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.
Putin Dooms Obama’s Iran Strategy
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The worst of both worlds.
The moderates are routed! Ahead of the 2018 midterms, those squishy Republicans who inspired Donald Trump and his mutineers to take control of the GOP are calling it quits. This exodus is taking place against the backdrop of a new conservative insurgency led by the likes of Steve Bannon, who is set on remaking the GOP in Trump’s image. The movement he wants to catalyze is not, however, all that conservative. And in actual fact, the Republicans he’s working to oust really aren’t moderates. Upon examination, a great number of our political definitions are outmoded and serve less as descriptors and more as security blankets.
Among the soon-to-be retired Republicans are Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Michigan Rep. Dave Trott, Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, and Washington Rep. Dave Reichert. Each represents a light red or purple district. Dent co-chairs the Tuesday Group, which is as close to a Republican Moderates’ caucus as it gets in the House. And yet, these Republicans are far from the heretics their conservative critics make them out to be.
Ros-Lehtinen, for example, hails from a district with a Cook Partisan Voting index that leans four points in the direction of Democrats. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried her district by 20 points. And yet, she maintains an American Conservative Union “lifetime rating” of just under 70 percent. Barring a miracle, Ros-Lehtinen will be replaced with a Democrat. Similarly, Trott enjoys a 77 percent lifetime ACU rating, and holding his suburban Detroit district will be a difficult task for a non-incumbent in a tough GOP year. The same could be said for Reichart and Dent, who hail from swing districts. Last week, following Dent’s decision to retire, his strongest primary opponent declared victory.
“We wanted to make sure we got a more conservative candidate in the seat, and now we can do that,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Justin Simmons. The four-term state-level lawmaker has campaigned against the incumbent primarily for failing to meet conservative litmus tests but also demonstrating insufficient fealty to President Donald Trump. If Steve Bannon and the deep-pocketed donor Bob Mercer have their way, there will be an entire slate of Trumpian primary candidates eager to replace Trump-skeptical GOP representatives on Capitol Hill.
According to Politico, Bannon is preparing to mount an “all-out war” against Mitch McConnell and his Republican Senate majority. He is lining up donors and meeting with candidates who could pose a threat to incumbents like Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, Nevada’s Dean Heller, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake. Like their counterparts in the House who are hitting the bricks after 2018, the offense of which these Republicans are guilty is their perceived lack of loyalty to Trump.
“Bannon,” the Miami Herald reported, “was enormously influential in pushing a nationalist agenda in the White House that made more centrist Republicans deeply uncomfortable.” In this construction, Bannon is the ideologue, and his Republican foils run right down the middle of the road. This is lazy shorthand that avoids a thorough accounting of what Steve Bannon and the Trumpian party he wants to build actually believe.
Steve Bannon’s “conservatism” is not the sort that most Republicans of the last two decades would recognize. He is devoted to trade protectionism, which is traditionally a cause dear to organized labor. Why else did he reach out to a pro-labor liberal journalist in the effort to undermine Trump’s rapprochement with China? Despite this unceasing effort to make enemies in Beijing, Bannon is eager to make friends in Moscow. He told “60 Minutes” that upgrading America’s increasingly decrepit nuclear stockpile was a needlessly provocative act and a waste of funds that could be better spent refurbishing America’s urban centers. In fact, he reserved the most venom in a relatively venomous interview for Republican policy practitioners like Condoleezza Rice, Brent Scowcroft, and Dick Cheney.
In 2014, Bannon marveled at the fact that “not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with the 2008 crisis.” In that address, he expressed distrust toward “the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. “It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as [with] many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive,” he said. His skepticism of the value of austerity is evident in his policy recommendations, too. Bannon was among the more senior-level voices close to the president advocating that the U.S. borrow to fund a massive $1 trillion infrastructure project—an objective lifted from socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders’s wish list.
There’s nothing “conservative” about this, but it would be a mistake to suggest that Bannon must then be liberal. He speaks with utter contempt for the warmed-over socialism embraced by the modern secular left. His opposition toward even a modestly reasonable compromise on the issue of illegal immigration is intractable. The anti-establishmentarianism informs his hostility toward “the progressive left” and the “institutional Republican Party.” The party Bannon wants to transform the GOP into is one that emulates, insofar as it is possible, the mercurial style of the president. If that’s the Republican Party of the future, it will be one that undercuts conservatives in Congress to cut “deals” with Democratic leadership toward no greater end than positive press coverage and pushing hard choices off until another day.
Among effete circles were centrism is fetishized, there is a perception that the middle way is the noblest of ways. It takes the most unobjectionable policy prescriptions from each of the two parties and discards the prejudices on their extreme fringes. Only the demands of tribalism, this hackneyed church of centrism insists, compels ideologues to tolerate the eccentrics and fanatics in their midst. As Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the party they are trying to build demonstrate, however, this definition of centrism is native to the elite.
In the real world, ideology gets an undeservedly bad rap. In reality, pragmatists are bound only to that which balances expediency and popularity—and popularity isn’t always synonymous with good government.
The gauzy ideal of the bold politician sloughing off the chains of ideology and governing like a pragmatist unbound to any tribe has sunk its hooks into many a besotted pundit. But “third-way” centrism doesn’t look like No Labels. It looks like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
Enforcing red lines.
In the months after 9/11, George W. Bush warned Americans to prepare for a long twilight conflict. The 16th anniversary of the attacks provides grim proof of just how prescient the 43rd president was–whatever else he got wrong in the following years.
The Arab world continues to radiate danger and instability; wide swaths of the Middle East and Africa are ungoverned; vicious new Islamist outfits have eclipsed al-Qaeda; the civil war in Syria continues to rage, and millions of desperate people are on the move. The successes that do come the West’s way are tentative and incomplete at best. But we should still celebrate them.
Last week’s apparent Israeli airstrike in Syria was one such victory. In the early hours on Thursday, Israeli warplanes targeted a Syrian military position near the town of Masyaf, in Hama province. That’s according to a statement from the Syrian army, which claimed that two of its troops had been killed in the strike.
What was Bashar Assad up to in Masyaf? The generally reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that the targeted facility had been associated with Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, the outfit that manufactures Assad’s chemical weapons. You know, the ones he was supposed to have given up in the Russian-brokered deal that persuaded President Obama to back off his red line in 2013. The Masyaf site had also been used to store ground-to-ground rockets, and Iranian and Hezbollah personnel had been observed there.
The Israel Defense Forces kept mum as usual. But Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a radio interview after the airstrike that “we will do everything to prevent the existence of a Shiite corridor from Iran to Damascus.” He added: “We are determined to prevent our enemies from harming or even creating the possibility of harming the security of Israeli citizens.”
The latest strike followed the pattern of several previous Israeli interventions in the Syrian war, nearly always aimed at preventing the transferring of strategic weapons to Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite terror proxy in Lebanon. A decade ago, Israel bombed Syria’s Ali Kibar reactor, which Assad was almost certainly using to develop nuclear weapons with North Korean assistance.
Yes, Jerusalem has had its own security interests in mind in all of these instances. But in protecting itself, the Jewish state has prevented the region’s various crises spiraling from the merely awful to the truly catastrophic. For an uneasy night of sleep, imagine Bashar Assad with nukes. Or imagine Hezbollah with chemical rockets.
By acting forcefully and decisively against bad actors, Israel saves Arab and Jewish (and Western) lives. Sixteen years after 9/11, it remains America’s most reliable and effective ally in what used to be called the War on Terror.
Podcast: A crippling culture of victimization.
After an hour of watching Steve Bannon expound on his worldview for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” the hosts of the COMMENTARY Podcast determine that very little was said. John Podhoretz, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman break down the half-formed worldview of the Bannon-wing of the GOP and the implications if it successfully remakes the Republican Party. Speaking of victimized worldviews, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earns and receives applause for going after the Kafkaesque conditions the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter created.
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Both useless and misused.