Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Iran Demands U.S. Withdrawal from Gulf

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a blistering speech mocking President Barack Obama and warning the U.S. president that he would see no settlement with Iran so long as the United States maintained a military presence in the Persian Gulf or placed his hopes in Iranian reformers.

Read More

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a blistering speech mocking President Barack Obama and warning the U.S. president that he would see no settlement with Iran so long as the United States maintained a military presence in the Persian Gulf or placed his hopes in Iranian reformers.

He began:

“This new President of America said beautiful things. He sent us messages constantly, both orally and written: ‘Come and let us turn the page, come and create a new situation, come and let us cooperate in solving the problems of the world.’ It reached this degree! We said that we should not be prejudiced, that we will look at their deeds. They said we want change. We said, well, let us see the change.

And, then, he referred to a speech he gave on the Iranian New year (March 21, 2009) in Mashhad responding to Obama’s televised interviews and letters. The White House and the State Department speech ignored that speech, at least publicly, because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but here’s how Khamenei referred to it:

I said that if there is an iron fist under the velvet glove and you extend a hand towards us we will not extend our hand. This was the warning I made eight months ago. During the past eight months, what we have seen is contrary to what they orally express and pretend…

What does Khamenei mean by the “iron fist”? It’s the U.S. navy and the presence of U.S. ships in international waters in and around the Persian Gulf.

He concluded by declaring:

They should not rest their hopes in the unrest which happened after the [2009] election… [Reformists] can’t roll out the red carpet for the United States in our country. They should know this. The Iranian nation resists.

The irony here is that the logic of Obama’s strategy is to cultivate the reformists somehow believing that they can triumph and marginalize the hardliners, never mind that men like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are hard line, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dominates the military and economy, and the Supreme Leader is supreme, no matter how Obama might like to twist it.

Fast forward more than five years. Earlier today, Khamenei warned that he would not tolerate any threats overshadowing negotiations:

I do not agree with negotiations that are shadowed by threats. The Iranian nation does not tolerate negotiations under threat… The negotiators should carry on with the negotiations while observing the red lines. However, they should not welcome any imposition, humiliation and threats.

America’s Gulf allies already hear in Obama’s rhetoric of a “pivot to Asia” shadows of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “East of Suez” speech. They fear abandonment. It is a fear that the Iranian government stokes in word and action.

There has not been a single Iranian objection to which Obama and Kerry have not caved. They do not seem to understand that what they see as compromise Khamenei sees as weakness to exploit. As Khamenei increasingly alludes to a refusal to negotiate “under threat,” and makes other allusions to U.S. power projection in the region, the question is whether Obama will once again acquiesce and effectively cede security in the Persian Gulf to Iran. He may say no, but his pattern of actions speaks louder than words. America’s Gulf allies should be very worried indeed.

Read Less

And If the Shooters Were Not From ISIS?

Does it make a difference whether ISIS is directly responsible for Sunday night’s attack in Garland, Texas or whether jihadists who swore allegiance to the group from afar carried out the shooting instead? In terms of managing domestic counterterrorism, yes, it makes a huge difference. Doing battle with organized cells trained and supplied by the Islamic State is a very different matter from playing whack-a-mole with those Joe Biden calls “knock-off jihadists.” But in terms of the larger, long-term threat posed by ISIS, it doesn’t matter as much as we seem to think. As long as ISIS thrives in Syria and Iraq, putting out high-production snuff films, garnering recruits, and claiming victory before the world, the greater its pull on the lost souls of the West. We can look forward to more knock-off jihadists. And no matter who is behind Sunday’s shooting, there will be more attacks.

Read More

Does it make a difference whether ISIS is directly responsible for Sunday night’s attack in Garland, Texas or whether jihadists who swore allegiance to the group from afar carried out the shooting instead? In terms of managing domestic counterterrorism, yes, it makes a huge difference. Doing battle with organized cells trained and supplied by the Islamic State is a very different matter from playing whack-a-mole with those Joe Biden calls “knock-off jihadists.” But in terms of the larger, long-term threat posed by ISIS, it doesn’t matter as much as we seem to think. As long as ISIS thrives in Syria and Iraq, putting out high-production snuff films, garnering recruits, and claiming victory before the world, the greater its pull on the lost souls of the West. We can look forward to more knock-off jihadists. And no matter who is behind Sunday’s shooting, there will be more attacks.

ISIS isn’t only a direct threat to peace because of its actions. Its self-celebrated existence is an engine for radicalization worldwide. ISIS-inspired jihadists are still jihadists. They’re not waiting on a blue Twitter verification check before they try to kill Americans. As ISIS raises its profile “over there,” more admirers will be inspired to attack us over here. That’s why what happens “over there” is our business after all.

Global interconnectedness is a pet theme of the left, but liberals rarely have the clarity to act on its ramifications. At the end of the day, they lament our foreign adventures, rattle off some statistics about America’s failing schools, and call for “nation building at home.” They only seem to see the big global picture when someone abroad has a problem with American power. Blowback for American action is a grave threat to our safety, but lawlessness resulting from American retrenchment is none of our business. Barack Obama talks a lot about shared destinies in the 21st century. We’re no longer divided by east and west, north and south, and so on. Yet he crafts foreign policy precisely as if he thinks we can’t be touched by troubles in faraway lands. So he left Iraq to spiral into jihadist carnage. Similarly he believed the United States had no business intervening in Bashar al-Assad’s rule of Syria and that country too was left to combust. With ISIS running rampant in both places, Obama’s barely authorized enough American force to inconvenience the sworn enemies of the West. Now, we’re left wondering just how much influence ISIS had on a shooting attack in Texas.

Biden’s dismissive term “knock-off jihadists” captures the poverty of thinking here. A better term for ISIS-inspired American terrorists might be “entrepreneurial jihadists.” Entrepreneurship thrives in the United States. With the right people willing to take the right risks, it can be contagious and grow like mad. It’s at least conceivable that entrepreneurial jihadists could become a more potent threat to the American homeland than “official” ISIS terrorists. They’re not as well trained as their heroes, but they have certain other advantages. For starters, they’re already here. They don’t have to face the hurdles of connecting with hiding parties in the Middle East, managing secret overseas travel, and so on. They can use the Internet to obtain weapons and a modicum of training. That’s precisely why al Qaeda and ISIS publish guides and magazines online. They have no problem seeing the benefits of unofficial franchising. If the Texas shooters weren’t directly tied to ISIS, the group is still justified in taking some credit. And we shouldn’t necessarily take the news that these were “knock-off jihadists” as a relief. It’s just a different kind of problem, for which we’re ill prepared.

Read Less

Iran Predicts 2015 to be Year of Collapse for U.S. Allies

A common theme of Iran’s influence operation campaign is that states in the region may like the United States better, but that the United States does not have staying power and Iran will always be their neighbor. No U.S. president has done more to affirm the Iranian narrative than Barack Obama who has undercut U.S. allies across the region.

Read More

A common theme of Iran’s influence operation campaign is that states in the region may like the United States better, but that the United States does not have staying power and Iran will always be their neighbor. No U.S. president has done more to affirm the Iranian narrative than Barack Obama who has undercut U.S. allies across the region.

Siyasat-e Rooz (Politics Today), a hard line Iranian newspaper, provides perhaps the best recent example of this in a column entitled “Sal-e Saqut” or “Year of Collapse.” (I have excerpted a fuller Open Source Center translation). It reads:

Who are the leaders and countries that are currently meddling in the region and threatening the security of West Asia? Has Iran taken any such action? The interference of Al-Saud forces in Bahrain and the mobilization of that regime’s military forces to that country in order to repress its people, military attack on Yemen’s soil, violation of the sanctity of a country and the slaughter of thousands of the innocent people of Yemen, financial and military support of terrorist-takfiri forces in regional countries such as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Middle Asia and the Caucuses that are all being carried out through the support of America and the Zionist regime, have forced the Persian Gulf and West Asia regions to face widespread insecurity… The anger and hate of the Muslim people of the region, especially the countries that have experienced instability and war as a result of the meddling of Al-Saud, America, and the Zionist regime, is increasing significantly and even the people of reactionary Arab countries have become aware and have awakened from the heavy sleep imposed on them by their respective countries’ absolute dictatorial systems and this awareness is in the process of speeding up the process of the collapse of the leaders of reactionary countries. Al-Saud is at the head of these developments and even the meeting between the heads of Persian Gulf littoral countries with US President Obama in Camp David cannot save them from collapse or lead to Islamic Iran being controlled. 2015 is the year of the collapse; collapse for many of the dependent and reactionary Arab leaders of the region, including Al-Saud.

So, in short, the Iranian government is predicting not only will Yemenis, Syrians, and Iraqis ‘turn to’ Iran, but so too will Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Afghanistan and, by allusion, perhaps Azerbaijan as well.

Iranian predictions about geopolitics are sort of like an arsonist’s prediction about where the next forest fire will break out; it pays to take heed. What is clear is that Iran is, quite literally, on the warpath. The notion that Iran hasn’t invades any country in 200 years so often voiced by apologists for the Islamic Republic’s behavior not only discounts facts (for example, Iran’s 1856 invasion of Afghanistan) but, more importantly, its asymmetric way of war. Not every act of aggressions against another states requires columns of tanks, airplanes bombing, or ships shelling enemy targets. Sponsoring insurgency and war by proxy can be just as devastating and just as aggressive. Regional countries should be on alert. Far from moderating, Iran senses itself on the cusp of revolutionary victory throughout the region.

Read Less

The Problem with New U.S. Defense Pacts: Talk Is Cheap

The Obama administration appears to have woken up, somewhat belatedly, to the damage that it has been doing to America’s traditional alliances in the Middle East by its flirtation with Iran. No, the White House hasn’t decided to bury the hatchet with Benjamin Netanyahu; he remains on their enemies list. But the administration appears to be cogitating about how it can allay concerns among the Gulf Arab states now that the U.S. is preparing to lift sanctions on Iran and legitimate its nuclear program. At a recent dinner Defense Secretary Ash Carter wanted to know: “How do you make clear to the G.C.C. [Gulf Cooperation Council] that America isn’t going to hand the house keys of the Persian Gulf over to Iran and then pivot to Asia?”

Read More

The Obama administration appears to have woken up, somewhat belatedly, to the damage that it has been doing to America’s traditional alliances in the Middle East by its flirtation with Iran. No, the White House hasn’t decided to bury the hatchet with Benjamin Netanyahu; he remains on their enemies list. But the administration appears to be cogitating about how it can allay concerns among the Gulf Arab states now that the U.S. is preparing to lift sanctions on Iran and legitimate its nuclear program. At a recent dinner Defense Secretary Ash Carter wanted to know: “How do you make clear to the G.C.C. [Gulf Cooperation Council] that America isn’t going to hand the house keys of the Persian Gulf over to Iran and then pivot to Asia?”

As usual in Washington, the administration’s internal brainstorming is playing out in a top-secret forum called the New York Times, which reported Carter’s question. The Paper of Record further reports: “Officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department have been meeting to discuss everything from joint training missions for American and Arab militaries (more likely) to additional weapons sales to a loose defense pact that could signal that the United States would back those allies if they come under attack from Iran.”

There is talk of signing bilateral defense agreements with the likes of UAE and Saudi Arabia and even of selling them top-of-the-line F-35s. Neither option appears feasible because of congressional opposition, although I would think that lawmakers would be more likely to oppose the sale of the F-35 (which Israel needs to keep its qualitative edge) than they would a defense pact along the lines of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In any case F-35s are not much use against the kind of subversion by proxy that the Iranians practice in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s advanced aircraft have not, for example, dislodged the Houthis from power in Yemen and American aircraft are not dislodging ISIS from its domains in Iraq and Syria.

The larger problem is that neither weapons sales nor formal alliances are an adequate substitute for American credibility and deterrence, both of which are in short supply at the moment. Why should the Gulf states believe America’s assurances of support when the U.S. has allowed Bashar Assad to stay in power and to use chemical weapons in violation of President Obama’s red lines? Or when the U.S. has allowed Russia to dismember Ukraine in violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which the U.S., Britain, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for giving up its nuclear arsenal? Or when Obama pulls U.S. troops out of Iraq and now threatens to do the same in Afghanistan? Or when the U.S. allows Iran to seize a cargo ship flagged to the Marshall Islands, whose security the U.S. is already pledged to defend, with nary a protest? It will also not have escaped attention in the region how Obama dropped Hosni Mubarak, a longtime American ally, after the start of the Arab Spring (a decision that is more defensible than the other ones).

Talk is cheap, especially in this White House, with a president who talked his way into a Nobel Peace Prize. But our allies can see that this administration does not back up its rhetoric. If the White House really wanted to reassure them, it would rethink its misbegotten enthusiasm for lifting sanctions on Iran (and thus delivering hundreds of billions of dollars in lucre to a state that they view as a mortal threat) in return for promises to hold off a few years in weaponizing its nuclear program. But that’s not going to happen because Obama views a treaty with Iran as his signature achievement and he will not let the qualms of allies, or for that matter Congress, get in his way.

Read Less

If Young Voters Are Up for Grabs, Dems Are in Trouble

Heading into the 2016 presidential election, Democrats remain convinced that their victory is already baked into the electoral cake. The last two presidential votes have seen them rack up enormous majorities among minorities, women, and young voters. With immigration reform stymied, they think the growing numbers of Hispanic voters are firmly in their pockets. And they are sure that Hillary Clinton’s presence at the top of their ticket will ensure a clear advantage among women. They’re also sure that young voters will be as liberal next year as they were in 2008 and 2012 when they turned out in record numbers to back Barack Obama. But what if their assumptions about the nation’s youth are wrong? That’s the question Democrats need to ask themselves today after the publication of a new poll from Harvard University’s Institute on Politics. According to the poll, voters aged 18-29 are now far less likely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 than they were in the last two such elections. That sets up a race that resembles 2004 more than 2008, which is a possible recipe for a Republican victory.

Read More

Heading into the 2016 presidential election, Democrats remain convinced that their victory is already baked into the electoral cake. The last two presidential votes have seen them rack up enormous majorities among minorities, women, and young voters. With immigration reform stymied, they think the growing numbers of Hispanic voters are firmly in their pockets. And they are sure that Hillary Clinton’s presence at the top of their ticket will ensure a clear advantage among women. They’re also sure that young voters will be as liberal next year as they were in 2008 and 2012 when they turned out in record numbers to back Barack Obama. But what if their assumptions about the nation’s youth are wrong? That’s the question Democrats need to ask themselves today after the publication of a new poll from Harvard University’s Institute on Politics. According to the poll, voters aged 18-29 are now far less likely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 than they were in the last two such elections. That sets up a race that resembles 2004 more than 2008, which is a possible recipe for a Republican victory.

Most pundits assumed that the Republicans’ stronger showing among young voters in the 2014 midterms was a statistical glitch produced by the lower turnout in that election than in a presidential year. But the type of advantage that Democrats enjoyed when Barack Obama was their candidate may vanish when he retires.

The Harvard poll shows that a generic Democratic candidate will still win the 18-29 year old vote in 2016 by a 55-40 percent margin. That’s a clear edge, but it is nowhere near as decisive as President Obama’s 66-32 percent win among young voters in 2008 or his 60-37 victory in that demographic in 2012. In fact that 55-40 result bears a startling resemblance to the 54-45 margin among 18-29 year olds that John Kerry won over President Bush in 2004.

What possible reason could there be for such a swing among voters assumed to be so liberal on social issues that they’d never consider voting for the GOP?

One is obvious. Barack Obama’s historic importance as our first African-American president as well as his personal appeal made him a unique political figure. No other Democrat, not even the person trying to be the first female president, can match his hold on the electorate, especially young people who were particularly vulnerable to Obama’s “hope and change” mantra. As much as many Democrats would prefer to think the gains they made in 2008 and 2012 are now part of the permanent infrastructure of American politics, they may be ephemeral.

The second is that the changing economic environment for young people entering the work force may be leading them to think more about fiscal issues than social ones like gay marriage and abortion that work to the advantage of liberals. Moreover, the anti-Iraq war sentiments that dominated the 2008 election may have gradually moderated to the point where a lot of young people are worrying as much if not more about the threat of terrorism.

The caveat here is that elections are not fought and won by generic candidates. If Republicans nominate someone who turns off young voters or who emphasizes social issues that hurt the GOP then they may slip back. By the same token, one who can run as a representative of a new generation seeking to challenge a tired and possibly corrupt retread such as Hillary Clinton stands a chance of exceeding the 2004 totals. Also troubling for Democrats is the real possibility that Clinton fatigue, accentuated by the Clinton Cash charges that continue to drip, drip, drip out, will further depress the Democrats’ brand.

But the main conclusion to draw from these figures is that no one in either party should make any assumptions about the 2016 electorate from 2008 or 2012. Change is the one constant in politics as well as life and that means things could get better for the Democrats, but also the very real possibility that they could get worse. Either way, the path to an Electoral College majority for Republicans that many on the left have come to see as a fantasy may be far more realistic than they care to think. If, as the Harvard poll illustrates, young voters are up for grabs, anything is possible.

Read Less

Neither Iran Nor the West Intends to Abide by the Nuclear Deal

Very few Iran watchers have tried to argue that the Islamic Republic can be trusted to fully comply with its obligations regarding its nuclear program. But that’s not the most concerning aspect of the emerging nuclear deal. That would be the worry that the West can’t be trusted either–that in its desperate pursuit of a deal at any cost it would overlook Iran’s cheating and even help keep it under wraps, all to protect President Obama’s foreign-policy “ObamaCare” legacy. And now we have confirmation that this will not only happen in the future, but that it’s already taking place.

Read More

Very few Iran watchers have tried to argue that the Islamic Republic can be trusted to fully comply with its obligations regarding its nuclear program. But that’s not the most concerning aspect of the emerging nuclear deal. That would be the worry that the West can’t be trusted either–that in its desperate pursuit of a deal at any cost it would overlook Iran’s cheating and even help keep it under wraps, all to protect President Obama’s foreign-policy “ObamaCare” legacy. And now we have confirmation that this will not only happen in the future, but that it’s already taking place.

Reuters reports that the Iranians have kept up illicit work on their nuclear program. The information was leaked from a secret UN panel report, which stated that the Iranian actions had been noticed by the British. In fact, the Iranian actions were caught by the British soon after the preliminary agreement between the P5+1 and Iran in April. The Iranians, it seems, never even took a break:

“The UK government informed the Panel on 20 April 2015 that it ‘is aware of an active Iranian nuclear procurement network which has been associated with Iran’s Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA) and Kalay Electric Company (KEC)’,” the Panel of Experts said in its annual report. The panel monitors Iran’s compliance with the U.N. sanctions regime.

KEC is under U.N. Security Council sanctions while TESA is under U.S. and European Union sanctions due to their suspected links to banned Iranian nuclear activities.

Iran, which is has been under sanctions for years, has a long history of illicit nuclear procurement using front companies and other methods of skirting sanctions.

Indeed it does have such a history. And if the West has anything to say about it, that will be Iran’s future too.

The subject of the West’s untrustworthiness has been a sore subject for the Obama administration, which is trying to ignore violations in order to legitimize Iran as a nuclear power. Although the Obama administration is tetchy and whiney about virtually any criticism, the already cranky president tends to get even moodier when confronted with the fact that congressional oversight is necessary in part because the administration hasn’t been honest about its Iran policy.

Last month, John McCain told Hugh Hewitt: “I think you’re going to find out that they had never agreed to the things that John Kerry claimed that they had. So in a way, I can’t blame the ayatollah, because I don’t think they ever agreed to it, and I think John Kerry tried to come back and sell a bill of goods, hoping maybe that the Iranians wouldn’t say much about it.”

McCain’s point was a very simple one: since the nuclear deal is primarily a plan governing the actions of Iran, how Iran interprets the agreement is the most important indicator of how they will act in the future.

Although the deal on the whole favors Iran and its terrorist proxies over America’s traditional allies in the region, there are aspects of the deal that could make it even worse than it looks. For example, the inspections regime, the verification of the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s past work, and the timetable for lifting sanctions all will have an impact on how easily Iran can obtain nukes under the treaty.

The Obama administration offers vague assurances of thorough inspections, and the Iranians laugh themselves silly. Same with verification and especially sanctions. As Max wrote yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave a speech in New York in which he reiterated his government’s understanding that Obama and Secretary Kerry are full of hot air on the treaty, and that Iran has no intention of pretending to play along with their charade.

In other words, McCain was right. Which is why Obama snapped at him that “It needs to stop.” We wouldn’t want the American people getting the right idea, would we?

Now we have more Iranian misbehavior and a nuclear-inspections regime in which even if violations are found, the Western countries involved don’t want to tattle on the nuclear advancement of the world’s premier terrorist state. Back to Reuters:

“The current situation with reporting could reflect a general reduction of procurement activities by the Iranian side or a political decision by some member states to refrain from reporting to avoid any possible negative impact on ongoing negotiations between … Iran and (major powers),” it said.

Despite the lack of newly confirmed violations the panel said that “some member states informed the panel that according to their assessment, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s procurement trends and (sanctions) circumvention techniques remain basically unchanged.”

It cited an example of an unnamed member state saying that an Iranian entity had recently attempted to acquire compressors, a key component in the uranium enrichment process, using false end-user certificates in an attempt to evade controls.

The truth would be bad for the Kerry-led negotiations, so the truth must be hidden. The West, led by the Obama administration, is not only tacitly conceding Iran’s nuclear quest. They are also enabling that quest by facilitating Iranian cheating.

What this means is that the nuclear deal with Iran is itself a lie. In important ways, there really is no deal, and never will be. That’s because no matter what’s written on a piece of paper, Iran will basically be allowed to act in contravention of the deal, and the Western world will help them cover it up.

Read Less

Zarif’s Bluster

Item #1: On Tuesday, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps gunboats seized the Maersk Tigris, a Danish-owned, Marshall Islands registered container ship that was peaceably transiting an international maritime route through the Straits of Hormuz. The ship is now being held by Iran along with its crew members.

Read More

Item #1: On Tuesday, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps gunboats seized the Maersk Tigris, a Danish-owned, Marshall Islands registered container ship that was peaceably transiting an international maritime route through the Straits of Hormuz. The ship is now being held by Iran along with its crew members.

Item #2: On Wednesday in New York Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif gave a “blustery and self-righteous” series of remarks which made it seem as if a nuclear agreement is a done deal—on Iran’s terms. Obama “will have to stop implementing all the sanctions, economic and financial sanctions that have been executive order and congressional. However he does it, that’s his problem,” Zarif said, adding that a UN resolution endorsing the agreement would have to be endorsed by the U.S., “whether Senator Cotton likes it or not.”

Oh and Zarif made clear that the lifting of sanctions would occur within weeks of the agreement being signed (contrary to White House claims that sanctions relief would be phased), while also mocking Obama’s claims that sanctions could “snap back” in the event of Iranian violations: “If people are worrying about snapback, they should be worrying about the U.S. violating its obligations and us snapping back,” he said. “That is a point that the United States should be seriously concerned about. This is not a game.”

What’s the connection between these two seemingly unrelated events? Both, I submit, are evidence of Iranian arrogance. The kind of arrogance that Iran exhibits by hijacking a ship registered to an American protectorate and then by lecturing American leaders that they will have to abide by Iran’s terms for a nuclear deal—or else.

This is not the way Iran would talk or act if it feared the United States. But plainly it doesn’t. And why should it? Obama has made clear, repeatedly and emphatically, that he is desperate for a nuclear agreement because the alternative to such an agreement is war—and there is no worse option than that in the president’s mind. So desperate for an agreement, in fact, that the president is willing to overlook Iranian aggression in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—and even to overlook Iran’s jailing of three American citizens and its seizure of a ship belonging to allies that we are pledged to defend.

It is indicative of where we stand that there has been nary a peep of protest about the hijacking of the Maersk Tigris. The Pentagon even leaked word that the U.S. is not legally obligated to protect the Maersk Tigris, as if the U.S. cannot act to protect its moral and strategic interests even if not compelled to do so under the terms of some piece of paper. From the White House: “The White House said on Wednesday it was concerned about the impact on navigation caused by Iranian authorities’ seizure of the Maersk Tigris container ship in the Strait of Hormuz and said it was monitoring the situation.” Translation: “Ship, what ship? Who cares? The only thing that matters is the nuclear accord.” (Compare this anodyne language, incidentally, with the harsh invective directed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for infelicitous campaign rhetoric.)

And yet the very reason why Iran is able to drive such an advantageous bargain—the reason why it has hijacked the negotiations to legitimate its illegal nuclear program—is precisely because the U.S. has spent years turning the other cheek at Iranian aggression. This is not exclusively a problem of the Obama administration—the Reagan administration, after all, traded arms for hostages and did not retaliate for the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks and embassy in Beirut, while the George W. Bush administration did nothing to punish Iran for killing hundreds of American troops in Iraq with its advanced munitions.

But the problem has become much more pronounced under the Obama administration, which sees détente with Iran as its lasting legacy. That’s why Iran’s foreign minister feels free to come to New York and act like a haughty master of the universe, knowing there will not be even a peep of protest from this thoroughly intimidated administration.

Read Less

The Iran Deal and the Looming Showdown with Israel at the UN

Those waiting for the Obama administration’s much-hyped decision on whether to abandon Israel at the United Nations will have to keep waiting. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch is reporting that the Obama administration has been pushing its European allies to postpone a vote at the UN, designed to pressure Israel over the contours of a two-state solution, until after President Obama concludes a nuclear deal with Iran. There are competing explanations for how this is to be interpreted, but it is, at the very least, an unambiguous case for more congressional oversight.

Read More

Those waiting for the Obama administration’s much-hyped decision on whether to abandon Israel at the United Nations will have to keep waiting. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch is reporting that the Obama administration has been pushing its European allies to postpone a vote at the UN, designed to pressure Israel over the contours of a two-state solution, until after President Obama concludes a nuclear deal with Iran. There are competing explanations for how this is to be interpreted, but it is, at the very least, an unambiguous case for more congressional oversight.

As Lynch writes, Obama doesn’t want to pick an additional fight with Congress while he still needs them to rubber-stamp his nuclear diplomacy with Iran. In that sense, Congress’s attempts to reclaim some of its turf back from a power-hungry president are bearing fruit on more than just the Iran deal. It also limits what Obama can do in areas where he doesn’t need Congress, because he wants to avoid burning more legislative bridges for the time being.

But that’s not wholly positive news. After all, if Obama wants to postpone UN action on Israel because he doesn’t want to fight with the pro-Israel U.S. Congress, that suggests that the action he wants to take at the UN would anger the pro-Israel Congress. Here the prediction takes a distinctly negative turn. Were Obama planning to unequivocally support Israel at the UN, he surely needn’t worry about congressional opposition.

You could argue further that if Obama intended to bolster Israel at the UN, it might make sense for him to do so before the Iran deal is finalized because it could earn him some goodwill from Congress. Part of the concern about Obama’s foreign policy, and specifically his pending deal with Iran, is that the president seeks a full reordering of American strategy in the Middle East, by leaving a security vacuum and then encouraging and enabling Iran to step into that role.

Allowing Iran a much freer hand in the region–which, it must be conceded, Obama is already doing–would harm America’s traditional allies, especially Israel. So Obama might consider protecting Israel at the UN before the Iran deal is finalized as a way to reassure the Israelis that there are limits to how far Obama will go in elevating Iran in the Middle East. It would also be a good-faith gesture to Congress, by signaling that although Congress might disagree on the path Obama’s taking with Iran, some Middle East issues will remain bipartisan. (This would be especially appreciated by congressional Democrats, whose party is increasingly becoming identified with its growing hostility to Israel.)

So it’s a bad sign, from the perspective of the free world, that Obama wants to wait. Yet it should be noted that there is a way to interpret the scheduling as indicative of Obama protecting Israel at the UN when the vote eventually takes place. Obama could, for example, want to postpone anything that might upset Iran before he gets a deal signed. Also, he might want to use American UN action as a way to blunt criticism of the Iran deal after it’s signed (if it’s signed).

Regarding the latter, Obama could pitch supporting Israel at the UN to send the message that the Iran deal changes nothing about America’s special relationship to Israel. Additionally, the president knows that if he signs a deal legitimizing Iran as a nuclear power he will yet again be criticized for the various ways such a move would harm Israel’s security. He might want to hold off on the UN so that he can let defending Israel at the UN provide him with a positive news cycle in the aftermath of the deal.

There is another possibility, however, this one raised by Lynch: that the president who always loved voting “present” doesn’t want to have to make a decision at the UN either way–and doesn’t plan to. Lynch writes:

The U.S. outreach reflects concern over the potential political perils of pursuing dual initiatives that are deeply unpopular with Israel and its supporters in the U.S. Congress. But it has also raised suspicions among key observers and diplomats that the United States may be backing away from its plans to pursue action on the Middle East at the United Nations. …

Goldenberg said he believes the Obama administration is genuinely committed to pursuing some form of action at the council to promote a two-state solution. But he doubts the United States will ever find the right time to push ahead. When the administration “weighs the costs and benefits” of U.N. action, he said, it tends to either “hesitate” or “back off.”

I find the wording there quite revealing. It suggests that the cost-benefit analysis performed by the administration shows it to be a net-negative to abandon Israel at the UN. Hence, the president would “back off.” But the “hesitate” part is interesting too. The president seems to want to side against Israel on this issue, but believes he just doesn’t have the political capital to take such a drastic step.

Yet he also doesn’t want to side with Israel on the issue because he doesn’t want to go on record against a peace plan that he really supports. So he doesn’t want the vote to ever actually take place.

Perhaps he just wants the vote to be a looming threat to quiet Israel’s opposition to the Iran deal. Whatever the case, he won’t be able to put off the UN vote forever. And that’s when we’ll see if the president who took the extraordinary step of downgrading the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war is also ready to downgrade the U.S.-Israel diplomatic alliance and unleash the full prejudice of the United Nations on the Jewish state.

Read Less

The Consequences of “Space to Destroy”

When President Obama finally spoke today about the riots in Baltimore, he attempted to strike a balance between condemnation of those committing violence in the streets and criticism of the police who are also sometimes guilty of misconduct. He was also right when he noted that the problems in our inner cities are bigger than the discussion about police misconduct or racial prejudice. But these exemplary statements must be placed in the context of an event in which the nation witnessed portions of a major American city in the hands of a mob while police cowered or retreated. What stands out most as the citizens and police of Baltimore try desperately to take back control of their city from looters and thugs is the failure of those in authority to protect them. And responsibility for that failure extends from a mayor who wished to give the rioters the “space to destroy” as well as a president and attorney general that have at times sent a message to the nation that a war on police was understandable and even justified.

Read More

When President Obama finally spoke today about the riots in Baltimore, he attempted to strike a balance between condemnation of those committing violence in the streets and criticism of the police who are also sometimes guilty of misconduct. He was also right when he noted that the problems in our inner cities are bigger than the discussion about police misconduct or racial prejudice. But these exemplary statements must be placed in the context of an event in which the nation witnessed portions of a major American city in the hands of a mob while police cowered or retreated. What stands out most as the citizens and police of Baltimore try desperately to take back control of their city from looters and thugs is the failure of those in authority to protect them. And responsibility for that failure extends from a mayor who wished to give the rioters the “space to destroy” as well as a president and attorney general that have at times sent a message to the nation that a war on police was understandable and even justified.

Let’s start by saying that protests about the death of Freddie Gray while in the hands of the police were justified. Every time a person suffers an injury, let alone, a death as a result of police action, it should prompt a serious investigation. But, like the reactions to the death of another young black man in Ferguson, Missouri or the man who died as a result of a choke hold from a policeman in Staten Island, New York, the effort to spin a narrative of police oppression seems more of an attempt to contrive a false narrative of oppression than it is a genuine response to what may well have been a criminal act by a cop.

But just as police need to know they will be held accountable if they misbehave, so, too, must those who enable or foment violence against the police and the communities they serve be judged by their actions.

What appears to have happened in Baltimore is a complete breakdown of authority that may well have stemmed from a statement made by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in which she said that, “we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that.”

While Rawlings-Blake claimed her words were distorted or taken out of context, that is nonsense. The inability of the mayor to control the situation only encouraged the violence to persist and spread. If the police lost control of parts of West Baltimore, the responsibility for this disgrace starts with the mayor. Once police allow lawbreakers to get away with minor violations or to flout the authority of the government, the breakdown of all law and order is not far behind.

It is true that peaceful protesters outraged about the fate of Gray don’t deserve to be lumped in with the thugs and criminals who rioted. But as much as those protesters deserve to be heard, it can’t be forgotten that in this incident as in the previous ones involving allegations of unjustified police violence, the voices of authority who assumed without any proof that these incidents were evidence of racism played a not-insignificant role in setting the tone that led to attacks on police and even looting.

The point is, it is appropriate for politicians to denounce racism and to demand investigations into questionable incidents. But, as we learned in Ferguson, it is possible that some of these alleged instances of police misconduct might turn out to be not what they appeared to be when they were first reported.

That is why it is so important that the response of public officials to anti-cop protests should not be so equivocal as to encourage rioters to think they will be given “space to destroy.”

The consequences of the effort to indict police even before we know the facts about specific cases can be seen this week in the streets of Baltimore just as we saw it in Ferguson last year. Gray’s death deserves a rigorous investigation and if police are judged responsible, they should be severely punished. But what we should also remember is that it is a short leap from some of the specious rhetoric about racism lying beneath every act of the police emanating from civil-rights groups and politicians to rationalizing or minimizing violence against police and innocent citizens by rioters.

Read Less

Can Iran Do Whatever It Wants?

Every day, everywhere around the world, a silent referendum is going on about the state of American power. President Obama has consistently failed that test. By demanding that Bashar Assad leave power and then letting him stay; by letting Assad cross a “red line” on chemical weapons with impunity; by talking big about ISIS (“degrade and destroy”) and doing little; by standing by as Iran expanded its power into Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as Russia seized chunks of Ukrainian territory, and as China intimidated its neighbors to claim sovereignty over disputed island, the president has dissipated the most precious commodity in the world—American credibility.

Read More

Every day, everywhere around the world, a silent referendum is going on about the state of American power. President Obama has consistently failed that test. By demanding that Bashar Assad leave power and then letting him stay; by letting Assad cross a “red line” on chemical weapons with impunity; by talking big about ISIS (“degrade and destroy”) and doing little; by standing by as Iran expanded its power into Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as Russia seized chunks of Ukrainian territory, and as China intimidated its neighbors to claim sovereignty over disputed island, the president has dissipated the most precious commodity in the world—American credibility.

Today comes yet another test of American resolve. Details remain in dispute, but it appears that Iranian Revolutionary Guard gunboats seized the Maersk Tigris, a container ship traversing the Persian Gulf either through international waters or through a small section of Iranian waters that it would be allowed to traverse under the international legal doctrine of “innocent passage.” Instead of allowing the ship to go on its way, the IRGC fired a shot across its bow and detained the ship along with its crew. This is a vessel flagged in the Marshall Islands, a U.S. protectorate, owned by the Maersk line (a company with substantial American operations that is headquartered in Denmark, a NATO ally), and chartered by Rickers Ship Management, the Singapore-based subsidiary of a German company (two more U.S. allies).

The Iranian action may well be an indirect response to the U.S. decision to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group in order to intimidate Iran into turning back a cargo of supply ships reportedly bringing weapons to Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen. But whatever caused the Iranian action, it is a direct threat to freedom of navigation, which the U.S. Navy has defended around the world for centuries.

In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. commitment to that doctrine led President Reagan to order U.S. Navy ships to escort tankers and protect them from Iranian attacks, precipitating a short and sharp conflict (the Tanker War of 1987-88) between the U.S. and Iran. This was the last time, incidentally, that the U.S. used force to respond to Iranian attacks and it was an unqualified success—the Iranians lost some oil platforms and boats that they had been using to harass shipping. Finally the accidental shootdown of an Iranian airliner in 1988 by the USS Vincennes (an unintended and unfortunate consequence of these operations) helped convince the Iranian leadership to end their war with Iraq.

Today the U.S. still remains committed, at least on paper, to protecting freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. In 2011, a 5th Fleet spokesman put it well: “The free flow of goods and services through the Strait of Hormuz is vital to regional and global prosperity. Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated.”

Thus if the Obama administration were, in fact, to “tolerate” this disruption of the free flow of shipping it would send a dangerous signal, or to be more accurate, to reinforce a signal already sent: The U.S. lacks the will to stand up to predators in the international system, and in particular to Iran. Put another way, it would signal to the entire region that the president is so invested in reaching a deal with Iran that no Iranian misconduct—not the dropping of barrel bombs on Syrian civilians, not the takeover of Yemen, not the ethnic cleansing of Sunni communities in Iraq, and now not the seizure of a Western cargo ship—will be allowed to interfere with his objective.

The fate of the Maersk Tigris does not matter much in and of itself, but it will say much about this administration’s commitment to maintaining America’s traditional security responsibilities.

Read Less

Bush’s Mistakes Don’t Excuse Obama’s

As reports of former president George W. Bush’s criticism of his successor’s Middle East policies at a supposedly off-the-record Republican Jewish Coalition event this past weekend spread from Las Vegas, the reaction from many in the mainstream media and Obama administration supporters (but, of course, I repeat myself) was to demand where the 43rd president got off bashing the 44th? In the view of a lot of Americans, including a great many who are not on the left, Bush should have not have broken the general silence he’s observed about President Obama’s policies since leaving office. To them, Bush’s decision to go into Iraq was a colossal blunder even if they don’t buy into the canard about him lying to the American people about the justification for that move. If Obama has made mistakes in the Middle East, they claim they were built upon the foundation of error that Bush created. But the problem with the reaction to this story is that it is more of a reflection of the free pass Obama has gotten on the foreign-policy disasters that he has presided over than a reasonable judgment about Bush.

Read More

As reports of former president George W. Bush’s criticism of his successor’s Middle East policies at a supposedly off-the-record Republican Jewish Coalition event this past weekend spread from Las Vegas, the reaction from many in the mainstream media and Obama administration supporters (but, of course, I repeat myself) was to demand where the 43rd president got off bashing the 44th? In the view of a lot of Americans, including a great many who are not on the left, Bush should have not have broken the general silence he’s observed about President Obama’s policies since leaving office. To them, Bush’s decision to go into Iraq was a colossal blunder even if they don’t buy into the canard about him lying to the American people about the justification for that move. If Obama has made mistakes in the Middle East, they claim they were built upon the foundation of error that Bush created. But the problem with the reaction to this story is that it is more of a reflection of the free pass Obama has gotten on the foreign-policy disasters that he has presided over than a reasonable judgment about Bush.

Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush’s spokesman in the White House and conducted the interview of the former president at the RJC event, later claimed that the 43rd president was not directly criticizing his successor. But that is as unconvincing as the group’s expectations that no one in the closed door event would blab to the press about what Bush said. Though the remarks were quite mild when compared to some of the things former Vice President Dick Cheney has said about Obama, there’s no evading the fact that what Bush reportedly said was a pointed attack on the 44th president’s policy decisions on Iran as well as his failure to defeat ISIS.

The question is, does Bush have standing to take potshots at Obama?

The argument against him speaking out rests on one crucial decision: Iraq. Even if President Obama’s defenders were willing to admit that he made mistakes in Iraq that allowed ISIS to rise, they can claim with some justice that none of it would have happened if Bush hadn’t invaded.

On Iran, Bush’s critics also have a point. The Bush administration never prioritized the Iranian nuclear threat. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to have occupied most of his attention in the region. Bush outsourced diplomatic efforts to deal with Iran to America’s European allies with predictably dismal results. He also discouraged Israel from taking any action on its own. Though Bush is right about Obama’s naïveté in dealing with the Iranians, there’s no doubt that the issue has always been a top priority for this administration.

But even if we concede these points, none of this excuses the blunders that Obama has made on his own. Nor do they give us a reason to silence Bush.

On Iraq, there’s no question that most Americans believe the war was a mistake. The failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that virtually everyone was sure were there (because we knew and now had evidence of the existence of these programs) still rankles. The loss of life was devastating and what followed in Iraq is nothing for Americans to brag about. Moreover, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein did empower Iran just as most Israeli experts warned Bush it would.

But if we are discussing what brought about the current chaos in Iraq and the fact that ISIS now controls much of its territory as well as a lot of Syria, the blame belongs to Obama, not Bush.

What the current president’s defenders keep forgetting is that the Iraq he inherited from Bush was not the chaos and horror that characterized the early years of the war. By January 2009, the surge Bush ordered in 2007 had decisively defeated the terrorists. When Obama bragged that he had ended the war and that America could safely withdraw its forces, it was because Bush had finally won it after some early and costly missteps. The Iraq that we see today with ISIS running riot and Iran dominating what’s left is solely the fault of Obama. It was his foolish decision to completely withdraw all U.S. troops that created the vacuum that ISIS and Iran filled.

In the war against Islamist terror, it was Obama who wrongly boasted that al-Qaeda was defeated because of Osama bin Laden’s death. Neither he nor his defenders can blame the spread of terror throughout the region on Bush when they were the ones telling us in 2012 that Obama had vanquished the threat.

As far as Iran is concerned, say what you will about Bush’s negligence on the issue. But at least he never appeased Iran or gave it permission to continue a nuclear program that may well produce a bomb either by cheating on Obama’s weak deal or by abiding by it and waiting patiently for it to expire.

But there’s a broader point to be made about the willingness of liberals to still blame everything that’s wrong in the world on Obama’s predecessor.

Bush made mistakes, and perhaps the world have been better off had he not invaded Iraq. Then again, we don’t know what mischief Saddam Hussein might have accomplished had he remained in power over the past decade.

More to the point, in the aftermath of 9/11 Bush was presented with a clear and present danger to the United States. Instead of waiting for the next attack, he took the war to the enemy. Not everything worked out as he hoped and, in fact, some things turned out very badly indeed. But America did not suffer another 9/11 as most people expected it would in the days after that attack. The world he left Barack Obama was one in which the nation’s enemies were on the run. If he feels dismay about the chaos that Obama’s negligence in Iraq and foolish appeasement of Iran has created, who can blame him?

Instead of continuing to treat the 43rd president as a punch line, perhaps it’s time to start honestly evaluating the disastrous record of the 44th. If we do, and I suspect future historians will do just that, then Bush’s criticisms of Obama will be viewed very differently.

Read Less

Is the Tide Turning Back Against Assad?

After an uprising began in Syria in March 2011, the expectation was that Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. But he managed to hang onto power with surprising tenacity, thanks in no small part to significant assistance from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In more recent months the conventional wisdom had gone from “Assad’s a goner” to “Assad’s a winner.” But that latter judgment may be premature.

Read More

After an uprising began in Syria in March 2011, the expectation was that Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. But he managed to hang onto power with surprising tenacity, thanks in no small part to significant assistance from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In more recent months the conventional wisdom had gone from “Assad’s a goner” to “Assad’s a winner.” But that latter judgment may be premature.

The recent fall of Idlib city and much of its surrounding countryside to rebel fighters suggests that Assad’s power may be waning. “After seizing most of Idlib province in recent weeks,” the Washington Post notes, “the rebels are pressing south toward the government strongholds of Hama and Homs and are threatening the ­Assad family’s coastal heartland of Latakia.” Other signs also point to a regime not as strong as commonly believed: notably the failure of earlier government offensives against Aleppo and rebel strongholds in the south.

These setbacks have been accompanied by rumors of high-level dissension. As the Post notes: “On Friday, pro-government news outlets reported the death of political security director Rustom Ghazaleh, a longtime Assad stalwart, after months of rumors that he had fallen out with the regime, had been badly beaten up by a rival and was languishing in a hospital. The reports followed the firing last month of the military intelligence chief, Rafiq Shehadeh, another inner-circle loyalist. Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.” Even Assad’s family appears to be cracking to some extent. One of Bashar’s cousins was fired as head of security in Damascus and fled the country while another cousin was detained “amid rumors that he had been plotting a coup.”

No less an observer than Robert Ford, an astute Arabist who was the last U.S. ambassador to Damascus, writes: “We may be seeing signs of the beginning of their end.”

Of course one must stay skeptical about such reports, which sound so suspiciously similar to reports from 2011-2012 which prematurely wrote a political obituary for Assad. But even if it’s true that the end is nigh for the Assad regime, that’s hardly unalloyed good news.

True, no one can shed any tears over the potential demise of a government that has been responsible for murdering more than 200,000 of its own citizens. But there is a big question as to what comes next.

The losses the government has been suffering lately are not at the hands of the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army, which has been all but abandoned by the United States. Rather, recent military victories against Assad are ascribed to a new rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest. It includes some of the more moderate battalions that make up the Free Syrian Army but its core is the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Its primary patrons are not the Americans or Europeans but rather Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, all Islamist states. Replacing an Iranian-backed regime in Damascus with an al-Qaeda regime would hardly be cause for celebration, even if ISIS, the other major Islamist army in Syria, is even more radical than al-Nusra.

There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the extremists—it has come about primarily because President Obama missed his opportunity to support the more moderate rebels in a more sustained way earlier in the conflict. If anything, the potential crumbling of the Assad regime should be a wakeup call to the administration that it needs to step up its aid to the Free Syrian Army and to create liberated enclaves, protected by American airpower, where the moderate Syrian opposition, which has been recognized as the true government by the U.S. and its allies, can start to rule on Syrian territory.

But realistically even such steps would not be enough to significantly alter the balance of power on the ground in the short term. If the Assad regime collapses in the near future, it’s hard to imagine the power vacuum being filled by anyone other than Sunni jihadists—unless the international community is prepared to intervene with a large-scale peacekeeping force, a la Bosnia or Kosovo or East Timor. But if the U.S. and its allies failed to send such a force to Libya after Gaddafi’s downfall (as I urged at the time), it’s unlikely to do so now in the far more dangerous circumstances of Syria where foreign forces would be ripe for attack not only from the al-Nusra Front and Assad’s remaining champions but also from ISIS.

It’s hard to imagine Syria—already a war-ravaged land that has become a magnet for foreign jihadists, both Shiite and Sunni—getting any worse after Assad’s downfall. But it’s also hard to imagine it getting any better unless the West steps up to do more than it has been willing to do for the past four years.

Read Less

Another Jewish Charm Offensive Won’t Fix What Obama Has Broken

After several months of insults (chickensh*!t) and threats about re-evaluating U.S. policy, the Obama administration appears to have awakened to the fact that its feud with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone too far. As the New York Times reports today, the White House is making a conscious effort to play down its anger at the Israeli government, primarily by making nice with American Jewish groups. But what is sounding very much like another edition of the Jewish charm offensive that characterized administration statements about Israel during the year preceding President Obama’s reelection is not going to fix what has been broken by President Obama and his foreign-policy team. The problem is an American government that is intent on creating distance between itself and Israel, not misunderstandings rooted in a personality clash between Obama and Netanyahu. Its only purpose is to disarm Jewish groups and to persuade them to stay quiet during the impending debate about the Iran nuclear deal while still threatening Israel with diplomatic isolation over the Middle East peace process.

Read More

After several months of insults (chickensh*!t) and threats about re-evaluating U.S. policy, the Obama administration appears to have awakened to the fact that its feud with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone too far. As the New York Times reports today, the White House is making a conscious effort to play down its anger at the Israeli government, primarily by making nice with American Jewish groups. But what is sounding very much like another edition of the Jewish charm offensive that characterized administration statements about Israel during the year preceding President Obama’s reelection is not going to fix what has been broken by President Obama and his foreign-policy team. The problem is an American government that is intent on creating distance between itself and Israel, not misunderstandings rooted in a personality clash between Obama and Netanyahu. Its only purpose is to disarm Jewish groups and to persuade them to stay quiet during the impending debate about the Iran nuclear deal while still threatening Israel with diplomatic isolation over the Middle East peace process.

As with the reelection year charm offensive, the administration is doing little to mend fences with an Israeli government that it has slandered and undermined. Rather, it is focused on holding the hands of Jewish groups that face the difficult choice between standing up to the president or keeping quiet in order to maintain their access to the White House.

The administration is rightly fearful that it’s public venting of anger about Netanyahu’s opposition to its push for détente with Iran and their insistence on blaming him and not the Palestinian Authority leadership for the latest collapse of the peace process is exposing the rift between much of the Democratic Party and the pro-Israel community. That doesn’t necessarily threaten the Democrats’ hold on the Jewish vote in 2016, but Obama isn’t really worried about Hillary Clinton’s fate right now. What bothers him is the prospect that a critical mass of American Jews will be sufficiently fed up with the president’s threats toward Israel and insufficiently sold on the virtues of the Iran deal that they will exert pressure on wavering Democrats to vote against the agreement if it is actually signed and then comes up for a vote sometime this summer.

That’s what’s behind the meetings with Jewish groups (though most of those invited to the tête-à-têtes at the White House have been either loyal administration cheerleaders like J Street and other left-wing groups or mainstream organizations that can usually be counted on not to make trouble for the powers that be) and, just as important, leaks from administration sources that lead to articles like today’s New York Times feature intended to calm the nerves of the paper’s liberal Jewish readership.

Despite the talk of recognition that, in the words of former U.S. ambassador to Israel and veteran peace processor Daniel Kurtzer, “anger was replacing policy,” the division between the two countries had little to do with pique on either side of the alliance. The White House temper tantrums about Netanyahu’s prickly personality, his acceptance of an invitation to address Congress without bespeaking Obama’s permission first, or even some of the things he said in the days before his election victory certainly added to the tensions that have been building for six years. But the real source of the problem lies in policy prescriptions not inadequate personal relations.

The president entered office convinced that the U.S. must distance itself from Israel and engage Iran and after years of effort, he finally seems to have accomplished both objectives. To that end, the president has consistently sought to pressure Israel to make concessions and blamed the Jewish state when these efforts failed, as they always have, to entice the Palestinians to make peace. Consistent Palestinian rejections of peace offers have convinced most Israelis that peace is impossible in the foreseeable future and to reelect Netanyahu, but the administration has reacted to the same facts by seeking more distance between Washington and Jerusalem and overtly threatening to abandon Israel at the United Nations.

Even more ominously, the White House has embraced a new bizarrely Iran-centric policy in the Middle East that has alienated both Israel and moderate Arab nations while negotiating an agreement that, at the very least, establishes Tehran as a threshold nuclear power and gives it two paths to a bomb, one by cheating and the other by waiting until the deal expires.

Neither of these problems can be papered over by mere meetings or statements. President Obama’s disingenuous efforts to convince the country that, despite everything that has happened during his time in office that would convince any objective observer to the contrary, he is true friend of Israel ring false even for many Democrats.

But Obama doesn’t need, as he did in 2012, to convince most supporters of Israel that he is one of them. After all that has happened in the last year, let alone the five that preceded it, that isn’t going to work despite his avowals of friendship. All he needs is to neutralize the mainstream groups that could make a lot of trouble for him if they decided to go all out to try and defeat an Iran deal that poses a potential mortal threat to the security of the West, regional security, as well as Israel’s existence. Such an effort on their part might be enough to tip many ostensibly pro-Israel Democrats to oppose the deal even though the president has tried to make support for the deal a test of partisan loyalty.

That’s why Obama says he won’t meet Netanyahu until after the Iran deal is finalized and approved even if he has to get that approval by stopping Congress from overriding his veto.

Supporters of Israel in both the Democratic and Republican parties need to recognize that what is needed are not feel-good meetings but a presidential promise that the final Iran deal will insist on the inspections and other points the Iranians currently refuse to countenance. They should also get guarantees that the president won’t stop backing the Jewish state in the United Nations when the Palestinians and their supporters seek recognition for their state without first being required to make peace.

Anything less than that is a diversionary tactic, not an effort to heal a breach the president has worked so hard to create.

Read Less

The al-Qaeda Hostages and Deteriorating U.S. Intel

Today a grim-faced President Obama announced that he was taking “full responsibility” for the inadvertent death of two hostages held by al-Qaeda and killed in the frontier region of Pakistan by an American drone strike. He was right to do so, but it’s not an especially brave thing to do on the president’s part because few but the most perfervid partisans will blame him for this accident of the type that happens so often in the “fog of war.”

Read More

Today a grim-faced President Obama announced that he was taking “full responsibility” for the inadvertent death of two hostages held by al-Qaeda and killed in the frontier region of Pakistan by an American drone strike. He was right to do so, but it’s not an especially brave thing to do on the president’s part because few but the most perfervid partisans will blame him for this accident of the type that happens so often in the “fog of war.”

The only people who might be remotely surprised by this mistake would be those technologists and futurists who once argued that advances in computing power would make possible “perfect information awareness,” thereby turning war into a sterile targeting exercise. The U.S. military in the 1990s to some extent bought into this orthodoxy, which became known as “network-centric operations.” Although the limitations of information technology were brutally exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where no number of precision airstrikes could defeat determined insurgencies, there has remained a political vogue for “precise,” “surgical” airstrikes—now done by drones rather than by manned aircraft. This has, in fact, become the preferred Obama way of warfare.

There is no question that drone strikes are a useful tool of counter-terrorism policy, but the mistaken killing of the two hostages shows the limits of our intelligence. It would be all too easy to kill the enemy if we knew precisely where he was, but we don’t—insurgents like to hide in plain sight and it takes a lot of work to distinguish them from the civilian population. To be sure, high-tech reconnaissance and surveillance can enable this process but human-intelligence is necessary too, both the kind acquired by spies and the kind acquired by interrogators.

As it happens, the Joint Special Operations Command under Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Adm. Bill McRaven became very, very good at doing battlefield interrogations without using torture. It was their success in getting detainees to talk that enabled JSOC operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that is now a lot harder to pull off because the U.S. is no longer holding detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have transitioned the detention process over to the Iraqis and Afghans, with predictably dismal results. Many hardened killers who have blood on their hands were set free.

Moreover, Obama is refusing to send any new detainees to Guantanamo and continuing George W. Bush’s policy of releasing detainees, roughly a third of whom return to their old tricks. Finally Obama, like all presidents, is averse to putting American troops on the ground in harm’s way. Thus the strong preference for U.S. counter-terrorism strikes is to kill rather than to capture terrorists. But dead men tell no tales. The fact that we are not capturing and interrogating more bad guys means, inevitably, that the quality of our intelligence is going down, thus raising the likelihood of mistakes such as the ones that killed hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” is fine for Westerns, but in the real world live terrorists are far more useful than dead ones.

Read Less

What Obama Should Be Apologizing For

President Obama stepped before the cameras this morning to apologize for the deaths of two Western hostages, including one American, in a U.S. drone strike on an al-Qaeda target. Speaking in a dignified and sorrowful tone that marked a strong contrast with most of his press appearances, the president expressed profound regret about the deaths on behalf of the government and vowed that it would do its best not to repeat the mistake. While the families deserved to hear his apology, the rest of us do not. But the American people are owed an apology for something else. As we add to the total of Americans killed as a result of terrorism by a group we were informed by the Obama re-election team was on the run and finished, sometime before the president leaves office it would be far more appropriate for him to own up to the mistakes he made that have led us to a moment in history when Islamist terror is more dangerous than ever.

Read More

President Obama stepped before the cameras this morning to apologize for the deaths of two Western hostages, including one American, in a U.S. drone strike on an al-Qaeda target. Speaking in a dignified and sorrowful tone that marked a strong contrast with most of his press appearances, the president expressed profound regret about the deaths on behalf of the government and vowed that it would do its best not to repeat the mistake. While the families deserved to hear his apology, the rest of us do not. But the American people are owed an apology for something else. As we add to the total of Americans killed as a result of terrorism by a group we were informed by the Obama re-election team was on the run and finished, sometime before the president leaves office it would be far more appropriate for him to own up to the mistakes he made that have led us to a moment in history when Islamist terror is more dangerous than ever.

It’s important to give credit to the president for providing some transparency about the fate of both hostages. Going public with the news about the fact that the hostages were killed as a result of U.S. action was the right thing to do. So was the apology to the family. But, like his refusals to ransom other hostages held by terrorists, the president was right not to try to buy the freedom of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto and also correct to order the attack on an al-Qaeda stronghold even if the results of these decisions were tragic.

Second-guessing about specific operations is easy for critics but useless. No one seriously believes the strike would have been planned and approved had anyone known about the presence of the hostages. The only apologies truly needed for this incident should come from the terrorists who seized two innocent people—both aid workers who were in the region to help, not wage war—and are responsible for their deaths, no matter the origin of the bomb that ultimately killed them.

But any discussion about al-Qaeda must start and end with an honest evaluation of the administration’s counter-terrorism policy in the context of its broader foreign-policy goals. And it is here that apologies are warranted.

The president has taken a beating from some on the left as well as their unlikely libertarian allies on the right such as Senator Rand Paul for the extensive use of drones to kill terrorists. Those criticisms are largely unfounded. These are legitimate targets, and taking out these killers and their infrastructure is both necessary and justified.

The drone attacks are wrongly blamed for making the terrorists popular. As much as many in Pakistan and Afghanistan resent them, the factor that drives terror recruitment is the notion that they are prevailing in the struggle against the West, not resentment of successful attacks that prove they are not winning. But what isn’t working is the foreign policy that makes the context for military action and which has given the terrorists good reason to believe that they are succeeding.

We now know that administration decisions to pull out of Iraq precipitously rather than stay and negotiate a deal that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in the country facilitated the rise of ISIS. The same can be said for the president’s dithering about the civil war in Syria when decisive Western action in the opening months of the struggle probably also would have made it difficult for ISIS to establish a foothold there as well. In Afghanistan, the continued strength of the Taliban even after setbacks they experienced as a result of the surge the president ordered in his first term is largely due to Obama’s announcement of a pullout date for U.S. troops even as reinforcements were arriving.

The problem is that the president was so eager to declare wars over or ending that he forgot that the terrorists were not getting the memo about their being defeated. The same applies to al-Qaeda, whose defeat was supposed to be sealed with the death of Osama bin Laden, a centerpiece of the president’s reelection campaign rhetoric. Yet while the administration was trying to tell us that al-Qaeda was decimated or on the run or effectively out of business, it was continuing to dig in and expand. Now it appears that its affiliates are as strong or stronger than in bin Laden’s time. Combined with the efforts of their ISIS rivals, it’s clear terrorism is as great a threat to U.S. security as ever. Add in the ongoing activities of Hamas and Hezbollah and the Houthi in Yemen, all of which are prospering because of the active aid of Iran, a nation that is the object of the president’s efforts at détente, and the picture becomes even darker.

This is an administration that is more concerned with withdrawing from the Middle East than in showing that it will stay and fight until victory. The appeasement of Iran on the nuclear issue and the refusal of the president to insist that Iran stop supporting terror as part of the negotiations (indeed, his Democratic allies in the Senate successfully insisted that any accountability on terror be left out of the Corker-Menendez bill on the Iran deal) also undermine any notion that it is a priority.

It is that dismal situation and not a tragic if honorable failure to know that hostages might die with their terrorist captors in a drone strikes that merits a presidential apology.

Read Less

Hillary, Obama, and the Corruption of American Foreign Policy

There has never been a better time to be a lame-duck president. Barack Obama may not instinctively agree–after all, he’s still negotiating the “ObamaCare” of foreign policy, the disastrous deal with Iran that legitimizes the Islamic Republic as a nuclear power. And he’s still trying to find ways to get attention by airdropping money over America like an angry version of the H&R Block ad spokesman. But the latest Clinton scandal–easily the worst yet–should make him happy his party has already moved on to Hillary. Because the corruption at the center of it is the corruption of Obama’s own foreign-policy apparatus.

Read More

There has never been a better time to be a lame-duck president. Barack Obama may not instinctively agree–after all, he’s still negotiating the “ObamaCare” of foreign policy, the disastrous deal with Iran that legitimizes the Islamic Republic as a nuclear power. And he’s still trying to find ways to get attention by airdropping money over America like an angry version of the H&R Block ad spokesman. But the latest Clinton scandal–easily the worst yet–should make him happy his party has already moved on to Hillary. Because the corruption at the center of it is the corruption of Obama’s own foreign-policy apparatus.

We already knew the Russian “reset” was a humiliating failure, and that the Iran deal was well on its way to being one as well. But the latest Clinton scandal shows that the reset itself was also tainted by corruption and the product of Obama getting outmaneuvered even more than we previously thought. If you don’t think foreign policy is important in a presidential election, just take a look at how easily Obama was played by Putin and how detrimental to American interests Obama’s attempts to sit at the adult table have been.

Now we know, for example, that a Russian state energy company took control of one-fifth of American uranium production in a series of moves facilitated by Bill Clinton and approved by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as donations from the major players in this saga flowed into the Clinton family foundation and cash payments went directly to Bill Clinton from the Russians.

But there’s more. For obvious reasons, the official line was that the uranium mined here in the States by the foreign entities could not be exported without additional licensing. That was a lie–as the owner of a Wyoming ranch discovered when he noticed the uranium from his property leaving the country anyway:

Mr. Christensen, 65, noted that despite assurances by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that uranium could not leave the country without Uranium One or ARMZ obtaining an export license — which they do not have — yellowcake from his property was routinely packed into drums and trucked off to a processing plant in Canada.

Asked about that, the commission confirmed that Uranium One has, in fact, shipped yellowcake to Canada even though it does not have an export license. Instead, the transport company doing the shipping, RSB Logistic Services, has the license. A commission spokesman said that “to the best of our knowledge” most of the uranium sent to Canada for processing was returned for use in the United States. A Uranium One spokeswoman, Donna Wichers, said 25 percent had gone to Western Europe and Japan. At the moment, with the uranium market in a downturn, nothing is being shipped from the Wyoming mines.

Amazing. Even the truth is never the truth with the Clintons. They said don’t worry about exporting because Uranium One doesn’t have an export license. They just conveniently forgot to add that the license was given to the transport company instead. And the Clintons broke their agreement with the Obama administration to provide transparency on such deals and prevent direct foreign influence peddling, and they even filed false tax returns to hide their shenanigans from the IRS.

So it wasn’t only that Putin had run circles around Obama, using the “reset” to reach into Obama’s back pocket with one hand while shaking Obama’s hand with the other. He did so with the enabling of Obama’s own sitting secretary of state, who was running institutions of a parallel government allowing foreign dictators to circumvent U.S. rules to increase their control of American energy assets, all the while getting both the Russians and the Clintons rich.

Additionally, the Russian energy agency involved here, Rosatom, is a chief partner in Iran’s nuclear program with regard to reactors and uranium supplies. Sean Davis explains why this is such an important detail:

The former secretary of state has remained relatively silent on the proposed Iranian nuclear deal thus far, apparently for good reason. Her opposition could sink Rosatom’s 2014 deal to provide enriched uranium to eight Iranian nuclear reactors for their entire life cycles, potentially enraging the wealthy investors who funneled millions to her family’s foundation. And if she clearly endorses the deal and Iran ends up using the enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon, opponents could blame Hillary for approving the deal that enabled Russia to provide all that uranium to the Iranians.

She is, it should be pointed out once again, running for president of the United States. In the meantime, the country is still dealing with the fallout of the institutional corruption Hillary brought to the State Department and to American foreign policy. That foreign policy is Obama’s too.

It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to clean up this mess. But that effort will only be stymied by the fact that this mess is still the operating principle of American foreign policy, especially with regard to Iran.

Read Less

Is Iran the Next North Korea?

Yesterday Foreign Affairs posted an article I had written with Sue Mi Terry, once the CIA’s foremost North Korea analyst, arguing that the experience of the Agreed Framework was an inauspicious precedent for the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. We wrote: “The case of North Korea clearly exposes the dangers of the United States seeking a nuclear agreement with a state that has no intention of abiding by one. The 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, which called on North Korea to freeze the operation and construction of nuclear reactors, collapsed within a decade of its signing. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, and today it is a full-fledged nuclear power. The United States’ experience with North Korea should make it wary of similar nuclear negotiations, especially with Iran.”

Read More

Yesterday Foreign Affairs posted an article I had written with Sue Mi Terry, once the CIA’s foremost North Korea analyst, arguing that the experience of the Agreed Framework was an inauspicious precedent for the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. We wrote: “The case of North Korea clearly exposes the dangers of the United States seeking a nuclear agreement with a state that has no intention of abiding by one. The 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, which called on North Korea to freeze the operation and construction of nuclear reactors, collapsed within a decade of its signing. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, and today it is a full-fledged nuclear power. The United States’ experience with North Korea should make it wary of similar nuclear negotiations, especially with Iran.”

Today the Wall Street Journal runs an article exposing just how grave the danger is. According to the Journal, Chinese experts have concluded that the North Korean nuclear program is even more advanced than the U.S. intelligence community has believed: “The latest Chinese estimates, relayed in a closed-door meeting with U.S. nuclear specialists, showed that North Korea may already have 20 warheads, as well as the capability of producing enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year.”

To add to the danger, the Journal notes, “Adm. William Gortney, head of U.S. Northern Command, said this month that defense officials believe North Korea can now mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile called the KN-08. U.S. officials don’t believe the missile has been tested, but experts estimate it has a range of about 5,600 miles—within reach of the western edge of the continental U.S., including California.”

It’s not too hard to imagine, a decade from now, reading similar reports about how Iran has dozens of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of hitting the United States, to say nothing of nearby targets such as Israel, which Iran can already strike with an arsenal of 50,000 rockets positioned in Lebanon. And there is no reason to believe that Iran is any more sincere than North Korea about giving up its nuclear program. Those who advocate the agreement with Iran imagine that we will be able to somehow monitor Iranian nuclear developments, but the North Koreans caught us by surprise by developing a secret plutonium enrichment program—and if the Journal report is accurate, North Korea continues to surprise us still.

The rapid pace of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs is alarming in part because of its implications for regional stability–will South Korea and Japan feel compelled to go nuclear too in their own defense? If so that could set off a nuclear arms race. South Korea and Japan have so far refrained from such actions, even though both have extensive civilian nuclear programs that could be weaponized in a heartbeat, because both countries shelter under the American nuclear umbrella.

Some suggest that our nuclear umbrella could be extended to states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to prevent them from going nuclear to counter the Iranians, but the major reason our security guarantees to South Korea and Japan have credibility is because we have tens of thousands of troops stationed in those countries. We don’t have any troops in Saudi Arabia, nor are we likely to put any back in, because we would regard that as a provocation for more terrorism. Absent Americans in harms’ way, however, any American security guarantees would be about as credible as the “red line” that Obama drew in Syria. Thus the U.S. would have little influence to stop an incredibly dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Another reason why the advanced state of the North Korean program should be of such concern is because North Korea is a notorious nuclear and missile proliferator. As the Journal notes, North Korea “previously exported nuclear technology to Syria and missile components to Iran, Yemen and Egypt.” North Korea could easily offer Iran a shortcut toward putting nuclear weapons on missile warheads, bypassing entirely all of the procedures put in place to monitor Iranian compliance with a nuclear accord—procedures which appear to be if anything less rigorous than those under the Agreed Framework.

And if Iran breaks out as a nuclear power after a bogus agreement with the West, as North Korea did, the consequences will be much more severe for the world. North Korea, after all, is a declining, bankrupt state whose leadership is primarily intent on staying in power. Its juche philosophy appeals to no one outside its borders, and few within. Iran is an expansionist state, by contrast, with a jihadist ideology that appeals to many Shiites and ambitions of dominating the entire Middle East.  The nuclear accord with Iran is, therefore, potentially far more dangerous than the Agreed Framework with North Korea—and we know how that worked out.

Read Less

Are Asia’s Nations Losing Their Fear of China?

One of the great enablers of China’s rise in Asia has been the fear of smaller nations to oppose its increasingly coercive behavior. Facing the sheer size of China, the worry that trade relations could be affected, and growing power of its military, most Asian nations have tried to avoid antagonizing Beijing over disputed territory in the region. This has been most noticeable in the South China Sea, where China’s largely successful attempts to wrestle territory away from the Philippines and Vietnam has now been complemented by a land reclamation policy that literally creates islands out of coral reefs.

Read More

One of the great enablers of China’s rise in Asia has been the fear of smaller nations to oppose its increasingly coercive behavior. Facing the sheer size of China, the worry that trade relations could be affected, and growing power of its military, most Asian nations have tried to avoid antagonizing Beijing over disputed territory in the region. This has been most noticeable in the South China Sea, where China’s largely successful attempts to wrestle territory away from the Philippines and Vietnam has now been complemented by a land reclamation policy that literally creates islands out of coral reefs.

Yet there are signs that Asia’s nations have had enough, or at least are no longer willing to mute their opposition and anger at Beijing’s high-handed actions. This story, about a recent confrontation between Chinese maritime patrol vessels and Philippine fishing boats in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, contains all the elements of Asia’s geopolitical tussle. China’s coercive actions, including using water cannons and cutting the smaller boats’ mooring ropes, mimics previous incidents with Vietnam and other nations.

Yet now official condemnation of China is becoming more common. The Philippines’ presidential palace criticized China for the recent acts, one of just a number of Asian states that seem less willing to back down, at least diplomatically. While few of these nations have the military capability to effectively protect their claims, and none will be able to replicate Beijing’s feat of creating new islands on which to place airstrips and bases, they seem to have turned a corner in their willingness to denounce China’s actions.

Some of this is due to the realization that silence bought them little respite from China’s creeping control over the waters of Southeast Asia. Yet some more may be due to the fact that Japan has increased its diplomatic and security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations, providing patrol vessels and talking about enhanced relations. As Tokyo has deepened ties with both India and Australia, it is beginning to form a least a loose community of nations working more closely together in building up their defensive capabilities. Perhaps this, too, is changing the calculus of Asian states that have felt isolated until now.

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will visit Washington next week, for what may turn out to be an important summit with Barack Obama. Abe is eager to deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance, and it looks like a new set of guidelines for defense cooperation will be released. But where it counts today is on the waters of the South China Sea. The U.S. just concluded its largest military exercises with the Philippines in over a decade, a sign that Washington understands the sensitivities at play.

Yet whether President Obama will embrace Japan’s bid to link together those nations that feel threatened by China is yet unknown. Throwing his weight behind Abe’s initiatives would be a sure sign to Beijing that its rise is not without cost, and that it must temper its actions in order to ensure continued peace in Asia. With less than two years left in his administration, this is President Obama’s last, best chance to help reduce risk in Asia and potentially reshape its regional relations.

Read Less

Is the GOP Really the Party of Free Trade? Not Exactly.

Yesterday Chris Christie raised some eyebrows when he told the Conference on the Americas, “I do think that we need to take another look at NAFTA,” referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. That agreement was a signature achievement of the Clinton administration and the Gingrich Congress. Christie’s rhetoric is empty: there’s no way he, if he somehow became president, would undo a two-decade-old signature free-trade agreement. But in saying he’d even take another look at it, Christie was exposing the divide between rank-and-file Republicans and their elected leaders on the value of free trade.

Read More

Yesterday Chris Christie raised some eyebrows when he told the Conference on the Americas, “I do think that we need to take another look at NAFTA,” referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. That agreement was a signature achievement of the Clinton administration and the Gingrich Congress. Christie’s rhetoric is empty: there’s no way he, if he somehow became president, would undo a two-decade-old signature free-trade agreement. But in saying he’d even take another look at it, Christie was exposing the divide between rank-and-file Republicans and their elected leaders on the value of free trade.

Republicans are often thought of as reflexively supportive of free trade, in large part because the GOP’s congressional caucus is pro-trade and currently trying to get a deal through Congress that would give President Obama broad authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But is the GOP really the party of free trade?

According to Gallup, 61 percent of Democrats see trade more as an opportunity for economic growth than as a threat to the domestic economy from imports. For Republicans, that number is 51–barely a majority. Independents are at 61 percent with the Democrats.

Is this a function of partisanship, and a sign that Republicans just don’t trust Barack Obama to negotiate a trade agreement that would be good for the economy as much as they might trust a Republican president? To a degree, possibly. But what jumps out about the historical trend since 2001 is the relative stability of the Republican stance on trade. Here’s Gallup’s chart:

freetradegallup

As you can see, Republicans started the George W. Bush administration at 55 percent on the pro-trade side. They’re only down four percent now in Obama’s second term.

Of course there were fluctuations. Discounting election years (I’ll come back to that), Republicans hit a high of 57 during the Bush years and a low of 45 in Obama’s first year. Democrats hit a high of 66 in 2013 and a (non-election year) low of 38 during the Bush years. It would appear that partisanship plays a role here, but Democrats seem far more partisan in their views on trade than Republicans.

The economy is also a likely factor in the waxing and waning of support for free trade. So are election years, and the populist rhetoric that comes with them. In 2008, Democratic support for trade dropped to 36 percent, amid both the economic downturn and their party’s candidate, Barack Obama, threatening to renegotiate NAFTA (see a pattern?). Obama’s staff apparently told concerned Canadians that Obama wasn’t telling the public the truth, but he felt he had to play to the economic anxieties and overall economic ignorance of his party’s base.

Republicans haven’t dropped as low as Democrats did in 2008, but they hit a low in 2012, a presidential election year when their own candidate, Mitt Romney, was threatening trade sanctions against China. That’s when Republicans dropped to their low of 41 percent. Romney’s rhetoric was silly, but quickly forgotten: Republican support for free trade jumped ten points after Obama’s reelection, and hasn’t dropped below 51 since.

The election-year aspect to this, however, raises an important issue. The rhetoric politicians use can drive public opinion on trade, especially among their own party. And yet the consensus among economists has long been in favor of trade. (Where are those “consensus”-loving Democrats when you need them?) “For more than two centuries economists have steadfastly promoted free trade among nations as the best trade policy,” as Alan Blinder notes. “Despite this intellectual barrage, many ‘practical’ men and women continue to view the case for free trade skeptically, as an abstract argument made by ivory tower economists with, at most, one foot on terra firma.”

In a 2011 paper for the Cato Institute, Daniel J. Ikenson and Scott Lincicome made the case that poor public persuasion was partly to blame. They write:

Most Americans enjoy the fruits of international trade and globalization every day: driving to work in vehicles containing at least some foreign content, relying on smart phones assembled abroad from parts made in multiple countries (including the United States), having more to save or spend because retailers pass on cost savings made possible by their access to thousands of foreign producers, designing and selling products that would never have been commercially viable without access to the cost efficiencies afforded by transnational production and supply chains, enjoying fresh imported produce that was once unavailable out of season, depositing bigger paychecks on account of their employers’ growing sales to customers abroad, and enjoying salaries and benefits provided by employers that happen to be foreign-owned companies.

Nevertheless, public opinion polls routinely find tepid support among Americans for free trade.

The presidential campaign trail is a playground for protectionists. This could be something of a chicken-and-egg problem: what came first, the protectionist sentiment among voters to which politicians feel the need to pander, or the protectionist rhetoric that inspired trade skepticism among the public?

Either way, presidential campaign protectionism is often treated with surprise when voiced by Republican candidates. It shouldn’t be: there is no overwhelming consensus in either party in favor of free trade. The Republicans’ congressional free traders are right on the merits and perhaps they can help turn the tide of public opinion toward the economic consensus. But as long as presidential candidates play on the anti-trade instincts of so many voters, that’s unlikely to happen.

Read Less

Help Yemen? For Obama, Iran Détente Always Wins

When Americans heard on Monday that the United States had diverted two capital ships from their stations in the Persian Gulf to new positions off of Yemen, it sounded as if the Obama administration was finally displaying signs of getting tough with Iran. The movement of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the Normandy, a missile cruiser, was, the Pentagon said, an effort to enforce a blockade of the coast of that war-torn country so as to prevent Iran from delivering weapons to the Houthi rebels. The move seemed to indicate that American policy was torn between two goals: engagement with Iran via concessions on their nuclear program versus the need to stop the Islamist regime’s terrorist auxiliaries from toppling governments as part of Tehran’s effort to achieve regional hegemony. But yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf poured a bucket of cold water on any hopes that the administration was wising up when she said the U.S. ships were only in the area, “to ensure the shipping lanes remain safe” and not to intercept an Iranian arms convoy heading to the Houthis. So much for getting tough with Iran.

Read More

When Americans heard on Monday that the United States had diverted two capital ships from their stations in the Persian Gulf to new positions off of Yemen, it sounded as if the Obama administration was finally displaying signs of getting tough with Iran. The movement of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the Normandy, a missile cruiser, was, the Pentagon said, an effort to enforce a blockade of the coast of that war-torn country so as to prevent Iran from delivering weapons to the Houthi rebels. The move seemed to indicate that American policy was torn between two goals: engagement with Iran via concessions on their nuclear program versus the need to stop the Islamist regime’s terrorist auxiliaries from toppling governments as part of Tehran’s effort to achieve regional hegemony. But yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf poured a bucket of cold water on any hopes that the administration was wising up when she said the U.S. ships were only in the area, “to ensure the shipping lanes remain safe” and not to intercept an Iranian arms convoy heading to the Houthis. So much for getting tough with Iran.

What’s going on here? Not for the first time during the Obama presidency, the State Department and the Pentagon seem to be sending conflicting messages.

The Pentagon told reporters that the ships sent to the waters off Yemen were conducting “manned reconnaissance” of the Iranian arms convoy, which would seem to indicate that the Navy was prepared to halt the effort to resupply the Houthis in their effort to fend off the Saudi and Egyptian-backed effort to stop their takeover of Yemen. But the State Department was sending the opposite message with their talk of defending freedom of the seas.

Any mystery about which of the two departments was correct was resolved by White House spokesman Josh Earnest who backed State’s interpretation of events by using the same language about protecting commerce.

Let’s be clear here. U.S. ships have been in the region for decades to protect the freedom of the seas primarily from Iranian threats to interfere with shipping in the Persian Gulf. But the presence of Iranian vessels off Yemen is about something else. The only point to sending American warships there is to put a halt to Iran’s efforts to replace Yemen’s government with one beholden to Tehran. If the Roosevelt and the Normandy aren’t going to stop the Iranian arms convoy then the move was nothing more than a transparent bluff and one that is unlikely to impress the ayatollahs as they push the envelope seeking to test American resolve.

While Earnest said that the U.S. was interested in tracking arms shipments to the Houthis, the problem for the coalition fighting these Iranian allies isn’t so much intelligence about Tehran’s efforts as it is the need to actually stop them. Perhaps the administration hoped the mere presence of a powerful U.S. flotilla in the area would cause the Iranians to turn back. But by making it clear that U.S. forces won’t directly interfere with them, why should we expect that to happen?

Yemen is where two U.S. strategies came into direct conflict with each other. Washington doesn’t want Iran’s friends to take over Yemen. But it also is desperate to do nothing that would upset the Iranians and cause them to walk away from a weak nuclear deal that President Obama believes will be a legacy-making achievement. With the apparent order to U.S. ships off Yemen to stand down from any effort to halt the Iranian convoy, the president is indicating that the nuclear deal takes precedence over any other American goal.

This is just one more indication that the primary goal of the nuclear negotiations is not so much to stop Iran from getting a bomb as it is to create a new era of détente with the Islamist regime. By making concession after concession to Iran on its right to enrich uranium and to keep its nuclear infrastructure without intrusive inspections, the president has jettisoned the West’s economic and political leverage over Tehran in favor of a belief that good relations with it is the primary objective of U.S. policy in the region. He is not about to waste years of ardent pursuit of the Iranians at the price of every position he pledged to defend on the nuclear issue merely in order to stabilize Yemen. Nor is he inclined to order military action in the waters off of Yemen merely to placate the Saudis and Egyptians who view the Iranian-backed Houthis as a threat to regional security.

This episode also ought to inform our expectations about the final phase of negotiations with Iran as the nuclear deal is finalized in the next two months. Though the U.S. opposes Iran’s intervention in Yemen, the victory of the State Department over the Pentagon on the use of the Navy illustrates that nothing will be allowed to derail the new entente with Iran that Obama so values. This will give the Iranians all the confidence they need to stand firm on every outstanding issue, including inspections, transparency about their military research, and the disposition of their stockpile of nuclear fuel.

This is good news for the Islamist regime and very bad news for America’s allies in the region that hoped that President Obama wouldn’t abandon them even as he sought a nuclear deal.

Read Less




Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.