose political and religious dissidents suffer the humiliation of Tiananmen Square on an almost daily basis. Indeed, none other than Amnesty International has noted the increase in public executions since the supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, took office.

That is not to say that there is not a reason for engagement here and now—although let us hope that Obama’s desire to have a foreign-policy breakthrough whatever its cost isn’t what is driving this. But, at the very least, Biden—if he is the statesman the thinks he is and if he aspires to the highest office—should provide an explanation as to his sharp about-face on issues of human rights, dictatorship, and diplomacy. Alas, the lack of consistency Biden displays is not unique. He is in good political company. It’s hard not to conclude that Biden personifies just how arbitrary American strategy about when and how to engage is.

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The President Who Has Learned Nothing

In his remarks at a press conference today in the Philippines, President Obama more or less acknowledged that his strategy for restraining Russian aggression isn’t going to work. When pressed on a second round of minimal sanctions that do little to punish the regime of Vladimir Putin, let alone impact the Russian economy, the president didn’t promise much in the way of success. “We don’t know yet if it’s going to work,” he admitted. Given that there is no example in history of such a limited sanctions campaign with no threat of force on the table, nor tangible plans to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, ever working, he did well to lower expectations. But rather than own up to his impotence, the president lashed out at those who have been urging a more vigorous effort to help the Ukrainians, including the shipment of arms and reinforcing the American presence in those NATO nations that were once part of the tsarist/Soviet empire that Putin seeks to reassemble.

As far as the president is concerned, anyone who might have been wrong about the wisdom of invading Iraq should just shut up about using force or anything more than the charade of resistance to Russian ambitions he has employed or in doing something about the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. A lengthy and somewhat whiney diatribe about Syria and Russia policy culminated in this extraordinary statement:

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.

Whether Obama was referring specifically to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who expressed a desire for a more robust response to Russia, or just neoconservatives in general, who have been lamenting his “lead from behind” approach to foreign policy, wasn’t immediately clear. But the president’s sensitivity about his failures in Syria and Russia and anger at the chutzpah of his critics in pointing out just how disastrous his conduct of foreign policy has been was apparent. But though he may pride himself on having opposed the conflict in Iraq—the issue that helped gain him the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008—history did not stop on January 2009. In the sixth year of his presidency with a lengthy resume of foreign-policy failure, the best Obama can do is to attempt to re-litigate Iraq. While Iraq war advocates have largely acknowledged their mistakes, Obama isn’t willing to even acknowledge his, let alone learn from them.

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In his remarks at a press conference today in the Philippines, President Obama more or less acknowledged that his strategy for restraining Russian aggression isn’t going to work. When pressed on a second round of minimal sanctions that do little to punish the regime of Vladimir Putin, let alone impact the Russian economy, the president didn’t promise much in the way of success. “We don’t know yet if it’s going to work,” he admitted. Given that there is no example in history of such a limited sanctions campaign with no threat of force on the table, nor tangible plans to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, ever working, he did well to lower expectations. But rather than own up to his impotence, the president lashed out at those who have been urging a more vigorous effort to help the Ukrainians, including the shipment of arms and reinforcing the American presence in those NATO nations that were once part of the tsarist/Soviet empire that Putin seeks to reassemble.

As far as the president is concerned, anyone who might have been wrong about the wisdom of invading Iraq should just shut up about using force or anything more than the charade of resistance to Russian ambitions he has employed or in doing something about the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. A lengthy and somewhat whiney diatribe about Syria and Russia policy culminated in this extraordinary statement:

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.

Whether Obama was referring specifically to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who expressed a desire for a more robust response to Russia, or just neoconservatives in general, who have been lamenting his “lead from behind” approach to foreign policy, wasn’t immediately clear. But the president’s sensitivity about his failures in Syria and Russia and anger at the chutzpah of his critics in pointing out just how disastrous his conduct of foreign policy has been was apparent. But though he may pride himself on having opposed the conflict in Iraq—the issue that helped gain him the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008—history did not stop on January 2009. In the sixth year of his presidency with a lengthy resume of foreign-policy failure, the best Obama can do is to attempt to re-litigate Iraq. While Iraq war advocates have largely acknowledged their mistakes, Obama isn’t willing to even acknowledge his, let alone learn from them.

The president argues that the use of force by the West in Syria would do nothing now to solve the problems created by a bloody three-year-old civil war. He even claims his retreat on Syria that effectively guaranteed the survival of the Assad regime and handed control over the issue of chemical weapons to Putin had solved the problem even though it appears to have done nothing of the kind. He went on to claim that he had “mobilized the international community” and that as a result of his heroic leadership, “Russia has never been more isolated.”

Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure, and economic pressure that we’re applying?

The answer to the latter question is so obvious that it is troubling that the president even posed it. We don’t know whether Putin, who was sufficiently uncertain of a Western response in 2004 and 2005 during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution to refrain from attacking the former Russian possession, would think twice if the West sent more arms and aid to Kiev. But we do know that Putin is laughing up his sleeve at the ineffectual response that Obama has put forward in the wake of his seizure of Ukraine. Having seen what he could get away with there, he’s now further testing Ukraine and the West with provocations along its eastern border. The result is that after the collapse of Obama’s resolve on Syria, the surrender to Iran’s demands in the nuclear negotiations, and the humiliation in Eastern Europe, America’s standing in the world has never been lower.

President Obama arrived in the White House in 2009 determined not to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes. But as with every general who sought to win the next war with the winning strategies employed in the last one, he has now a record of colossal miscalculations of his own to defend.

History will judge the rights and wrongs of the Iraq debate and right now it looks as if those who wished to stay out have the better argument–though that is as much the result of Obama’s failure to follow up on the victories won in the 2007 surge than the inherent fault of the original plan. But being right on Iraq, if indeed he really was correct, tells us nothing about what the best course of action is on Syria, Iran, or Ukraine. It should be remembered that George W. Bush re-evaluated his Iraq strategy after 2006 and his course correction enabled him to hand off a conflict to Obama that had been largely won.

Obama remains forever locked in a time warp labeled 2008. Making a blunder is one thing but, as the president has demonstrated, not having the grace or the wit to recognize that you’ve made a mistake is far worse. Based on today’s performance and the certain prospects of future humiliations at the hands of Putin, Assad, and Iran’s ayatollahs, Barack Obama will go down in history as the president who learned nothing.

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Why Politics Can’t Stop At the Water’s Edge

 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

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 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

Scarborough is right that “political broadsides” are out of place “when the tanks are rolling.” But what’s happening in the Ukraine is not a replay of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets about Berlin or the Cuban Missile Crisis, let alone a crisis when U.S. troops are on the move. The point about what is happening in the Ukraine is that both America’s friends and its foes take it for granted that the U.S. is out of the business of trying to defend freedom, whether in places where our military can make a difference or those, like in Ukraine, where we know it is not possible.

Given the hyper-partisan nature of our current political culture that is exacerbated by an equally divided media, it is hard to imagine the revival of the kind of bipartisanship that Vandenberg embodied under any circumstances. But in the absence of either strong leadership or an articulation of core American principles by the president it is impossible.

Were President Obama showing the kind of courage in standing up to Putin that other presidents of both political parties demonstrated in past disputes with the Russians, criticism of his foreign policy could and would be put off until later. But asking critics to be silent when no such effort to unify the country or to stand up for the interests of U.S. friends and allies is being put forward by the administration is itself mere partisan hogwash.

A debate about foreign policy is needed precisely because what we are witnessing is the product of a feckless foreign policy that primarily views geostrategic foes such as Russia and Iran as candidates for appeasement rather than dangerous enemies to be faced down with strength. For many liberals, Obama’s weakness is an asset to be applauded as they support his vision of a world in which American exceptionalism is mere chauvinism. However, this unilateral moral disarmament has severe consequences. Putin doesn’t need to listen to conservative criticisms of the president’s foreign policy to understand that Obama’s naïve conception of global politics to be encouraged to violate international law. He already came to that conclusion before he invaded the Ukraine.

Politics must now extend beyond the water’s edge not because conservatives wish to cripple administration efforts to defend American interests — as was so often the case in the past when the left treated anti-American forces as victims to be sympathized with rather than enemies to be despised — but because they want Obama to start behaving like someone who believes in his nation’s cause.

Far from undermining the president’s ability to deal with Putin or Iran, a debate about his policies is the starting point for a recovery of American strength. What Putin expects, indeed, what he is counting on, is the kind of apathy about Obama’s foreign policy that has allowed the president to evade accountability for stances that undermined allies and appeased foes for years. After years of being told, both by the left and some on the right that America can afford to retreat from the world stage, a vigorous discussion of foreign policy and the mistakes made by this administration isn’t a political luxury; it’s a necessity.

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There’s Plenty the U.S. Can Do About Putin

Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to be terribly impressed by the State Department’s decision to ban visas for all those involved in undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity–nor by the EU’s decision to freeze the assets of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and 17 of his closest aides and family members.

The Kremlin is pushing ahead with a referendum, now scheduled for March 17. That vote is almost certain to result in the people of Crimea voting to join the Russian Federation. That is the way of votes held at gunpoint, although even without a Russian troop occupation the Crimeans, most of whom are Russian speakers, might have voted to join Russia anyway.

There is, it seems, little the West can do to evict the Russian troops—pardon me, “local self defense forces” that just happen to be wearing Russian army uniforms–from the territory they have seized in recent days. But there is much more that the West could be doing to make Russia pay a higher cost for its brazen aggression.

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Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to be terribly impressed by the State Department’s decision to ban visas for all those involved in undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity–nor by the EU’s decision to freeze the assets of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and 17 of his closest aides and family members.

The Kremlin is pushing ahead with a referendum, now scheduled for March 17. That vote is almost certain to result in the people of Crimea voting to join the Russian Federation. That is the way of votes held at gunpoint, although even without a Russian troop occupation the Crimeans, most of whom are Russian speakers, might have voted to join Russia anyway.

There is, it seems, little the West can do to evict the Russian troops—pardon me, “local self defense forces” that just happen to be wearing Russian army uniforms–from the territory they have seized in recent days. But there is much more that the West could be doing to make Russia pay a higher cost for its brazen aggression.

The Treasury Department, for a start, could ban all Russian financial institutions from interacting with the U.S. banking system and force other countries to comply on threat of being denied access to the American market as well. Britain, whose capital is home to a vast amount of Russian money (just think of how many oligarchs own fancy apartments and sports teams in Britain), could freeze the assets of many of Putin’s cronies. France could stop building two amphibious assault carriers for the Russian Navy that will allow Putin to project power more easily into places like Ukraine. NATO could announce that it is beefing up its forces in Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic Republics, including stationing US troops there for the first time, to make clear that Russia cannot invade NATO members as it invaded Ukraine. The U.S. could announce a total suspension of all diplomatic contacts with Russia and refuse to send an ambassador to Moscow to replace the recently departed Michael McFaul.

And those are just actions (with the partial exception of the NATO troop move) that could be taken by countries that are not as heavily reliant as Germany on Russian shipments of natural gas. (Although if Putin were to stop shipping the gas he would face a crippling loss of revenue, so he’s not likely to do that.) But none of this is being done, at least not yet. Instead the Europeans, who have most of the leverage here because of their greater business dealings with Russia, are as usual trying to find a way to keep talking rather than acting. At least the EU has decided to cough up $15 billion in a rescue package for the new pro-Western government in Ukraine. Washington is kicking in another $1 billion. That’s a significant step to help steer Ukraine toward the West.

But the Europeans, along with the Obama administration, are missing the imperative to inflict significant harm–economic, political, and diplomatic–on Moscow in retaliation for its aggression. This is necessary whether or not such pressure forces Russia to disgorge Crimea. It is necessary to send a signal to other countries that aggression does not pay.

That signal was sent clearly in 1990-1991 when the George HW Bush administration organized an international coalition to evict Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. But the signal is being attenuated as Putin continues to use salami-slicing tactics to take one bit of territory after another–first a chunk of Georgia, now a chunk of Ukraine, whatever next? Nobody is suggesting, of course, using military force: Russia is not Iraq. It is a nuclear-armed state with a large military and war would be unthinkable. But there are plenty of options between appeasement and launching World War III that could be usefully implemented, and they should be, whether Russia decides to advance beyond Crimea or not.

Putin is no Hitler but remember how in the 1930s World War II became inevitable because Hitler was not stopped in time. Every time he tried a fresh provocation–rearming in violation of the Versailles Treaty, reoccupying the Rhineland, Anschluss with Austria, seizing the Sudetenland–he received no pushback from the West so he decided he could keep going. Today we should be worried about sending such a permissive message not only to Russia but also to other states such as Iran, North Korea, and China that are carefully watching this drama unfold. As Eliot Cohen notes: “If Russia can rip off a limb with impunity, why can’t China do the same with the Senkaku Islands?”

 The West needs to stop its rush to reestablish cordial relations with Russia. However discomfiting it might be to ratchet up tensions in the short term, the long-term result is likely to make peace more, not less, likely.

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Iran’s Gaza Arms Shipment and Obama’s Middle East Diplomacy

The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

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The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

Since 2011 Hamas and Iran have been at odds, as they have backed different sides in the Syrian civil war. In addition to pouring arms, money and some of its own forces into Damascus, Iran has deployed its Hezbollah terrorist proxies to back up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. But Hamas sided with Islamist rebels and broke with Tehran over the dispute. But prior to that Hamas looked to Iran as its principal supplier of arms and cash during the second intifada fighting with Israel. Though Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shi’ite, the two bonded over their mutual hatred for Israel and Jews.

Proof of the sophisticated nature of the arms pipeline between Tehran and Gaza came in 2002 when the Israeli Navy seized the Karine A, a ship that was loaded with Iranian missiles and various other types of military hardware intended for use by Hamas. Iran’s intentions were clear. They were prepared to back any force willing to fight Israel and to kill Jews in any manner possible.

The breakup of that alliance demonstrated Hamas’ belief that they no longer needed Iran’s assistance. But things have changed since the start of the Arab Spring when the Islamist group thought it could count on support from Egypt and Turkey to make up for the money and arms it got from Iran. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and its replacement by a military regime that seems determined to shut down the smuggling tunnels into Gaza has placed Hamas under tremendous financial pressure. It has also been disappointed by Turkey whose Islamist government talked big about backing Hamas but now seems too preoccupied with its own domestic troubles to do much to prop up Gaza. That leaves Iran, which seems to have prevailed in Syria and is ready and willing to step back into its old role as Hamas’ funder and arms supplier as well as being the chief instigator of mayhem along Israel’s southern border.

Iran’s re-entry into the Israel-Palestinian conflict is just one more reason why Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is bound to fail. He and President Obama continue to act as if Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas not only is ready to make peace but has the ability to withstand pressure from Hamas and the rejectionists in his own Fatah to make a deal stick. This is clearly untrue. But now that Hamas has Iran in its corner again, Abbas must understand that any hopes that his rivals in Gaza will collapse are mere pipe dreams. Iran’s backing for Hamas not only makes Kerry’s peace talks look like a fool’s errand, their money and munitions may also be a down payment on the launch of a third intifada.

The standard refrain of Israel-bashers is that more violence will be the fault of the Jewish state’s alleged intransigence. But the real reason for another intifada may have more to do with Iran’s geo-strategic ambitions than West Bank settlements. With Syria and Lebanon still firmly in Tehran’s grasp, adding Hamas to the list of its allies gives the ayatollahs one more weapon to wield in its quest for regional hegemony. Stopping the already remote chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is one of their goals. But Iran also sees this as a chance to further complicate Western efforts to exert pressure on their nuclear program.

President Obama may believe he is embarked on a diplomatic quest with Iran that will result in a new détente that will lessen the chances of conflict and allow the United States to ease out of a strategic role in which it stands beside both Israel and moderate Arab states. But Iran has very different goals. The seizure of the arms shipment is a wake-up call for Washington. But it is an open question as to whether President Obama and Secretary Kerry are too besotted with their hopes for détente with Iran to listen to reason.

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Obama, Ukraine and the Price of Weakness

There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

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There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

A world in which dictators do as they like despite clear American warnings — as President Obama did first in Syria and then again this week about attacks on Ukraine — is not only a far more dangerous place. It also creates a dynamic in which every such American warning or diplomatic initiative is discounted as mere rhetoric, even if those daring to defy the United States are not so well situated as Putin is with his bold stroke in the Crimea. That is especially true with regards to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of the U.S. diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are starkly different from those in the territories of the former Soviet Union. But the basic formula of a bold rogue regime that has no reason to fear the threats or the blandishments of either the U.S. or Europe is present in the P5+1 talks. Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy. The Obama administration gave up the formidable military, political and economic leverage they had over Iran last fall by signing an interim agreement with Iran that gave Tehran what it wanted in terms of recognizing their right to enrich uranium as well as loosening sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. If the Iranians had good reason to think they had nothing to fear from the Obama administration before this latest humiliation of the president at the hands of Putin, their conviction that they can be as tough as they like with him without worrying about a strong American response can only be greater today.

It is too late to save Ukraine from the theft of its territory. But it is not too late to reverse the U.S. retreat from the world stage that has been going on in the last years. President Obama can begin to regain some of his credibility by taking a strong stand on sanctions against Russia and sticking to it. But if he doesn’t no one should be under the illusion that it won’t affect Obama’s ability to prevail in the Iran talks. The cost of Obama-style weakness and isolationism will not be cheap, either for U.S. allies or for an American people who must now understand what it is like to live in a world where no one respects or fears their government.

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Robert Malley and the Shift to Appeasement

Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

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Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

At the time he was working for the Obama campaign, his defenders, including a gaggle of high-ranking Clinton foreign-policy officials, denounced Malley’s critics for what they claimed were unfair personal attacks. But the problem with Malley was never so much about his motives or his father’s role as a supporter of the Egyptian Communist Party and the Nasser regime as it was his own beliefs and policies.

By claiming as he did in an infamous article in the New York Review of Books in August of 2001 that the Camp David summit’s failure was Israel’s fault rather than that of Arafat, Malley demonstrated extraordinary bias against the Jewish state as well as a willingness to revise recent history to fit his personal agenda. Malley absolved Arafat from blame for refusing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. In doing so he not only flatly contradicted the testimony of President Bill Clinton and other U.S. officials present, but his justification of Arafat’s indefensible behavior also served to rationalize the Palestinian terror offensive that followed their rejection of peace.

In the years since then, Malley has remained a virulent critic of Israel and an advocate for recognition and acceptance of the Hamas terrorists who rule Gaza as well as engagement with Iran and other rejectionist states.

All this should have been enough to keep him out of any administration that professed friendship for Israel. But by putting him in charge of relations with the Gulf states, President Obama is also demonstrating that he is determined to continue a policy of downgrading relations with traditional allies in favor of better relations with Iran and other radicals. As much as Israel has cause for concern about the headlong rush to embrace Iran, the Saudis have just as much reason to worry, especially because of the administration’s failure to act in Syria, where Iran’s ally Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war to hold on to power. The Saudis are right to dismiss the president’s attempts to reassure them on Iran. Now that he has appointed a longtime advocate of embracing America’s foes, it’s not likely they will feel any better about U.S. policy.

The return to a position of influence of an Arafat apologist like Malley is one more sign of just how far the president has strayed from his campaign pledges on the Middle East. The U.S. drift toward appeasement of radical Islamists is no longer a matter of speculation but a fact. Any constraints on administration policies based in concern about alienating America’s allies are now a thing of the past.

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Obama’s Disappearing Pacific Pivot

Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

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Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

The relative unimportance of the “Pacific pivot” in his speech is matched by a lack of action to bulk up U.S. forces in the region, even as the U.S. downsizes in the Middle East–something that military officers and observers have been noticing. But then it’s hard to see how the U.S. can do more in the Pacific, or anywhere else, at a time when the defense budget is falling as fast as it is.

An increased U.S. commitment in the region is appropriate, especially coming at a time when delegates at Davos are buzzing about the possibility of conflict between China and Japan—a situation that Japan’s premier has compared to the relationship between Germany and Britain before 1914. But a U.S. commitment to the Pacific shouldn’t come at the expense of the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, which is in greater turmoil than ever.

In reality, the U.S. commitment to both regions is decreasing; it is just that the decline of U.S. power in the Middle East is happening faster than in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. will not be able to exert more power in either area until the president and Congress rethink their plans to shrink the defense budget and with it our military capability.

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The White House Iran War Canard

The Obama administration has been playing hardball in its attempt to stop the Senate from adopting a new and tougher sanctions law aimed at Iran, but it has now gone too far even for one of its leading congressional loyalists. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip in the House of Representatives cried foul over a statement by the spokesperson for the National Security Council that accused sanctions supporters of pushing for war. But Hoyer’s call for Bernadette Meehan to retract her comments is a little unfair to the NSC staffer. Meehan was doing nothing more than articulating the same slander that has been put into circulation by a variety of administration sources and their press cheerleaders when she said the following in response to questions about the growing congressional support for sanctions:

If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.

This is a straw argument if there ever was one. The argument against sanctions is utterly illogical since the only possible path to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat that President Obama has vowed to thwart is via the pressure of tough economic restrictions. By loosening the sanctions in the interim nuclear deal signed in November, Secretary of State John Kerry lost some of that leverage. But by staging an all-out effort to stop a bill that would not go into effect until after the current process is seen to have failed, the administration is taking Iranian threats about ditching the negotiations so seriously that it has, in effect, become Tehran’s hostage. The problem here is not just about over-the-top-rhetoric or competing strategies. As many in Congress are beginning to suspect, the effort to brand all those calling for more pressure on Iran as war-mongers only makes sense in the context of a foreign-policy shift in which the president will seek to weasel out of his commitment to force Tehran to give up its nuclear dream.

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The Obama administration has been playing hardball in its attempt to stop the Senate from adopting a new and tougher sanctions law aimed at Iran, but it has now gone too far even for one of its leading congressional loyalists. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip in the House of Representatives cried foul over a statement by the spokesperson for the National Security Council that accused sanctions supporters of pushing for war. But Hoyer’s call for Bernadette Meehan to retract her comments is a little unfair to the NSC staffer. Meehan was doing nothing more than articulating the same slander that has been put into circulation by a variety of administration sources and their press cheerleaders when she said the following in response to questions about the growing congressional support for sanctions:

If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.

This is a straw argument if there ever was one. The argument against sanctions is utterly illogical since the only possible path to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat that President Obama has vowed to thwart is via the pressure of tough economic restrictions. By loosening the sanctions in the interim nuclear deal signed in November, Secretary of State John Kerry lost some of that leverage. But by staging an all-out effort to stop a bill that would not go into effect until after the current process is seen to have failed, the administration is taking Iranian threats about ditching the negotiations so seriously that it has, in effect, become Tehran’s hostage. The problem here is not just about over-the-top-rhetoric or competing strategies. As many in Congress are beginning to suspect, the effort to brand all those calling for more pressure on Iran as war-mongers only makes sense in the context of a foreign-policy shift in which the president will seek to weasel out of his commitment to force Tehran to give up its nuclear dream.

If the president is serious about keeping his numerous campaign pledges to force Iran to give up its nuclear program, then it is obvious that more pressure is needed to convince its leaders that the U.S. means business. As I discussed yesterday, the triumphalist rhetoric emanating from Iran, including its President Hassan Rouhani, about the interim nuclear deal being a victory for the Islamists isn’t just an embarrassment for the president. That the man the administration has claimed is a moderate who represents a real chance for change in Iran is mocking the president in this manner ought to have set off alarms in the White House, despite yesterday’s attempt by spokesman Jay Carney to downplay it.

The Iranians are making no secret of the fact that they believe Obama is more concerned about achieving a new détente with them than he is in shutting down their nuclear facilities. Given the fact that the deal Kerry signed in Geneva tacitly recognizes Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium while also weakening sanctions it’s hard to argue with that conclusion. The ayatollahs believe they have the whip hand in the next round of talks with the West that begin soon, and the administration’s slavish devotion to the notion that any further sanctions would “break faith” with their new partners in Tehran lends credence to that conclusion. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine that the talks can possibly produce a new deal that will permanently shut down the Iranian centrifuges or dismantle their nuclear facilities. Only a dramatic toughening of sanctions that would put a damper on a reviving Iranian economy by a total embargo of the sale of oil would give the P5+1 negotiators any hope in their quest to persuade Tehran to finally give in.

Since the administration is determined not to put that arrow in its quiver, it’s fair to ask what U.S. diplomats think they can possibly achieve through further negotiations. Without more sanctions, the U.S. will be faced with only two options: the use of force or acceptance of Iran as a nuclear power. Since neither the president nor Congress has any appetite for a conflict with Iran, without more sanctions, containment of a nuclear Iran seems the only likely result despite the president’s promises not to accept such an outcome.

But the only way to pave the way for Congress and the American people to accept a policy that would pose a threat to U.S. security as well as endanger allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia is to convince them that anyone who cares about the issue is a warmonger. Seen in that light, Meehan’s war canard isn’t a gaffe. It’s a vital element in a clear administration strategy aimed at delegitimizing opponents of the appeasement oft. 

The choice facing the country on Iran isn’t between diplomacy and war but between a congressional majority that is intent on giving the diplomats the only tools that will help them succeed and an administration that is determined to prevent that from happening. Rather than criticizing Meehan, pro-Israel Democrats like Hoyer and other members of the Democratic caucus that lament the noxious nature of this administration tactic must understand that what is at stake here is nothing less than the entire direction of U.S. foreign policy. If a rush to détente with the Islamist regime and an acceptance of Iranian nukes is to be stopped, it will require a full-scale Democratic mutiny against an administration that seems determined to keep faith with Iran while breaking its word both to its allies and the American people.

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Kerry’s Iranian Mosaic of Appeasement

Yesterday while speaking to reporters about his ongoing efforts to promote negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Secretary of State John Kerry described his ideas for a possible solution to the conflict as a “puzzle” whose pieces “actually fit together like a mosaic.” The Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn makes it increasingly clear that this puzzle is virtually insoluble, but the mosaic metaphor seems an apt way to characterize Kerry’s approach to other contentious issues in the region. That was made clear by another shoe that Kerry let drop during the course of his remarks that, understandably, attracted more international attention than his latest ruminations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As the New York Times reports, Kerry’s bombshell about a decision to possibly involve Iran in the upcoming international talks about the future of Syria is an ominous sign of how important improving relations with the radical Tehran regime has become to Washington. Some have foolishly treated President Obama’s decision to embrace an effort to walk away from confrontation over Iran’s nuclear-weapons drive as a one-off policy. But it’s now apparent (if it wasn’t already) that the astonishingly weak deal Kerry cut in Geneva in November with the Iranians comports nicely with the administration’s decision to back down on the president’s previous determination to do something about Syria. If there’s any pattern here, it’s part of a mindset that regards opposition to the Islamist regime’s drive for regional hegemony as something that no longer interests the United States.

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Yesterday while speaking to reporters about his ongoing efforts to promote negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Secretary of State John Kerry described his ideas for a possible solution to the conflict as a “puzzle” whose pieces “actually fit together like a mosaic.” The Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn makes it increasingly clear that this puzzle is virtually insoluble, but the mosaic metaphor seems an apt way to characterize Kerry’s approach to other contentious issues in the region. That was made clear by another shoe that Kerry let drop during the course of his remarks that, understandably, attracted more international attention than his latest ruminations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As the New York Times reports, Kerry’s bombshell about a decision to possibly involve Iran in the upcoming international talks about the future of Syria is an ominous sign of how important improving relations with the radical Tehran regime has become to Washington. Some have foolishly treated President Obama’s decision to embrace an effort to walk away from confrontation over Iran’s nuclear-weapons drive as a one-off policy. But it’s now apparent (if it wasn’t already) that the astonishingly weak deal Kerry cut in Geneva in November with the Iranians comports nicely with the administration’s decision to back down on the president’s previous determination to do something about Syria. If there’s any pattern here, it’s part of a mindset that regards opposition to the Islamist regime’s drive for regional hegemony as something that no longer interests the United States.

The talks to which Kerry may be inviting the ayatollahs’ representatives are not nearly as significant as the nuclear talks because they are based in a scenario that may have already been overtaken by events. As the Times notes:

Mr. Kerry said there would be limits on Iran’s involvement unless it accepted that the purpose of the conference should be to work out transitional arrangements for governing Syria if opponents of President Bashar al-Assad could persuade him to relinquish power. Iran has provided military and political support to Mr. Assad.

All of which means that the talks being held in Switzerland in the next week on this issue are pointless since Assad is in no danger of being pushed out of power by a fragmented opposition. Indeed, with the anti-Assad forces increasingly dominated by radical Islamists that Western foes of the tyrannical Damascus regime want no part of, the chances that either the U.S. or Western European nations will act to topple Assad are virtually nil.

As analysts like our Max Boot and Michael Rubin have repeatedly pointed out, it didn’t have to be this way. Had the U.S. acted decisively when the Arab Spring protests quickly led to an open rebellion against the Assad clan’s four-decade-long reign of terror, the chances that he might have been replaced by forces that the West could have lived with were far higher than they are today. But instead, all President Obama did was to vainly predict that Assad “must fall” and then sit back and watch as Tehran came to its Syrian ally’s rescue with an unlimited flow of aid and shock troops in the form of its Lebanese Hezbollah auxiliaries.

When Assad used chemical weapons against his own people last year in direct contravention to President Obama’s warning that such a crime would cross a “red line” that would trigger U.S. action, the administration was forced to threaten strikes against Syria. But faced with Russian and Iranian opposition as well as by his inability to rally either Congress or the American people behind a much-needed policy, Obama gave up. The result was a fig leaf of a diplomatic process that allowed the Russians to take charge of any chemical weapons Assad might surrender. But the big winners were both Assad and Iran since the bottom line of the negotiations was that they made Western intervention against a regime that had already killed more than 100,000 of its own people impossible.

Just as the Iranian nuclear deal has granted implicit Western recognition to Iran’s “right” to refine uranium, setting the stage for an eventual nuclear breakout by Tehran, so, too, has the deal over Syria ensured the survival of the ayatollahs’ main regional ally.

Even contemplating inviting Iran to participate in the talks about a theoretical replacement for Assad is yet another overt acknowledgement that the U.S. has abandoned a policy aimed at isolating this brutal regime, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, a threat to both Israel (at which it continues to spew anti-Semitic venom and threaten with annihilation) as well as to moderate Arab governments. Instead, the U.S. has chosen to try for a new détente with Iran. Though this decision was sold to Congress and the American people as a reaction to the election of the so-called “moderate” Hassan Rouhani to the largely symbolic post of president in 2013, the secret nuclear talks the administration conducted last year predated that faux election.

All the U.S. gains from this détente is an excuse for President Obama to slink ignominiously away from a confrontation with Iran over either its nukes or over Syria. But the reality of a situation in which an even more powerful Iran dominates Syria as well as Lebanon is one in which Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are clearly less safe even if one believes, based on no discernible evidence, that the U.S. is actually doing something to postpone the nuclear threat. This is a policy mosaic that has accomplished nothing but to make the Middle East an even more dangerous place than it had already become. But given the determination of Obama and Kerry to pursue it, it appears the only chance the mosaic will fall apart would be if Tehran’s rulers tire of stringing along the Americans and move quickly to go nuclear. While that potential should not be discounted, given Iran’s success in letting the administration give them what they want with no great effort or sacrifice on Tehran’s part, it would be a colossal mistake to rely on this dubious strategy.

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Is Kerry the Worst Secretary of State Ever?

During his first term in office, President Obama was criticized by conservatives for conducting what they dubbed apology tours in which he always seemed to find something in American history for which he felt compelled to make amends. To his surprise, neither apologies nor the magic of his personality and historic status were able to conceal the fact that he was far better at alienating America’s traditional allies than winning new friends. But as awkward as the president proved to be at diplomacy, even that experience did not prepare the world for John Kerry. In less than a year, he has not only already repeated these mistakes but also exceeded them. Currently on yet another apology tour of his own in the Middle East, where he is desperately trying to reassure moderate Arab countries that he has not sold them down the river in his vain quest for a nuclear deal with Iran, American prestige and trust in Washington’s word are at a low point in recent history.

In just the last week, Kerry has personally exacerbated tensions between Israel and the Palestinians that were already complicated by his lust for a peace deal that no one else thought possible. He stabbed both Israel and the moderate Arab states in the back by publicly accepting the terms of a weak nuclear deal with Iran that would have likely started the collapse of sanctions against Tehran and put in motion a process that would have made it possible for the Islamist state to reach their nuclear goal. He then added to that folly by rushing to Geneva to sign that agreement only to be embarrassed by the insistence of the French—of all countries—that there at least be a fig leaf of accountability for the arrangement. That blew up the P5+1 talks and left Kerry trying to explain both his appeasement and the failure while also obviously fibbing about the last-minute conditions being his idea rather than the brainchild of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. It must be admitted that to have done so much damage to American interests in so little time is quite an accomplishment. Though he has plenty of competition for the title, John Kerry may have already become America’s worst secretary of state in history.

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During his first term in office, President Obama was criticized by conservatives for conducting what they dubbed apology tours in which he always seemed to find something in American history for which he felt compelled to make amends. To his surprise, neither apologies nor the magic of his personality and historic status were able to conceal the fact that he was far better at alienating America’s traditional allies than winning new friends. But as awkward as the president proved to be at diplomacy, even that experience did not prepare the world for John Kerry. In less than a year, he has not only already repeated these mistakes but also exceeded them. Currently on yet another apology tour of his own in the Middle East, where he is desperately trying to reassure moderate Arab countries that he has not sold them down the river in his vain quest for a nuclear deal with Iran, American prestige and trust in Washington’s word are at a low point in recent history.

In just the last week, Kerry has personally exacerbated tensions between Israel and the Palestinians that were already complicated by his lust for a peace deal that no one else thought possible. He stabbed both Israel and the moderate Arab states in the back by publicly accepting the terms of a weak nuclear deal with Iran that would have likely started the collapse of sanctions against Tehran and put in motion a process that would have made it possible for the Islamist state to reach their nuclear goal. He then added to that folly by rushing to Geneva to sign that agreement only to be embarrassed by the insistence of the French—of all countries—that there at least be a fig leaf of accountability for the arrangement. That blew up the P5+1 talks and left Kerry trying to explain both his appeasement and the failure while also obviously fibbing about the last-minute conditions being his idea rather than the brainchild of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. It must be admitted that to have done so much damage to American interests in so little time is quite an accomplishment. Though he has plenty of competition for the title, John Kerry may have already become America’s worst secretary of state in history.

Some observers are wondering today whether Kerry’s decision to essentially recognize Iran’s “right” to refine uranium and his reluctance to include Iran’s plutonium nuclear plans in the proposed agreement will complicate the Middle East peace process that he has spent so much effort promoting. But to claim that America’s decision to prioritize détente with Iran over its obligation to allies will make it harder for an agreement to be reached between Israel and the Palestinians. But those who are making this argument are misreading the situation. Israelis are understandably aggrieved about a U.S. policy shift that seems to have accepted Iran’s nuclear program as a fait accompli. But the peace talks were already a disaster before Kerry further alienated Israelis and moderate Arabs over his failed attempt to appease Iran. It was possible to argue that a strong American stand on Iran could have made Israel feel more comfortable making more concessions to the Palestinians. But even before he had announced his betrayal on Iran, Kerry vented his spleen about the standoff against Israel in a way that made no secret of his belief that only they were to blame for the failure of his idea. Having forced both parties into talks that were clearly fated to fail due to the division among Palestinians and their obvious unwillingness to accept statehood on generous terms that they’ve already rejected three times, Kerry can’t own up to the fact that his idea never had a chance and thus prefers to blame Israel for his own errors.

The problem here is twofold.

The first is Kerry’s exalted vision of his own diplomatic skills. As soon he was sworn in, he threw caution to the winds and embarked on a course that a wiser man would have understood was merely a repeat of the mistakes of the past. Better men and more skillful diplomats than Kerry have failed under more propitious circumstances than the current situation, in which Hamas rules Gaza and a weak and fearful Fatah holds onto the West Bank only with the help of Israel. But Kerry’s hubris is such that he appears to be genuinely shocked by the apparent failure of his initiative and is now lashing out wildly and going so far as to threaten Israel with more Palestinian violence if Prime Minister Netanyahu does not bend to his will.

That flaw in Kerry’s makeup is compounded by another fatal shortcoming in a diplomat: his naked zeal for the deal. The Iranians have read him perfectly and found it possible to get the West to come much closer to their position on their right to enrich uranium without having to budge an inch. If Tehran’s envoys refused to accede to France’s reasonable concerns it was because they believe Kerry and President Obama will eventually cave in to their demands just as they’ve moved off of their previous insistence that sanctions will not be weakened.

All this was bad enough, but the ham-handed way Kerry’s has barged around the Middle East making enemies was made even more foolish looking by Kerry’s lame post-Geneva explanations for his behavior. That he did all this only months after presiding over the administration’s disastrous retreat on Syria and the collapse of its influence in Egypt on his watch renders his recent tenure one of the most disastrous in modern American history.

Kerry’s conduct must even have the White House starting to rethink the decision to give him the freedom to carry out his plans. Though his predecessor Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments in her four years at Foggy Bottom were slim (other, that is, than racking up frequent flier miles), right now she is starting to look like a foreign-policy giant by comparison. The only question now is whether at some point President Obama will have to step up and rein in Kerry before he does his already troubled second term the kind of damage that will not only harm America’s standing abroad but hurt it at home.

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Obama’s “Modest Strategy” Good For Putin

For those seeking an explanation for the puzzling turn that American foreign policy has taken during Barack Obama’s second term, the New York Times has one today. In a front-page feature in their Sunday edition, the Times’s Mark Landler provides National Security Advisor Susan Rice with the kind of puff piece the paper’s readers have come to expect when such analyses of administration policy are provided. Rice’s “blueprint” for a change from the president’s more ambitious goals of his first term was, we are told, formed at a series of Saturday morning bull sessions where those involved decided that they wanted to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.” So they chucked the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush that Obama had tentatively embraced at the time of the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests as well as any interest in Egypt. As the Times reported:

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

In theory, that might make sense. But given that the Iranians only use diplomacy to buy themselves more time to build their nuclear program; the Israeli-Palestinian talks are widely believed to be a fool’s errand (and were included in the agenda only because Secretary of State John Kerry had already committed the U.S. to another round of diplomacy with all of its risks and dangers regardless of what Rice or anyone else wanted to do); and the administration has already punted on Syria, this is not a promising agenda. Indeed, it looks to be even more of a disaster than the more wide-ranging to-do-list of the president’s first term that no one is claiming was exactly a great success.

But unfortunately for Rice and her boss, their “modest strategy”—as the headline of the Times feature puts it—just got a little shakier today. Earlier this month, I was one of many administration critics who warned that the president’s decision to cut aid to Egypt could open the door for Russia to step back into the alliance that Anwar Sadat trashed back in the 1970s as he strove to make peace with Israel. It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to do that. At the same time that Rice was using the Times to send a message to Egypt that it is no longer a U.S. priority, reports are circulating that the Russian autocrat is planning a visit to Cairo where he will attempt to revive the military alliance that existed between Russia and Egypt. If he succeeds in getting the Russian fleet back into Egypt’s Mediterranean ports, he should send a thank you note to Rice and the president. But, of course, he already owes them one for the administration’s retreat on Syria.

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For those seeking an explanation for the puzzling turn that American foreign policy has taken during Barack Obama’s second term, the New York Times has one today. In a front-page feature in their Sunday edition, the Times’s Mark Landler provides National Security Advisor Susan Rice with the kind of puff piece the paper’s readers have come to expect when such analyses of administration policy are provided. Rice’s “blueprint” for a change from the president’s more ambitious goals of his first term was, we are told, formed at a series of Saturday morning bull sessions where those involved decided that they wanted to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.” So they chucked the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush that Obama had tentatively embraced at the time of the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests as well as any interest in Egypt. As the Times reported:

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

In theory, that might make sense. But given that the Iranians only use diplomacy to buy themselves more time to build their nuclear program; the Israeli-Palestinian talks are widely believed to be a fool’s errand (and were included in the agenda only because Secretary of State John Kerry had already committed the U.S. to another round of diplomacy with all of its risks and dangers regardless of what Rice or anyone else wanted to do); and the administration has already punted on Syria, this is not a promising agenda. Indeed, it looks to be even more of a disaster than the more wide-ranging to-do-list of the president’s first term that no one is claiming was exactly a great success.

But unfortunately for Rice and her boss, their “modest strategy”—as the headline of the Times feature puts it—just got a little shakier today. Earlier this month, I was one of many administration critics who warned that the president’s decision to cut aid to Egypt could open the door for Russia to step back into the alliance that Anwar Sadat trashed back in the 1970s as he strove to make peace with Israel. It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to do that. At the same time that Rice was using the Times to send a message to Egypt that it is no longer a U.S. priority, reports are circulating that the Russian autocrat is planning a visit to Cairo where he will attempt to revive the military alliance that existed between Russia and Egypt. If he succeeds in getting the Russian fleet back into Egypt’s Mediterranean ports, he should send a thank you note to Rice and the president. But, of course, he already owes them one for the administration’s retreat on Syria.

This is a potential disaster for U.S. foreign policy.

The Egyptian military seems to have succeeded in not only ousting the Muslim Brotherhood government that threatened to turn the most populous Arab nation into an Islamist regime but in keeping the group from organizing a rebellion. Though the process by which they have done so is not easy to defend, they at least understood something the president and Rice seem not to have learned: that the struggle with the Brotherhood is a zero-sum game. By taking out the Brotherhood, clamping down on terror in the Sinai, and squeezing Hamas in Gaza, the military has made the region safer. But they’ve gotten no thanks for this from Washington. Not only has Obama distanced the U.S. from Cairo and cut aid, Rice has now announced, via the front page of the Sunday New York Times, that what happens in Egypt isn’t all that important anyway.

While the Egyptian military will be loath to swap up-to-date U.S. hardware for Russian knockoffs, who can blame them for shopping around for new friends after the snubs they’ve received from President Obama?

Though his staff wants to save the president from being swamped by events in the Middle East, by putting all their chips on the slim hopes of an acceptable nuclear deal with Iran and the virtually non-existent chances of an Israeli-Palestinian accord, they have only set him up for more failure. Worse than that, by granting Putin a victory in Syria—where Russian and Iranian ally Bashar Assad looks more secure than ever thanks to Obama’s backing away from striking at his chemical-weapons stockpile—and setting him up to win back Egypt, President Obama has made the Middle East much less stable for U.S. allies like Israel and Arab nations like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. That’s a formula for exactly the kind of blow-up Rice and her buddies had hoped to spare the president.

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Delayed Egypt Aid Decision Causes Concern

Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.

If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.

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Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.

If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.

Obama has won hosannas from many Americans for refusing to stage air strikes on Syria and instead striking a deal with Bashar Assad to supposedly eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. He has won even more praise for his now-famous phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his willingness to strike a deal with Iran. But, whatever the merits of those policies (and, in defense of Obama, it must be said that it is possible that the deal with Assad could succeed and that, even if the Iranian deal doesn’t work out, it is one that any president would have to explore), they are not being greeted warmly in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Jerusalem, Amman, and other American-allied capitals. Neither is the partial cutoff to the Egyptian military that will encompass only “nonessential” aid (e.g., F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters) while allowing crucial spare parts and counter-terrorism aid to flow.

America’s allies believe they are locked in an existential struggle with both Sunni and Shiite theocrats—al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, Hezbollah and the Quds Force on the other. They are in favor of suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and in favor of bombing the Iranian nuclear program. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to adopt their policy preferences. But we need to be aware of them, and to be aware, moreover, that the dominant perception of the U.S. in the region is of a superpower in retreat–a superpower that refuses to uphold red lines and that wants to pursue diplomatic deals of dubious reliability as a cover for full-scale disengagement.

Unfortunately the partial Egypt military aid cutoff–part of an Obama tendency to split the difference on difficult foreign-policy decisions (remember the Afghan surge timeline?)—will only feed that narrative. On the merits, Obama’s decision is defensible; indeed, after initially opposing an aid cutoff, I reluctantly came around to supporting it. But now I’m having second thoughts. I’m afraid the consequence of announcing the aid pullback now is that it will reinforce the tendency of our allies to be a lot less willing to rely on us and to listen to us. They may well wind up taking actions that Washington argues against—in the case of Israel, bombing the Iranian nuclear program; in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have already provided billions in aid to the Egyptian military despite a lack of American support, pursuing their own nuclear programs; in the case of Iraq, Turkey, and Qatar, cozying up to Iran; and so on. A couple of commando raids in Libya and Somalia will not dispel the impression of an America in retreat; it may even reinforce that view by showing how the U.S. prefers to engage in hit-and-run raids rather than in deeper engagement.

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A Leadership Vacuum? Obama Created It

President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today contained much of the usual boilerplate material we’ve come to expect from any American president. The laundry list of international issues touched upon was voluminous. We learned that the president is almost as concerned about the situation in Mali as he is the Middle East peace process. He favors human rights whenever possible (no, we’re not cutting off ties with Egypt’s military government and rightly so) and would like very much to have some sort of diplomatic process with Iran so as to avoid having to keep his promise to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

There was much in the address that was commendable and some points that were risible, especially his insistence that diplomacy with Iran must be given a chance–as if more than a decade of futile efforts that have been used by Tehran to buy more time for their nuclear program had never happened. But one got the feeling that the most important audience for this speech was not so much at the world body but Congress and the American people. After Benghazi, the missteps in Egypt, the flubbed Syria crisis, and with every indication that he is about to punt on the imperative to stop Iran, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that the president has a coherent foreign policy that can be defended. But lost in the middle of his lengthy oration, Obama did at least try to come to grips with one of the core issues being debated in the country now: isolationism.

The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.

Obama is largely right on both counts. But one of the main reasons why the spirit of isolationism is posing such a threat to a strong American foreign policy is five years of uninspiring leadership and administration failures that have made Rand Paul’s point of view look like a rational alternative.

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President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today contained much of the usual boilerplate material we’ve come to expect from any American president. The laundry list of international issues touched upon was voluminous. We learned that the president is almost as concerned about the situation in Mali as he is the Middle East peace process. He favors human rights whenever possible (no, we’re not cutting off ties with Egypt’s military government and rightly so) and would like very much to have some sort of diplomatic process with Iran so as to avoid having to keep his promise to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

There was much in the address that was commendable and some points that were risible, especially his insistence that diplomacy with Iran must be given a chance–as if more than a decade of futile efforts that have been used by Tehran to buy more time for their nuclear program had never happened. But one got the feeling that the most important audience for this speech was not so much at the world body but Congress and the American people. After Benghazi, the missteps in Egypt, the flubbed Syria crisis, and with every indication that he is about to punt on the imperative to stop Iran, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that the president has a coherent foreign policy that can be defended. But lost in the middle of his lengthy oration, Obama did at least try to come to grips with one of the core issues being debated in the country now: isolationism.

The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.

Obama is largely right on both counts. But one of the main reasons why the spirit of isolationism is posing such a threat to a strong American foreign policy is five years of uninspiring leadership and administration failures that have made Rand Paul’s point of view look like a rational alternative.

Faced with a president who is committed to avoiding confrontation with the nation’s foes and rivals while also eager to use executive power to spy and employ drone attacks, it’s not hard to understand why so many Americans have grown weary and cynical about the need to engage with the world. Part of that was the fruit of the Bush administration’s unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But having run for office declaring his lack of interest in fighting terror or in promoting democracy abroad, it is difficult for this president to turn around and explain to the American people why the hated neo-cons were basically right to speak about American exceptionalism and the necessity for the U.S. to act on behalf of human rights.

If there is a potential leadership vacuum in the world it is the one that Barack Obama created with the incoherent zigzag course on which he has steered the country from crisis to crisis. After claiming credit for ending the war in Iraq that Bush had largely won by the time he left office, insulting allies like Israel and the Czech Republic, leading from behind in Libya, angering both the Islamists and the military in Egypt, and not leading at all on Syria and Iran, does Obama wonder why Americans think the government can’t be trusted to act abroad?

There is no doubt that the isolationist caucus in the Senate and House is gaining supporters on both sides of the aisle. But that is due as much to Barack Obama’s inability to make a case for a strong American foreign policy and to sustain it with action as it is to the ability of people like Rand Paul to call into question the need for the nation to remain engaged in the great struggle against Islamist terror and other totalitarian threats to freedom. But it is hard for the man who just got played like a piano by Vladimir Putin and seems ready to lie down for Hassan Rouhani’s fake charm offensive to issue a call to engage with the world that anyone can take seriously.

Rather than talking to his beloved U.N. about the need for a strong America in an address that was characteristically laced with caveats about grievances with the U.S. being justified, he should be telling this to Congress. Even better, perhaps he should give the same pep talk to himself the next time he feels himself about to punt on yet another foreign crisis.

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