Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. foreign policy

Obama’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

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After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

Under Obama’s formulation, the fight against ISIS would not involve U.S. ground troops but would rather than be a joint effort in which the U.S. would facilitate a broad alliance of nations, to eliminate a threat to the security of the region as well as to the United States. But the joint communiqué issued by the U.S. and ten Arab nations whose representatives met with Kerry today in Jidda, Saudi Arabia produced nothing resembling the alliance Obama envisaged. While George W. Bush characterized the nations that he led to war in Iraq as a “coalition of the willing,” the one that Obama will lead against ISIS is very a “coalition of the unwilling.”

The Jidda meeting made clear that while Obama would like the Arab and Muslim worlds to take an active, if not leading role in the struggle against ISIS, they have no such intentions. Though the countries in attendance at the meeting said they would “do their share,” they clearly have a rather limited definition of that expression. None said what they would do to aid the cause and it has yet to be seen whether any of them would join the U.S. in deploying air power against ISIS. Even worse, Turkey, a key neighboring country, wouldn’t even sign the communiqué because it feared to anger ISIS, lest Turkish hostages in their hands be harmed. But, as Michael Rubin wrote here earlier, the Turks may be more worried about any arms coming in to help those fighting ISIS will eventually wind up in the hands of Syrian Kurds who are aligned with the PKK group that fights for Kurdish rights in Turkey.

The Turks are, however, just one problem. A bigger obstacle to the construction of the kind of fighting alliance that Obama spoke of is the fact that most of these nations simply do not trust the president. Egypt is clearly one such nation. The Egyptians military government has had some bad experiences with the Obama administration and is convinced that if the president had his way, the Muslim Brotherhood would still be ruling in Cairo. Others, including some Iraqi Sunnis who remain in harm’s way if ISIS isn’t stopped, simply don’t identify with the battle against the terror group in the way that Obama envisaged.

This is in part the fruit of Obama’s lead from behind strategy in the last six years. But it is also evidence that the president’s faith in multilateralism and belief that wars can be won on the cheap is a tragic mistake.

The problem here is more than Obama’s unrealistic notions of how wars can be successfully fought or one more instance of Kerry’s inept diplomacy. The most disturbing news out of the conflict isn’t just the reluctance of Arab nations to take the ISIS threat as seriously as Americans do even though the terrorist army poses a direct threat to the future of those governments. It is that ISIS is clearly perceived by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds as winning. As long as the terrorists are perceived as “the strong horse,” to use the title of Lee Smith’s valuable book about the Middle East, they are going to be able to attract recruits and more cash. The brutal murders of two American journalists horrified Westerners but were also perceived by some Muslims, both in the region and in the countries now being asked to fight ISIS, as ideal recruiting videos. Mere statements of support from Arab governments or even some Muslim clerics won’t alter that view of what ISIS considers a war, even if Kerry doesn’t.

While some writers like David Ignatius of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, think the president’s “reluctant warrior” approach is useful, the Muslim world seems to have a different opinion. If Obama is going to do something to reverse these perceptions, it is going to take more than the halfway measures he spoke of on Wednesday or a coalition in which America is not prepared to do more than bomb from afar.

The basic problem remains a terrorist threat that Obama considers serious enough to justify a major effort by the United States but which he expects to be defeat by troops from other nations that may not be quite so eager to engage the enemy. Until the administration figures out a strategy that will make it clear that it is America that remains the strong horse in the region — something that Obama specifically seems uninterested in doing — expecting a good outcome from any of this for the United States may be wishful thinking.

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Poll Driven War May Not Scare ISIS

President Obama used a lot of tough words about ISIS in his speech Wednesday night pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. But if the leaders of the group that has largely run roughshod over much of Syria and Iraq on the president’s watch were listening, they might not have been as intimidated by the prospect of a U.S. commitment to as Americans might like. The speech was equal measures of national security common sense, signals of the president’s half-hearted commitment to the conflict, and alibis and denials of six years of failed foreign policy.

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President Obama used a lot of tough words about ISIS in his speech Wednesday night pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. But if the leaders of the group that has largely run roughshod over much of Syria and Iraq on the president’s watch were listening, they might not have been as intimidated by the prospect of a U.S. commitment to as Americans might like. The speech was equal measures of national security common sense, signals of the president’s half-hearted commitment to the conflict, and alibis and denials of six years of failed foreign policy.

Whatever may have brought him to this moment, let’s first specify that to the extent that the president is speaking plain truth about the threat from ISIS and willing to commit U.S. forces to its destruction, he deserves the support of the American people. This is a fight that the United States cannot ignore or pretend will go away merely because we wish to avert our eyes. As he rightly noted, the group presents a clear threat to the security of the people of the region and, if not stopped now, a very serious one to that of the United States. If the coalition which the United States is attempting to put together to deal with ISIS succeeds, it will be a singular success for an administration that can, despite the president’s boasts, point to a list of foreign-policy accomplishments that is remarkable for its brevity./

In going forward with this campaign, whatever direction it takes or for however long it goes on, the president can count on the support of the American people and even most of the Congress that he has not seen fit to ask for a vote authorizing the effort. He will have leeway to order attacks on ISIS targets as he and his commanders see fit without too much second-guessing outside of the precincts of the far right and the far left. Nor will Americans have to worry much about the kind of scrutiny other armed forces face when similarly targeting terrorists who often hide among civilians. There will be no United Nations investigations or media meltdowns about any civilians who will without question be hurt when U.S. bombers take out ISIS fighters or instillations as Israel must face when it fights another brand of Islamist terror in Hamas.

But the question that should be troubling Americans and others who are hoping that tonight’s speech marks a turning point in this troubled presidency is not so much about the goals that Obama stated tonight but the commitment of the commander-in-chief to this struggle and his ability to think clearly about the mistakes that led to the crisis that made this speech necessary.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the president’s remarks is that this speech, like the policy that it sought to explain, is largely a poll-driven affair. After all, the president could have made the same decision several months ago when he was deriding ISIS as the “JV” of terror even as they were taking the city of Fallujah that American troops had won so dearly during his predecessor’s watch. Or at any other time since then as the situation in Syria and Iraq went from a crisis to a near catastrophe as ISIS overran vast amounts of territory and committed many of the unspeakable atrocities that the president mentioned in his remarks. The decision was necessitated not by the severity of the challenge but by the fear generated by the videos showing ISIS’s barbaric murder of two American journalists.

More to the point, the president’s decision is a silent acknowledgement that much of his past policies were not only wrong but also directly responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq and Syria. It was Obama who spent three years ridiculing the very policies on Syria that he is now embracing as warmongering. And it was also Obama who chose to squander the victory he had inherited from the Bush administration by fleeing the conflict and assuming that if he said the war there was over that would mean that this must be so.

The president’s defenders will say that this is mere backbiting and irrelevant to the current dilemma. But as much as it does the country little good for the president’s critics to be saying “I told you so,” it must also be said that it might be easier to have confidence in this administration if its leader were man enough to admit his errors.

Instead, the president reinforced the impression that this was a speech written with focus groups in mind by insisting—in contrast to polls that show that Americans feel less safe today than at any moment since 9/11—that he has made the country more secure. In addition to the rote repetition of his reelection campaign boasts about killing bin Laden, he took credit for pulling all U.S. forces out of Iraq even though that is exactly what led to the current debacle.

Just as important was his insistence that this would not be a war like Afghanistan or Iraq because no U.S. ground troops would be deployed. Americans prefer wars where they can merely bomb their enemies without coming to grips with them on the ground. But the president also admitted that the success of the effort would depend on other nations, principally Iraq, that would supply the ground troops. But if you’re ISIS you may not be shaking in your boots. If ISIS is really the scary threat to the U.S. that Obama makes it out to be—and it is—then the terrorists must be asking themselves why no Americans will fight. If this is a battle for our values as well as our security why will it only be Iraqis or Kurds who will be asked to fight for them? As important as Obama’s talk about destroying ISIS may be, his refusal to say that America will do whatever it takes to beat it must be encouraging the terrorists.

We don’t need mea culpas from the president as much as an indication that he comprehends what went wrong and how to fix it. That was a test that his predecessor George W. Bush passed when he switched defense secretaries and war fighting strategies in Iraq in 2007. But while the president strove at times to copy Bush’s moral clarity about the fight (a position that Obama didn’t support at the time), he lacks his humility or his ability to admit his errors.

Obama’s conclusion in which he extolled America’s greatness was nice to hear. But I doubt that ISIS, which despises all this country stands for, was interested. They were listening for signals that Obama was so committed to their defeat that he would not let anyone or anything get in the way of that goal, including his desire to be seen as the man who ends wars, not the guy who starts them.

Listening to polls or employing half measures that minimize casualties so as to protect leaders from critical comments does not win wars. It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama can rise above his hubris and arrogant unwillingness to admit mistakes in order to beat ISIS. But judging by this speech, it is doubtful that members of the terror group are thinking they can’t outlast a president who leads from behind his allies and his own people.

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Obama Still Leading From Behind

After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

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After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

Though belated, the administration’s decision to act is commendable. But what is remarkable about this radical shift in policy is that it seems to be as much a response to the change in public opinion about the situation in the Middle East as it is a realization on the president’s part that his past decisions to stay out of Syria and to bug out of Iraq were mistaken.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the president has spent much of his time in office mocking those who urged him to stop standing on the sidelines as the Middle East fell apart as warmongers. At other times, he engaged in puzzling maneuvers, such as his embarrassing back and forth decisions on Syria last year, that amounted to a gigantic head fake that encouraged America’s foes while puzzling and isolating friends.

But, as a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reveals, not only do Americans no longer have any confidence in the president’s foreign policy, they actually feel less safe than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. The poll also shows that a large majority of Americans support air strikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq with a substantial minority also willing to deploy ground troops to deal with the threat.

In theory, that ought to make the president’s job of selling the country and the world on the need for the U.S. to go on offense against ISIS and other Islamist terrorists. But the spectacle of the last several weeks during which it appeared that the president was being dragged kicking and screaming toward a decision makes it a bit harder for both friends and foes to take Obama seriously. More to the point, if the orchestrated leaks about the president’s speech are accurate, the cribbed nature of his plan for action in which he will take the possibility of a U.S. presence on the ground off the table and set firm time limits on the campaign will undermine the effort from the start.

Why are Americans so upset and fearful?

Part of the answer lies in the power of the disgusting videos released by ISIS that showed American journalists being brutally murdered. While one can argue that Syrian chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program may provide as much, if not more of a challenge to U.S. security as this terror group, the images in the videos were visceral and easily understood. Moreover, if the NBC/Journal poll is accurate, more than 94 percent of Americans saw it. Theoretical threats are one thing. Arrogant Islamists beheading Americans and taunting us (and President Obama) about it are quite another. The public seems to have understood long before the president that this is something that has to stop and that there is no negotiating with or maneuvering around a terror threat that, despite Obama’s reelection boasts, is very much alive.

Does it matter that negative poll numbers about the president are driving the anti-ISIS effort more than it is being pushed by his vision of defending both the U.S. and our allies against a clear and present danger?

One could argue that the motivation for U.S. action isn’t important so long as the president follows through on his plans and lets the U.S. military operate effectively to defeat ISIS. But the long-range success of those efforts will depend as much on the confidence of the people of the region that America can be counted on to stay the course in a conflict that won’t provide quick or easy victories. That will require more than a poll-driven speech that provides as many caveats about what the U.S. won’t do than anything else.

In any conflict, there is no substitute for leadership that not only can articulate policies that people want but also is prepared to tell them that there are some things that must be done that are not so popular. Not every wartime leader must be Winston Churchill, but one that is primarily concerned with “not doing stupid stuff” and who takes weeks to make up his mind to do what Americans wanted already done is setting both himself and the country up for failure.

What we need from the president tonight is a signal that his period of irresolute dithering is over and that he will spend the time that is left to him in the White House fighting to win against Islamist terrorists rather than managing the threat. Both doubtful American allies and a worried Congress are waiting to hear from a leader who will get out in front of this problem. More leading from behind will not only fail but also conclusively tarnish his legacy forever.

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Obama’s Monty Python Foreign Policy

Speaking to a group of donors gathered at a Democratic National Committee barbecue in Purchase, New York over the weekend, President Obama decided to put his own peculiar spin on world events.

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Speaking to a group of donors gathered at a Democratic National Committee barbecue in Purchase, New York over the weekend, President Obama decided to put his own peculiar spin on world events.

While conceding, “I can see why a lot of folks are troubled,” the president said this: “And the truth of the matter is, is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” According to Mr. Obama, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” (The remark weirdly elicited laugher from his audience.) He added that while the Middle East is challenging, “the truth is it’s been challenging for quite a while.” The president told his audience, “I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago.” In fact, “we are much less vulnerable than we were 10 or 12 or 15 years ago.”

Let’s sort through these comments, shall we?

It’s certainly true that the world has always been messy; but it actually has gotten a good deal messier during the president’s watch. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in a front-page story published earlier this summer, “The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s.” Things have even gotten worse since that story. On Sunday the Washington Post, in front-page story, put things this way:

Short of world war, it’s rare that a chief executive goes through a foreign policy month like President Obama’s August.

U.S. warplanes struck in Iraq for the first time in years, as U.S. diplomats struggled to establish a new government in Baghdad. Islamic State militants beheaded an American journalist in Syria and spread their reach across the Middle East.

War raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In Afghanistan, U.S. plans for an orderly exit at the end of the year teetered on the brink of disaster. Russia all but invaded Ukraine and dared Obama to stop it. Libya descended into violent chaos.

Even since that story, it’s been reported that a political crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan is worsening. And it was confirmed today that ISIS beheaded another American journalist.

In his remarks on Saturday the president seemed to be advancing the thesis of Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My concern is that the president, in taking comfort from long-term trends that are driven by a variety of factors (including the rise of the nation-state, commerce and cosmopolitanism), is underplaying the dangers that characterize this particular moment.

Professor Pinker’s book may well be right in broad historical terms; but it’s the trajectory of events just now that are so alarming. And that’s what the president, I think, is missing. This is a period of rising disorder and instability that could unleash catastrophic consequences. And Mr. Obama has shown he’s wholly unprepared to meet them. He has been completely overmatched by events – confused, hesitant, often passive, sending mixed signals, desperately hoping a deus ex machina arrives in the form of allies who confront these threats in lieu of America leading the effort.

The president made that clear once again during his press conference in Estonia this morning, declaring that “if” we are joined by the “international community,” we can continue to “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

But that “international community” isn’t going to emerge unless America leads the way, which is something the president hasn’t shown any inclination to do. His preference since Day One has been “leading from behind,” in the words of an Obama advisor. Which means not leading at all. It turns out coalitions in the abstract mean nothing at all and can do nothing at all.

The president, rather than facing reality, appears to be turning from it. He looks to be falling deeper into denial. He doesn’t like what’s happening in the real world, so he’s reinventing it. This is how it plays itself out: Mr. Obama now insists he really and truly wanted to keep American troops in Iraq rather than withdraw them. The tide of war is receding. Vladimir Putin’s conquests are a sign of weakness and even unfashionable. (“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” Secretary of State John Kerry said as Russia began its invasion of Crimea earlier this year.) The Libya campaign was a model of success. As recently as the early part of this year, ISIS/ISIL was nothing more than a “jayvee team.” The president’s policies have, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, “improved the — you know, the tranquility of the global community.”

We now have a presidency that resembles a Monty Python movie. Apart from the Islamic State, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Gaza, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Crimea, Ukraine, Russia, China, Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, North Korea, and other nations, the world is a sea of tranquility.

The difference between the Obama presidency and Monty Python is Monty Python was intentional satire.

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That’s Some Jayvee Team, Mr. President

Remember the days when we were told terrorist attacks were “man-caused disaster” and when the massacre of Ft. Hood was an example of “workplace violence”? When we were told core al-Qaeda was “decimated”? And how President Obama would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world?

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Remember the days when we were told terrorist attacks were “man-caused disaster” and when the massacre of Ft. Hood was an example of “workplace violence”? When we were told core al-Qaeda was “decimated”? And how President Obama would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world?

Do you still recall when the president promised he would punish Syria if it crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons? When we were assured that the “tide of war is receding”? And how ISIS was the “jayvee team” of terrorist groups?

That was then. Let me (via Foreign Policy magazine) tell you about now. Buried in a Dell computer captured in Syria, we’re told, are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction. According to the story:

The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia’s northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education: The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.

“The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge,” the document states

… the longer the caliphate exists, the more likely it is that members with a science background will come up with something horrible. The documents found on the laptop of the Tunisian jihadist, meanwhile, leave no room for doubt about the group’s deadly ambitions.

“Use small grenades with the virus, and throw them in closed areas like metros, soccer stadiums, or entertainment centers,” the 19-page document on biological weapons advises. “Best to do it next to the air-conditioning. It also can be used during suicide operations.”

That’s some jayvee team. Some new beginning. Some receding tide.

You’d think that the commander-in-chief might develop a strategy to combat what he himself calls a “cancer.” But you would be wrong. Mr. Obama just yesterday admitted, “We don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS. He might consider getting one. Because ISIS clearly has one. It’s to kill as many Americans as possible.

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Spin Can’t Explain Obama Failure to Lead

From the moment the words, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” left President Obama’s mouth yesterday afternoon, the White House has been in full spin mode trying to rationalize and justify this startling admission about U.S. policy toward the threat from ISIS. But despite all of the explanations that attempt to claim this statement illustrates the president’s thoughtfulness and the chortling of the critics, this was no gaffe in the sense of an accidental revelation of the truth. By answering as he did, the president was signaling not only how unprepared the administration was for the current crisis but his stubborn refusal to lead.

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From the moment the words, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” left President Obama’s mouth yesterday afternoon, the White House has been in full spin mode trying to rationalize and justify this startling admission about U.S. policy toward the threat from ISIS. But despite all of the explanations that attempt to claim this statement illustrates the president’s thoughtfulness and the chortling of the critics, this was no gaffe in the sense of an accidental revelation of the truth. By answering as he did, the president was signaling not only how unprepared the administration was for the current crisis but his stubborn refusal to lead.

The official explanation for the president’s statement has several parts.

One is that the president meant only that there was no strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria but that he did have one that applied to Iraq. But this is nonsensical. As much as the situations in the two countries are different, ISIS doesn’t recognize the border. To pretend that one can fight it in Iraq while leaving its Syrian base unmolested is both illogical and a demonstration of the administration’s incoherence.

A second is that the president is waiting on getting options for action from the Pentagon. If so, one has to ask whether it is possible that the Department of Defense had not prepared contingency plans for the current situation. But that can’t be true. The military has been studying American options on Syria for years, something that was again confirmed today during the Pentagon press briefing. The problem isn’t the lack of options for the president to consider. It’s that the president can’t or won’t decide on one.

The third explanation is that the president is determined that if there is to be action taken against ISIS it must be in concert with other nations in the Middle East and our Western allies. That makes sense. But the question here is why hasn’t the administration already firmed up plans for joint action? It’s not as if Arab nations that are concerned about the rise of ISIS aren’t eager to cooperate with the U.S. about this threat. It’s that the administration can’t make up its mind.

Finally, the explanation put forward by some, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, to the effect that the president is playing possum with ISIS by not revealing his strategy is even dumber than the White House spin. No one is saying that the administration should telegraph its moves to the enemy. But there is a difference between saying we know what we will do but won’t say what it is yet and admitting you don’t have a strategy. The former gives the terrorists something to worry about. The latter makes clear they have little to worry about.

So what is really going on?

The first and most obvious message being sent by President Obama was to his own foreign and defense policy teams. After days of administration officials signaling that action against ISIS in Syria was imminent, the president felt he needed throw some cold water on those expecting a decision, let alone, orders to strike at the Islamists’ bases. As with past deliberations about Syria, there are clearly a lot of people inside the Obama tent who realize that the years of dithering over the crisis there is damaging U.S. credibility as well as allowing the threat to metastasize. But the president may be far more worried about being pressured to act by both members of his own administration as well as political critics than he is about ISIS.

More important and far more dangerous is the message that this statement sent to ISIS.

It is true that the U.S. is already striking ISIS targets in Iraq, a move that has helped stabilize a situation that was quickly getting out of control. The president deserves credit for this. Nor should one underestimate the efforts that U.S. intelligence services are making to address any possible ISIS threats against U.S. targets outside of Syria and Iraq or to try to rescue Americans still being held by these terrorists.

But there is little doubt that ISIS could not help but be encouraged by the president’s obvious reluctance to commit to action.

Even the president’s defenders must acknowledge that the ISIS problem is a direct result of years of administration dithering on Syria. Instead of intervening decisively early in the conflict between the Assad regime and its opponents when American help could have been decisive the president chose to wait and merely called for Assad’s fall. The vacuum created by American and Western indecision made ISIS’s growth possible.

Just as important, Obama’s disastrous failure to follow through on his threat to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” undermined any notion that the West was prepared to enforce its own standards. Critics are right to note that is more than ironic that the president’s indecision about hitting Assad last year and is now behaving similarly when it comes to dealing with the threat that comes from the other side in that civil war. But the main takeaway from this disastrous day of White House messaging is that once again this president is primarily articulating his lack of comfort with a position of international leadership. This president came into office primarily determined to end U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to somehow put a period on the war on terror pursued by his predecessor. He has since learned that merely bugging out of a conflict does not end wars or the threat to U.S. interests and security emanating from Islamist terrorists. But even after his decisions and reluctance to deal decisively with the resurgence of a terrorist movement he pretended was beaten has blown up in his face, the president is still more worried about being pressured to act than anything else.

What the United States lacks today is not a strategy for dealing with ISIS, a group that must be relentlessly attacked and destroyed. What it lacks is a president who has the will to deal with this problem and a belief in the need for America to lead.

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The Price of Wasting Time and Energy

Martin Indyk’s interview with Foreign Policy this week contained many interesting nuggets, but one statement in particular shocked me: “It’s very hard to make the argument that America now has a strategic interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Indyk said. “It’s just one of many conflicts and it’s not the most important and it’s not the most difficult.” What’s shocking about this statement isn’t that it’s false; indeed, it’s admirably clear-eyed. But it bears no relationship to the policy actually followed either by Indyk himself or the administration he served.

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Martin Indyk’s interview with Foreign Policy this week contained many interesting nuggets, but one statement in particular shocked me: “It’s very hard to make the argument that America now has a strategic interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Indyk said. “It’s just one of many conflicts and it’s not the most important and it’s not the most difficult.” What’s shocking about this statement isn’t that it’s false; indeed, it’s admirably clear-eyed. But it bears no relationship to the policy actually followed either by Indyk himself or the administration he served.

Until he resigned this spring, Indyk was Secretary of State John Kerry’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks. In other words, he spent nine months devoting all his time and energy to a problem he himself says America has no “strategic interest” in solving. Moreover, he wasn’t doing so to free up his boss for more strategically important issues; Kerry also devoted more time and energy to this issue – by a large margin – than to anything else on Washington’s foreign policy agenda.

In fact, President Barack Obama and other administration officials repeatedly cited the issue as a top foreign policy priority. In his address to the UN General Assembly last September, for instance, Obama named the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of “two particular issues” American policy in the Middle East and North Africa would focus on, declaring that while it isn’t “the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has “been a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it could “help serve as a foundation for a broader peace.” Back in 2010, he went even further, terming Israeli-Palestinian peace “a vital national security interest of the United States.” Susan Rice, then UN ambassador and now Obama’s national security adviser, also termed Israeli-Palestinian peace “a vital U.S. interest,” while Vice President Joe Biden deemed it “fundamentally in the national security interest of the United States.” Kerry himself hyperbolically declared it the most important issue in the world, asserting that no matter what country he traveled to, it was always the first thing he was asked about.

Such statements were always ludicrous. As I wrote more than a year ago, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict wasn’t even the most important in the Middle East; that title belonged to Syria’s civil war – a fact some Westerners belatedly woke up to after ISIS emerged from Syria to gobble up large swathes of Iraq. Since then, a few other unimportant little conflicts have erupted as well, like Russia’s invasion of Crimea and now, apparently, eastern Ukraine.

This misplaced emphasis on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict carried real costs. Not only did it harm Israelis and Palestinians themselves (as I’ve explained before), but any administration has only so much time, energy and diplomatic capital to spend. So if it wastes a large chunk of that time, energy and diplomatic capital on unimportant issues, it will inevitably short-change more important ones – some of which will then explode in ways extremely detrimental to America. That’s precisely what happened in Syria, which the administration ignored for years while devoting all its efforts to fruitless Israeli-Palestinian talks, only to suddenly discover that the Syrian civil war had spawned an “apocalyptic” terrorist group that poses an “imminent threat” to America.

It’s worth asking why this administration – and others before it – wasted so much time and energy for so long on an issue in which, as Indyk acknowledged, America has no “strategic interest.” It’s also worth asking whether, since Indyk is still advising Kerry on the Middle East, his statement means the administration has finally wised up to its mistake, or only that he himself has sobered up.

But the most important question is when this realization will finally become accepted foreign-policy wisdom. For until it does, each subsequent administration, like all the previous ones, will keep wasting time, energy and diplomatic capital on an unimportant conflict at the expense of the ones that really matter.

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Popularity, Leadership, and War Weariness

It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

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It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

A new Fox News poll continues the steady drumbeat of negative opinion surveys for the president. Though Americans approved of his decision to authorize air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq by an overwhelming 62-25 percent margin, the public’s dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance on virtually every foreign-policy category matches or even exceeds its disapproval of his domestic performance. On Iraq, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Ukraine, and foreign policy in general a majority of Americans gave the president a thumbs down.

While one should be cautious in extrapolating approval for a larger intervention in the Iraq crisis, these numbers ought to sober up many on the left who still seem to think the public is incapable of re-evaluating U.S. policy on even as contentious an issue as the Iraq war. Though it’s doubtful many Americans are eager to revisit the low points of U.S. involvement in Iraq, the assumption that Obama can simply ignore the mess he helped create in the Middle East because Americans are war weary may be incorrect.

Of course, for some in the media it will always be 2006 as far as Iraq is concerned. The New York Times’s publication of a highly offensive “op-art” cartoon by R.O. Blechman mocked the plight of starving Yazidis who are trapped on a mountain while fleeing ISIS murderers illustrated the imbecilic nature of much of what passes for commentary in the liberal mainstream media. Like the way most Americans ignored the plight of the boat people forced to flee South Vietnam after the U.S. abandoned that country to its Communist conquerors, apparently the collateral damage from Obama’s decision to bail on Iraq doesn’t prick the conscience of the Times opinion page editors.

The same spirit was manifested on MSNBC yesterday in an interesting exchange between Rep. Peter King and MSNBC personality Thomas Roberts on the network’s Morning Joe program. The New York Republican was discussing his view that the U.S. needs to be doing more to stop the advance of ISIS terrorists in Iraq when the left-leaning station’s Roberts challenged him, claiming that the American people approved of the president’s bugout from Iraq and that to reverse that verdict in any way merely because of King’s views about the current situation there amounted to anti-democratic activity comparable to that of ISIS.

This is the sort of argument that is so stupid as to be almost not worth refuting, though King did so gallantly despite Roberts’ attempts to shout him down by rightly asserting that if popularity on an issue must dictate policy then Winston Churchill should not have warned Britons of the consequences of popular appeasement stands by their government.

But the problem with the new isolationism that is supposedly sweeping the nation and deterring the administration from taking decisive action to save Kurdistan ad the rest of Iraq from the clutches of ISIS is that to stick to that line you’ve got to ignore the pictures of those starving Yazidis on the mountaintop that the Times dismissed as a bunch of “Arabs” (sic) who had seized on a good tactic to get U.S. assistance.

Americans may not want to pay the full price of involvement in that war but they are also, as the poll numbers indicate, profoundly uncomfortable with the policies of a president who remains bent on facilitating a U.S. retreat from the world stage.

As King correctly said, leadership is not always doing what is popular. Staying out of wars is rarely the sort of thing that gets a politician in trouble. But to assume that standing by impotently as a nation that thousands of Americans died to liberate from Saddam Hussein and to keep out of the clutches of al-Qaeda terrorists is now lost to the same band of Islamist cutthroats is not as smart as the Times and MSNBC may think.

Moreover, as it has been pointed out repeatedly, allowing the so-called “caliphate” established in Syria and Iraq to remain in place unmolested (as opposed to merely saving the Kurds and Yazidis from further incursions) constitutes a profound threat to U.S. security comparable to the re-establishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan as they were prior to 9/11.

Americans are always weary of, or wary of, war until they are attacked. Historians will debate the merits of the original decision to go into Iraq but even if we were to concede it was a mistake, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. The focus of much of the post-9/11 U.S. security policy has been to ensure that the U.S. homeland remains safe. One needn’t be a neoconservative booster of a new Iraq war to understand that in this case apathy about the situation in that country is comparable to complicity in the creation of a new terror base. Preventing that from happening requires leadership. Which is to say that a president who is not afraid to contradict conventional wisdom about Iraq or the need to resist a nuclear Iran is necessary to avert a catastrophe.

President Obama was reelected on a platform that asserted that it was OK to back off from the world stage because Osama bin Laden was dead and al-Qaeda was defeated. As the Benghazi attack and current events in Syria and Iraq prove, that was a false assumption and increasingly Americans realize they were duped. A few opinion polls won’t reverse a decade-long trend but those who take it as a given that non-intervention in Iraq is synonymous with the will of the American people may be misinterpreting a natural reluctance a to re-engage in a difficult conflict. What they want is presidential leadership that will help keep them and the world safe, and that is exactly what they are not getting from President Obama.

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The Return of Senator Hillary

If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

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If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

Let’s specify that the analyses of world problems and policy choices that Clinton articulates in this interview are almost uniformly sensible and are informed by a sensibility that under Obama, the U.S. appears to be withdrawing from the world stage. The contrast with President Obama’s recent defense of his foreign policy in a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman that I discussed yesterday couldn’t be clearer. While attempting to pose as the advocate of a position that is balanced between what she calls the too bellicose policies of George W. Bush and Obama’s retreat, there is a distinctly neo-conservative spirit to Clinton’s remarks in which an American freedom agenda comparable to the U.S.’s Cold War strategy is needed.

Clinton rightly notes that the West’s failure to act in Syria early in the civil war that broke out there three years ago is the root cause of the current catastrophe in Iraq. While the president claims nothing the U.S. could have done in 2011 would have made a difference in Syria, Clinton rightly believes that the administration’s failure to sufficiently back the moderates who started the revolt against Bashar Assad not only ensured the dictator’s survival but also set in motion the chain of events that led to the rise of ISIS and the potential collapse of Iraq.

The former first lady also made it clear that the direction of administration policy on the Iran nuclear negotiations was wrong:

“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran.

Again, this is a direct rebuke of the decision of her successor John Kerry’s policies. Kerry tacitly recognized an Iranian right to enrichment in the weak interim deal signed with Tehran last November. She also seemed to be staking out a position in opposition to the administration’s likely acceptance of a deal that would leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact while dismantling the international sanctions that she labored to put in place.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton sounded more like a candidate for a New York Senate seat than one seeking the nomination of the party whose supporters are, polls show, less supportive of Israel than the Republicans. Clinton not only took direct aim at some of Israel’s administration critics of its military tactics in Gaza but she more or less endorsed the Netanyahu government’s inclination to avoid any further territorial withdrawals on the West Bank—such as those advocated by President Obama—in the absence of credible security guarantees that are obviously not forthcoming. She also rightly noted the role that anti-Semitism plays in the protests against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism.

Even more telling is that Clinton seemed to be saying that the basic underpinning of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs is basically clueless:

She finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She’s completely right about that, but what do we make of this decision by Clinton to draw a sharp distinction between her approach and those of the president she served for four years?

On the one hand, Clinton’s willingness to criticize Obama, especially on Syria, Israel, and Iran, is most welcome. At a time when the president’s feckless foreign policy is spreading chaos, it is high time that some one in the Democratic Party noted his failures and proposed something different.

But what Clinton doesn’t tell us is why we should take her current common sense seriously when her record as secretary of state showed that she was just as culpable for Obama’s bad record on foreign policy as the president. These are, after all, very similar to the positions she articulated in 2008 when she first ran for president and before that when she was a senator from New York.

While Clinton claims in her latest memoir to have been the voice of reason on Syria within administration counsels, there’s no evidence that she was successful or that she influenced Obama on Israel or Iran. Indeed, she played the point person at times in the president’s efforts to undermine and pressure Netanyahu. The insincerity of her latest switch (she embraced Suha Arafat while first lady and then sounded like a Likudnik while running for the Senate) is so brazen that it is almost shocking.

Even more to the point, her about face on the administration shows that the most important line on her resume is somewhat misleading. While her supporters claim she was a great secretary of state, the reality is that she was a doormat at Foggy Bottom who had little or no influence on policy except on issues like Russia, where she also failed (such as the “reset”).

As far as 2016 is concerned, what is significant about these remarks is that they seem to reflect a belief that she has truly cleared the field of potential challengers. Her foreign-policy centrism is bound to be unpopular with the liberal Democratic base and might make her vulnerable if she had a viable primary opponent. But in the absence of a new Barack Obama or even someone who would only give her a good scare, Clinton seems to think that she can start her general-election campaign more than two years before facing the voters. That gives her a tremendous advantage, especially given the divisions among Republicans on foreign policy.

But as much as this interview signals her confidence, it is also a warning sign that Clinton may not have as easy a time rallying her base as she thinks. Though she may not get a primary opponent, her decision to give the back of her hand to Obama and the left-wing core of her party may yet backfire in the form of a less enthusiastic liberal base that could come back to haunt her when it is time for them to turn out to elect her president.

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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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