Going from Churchill’s subtle and magisterial “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, on which Seth commented yesterday, to Obama’s remarks at the White House in welcome to David Cameron is like going from Paganini to the village fiddler. Honestly, who writes this stuff? The joke about the British burning the White House in 1814 was funny enough when Tony Blair used it in 2003 in his speech to a joint session of Congress:
On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is kind of late, but sorry.
But no joke stays funny if it gets recycled often enough, and a decade later, it’s become a lame and tiresome jest. And yet Obama, that modern master of rhetoric, and Cameron, who must have groaned when he read the script, used it again yesterday. Quoth Obama:
It’s now been 200 years since the British came here, to the White House – under somewhat different circumstances. (Laughter.) They made quite an impression. (Laughter.) They really lit up the place. (Laughter.)
This isn’t a presidential welcome – it reads, and it sounded, like a third-rate stand-up comedian living on stolen jokes.
In October 1945, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to see Winston and Clementine Churchill at their new London townhouse. Churchill’s party had lost the elections in a landslide earlier in the year, just as Churchill was trying to negotiate postwar Europe at Potsdam. When the butler brought them vodka sent as a gift from Moscow, Clementine told him to throw it out and bring brandy instead.
“King would soon discover the symbolism of this,” writes Philip White, as he recounts the story in his new book Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance. The symbolism was that Churchill was about to begin in earnest his post-premiership mission: to alert the world of the threat of Soviet Communism and forge a hardy alliance with the United States. Though the speech is among the most famous modern addresses, the background and analysis White offers are valuable. And there are two stories with immediate relevance as British Prime Minister David Cameron spends the day in Washington today with President Obama, awaiting his state dinner tonight.
When the United States and the international community agreed to an interim Afghan government at the Bonn Conference more than a decade ago, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pushed for Hamid Karzai. Karzai, they believed, was pliable. At the same time, Karzai was a figure who had relations with everyone—he had even been part of the Taliban before 1996. Never mind that Karzai was an opportunist who simply jumped on whichever horse he felt was strongest at the time.
It’s clear today that Karzai is a disaster. He has revealed himself to be a corrupt kleptocrat and in bed with drug lords. He has made a mockery of the U.S. mission and, having no more use for the Americans, works openly with our enemies. Even his Taliban reconciliation efforts have less to do with peace and more to do with his own desire to ingratiate himself to an enemy in the hope that they will let him remain in power once the countdown inherent in Obama’s timeline completes. In short, he may have made a good CIA asset in the past, but he was a horrendous choice to be Afghanistan’s leader.
The latest outrage in Afghanistan has reinvigorated debate about what the United States is doing in that forlorn country. Increasing numbers of prominent Republicans argue that it’s time to come home, a sentiment with which it is easy to sympathize.
If one strips away the mission creep and the sheer waste which USAID calls development, however, the reason we are in Afghanistan is because, prior to 9/11, a vacuum developed which terrorists filled and from which they reached out and struck us. Our goal in Afghanistan is to fill that vacuum. The way both the Bush and Obama administrations chose to do it is to rebuild the Afghan government so it fills that vacuum and to recreate the Afghan army and police so the Afghan security forces can monopolize the use of force inside Afghanistan. If Iraq was problematic after three weeks with a disbanded army, imagine how difficult Afghanistan is after lacking one for two decades.
The New York Times editorializes today (in a piece actually labeled “Editorial,” I should note) that the United States has too many nukes, because the Cold War is over. I have no objection to the Times voicing its support for reducing our supply of Things That Go Boom–the Times’s predictability is oddly comforting–but I have a couple of questions about their reasoning. Here is the Times:
For strategic and budgetary reasons, [Obama and his nuclear experts] need to further reduce the number of deployed weapons and the number kept in reserve. If this country can wean itself from its own dependence, it will be safer and will have more credibility in its efforts to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and others.
That is the argument: We must not be dependent on our own nuclear weapons. But the rest of the editorial doesn’t seem to back this up. It argues we will be safer with fewer tactical nukes because it will reduce the chance of an unplanned exchange of weapons we never intend to use anyway. But it doesn’t explain why our dependence on our own weapons is a problem. This is the type of phrasing commonly used to suggest one of two things: either that reducing our own dependence makes us more likely to strike a conciliatory tone with our enemies, or that we would be more likely to depend on others. The editorialists do not tell us on which other country’s nukes we should rely, rather than our own. And the other countries mentioned in the editorial–Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China–have all adopted tougher lines when we have sought that conciliatory tone.
For those who claim it is impossible to deal with Hamid Karzai and U.S. forces cannot succeed while he is in power, today’s agreement on the handling of detainees in U.S. custody is a good rebuttal.
Karzai had been demanding the U.S. immediately hand over all 3,200 detainees in our custody–he understandably views the operation of a U.S. detention facility on Afghan soil as an affront to Afghan sovereignty– even though Afghan forces are manifestly not capable of holding them securely on their own. The result was months of deadlock in negotiating a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement. That deadlock was broken today when both sides agreed to give a little. Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding, they agreed that during the next six months the U.S. detention facility in Parwan will transition to full Afghan control (there are already Afghan personnel in training there) but that the U.S. would retain a veto on the release of any prisoners while our forces remain in Afghanistan. Moreover, U.S. personnel will continue to supervise the facility to make sure detainees are held safely and securely. And finally, roughly 50 non-Afghan fighters–highly dangerous al-Qaeda terrorists–will remain under full U.S. custody.
There is something perverse and a little bit circular about the administration argument that we can’t help the Syrian opposition until they get better organized. As this National Journal article notes, Hillary Clinton last week told a House committee the opposition in Libya “had a face, both the people who were doing the outreach diplomatically and the fighters. We could actually meet with them. We could eyeball them. We could ask them tough questions. Here, you know, when [Ayman al-] Zawahiri of al-Qaida comes out and supports the Syrian opposition, you’ve got to ask yourself: ‘If we arm, who are we arming?”
The problem is that the Syrian opposition is not likely to get better organized until the U.S. and other outside powers make a decision to help them. In fact by deciding to provide money, arms, and other aid we could support the more moderate and responsible elements of the opposition while sidelining the extremists. No doubt we should be careful about where we distribute arms, but handing out small arms does not pose much of a strategic threat to Israel or other American allies even if they fall into the wrong hands. No one is suggesting giving Stingers to the Free Syrian Army.
If I were a Syrian rebel I’d be very appreciative of Israeli military might. Without Israel’s Operation Orchard, the 2007 airstrike on Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear reactor in eastern Syria, the dictator in Damascus would now be deterring any pro-rebel outside influence with a nuclear bomb. And depending on how bad things got for his regime, he might find his way to pushing the button. Toppled dictators like to take their walks of shame with big fiery bangs.
It’s amazing how despised preemptive action on the part of democracies ends up looking like a blessing when crises hit. Without the American invasion of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi would have had an extensive WMD arsenal at his disposal while his regime unraveled last year. In March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom woke him up to the consequences of WMD subterfuge and he gave up his program later in the year. So if not for Israeli and American preemptive action, the Arab Spring might very well have been far more deadly and destabilizing than it already is.
I have already compared the trial of 16 Americans, along with a number of Egyptians, in an Egyptian court on trumped-up charges of violating various laws to the Iranian hostage crisis in terms of the challenge it poses to American power. There is another similarity worth noting: In both cases we were in some sense reaping what we sowed.
Much of the reason Iranians were so anti-American in 1979, after all, was the unlimited backing we had given to an unpopular dictator, the Shah. Likewise, much of the reason Egyptians are anti-American is because of the unlimited backing we gave to another unpopular dictator, Hosni Mubarak. It did not matter in either case that at the last minute, when both men were in danger of toppling, the U.S. effectively withdrew its backing. All that the people of Egypt and Iran would remember was the decades of support for a dictator which preceded the regime’s demise.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Tunis that backing an armed insurgency against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “is an excellent idea.” He told her that because she asked his opinion, which means she’s thinking about it, as well.
The Iraqi insurgency soured most Americans on the idea of helping Arab countries get rid of a tyrant, but our interests in the region haven’t changed. Our biggest problem then as now is the Iranian- and Syrian-led resistance bloc, consisting not only of the odious regimes in Tehran and Damascus, but also their networks of terrorist organizations and insurgent groups from the Levant to Mesopotamia.
New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell – who’s currently locked in a brutal primary battle with Rep. Steve Rothman because of state redistricting – is in hot water after a prominent supporter accused Rothman-backers of being more loyal to Israel than the United States.
Arab-American activist Aref Assaf penned a column blasting those who support Rothman over Pascrell, claiming their choice is solely based on “blind support for Israel”:
“As total and blind support for Israel becomes the only reason for choosing Rothman, voters who do not view the elections in this prism will need to take notice. Loyalty to a foreign flag is not loyalty to America’s,” Assaf wrote in an article for the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
After a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this month, it is clear the situation in Bahrain is reaching a head. February 14 marked the year anniversary of demonstrations at the Pearl Monument. Clashes and arrests continue. The Bahraini government has not been as proactive with reform as perhaps it might. Grievances in Bahrain—where the majority population is Shi’ite whereas the royal family and security forces are overwhelmingly Sunni—are real, and stability, security, and economic growth ultimately require they be addressed.
Bahrain might be the smallest Arab state, but it has disproportionate importance for American national security. It hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a vital tool in securing the Persian Gulf to international shipping and also, potentially, in containing Iran. While American officials generally recognize Bahraini grievances and pressure the king and prime minister to become more proactive with reform, the future of the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain will ultimately shape American decision-making.
A Pew Research Center poll released today found the majority of Americans support using military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, backing up previous polls that have found similar results. But there’s also a fairly large partisan divide when it comes to supporting Israeli military action against Iran:
About half of Americans (51 percent) say the U.S. should stay neutral if Israel attacks Iran. Nearly four-in-ten (39 percent) say the U.S. should support Israel’s military action while just 5 percent say the U.S. should oppose military action. …
There is a wide divide among Republicans on the issue of Iran. Fully 71 percent of conservative Republicans think the U.S. should support Israel’s military action if they attack Iran, compared with 43 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans. A majority of independents and Democrats (including both liberal and more moderate Democrats) think the U.S. should stay neutral.
Newsweek has a must-read today on the cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on halting Iran’s nuclear program. The detail getting the most attention is the Obama administration’s decision to keep crucial intelligence from Israel regarding the locations of nuclear scientists. But the lack of intelligence-sharing goes both ways – Israel is also staying mum about when it will strike Iran, if it decides to take that course.
The reason for the silence seems to be a breakdown of trust between the Israeli government and the Obama administration. While the U.S. has the capability to attack the program after it goes fully underground, Israel’s window of time for carrying out a successful attack is much shorter. And the Israelis have reason to doubt Obama would take military action if he wins reelection, Newsweek reports:
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been visiting Washington, supposedly to talk about Syria. He has, however, upheld his promise last autumn to use every international gathering to bash Israel. As the Turkish press reported at the time:
“[Israel] despises and plays with the people’s honor in this region,” Davutoğlu said, adding that Turkey would continue to highlight Israel’s unlawful acts in all international platforms.
Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, said today the “decision has to be made” for the U.S. to arm the opposition in Syria, but cautioned that the weapons should be ones that wouldn’t be used against Israel if they fall into the wrong hands.
“That’s not us fighting. (The Syrian opposition is) fighting, they’re dying, and they should be given as much a chance as possible to do it,” Khalilzad told me, after a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in which he harshly criticized the Obama administration for what he called a failed strategy to “appease and engage adversaries” in the Middle East.
When I did a post-doc in Israel back in academic year 2001-2002, the Palestinian terror and bombing campaign was at its height. Hordes of Western journalists circulated through Israel on their way to the West Bank and Gaza. Having coffee with a producer at the time, I was surprised to learn it was common practice among major American networks and their European counterparts to pay PLO and Hamas “fixers” for access. The implication was that if the payment was not made, not only would meetings not be granted, but the crews’ safety might be endangered. News agencies never acknowledged they had paid terrorists and fixers in the subsequent news reports.
Journalists have long expressed self-righteous indignation if confronted with the fact that many Arab states and terrorist groups consider them useful idiots, easy to dupe, and tools for propaganda projection. Leaked Syrian e-mails should put a rest to such protests, however.
It’s nice to see the FBI is keeping its eye on the real homegrown threat in America — Ron Paul fans:
Anti-government extremists opposed to taxes and regulations pose a growing threat to local law enforcement officers in the United States, the FBI warned on Monday.
These extremists, sometimes known as “sovereign citizens,” believe they can live outside any type of government authority, FBI agents said at a news conference.
The extremists may refuse to pay taxes, defy government environmental regulations and believe the United States went bankrupt by going off the gold standard.
Routine encounters with police can turn violent “at the drop of a hat,” said Stuart McArthur, deputy assistant director in the FBI’s counterterrorism division.
A new Gallup poll out today finds that the majority of Iranians are bracing for the latest round of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe, while nearly half are already struggling economically. News of the financial hardships has the New York Times worrying the U.S. is breeding resentment in Iran:
Yet this economic burden is falling largely on the middle class, raising the prospect of more resentment against the West and complicating the effort to deter Iran’s nuclear program — a central priority for the Obama administration in this election year.
At a national security conference in Herzliya today, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned that the Iranian regime has “already built missile capacity,” and cited reports it is developing a missile with a reach of 10,000 kilometers – a range that was “aimed at America, not us,” he added.
“The clock keeps ticking,” said Ya’alon. “We should be talking sooner rather than later…So if anyone here is scared or fears the prospects for the Middle East and the world, they should be determined in the next few months to take steps against the nuclear action in Iran.”