Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Russia relations

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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Russia Oil Deal May Doom Iran Diplomacy

With Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace fiasco and Russia’s threats to Ukraine dominating foreign news, the administration’s quest to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via diplomacy has been off the front pages lately. But with the next round of the P5+1 talks starting this week the gap between President Obama’s promises about halting the Iranian nuclear threat and the reality of a diplomatic stalemate ought to inspire more concern than it is currently getting. The chief complication for Obama and Kerry’s strategy of a multilateral talks and Western concessions on sanctions intended to beguile Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambition is the fact that the administration’s policy is dependent on the one country that has the least interest in gratifying the president these days: Russia.

Vladimir Putin has always been the weak link in the Western attempt to bribe Iran to give up its nuclear program. It’s not just that Moscow’s extensive trade ties and potential weapons sales complicate the attempt by the administration to orchestrate Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation. It’s that the core purposes of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and to frustrate American policy goals every chance they get. Thus, when Reuters reported last week that Russia is planning on a massive oil-for-goods deal with Iran that would make a mockery of the “crippling” sanctions that the administration has said are sufficient to influence the Islamist regime, it was clear that the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine would undermine any hope that Putin would play along with the P5+1 game plan. But now, as Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast, the possibility that Putin will use sales of S-300 missiles that could defend Iran’s nuclear sites may put an end to any chance that the West could stop Iran. It also shows that despite Obama and Kerry’s brave talk about pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine alone, it may be that Putin has more leverage on them than they do on him.

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With Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace fiasco and Russia’s threats to Ukraine dominating foreign news, the administration’s quest to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via diplomacy has been off the front pages lately. But with the next round of the P5+1 talks starting this week the gap between President Obama’s promises about halting the Iranian nuclear threat and the reality of a diplomatic stalemate ought to inspire more concern than it is currently getting. The chief complication for Obama and Kerry’s strategy of a multilateral talks and Western concessions on sanctions intended to beguile Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambition is the fact that the administration’s policy is dependent on the one country that has the least interest in gratifying the president these days: Russia.

Vladimir Putin has always been the weak link in the Western attempt to bribe Iran to give up its nuclear program. It’s not just that Moscow’s extensive trade ties and potential weapons sales complicate the attempt by the administration to orchestrate Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation. It’s that the core purposes of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and to frustrate American policy goals every chance they get. Thus, when Reuters reported last week that Russia is planning on a massive oil-for-goods deal with Iran that would make a mockery of the “crippling” sanctions that the administration has said are sufficient to influence the Islamist regime, it was clear that the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine would undermine any hope that Putin would play along with the P5+1 game plan. But now, as Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast, the possibility that Putin will use sales of S-300 missiles that could defend Iran’s nuclear sites may put an end to any chance that the West could stop Iran. It also shows that despite Obama and Kerry’s brave talk about pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine alone, it may be that Putin has more leverage on them than they do on him.

The administration has been saying that the Russians have not tried to establish any linkage between their dispute over Ukraine and their role in the Iran negotiations. But Putin doesn’t have to draw any pictures or make any threats to make his position known. Though the Russians have their own reasons for worrying about a nuclear Iran, they have always been reluctant members of the P5+1 group and have been allowed by Obama’s “lead from behind” approach to act, along with China, as a brake on any international effort to isolate Iran.

Having already signed a weak interim deal that both granted tacit recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and weakened sanctions, the U.S. has far less leverage over Tehran than it did only six months ago. And now, armed with the knowledge that Russia can squeeze the West and slow down diplomatic process even more from its already glacial pace, there is absolutely no reason for the Iranians not to keep stalling and prevaricating in the P5+1 talks. There was already very little hope that the talks would not drag on into the summer and fall and then into 2015. But if, as is likely, Russia inks the oil-for-goods deal by August, the already tottering sanctions process may begin to collapse. Though Obama has given himself credit for showing patience in his approach to Iran, that may now translate into a delay that will allow the Russians to sink his diplomatic strategy long before the Iranians felt the least pressure to give ground in the talks.

President Obama spent his first term attempting to “reset” relations with Russia in part to help ease the way for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat. But with the reset now shown to be a joke and little hope of either restraining Russia in Ukraine or in getting them to help on Iran, it appears that the “window of diplomacy” the administration has depended on may prove to be a disaster not only for the Middle East but also for the future of Europe.

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Kerry’s Hubris Leads to a Great Fall

It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

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It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

In a rare example of agreement between the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both ridiculed Kerry’s use of Pollard as a pathetic Hail Mary pass to revive the peace negotiations that had been scuttled by Abbas. Though the two papers came at the issue from different perspectives—the Journal correctly thought it was wrong to trade a spy for the terrorist murderers Abbas wanted Israel to free while the Times thought that the gesture would advance the negotiations—they spoke for just about everybody inside and outside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment in declaring the Pollard gambit to be a sign of desperation on the part of the secretary.

The problem here isn’t just that including Pollard in the talks was wrong-headed and unlikely to yield positive results. It’s that Kerry is so invested in trying to prop up a process that never had a chance of success that he’s willing to gamble with America’s credibility. While he proved able to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, Kerry’s naïve miscalculation about Abbas being willing or able to make peace has led to the current stalemate. Even worse, Kerry’s desperation has emboldened Abbas to keep asking for more and more with no sign that he will ever risk signing a deal that will end the conflict. The talk about Pollard is significant not just because it’s a bad idea but because it reflects American weakness rather than boldness.

But while Kerry’s self-image is sufficiently grandiose to insulate him against criticisms, those who will pay the price for his failures will not be so fortunate. The Ukrainians know they cannot count on the U.S., and by raising expectations that were inevitably dashed the secretary has increased the chances of violence in the wake of his Middle East fiasco. Nor will those who may eventually be faced with the reality of an Iranian bomb remember him kindly. Not long ago liberal pundits were singing his praises. Now he should consider himself lucky if he is not soon considered a consensus choice for the title of the worst secretary of state in recent memory.

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Russia Threatens More Than Neighbors

Today while speaking at The Hague during a meeting of the newly contracted G-7 Nations, President Obama threatened Russia with expanded sanctions. But he also made it clear that he isn’t that worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Dismissing the complaints from conservatives who remember how he scoffed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” the president asserted that Moscow’s aggression was a sign of its weakness, not strength, and that it was a threat to its neighbors, not to the United States. He was, he said, more concerned about “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

The president is correct that the Russians are not likely to be aiming their nukes at the United States or invading our shores. He is also right to be focused on the still potent threat from Islamist terrorism that has persisted even after the strike on Osama bin Laden, whose death at the hands of Navy SEALs was used by the administration in 2012 as a sign that the war on terror was finished. But he’s dead wrong about the trouble that the Putin regime can cause for the United States. Putin can make trouble for more than the Eastern European countries that still remember their oppression at the hands of his Soviet and tsarist predecessors. By basing so much of his foreign policy on the assumption that Russia can be persuaded to go along with American initiatives in the Middle East that will allow Obama to withdraw from the world stage while “leading from behind,” the president finds himself not only coping with the implications of Putin’s aggression in Europe but the prospect of being blackmailed by Moscow over issues like Iran and Syria.

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Today while speaking at The Hague during a meeting of the newly contracted G-7 Nations, President Obama threatened Russia with expanded sanctions. But he also made it clear that he isn’t that worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Dismissing the complaints from conservatives who remember how he scoffed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” the president asserted that Moscow’s aggression was a sign of its weakness, not strength, and that it was a threat to its neighbors, not to the United States. He was, he said, more concerned about “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

The president is correct that the Russians are not likely to be aiming their nukes at the United States or invading our shores. He is also right to be focused on the still potent threat from Islamist terrorism that has persisted even after the strike on Osama bin Laden, whose death at the hands of Navy SEALs was used by the administration in 2012 as a sign that the war on terror was finished. But he’s dead wrong about the trouble that the Putin regime can cause for the United States. Putin can make trouble for more than the Eastern European countries that still remember their oppression at the hands of his Soviet and tsarist predecessors. By basing so much of his foreign policy on the assumption that Russia can be persuaded to go along with American initiatives in the Middle East that will allow Obama to withdraw from the world stage while “leading from behind,” the president finds himself not only coping with the implications of Putin’s aggression in Europe but the prospect of being blackmailed by Moscow over issues like Iran and Syria.

The administration is characteristically attempting to have it both ways on the struggle between Russia and Ukraine. On the one hand he understands that the man who is still seen as the leader of the free world cannot be seen to stand by mutely while a democratic nation that looks to the West for protection is dismembered and perhaps swallowed whole by its former Russian masters. Yet, Obama has spared no effort to make it clear that he will not allow the seizure of Crimea or even a possible invasion of eastern Ukraine to draw him into a fight with Putin.

No one imagines that the U.S. would involve itself in a direct confrontation on the territory of a non-NATO nation in Europe. But Obama’s slowness to react to the attack on Ukraine with serious sanctions or the aid that might allow Kiev to put up a fight on its own was not missed in Moscow. While Putin’s government may be weak in terms of its economic and military might when compared to the sole superpower left in the world, it is still more than a match for the region. A Russia that feels undeterred by Obama’s taunts poses a potent challenge not only to the Ukraine but also to the Baltic republics and Poland. If the president doesn’t understand how threats to these NATO members could draw the United States into conflicts for which it is not prepared, he isn’t paying attention.

Even more to the point, Russia is a crucial element in any effort to restrain Iran via diplomacy or to broker some sort of resolution to the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. That they are in the catbird seat on these important issues is due solely to the miscalculations of the president and his two secretaries of state who gambled America’s influence on a farcical attempt at a “reset” with Russia that is still impairing Washington’s ability to think straight about Moscow. The president still seems unable to wrap his head around the fact that Russian foreign policy is rooted in two overriding goals: to reassemble the Tsarist/Soviet empire and to thwart the U.S. at every possible opportunity.

Russia may not be thinking about dropping a bomb on Manhattan and for that we should be grateful. How do you characterize a country that can swallow democratic nations whole without fear of Western retribution, involve the U.S. in conflicts to defend NATO members and sabotage efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program while potentially pushing the U.S. out of the Middle East? If that’s not a top geostrategic foe that the president should be worried about, then I’d like to know what he thinks one would look like.

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Obama Needs Israel to Rattle Its Saber

The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.

If so, where does that leave Israel?

The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.

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The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.

If so, where does that leave Israel?

The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.

As Haaretz reported today,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon have ordered the army to continue preparing for a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities at a cost of at least 10 billion shekels ($2.89 billion) this year, despite the talks between Iran and the West, according to recent statements by senior military officers.

Three Knesset members who were present at Knesset joint committee hearings on Israel Defense Forces plans that were held in January and February say they learned during the hearings that 10 billion shekels to 12 billion shekels of the defense budget would be allocated this year for preparations for a strike on Iran, approximately the same amount that was allocated in 2013.

The leaking of this information this week makes it clear that Netanyahu would like both the Iranians and his American ally to think that he is still actively considering a unilateral strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities. The same interpretation might be put on statements from Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who boasted yesterday that the IDF has the ability to carry out military operations anywhere on the globe, including Iran.

Opposition to a solo Israeli attack on Iran has been stiff within the country’s military and security establishment. This reluctance has been rooted not so much in a belief that Israel was incapable of dealing Iran a devastating blow but that the blowback from such an operation might be almost as bad as the scenario that it would be intended to avert. Even assuming Israeli forces could make enough sorties into Iranian airspace to knock out Tehran’s nuclear facilities without unacceptable losses, it might set off a regional conflict. Iran’s Hezbollah allies on Israel’s northern border and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the south in Gaza might launch their own strikes at Israeli cities and embroil the country in a costly three-front war.

Just as important, many Israeli security officials have always felt that dealing with Iran was primarily America’s responsibility. If push came to shove, the far more numerous American air and naval forces in the region would also be in a much better position to do the job. Moreover, they also know that if it did act on its own, Israel risks deepening its diplomatic isolation and creating more problems with the Obama administration.

But if, thanks to Russia, America’s diplomatic option to stop Iran is no longer viable and few take seriously the notion that President Obama would use force against Tehran under any circumstances, that would put Netanyahu in a position where he might think the IDF was the last and perhaps only hope of preventing an Iranian bomb.

While Netanyahu has said he won’t be deterred from acting by American diplomacy, anyone who thinks he will order an attack on Iran while the P5+1 talks are ongoing is not thinking clearly. An Israeli attack under those circumstances would create a quarrel with Washington that the prime minister rightly wishes to avoid at all costs. Force only becomes a possibility once those talks are seen to have failed and even then both Obama and the Iranians may think the Israelis wouldn’t dare act on their own. Only time will tell if they are right.

Nevertheless, Obama should be encouraging Netanyahu to rattle his saber as loudly and as much as possible. With Russia determined to thwart any U.S. foreign-policy initiative, the only possible hope for a P5+1 deal is for Iran to believe that the alternative is an Israeli attack that, however costly, would inflict a decisive blow to their nuclear ambitions.

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Hillary’s Russia Problem More Than ‘Reset’

Hillary Clinton, a presumptive contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, chose Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, to be a top aide for Clinton’s presumptive run. Tauscher is a long-time loyal ally to Clinton, who brought her in to handle arms control during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State. As they say in Washington, personnel is policy, as Clinton presumably wanted a Russophile to be her top aide. While working for Clinton, Tauscher was a key advocate for the START agreement.  At the time, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, outlined several concerns, which Tauscher pooh-poohed. After all, Tauscher argued, the Cold War was over and the Russians could be trusted. The need to work with divergent interests and views necessarily constrains government officials. Seldom does anyone have enough power to push his or her views in their entirety over career bureaucrats and political appointees who might have different views. The true test of one’s opinion, therefore, is what they do when they are outside government.

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Hillary Clinton, a presumptive contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, chose Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, to be a top aide for Clinton’s presumptive run. Tauscher is a long-time loyal ally to Clinton, who brought her in to handle arms control during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State. As they say in Washington, personnel is policy, as Clinton presumably wanted a Russophile to be her top aide. While working for Clinton, Tauscher was a key advocate for the START agreement.  At the time, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, outlined several concerns, which Tauscher pooh-poohed. After all, Tauscher argued, the Cold War was over and the Russians could be trusted. The need to work with divergent interests and views necessarily constrains government officials. Seldom does anyone have enough power to push his or her views in their entirety over career bureaucrats and political appointees who might have different views. The true test of one’s opinion, therefore, is what they do when they are outside government.

Tauscher joined the Atlantic Council; there is nothing wrong with that: The Atlantic Council is home to an impressive array of former officials.  Tauscher, however, used her perch to launch a project to push her personal re-set even further. Here is the press release announcing her initiative:

The Atlantic Council and the Russian International Affairs Council today launched a new initiative to help reframe US-Russia relations and get past the Cold War-era nuclear legacy in our relationship, particularly the dominant paradigm of “mutual assured destruction.” The goal is to reconfigure the bilateral relationship towards “mutual assured stability” and refocus arms control and disarmament toward the development of reassuring measures, and thus help promote closer cooperation between Russia and the West.

The problem, in Tauscher’s view, was that President Obama hadn’t gone far enough in pushing détente with Russia. “We are committed to help our respective authorities revitalize US-Russia relations in this direction,” she declared. She did, however, continue in the same statement to praise the Obama administration’s decision to cancel missile defense projects promised to Poland and the Czech Republic.

What isn’t quite as obvious from the statement is the apparent funding for Tauscher’s “Mutually Assured Stability” initiative. She (and the Atlantic Council, at the time chaired by Chuck Hagel, Obama’s subsequent pick to be Defense Secretary) entered into partnership with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). That sounds innocuous enough, unless one realizes that RIAC is actually funded by the Kremlin and remains a Kremlin-front. Alas, it would not be that much of an exaggeration to say that the woman whom Hillary Clinton considers her top advisor on Russia, arms control, and perhaps more broadly foreign policy effectively put herself partly in Russia’s pocket. Her actions were legal, but there is a sharp difference between legality and good judgment.

Where does Clinton really stand on Russia? Russia’s invasion of Crimea should be pause to consider what lessons should be learned. Alas, if her reliance on Tauscher is any indication, Clinton’s “re-set” moment was not simply a photo-op gone awry; it is symptomatic of bad judgment and a continuing self-destructive embrace.

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Obama’s Afghan Strategy Helps Putin

Vladimir Putin is Machiavelli. He waited until he had a strong hand and he played it. President Obama and his European counterparts might hem and haw, but the worst Putin likely expects from them is being put on double secret probation. Europe has always been mercantile, unwilling to give up short-term profit for the sake of long-term security, hence the constant efforts by countries like Germany and Italy to dilute Iran. Putin, however, also has leverage over Europe because many European countries depend on Russian pipelines for their gas.

Such leverage is bad enough, but Obama has enabled Putin to turn his full house into a royal flush. By imposing a political timeline for withdrawal on Afghanistan, Obama has given Putin sway over the ability of American forces to withdrawal their equipment from Afghanistan. Obama now faces a choice: Risk American equipment transiting Russia, or succumb to Pakistani blackmail which can be just as costly. There will be many reverberations and second order effects because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Emboldening Putin is only the first.

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Vladimir Putin is Machiavelli. He waited until he had a strong hand and he played it. President Obama and his European counterparts might hem and haw, but the worst Putin likely expects from them is being put on double secret probation. Europe has always been mercantile, unwilling to give up short-term profit for the sake of long-term security, hence the constant efforts by countries like Germany and Italy to dilute Iran. Putin, however, also has leverage over Europe because many European countries depend on Russian pipelines for their gas.

Such leverage is bad enough, but Obama has enabled Putin to turn his full house into a royal flush. By imposing a political timeline for withdrawal on Afghanistan, Obama has given Putin sway over the ability of American forces to withdrawal their equipment from Afghanistan. Obama now faces a choice: Risk American equipment transiting Russia, or succumb to Pakistani blackmail which can be just as costly. There will be many reverberations and second order effects because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Emboldening Putin is only the first.

Of course, just as Putin has called Obama’s bluff, it is possible that Obama could call Putin’s. Rather than withdrawing from Afghanistan in the midst of an election when security is most needed, and rather than slash defense to pre-World War II levels against the backdrop of international chaos, Obama could reconsider the investment needed to secure America’s place in the world and, indeed, to secure greater peace in the world. If Obama altered his arbitrary deadline in Afghanistan, he would instantly undercut Putin’s leverage. That would assume, however, that Obama cared about America’s place in the world or the freedom of its allies. That he does not—and that he gratuitously increases the power and position of American adversaries—is becoming hard to deny.

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Obama Wasn’t Alone Misreading Putin

Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

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Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

One of the revelations learned while writing my new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, a study of a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the U.S. military spends more time in the classroom identifying and discussing mistakes than they often do in the field so that they can become better soldiers, sailors, and pilots. The State Department, however, has never convened a lessons learned exercise to determine why its approach on any episode has failed. If John Kerry is truly serious about being a diplomatic leader, he could do nothing better than convene a deep review of the “Reset” with Russia, its origins, the metrics by which the State Department planned to judge it, if they even bothered with metrics, and where they might have caught Putin’s insincerity. It’s not shameful to examine mistakes; it is crucial.

Alas, absent such a measure, expect the United States to get played far more in the coming years by enemies like Putin not because of the current occupant of the Oval Office, but rather because the philosophy he represents is taken as unquestioned wisdom among America’s professional diplomats.

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Russia to Proceed with Iran Missile Sale?

My colleague Leon Aron has pointed out, based on Russian press reports, that it appears that Vladimir Putin now plans to move ahead with the sale of a missile network more advanced than the cancelled S-300 anti-aircraft system to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over at AEI-Ideas, Aron explains:

Former President Dmitri Medvedev annulled the original $800 million sale of five S-300 missiles after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2010. Recent reports have indicated that Russia may supply Iran with the more modern Antey-2500 systems, which are said to be more advanced than the originals, with a target range almost doubled from 150 kilometers [93 miles] to 250 kilometers [155 miles]. Given the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, the sale, if it is finalized, ought to surprise no one. Putin seems to be applying the “Syrian formula,” which the Russian president so successfully tested last month, again. As it did in regard to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Russia continues to deny that Iran is enriching uranium to make a bomb. And, just as with the Syrian case, Russia provides diplomatic cover for the offending regime by ensuring that no use of force will ever be authorized by the Security Council in the event of non-compliance (all the while supplying weapons to its authoritarian pal). Putin’s dealings with Syria and now with Iran can be explained by the Russian president’s objectives:  to recover the Soviet Union’s position as a key player in the Middle East; to prevent or impede a victory of, or even concession to, US diplomacy; and, most importantly, to avert regime change, or even a compromise with the political opposition, anywhere or under any circumstances, especially if the country in question is a former Soviet (or current Russian) ally and client.

Aron is correct in his reading of Russia, and has consistently been so. Obama’s more partisan cheerleaders may praise his first-term “reset” and second-term “breakthrough” on Syria, but the fact remains that this White House and both the Clinton and Kerry State Departments have consistently misread Russian intentions (to be fair, so did George W. Bush when he said he could see Putin’s soul).

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My colleague Leon Aron has pointed out, based on Russian press reports, that it appears that Vladimir Putin now plans to move ahead with the sale of a missile network more advanced than the cancelled S-300 anti-aircraft system to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over at AEI-Ideas, Aron explains:

Former President Dmitri Medvedev annulled the original $800 million sale of five S-300 missiles after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2010. Recent reports have indicated that Russia may supply Iran with the more modern Antey-2500 systems, which are said to be more advanced than the originals, with a target range almost doubled from 150 kilometers [93 miles] to 250 kilometers [155 miles]. Given the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, the sale, if it is finalized, ought to surprise no one. Putin seems to be applying the “Syrian formula,” which the Russian president so successfully tested last month, again. As it did in regard to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Russia continues to deny that Iran is enriching uranium to make a bomb. And, just as with the Syrian case, Russia provides diplomatic cover for the offending regime by ensuring that no use of force will ever be authorized by the Security Council in the event of non-compliance (all the while supplying weapons to its authoritarian pal). Putin’s dealings with Syria and now with Iran can be explained by the Russian president’s objectives:  to recover the Soviet Union’s position as a key player in the Middle East; to prevent or impede a victory of, or even concession to, US diplomacy; and, most importantly, to avert regime change, or even a compromise with the political opposition, anywhere or under any circumstances, especially if the country in question is a former Soviet (or current Russian) ally and client.

Aron is correct in his reading of Russia, and has consistently been so. Obama’s more partisan cheerleaders may praise his first-term “reset” and second-term “breakthrough” on Syria, but the fact remains that this White House and both the Clinton and Kerry State Departments have consistently misread Russian intentions (to be fair, so did George W. Bush when he said he could see Putin’s soul).

Russia sees diplomacy as a zero-sum game. While Russia is simply an adversary and not by any means a rogue regime, the notion of winner-take-all diplomacy is a common element of the rogue regime mentality. Alas, Obama refuses to recognize that he is getting played and, in doing so, putting American allies in a perilous position.

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Putin Dooms Obama’s Iran Strategy

With the survival of his Syrian client looking more assured these days, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned his gaze to Iran. In a televised session with his state-run media, Putin proclaimed that Tehran was “adhering to the rules” in its nuclear program and said the United States was wrong for the way it “uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or nonexistent threat.” Though Putin thought Iran’s threats against Israel are “unacceptable,” he made it clear that he would not support further pressure against the Islamist regime on the nuclear question.

Washington is distracted right now with scandals and events in Syria and Turkey but President Obama should have been paying very close attention to Putin’s statements. So much of the administration’s foreign policy strategy has hinged on his plan for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question that will allow Obama to avoid ever having to choose between the dangers of containment and the use of military force. But with Putin laying down a marker that makes it clear Russia will never go along with an international consensus seeking to stop Iran’s nuclear quest, the ultimate failure of a U.S. strategy that relies solely on sanctions and diplomacy is assured. As much as Obama may wish to avoid facing the truth, Putin’s talk was a reminder not only of the danger looming ahead in the remaining years of his presidency, but of the consequences of his feckless policy of delay and indecision on Syria.

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With the survival of his Syrian client looking more assured these days, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned his gaze to Iran. In a televised session with his state-run media, Putin proclaimed that Tehran was “adhering to the rules” in its nuclear program and said the United States was wrong for the way it “uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or nonexistent threat.” Though Putin thought Iran’s threats against Israel are “unacceptable,” he made it clear that he would not support further pressure against the Islamist regime on the nuclear question.

Washington is distracted right now with scandals and events in Syria and Turkey but President Obama should have been paying very close attention to Putin’s statements. So much of the administration’s foreign policy strategy has hinged on his plan for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question that will allow Obama to avoid ever having to choose between the dangers of containment and the use of military force. But with Putin laying down a marker that makes it clear Russia will never go along with an international consensus seeking to stop Iran’s nuclear quest, the ultimate failure of a U.S. strategy that relies solely on sanctions and diplomacy is assured. As much as Obama may wish to avoid facing the truth, Putin’s talk was a reminder not only of the danger looming ahead in the remaining years of his presidency, but of the consequences of his feckless policy of delay and indecision on Syria.

For much of his first four and a half years in office, Obama’s foreign policy has been focused on trying to build an international coalition that would act to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions. Adding Russia to that group was essential to the plan’s success. But though the Russians have joined the P5+1 group that has been trying—and failing miserably—to negotiate with Iran, their presence in the room has been more of an obstacle than a help. Russia not only continues to help Tehran evade sanctions, but it acts as a brake on the efforts of the European Union and the United States to credibly threaten Iran with consequences if it continues to prevaricate on the nuclear question. Though first Secretary of State Clinton and now her successor John Kerry have tried to sweet talk Putin into the camp of those seeking to restrain Iran, he has laughed at their efforts and doubled down on his defiance.

Relying on Russia to make diplomacy work was never going to succeed because the keynote of Putin’s foreign policy will always center around his desire to frustrate the Americans whenever possible. Putin wishes to recreate the Soviet, if not the Tsarist, empire, and that means sticking a finger in the eye of the only real superpower in the world whenever possible.

Obama never had much chance of getting Russia to listen to reason on Iran, but his decision to punt on the question of acting to force Putin’s sole foreign client has significantly complicated things on Iran. Had the U.S. acted decisively during the early stages of the crisis in Syria, Russia might have been chastened and realized that it hadn’t the ability to pursue an independent course bent on obstructing U.S. aims in the Middle East. But instead Obama dithered, giving Russia and Iran the time to bolster the Assad regime with military aid and diplomatic support. While Obama foolishly kept predicting Assad’s inevitable fall, Putin and the ayatollahs worked to keep that from happening. With Assad now on the offensive and the American position on action in Syria having moved from worries about acting too early to an acknowledgement that it is now too late, Putin is justified in crowing about his triumph. The announcement that Russia would deliver missiles to Damascus–which would be aimed at Western forces seeking to enforce a potential no-fly zone in Syria–after Kerry journeyed to Moscow to beg that they forebear from such a provocative move crystallized the collapse of Obama’s Russian strategy.

Having won on Syria, there is now even less reason for Putin to cooperate on Iran. Though the Russian authoritarian wishes that Tehran would stop making statements about their intentions toward Israel that illustrate just how dangerous an Iranian nuke would be, Putin has backed Obama into a corner. For years, Obama has pretended that he could talk his way out of having to act on Iran, but the president must now understand that his choices are limited to force and containment. Both are problematic, but the latter means accepting a permanent strategic threat to U.S. allies that is a formula for future violence. 

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Russians Think Obama Will Bail on Syria

American cable news stations devoted a lot of airtime today to Senator John McCain’s surprising visit to Syria where he met with the leader of a moderate rebel faction. The trip was supposed to focus attention on the effort to influence the West to aid the rebels, or at least those rebel factions that are not tainted by association with Al Qaeda terrorists. But while McCain restarted the conversation about the need for the U.S. to stop pretending it can ignore the crisis in that war torn country, his venture was actually overshadowed by the Russian announcement that it would persist in its determination to sell air defense missiles to the embattled Assad government.

It is still possible that the West will act to prevent more bloodshed and to make good on President Obama’s prediction. But the Russian decision to stand by their Syrian ally effectively renders McCain’s quest moot. Though Israel has issued a warning to Russia that any such missiles — and by extension the personnel servicing them — could be targeted by airstrikes, Moscow’s willingness to stake its reputation on Assad’s survival is likely enough to deter even the possibility of action by President Obama with the added bonus that doing so humiliates Secretary of State John Kerry after he trooped to Moscow to plead with the Russians not to do it. Though the Russians may not want to tangle with the West or even the Israelis, they seem to be betting that a U.S. president that prefers to lead from behind can be counted on to stay out of any conflict where there is a risk of confrontation. They may be bluffing but it’s hard to argue with their reasoning.

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American cable news stations devoted a lot of airtime today to Senator John McCain’s surprising visit to Syria where he met with the leader of a moderate rebel faction. The trip was supposed to focus attention on the effort to influence the West to aid the rebels, or at least those rebel factions that are not tainted by association with Al Qaeda terrorists. But while McCain restarted the conversation about the need for the U.S. to stop pretending it can ignore the crisis in that war torn country, his venture was actually overshadowed by the Russian announcement that it would persist in its determination to sell air defense missiles to the embattled Assad government.

It is still possible that the West will act to prevent more bloodshed and to make good on President Obama’s prediction. But the Russian decision to stand by their Syrian ally effectively renders McCain’s quest moot. Though Israel has issued a warning to Russia that any such missiles — and by extension the personnel servicing them — could be targeted by airstrikes, Moscow’s willingness to stake its reputation on Assad’s survival is likely enough to deter even the possibility of action by President Obama with the added bonus that doing so humiliates Secretary of State John Kerry after he trooped to Moscow to plead with the Russians not to do it. Though the Russians may not want to tangle with the West or even the Israelis, they seem to be betting that a U.S. president that prefers to lead from behind can be counted on to stay out of any conflict where there is a risk of confrontation. They may be bluffing but it’s hard to argue with their reasoning.

 There is a case to be made that the time has past when U.S. intervention in Syria could shape events to our liking. Had President Obama acted at the outset of the protests against the Assad regime there was a reasonable chance a moderate government could have been put together to replace the dictator. But two years and 80,000 dead later, the conflict has become a bloody standoff with Al Qaeda types taking an increasingly large role in the rebellion and Assad’s forces being stiffened by Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah “volunteers.” Though I believe Assad’s victory — and by extension the boost that would give Iran and Hezbollah — would be worse for the United States and the region than the creation of Iraq-style chaos if the country disintegrates, it is difficult to argue that either outcome is to the benefit of either the West or America.

The shipment of advanced missiles to Syria may be intended to deter the West from using air power to help the Syrian rebels or even from instituting a no fly zone inside the country. But the wild card here is that Israel has its own priorities and they don’t concern which band of cutthroats is running things in Damascus. What they can’t tolerate is having advanced weaponry placed in the hands of Assad’s terrorist allies.

Of course, it may be as long as year before the missiles can be delivered and Syrian crews are trained to use them. A lot can happen between now and then. But the main point is that Russia is hoping that its intervention will nevertheless serve to keep its friend afloat while frustrating a timorous American administration that would prefer to pretend that its conflict with Islamist extremists is over. The net result is bound to not only keep a butcher in power in Damascus to embolden an Iranian government that is the prime threat to peace in the region.

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The Russians Are Happy with John Kerry

Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.

This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.

While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.

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Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.

This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.

While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.

The premise of the Times feature is quite clear. While Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton worked hard to butter up the Russians and get them to play ball, Putin and his minions were displeased by her occasional willingness to speak up about human rights violations as well as her assertive statements about Iran and Syria. But in Kerry Moscow has found its perfect American secretary of state: a man willing to both appease them on policy as well as one determined not to offend their sensibilities. As the Times notes, Putin and Lavrov like Kerry a lot more than they did Clinton, let alone her predecessor Condoleezza Rice.

Lavrov appears to have Kerry’s number. It is hardly surprising that Kerry, who once embraced Assad as a moderate, would turn out to be a spineless secretary of state on this front. Sweet-talking the secretary and appealing to his delusions about his diplomatic skill have enabled them to double down on their efforts to strengthen Assad without incurring much American outrage. Kerry is so happy with the idea of a conference where he can play Metternich that he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the plans for this conclave are serving to delay any American action to punish Assad for crossing President Obama’s red lines about the use of chemical weapons. And Assad is using the time the Russians have helped buy him well, as his forces have gained considerable ground in recent weeks making it more likely than ever that Obama and Kerry’s predictions about his fall were wrong.

Yet Kerry seems satisfied by what, as one source told the Times, is his rapport with Lavrov. We are told the two have bonded over “their mutual love for hockey and the grace of the older school style.”

But the main result of all this schmoozing is the stark fact that the bottom line here is that the United States has buckled under to Moscow:

Mikhail V. Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, said that Russia’s position on Syria had been consistent and that Mr. Kerry had finally accepted it.

John Kerry isn’t the first American to be taken to the cleaners by the Russians, but it’s doubtful that any of his predecessors were fleeced so effortlessly. 

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Obama Fails to Sweet Talk Putin

At today’s meeting in Mexico between President Obama and his Russian counterpart, the U.S. leader sought to persuade Vladimir Putin that America had no desire to come between Moscow and its loyal client state Syria. Counting on his personal charm and instinctive belief that a demonstration of his good will toward those who are hostile to the United States will solve most problems, Obama thought he could convince Putin to back off on his support for the murderous Assad regime and join the West in pushing for an end to the slaughter in Syria. But the grim look on the faces of both Obama and Putin after they endured two hours of each other’s company indicates just how badly the American failed.

Obama’s attempt to sweet talk the former KGB agent went about as well as some of his previous efforts to apologize his way into foreign popularity. It’s not just that Putin doesn’t trust Obama — though he obviously doesn’t — but that after three and a half years in power and one failed “reset” later, the U.S. president still doesn’t understand the basic dynamic of Russian attitudes toward the United States. The meeting, the first between the two men, was clearly a dialogue of the deaf. The net result is another humiliation for Obama who not only has failed to do anything about the massacres in Syria but also will now be seen to have tried and failed to get Assad’s patron to abandon him. For his part, Putin has looked Obama in the eye and saw a man determined to kowtow to Moscow, a sign of weakness that Putin could not mistake and will not fail to exploit in the future.

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At today’s meeting in Mexico between President Obama and his Russian counterpart, the U.S. leader sought to persuade Vladimir Putin that America had no desire to come between Moscow and its loyal client state Syria. Counting on his personal charm and instinctive belief that a demonstration of his good will toward those who are hostile to the United States will solve most problems, Obama thought he could convince Putin to back off on his support for the murderous Assad regime and join the West in pushing for an end to the slaughter in Syria. But the grim look on the faces of both Obama and Putin after they endured two hours of each other’s company indicates just how badly the American failed.

Obama’s attempt to sweet talk the former KGB agent went about as well as some of his previous efforts to apologize his way into foreign popularity. It’s not just that Putin doesn’t trust Obama — though he obviously doesn’t — but that after three and a half years in power and one failed “reset” later, the U.S. president still doesn’t understand the basic dynamic of Russian attitudes toward the United States. The meeting, the first between the two men, was clearly a dialogue of the deaf. The net result is another humiliation for Obama who not only has failed to do anything about the massacres in Syria but also will now be seen to have tried and failed to get Assad’s patron to abandon him. For his part, Putin has looked Obama in the eye and saw a man determined to kowtow to Moscow, a sign of weakness that Putin could not mistake and will not fail to exploit in the future.

The cold shoulder given to Obama by Putin only underlines the downward spiral of U.S.-Russia relations. With the Russians sending missiles to Syria and now reports from Iran discussing the possibility of joint military exercises with Russia, Obama, whose camp mocked Mitt Romney’s description of Russia as America’s number one geopolitical foe, is seeing Putin restore his country’s Soviet-era influence over parts of the Middle East.

Obama cannot be blamed for Putin’s bad behavior or the Russian’s determination to cut America off at the knees any chance he gets. But the president’s characteristic try at romancing Putin may set the stage for even worse to come. Just as his past appeasement of Russia by dumping missile defense for the Poles and the Czechs failed to win the Putin regime’s failure, by starting the talks by conceding that after the theoretical fall of Bashar al-Assad Syria would remain under Moscow’s influence, Obama increased the likelihood that the Russians will continue to push the envelope in their ongoing effort to undermine U.S. influence. Rather than making it clear to the Russians that the United States would not tolerate such misbehavior or the continuation in power of a murderous tyrant, Obama has worsened an already fraught relationship and virtually guaranteed that Assad has nothing to worry about no matter how many people he kills.

The fault here is not just the bad intentions of the Russians but also the hopeless romanticism of the U.S. administration about winning the hearts and minds of foreign leaders and their nations. Though it has long been obvious his belief that his charm and demonstration of good will would be enough to overcome stark policy differences with other countries is a self-serving myth, President Obama continues to blunder along, trusting in the power of his personality. That will cost the Syrian people dearly. If he continues along these lines and lets the Russians, Chinese and the Europeans drive the effort to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program in the ditch, the cost for the Middle East and the world will be even higher.

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Russia Confirms Romney’s Evaluation

Mitt Romney was roundly mocked in March by the mainstream media and many so-called foreign policy wise men for saying Russia was America’s top “geopolitical foe.” He was accused of attempting to revive the Cold War and an derided for his lack of understanding of international nuance by those who preferred President Obama’s much cooler approach to the regime of Vladimir Putin which has included a failed “reset” and a hot microphone promise by the president that he would be able to be more “flexible” in his second term in dealing with Russia’s demands. But three months later, with Russia sending missile defense systems to Syria, it would appear that Romney’s evaluation was right on target.

The announcement on Friday that Russia would be sending advanced missiles to the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad was a body blow to those who have been trying to convince the world that Putin was prepared to play ball with the West. The missiles are intended to help Assad fend off any Western intervention in Syria as the dictator continues to repress dissent and slaughter his people. The move is troubling in of itself as it will embolden Assad to stand his ground against international pressure and make any intervention to stop the humanitarian crisis there much more difficult. But it also reveals what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention to Moscow’s foreign policy ambitions in the last decade. Putin’s goal is to reconstitute as far as possible the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. As far as he is concerned, the discussion about human rights in Syria is irrelevant. Syria is his client state, and like his Soviet predecessors, he is determined to preserve it at any cost, something that will also have serious implications for the West’s attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program. If that isn’t a geopolitical foe for the United States, then what exactly would one look like?

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Mitt Romney was roundly mocked in March by the mainstream media and many so-called foreign policy wise men for saying Russia was America’s top “geopolitical foe.” He was accused of attempting to revive the Cold War and an derided for his lack of understanding of international nuance by those who preferred President Obama’s much cooler approach to the regime of Vladimir Putin which has included a failed “reset” and a hot microphone promise by the president that he would be able to be more “flexible” in his second term in dealing with Russia’s demands. But three months later, with Russia sending missile defense systems to Syria, it would appear that Romney’s evaluation was right on target.

The announcement on Friday that Russia would be sending advanced missiles to the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad was a body blow to those who have been trying to convince the world that Putin was prepared to play ball with the West. The missiles are intended to help Assad fend off any Western intervention in Syria as the dictator continues to repress dissent and slaughter his people. The move is troubling in of itself as it will embolden Assad to stand his ground against international pressure and make any intervention to stop the humanitarian crisis there much more difficult. But it also reveals what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention to Moscow’s foreign policy ambitions in the last decade. Putin’s goal is to reconstitute as far as possible the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. As far as he is concerned, the discussion about human rights in Syria is irrelevant. Syria is his client state, and like his Soviet predecessors, he is determined to preserve it at any cost, something that will also have serious implications for the West’s attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program. If that isn’t a geopolitical foe for the United States, then what exactly would one look like?

The missiles and the lack of a Western response to this provocation will confirm Assad in his opinion that he has nothing to lose by continuing to ruthlessly exterminate his domestic opposition. He has rightly discerned that Russian weapons as well as the material support from his allies in Iran and their Lebanese Hezbollah auxiliaries means more than all the crocodile tears being shed for the Syrian people in Washington and Western European capitals. International opprobrium is no match for a determined and bloodthirsty ruler with the backing of allies such as these.

But the consequences of Putin’s virtual guarantee of Assad’s survival are more serious than the prospect of the continuance of his family’s decades-long reign of terror. By re-planting its flag in the Middle East in this fashion, Russia is sending a message that it is willing to brutally thwart Western interests and sensibilities. This should also sober up those expecting Putin to put his weight behind Western efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. With a third round of negotiations of the P5+1 group with Iran set to resume this week in Moscow, there is little doubt that the Russians (along with the Chinese) will not allow the Iranians to be backed into a corner. Though they have good reason to fear an Iranian nuke, Russia’s foreign policy imperative is always to sabotage America’s interests.

After the comical failures of appeasement of Russia that have been the hallmark of the Obama administration’s approach to Europe, it seems as if Romney is far more realistic about the Putin regime than either President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton. Though Democrats assume that they have the advantage on foreign policy against the Republicans, Putin’s provocations are a reminder that an alternative to the current approach to his regime is needed.

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Medvedev: Obama Gave Moscow Best Years

Late last week, outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech in which he praised the Obama administration’s effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship, commenting that “these have perhaps been the best three years in relations between our two countries over the last decade.” His statement was made at the same conference in which Obama promised to sell out Poland (at least that’s how the Poles interpreted the president’s gaffe) just as soon as he won reelection. That the White House has not seen fit to trumpet Medvedev’s warm words perhaps indicates a heretofore undetected modicum of self-awareness.

The Russians are pleased. Of course they are.

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Late last week, outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech in which he praised the Obama administration’s effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship, commenting that “these have perhaps been the best three years in relations between our two countries over the last decade.” His statement was made at the same conference in which Obama promised to sell out Poland (at least that’s how the Poles interpreted the president’s gaffe) just as soon as he won reelection. That the White House has not seen fit to trumpet Medvedev’s warm words perhaps indicates a heretofore undetected modicum of self-awareness.

The Russians are pleased. Of course they are.

To preserve its vaunted “reset,” the Obama administration has systematically downplayed and acquiesced to a four-year Russian campaign of intimidation and dirty tricks against our diplomats, extending into threats, home break-ins, and manufactured sex scandals.

Despite Secretary Clinton twice raising with Foreign Minister Lavrov the issue of Russian intelligence officers helping to bomb our Georgia embassy, the GRU officer linked to the blast was pointedly not even recalled. The Kremlin was either unwilling or unable to act, meaning that either the government was smugly pocketing U.S. concessions or that Moscow had become a more stable Islamabad, with military intelligence outfits both more powerful than and working at cross-purposes to elected officials. This rather stark double-bind, with either conclusion making a mockery of a political reset, was lost on the Russia apologists who rushed to attack Eli Lake for blowing open the affair (some initial skeptics recanted on the basis of facts; others never did; none drew the obvious conclusions, with one even holding out hope that the bombing was being ignored to preserve the by-then incoherent reset).

All of which might have been justified if we were getting anything in exchange for letting the Russians push us and our diplomats around. But instead, Russian officials have dismissed IAEA reports on Iran’s drive to weaponize its nuclear program, and have threatened to intervene should the West take military action. Putin himself once described Khamenei as literally Christ-like, which in retrospect might have been a clue that an anti-Iran coalition was going to be a tough sell.

The Russians have similarly blocked international action on Syria and begun aggressively crowding out the West, not only sending in naval assets but even reportedly dispatching “anti-terrorism” troops. (Assad’s evaluation of Russia’s approach: “balanced”).

But at least Medvedev feels good about U.S.-Russian relations, and is appreciative of how Obama helped him feel good. And in fairness, Russian harassment could have been worse (at least if you ignore the bombing thing). In comparison to how Russian diplomats and agents comport themselves in the U.K., our officials have actually been treated fairly well.

So that’s not one but two silver linings around this cloud of lost global influence and supine geopolitical stumbling.

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