Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

What Does Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?

The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Read More

The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

For more than a half century U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East has been largely consistent and bipartisan. President Dwight Eisenhower briefly tried to reorient the basis of American policy away from close ties with Israel to a broader alliance favoring Arab states and the Arab narrative—hence the Suez debacle—but he quickly discovered that Israel simply made a better and more consistent ally than the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser or the myriad Arab leaders, many of whom were simply the latest coup leaders.

It’s worth considering why Obama is such an outlier. While, on paper, Obama might be expected to be the most international president—with Kenyan family and a boyhood in Indonesia—when it comes to the Middle East, he had little practical background. His introduction to the region appears to have occurred in American universities, if not directly in Middle East Studies courses, than through his friendship and close association with Middle East Studies luminaries like Rashid Khalidi and perhaps Edward Said as well.

Martin Kramer, currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, penned in 2001 one of the best researched, careful, and damning assessments of Middle Eastern Studies, in which he traced the inverse relationship between its polemics and relevance. Much of this can be traced back to Edward Said. Said, is of course, famous for penning Orientalism, perhaps the most influential book in Middle East Studies in the last half century. Few people who cite Orientalism, however, have ever read it. If they had, they would readily see the emperor had no clothes, for Said’s essay is so full of errors of both fact and logic as to suggest scholarly incompetence if not academic fraud. Quite simply, the reason why Said is so popular on campus today is because his argument became a blessing to prioritize polemic and politics above fact and scholarly rigor. For Said, up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.

Rashid Khalidi, a close friend of Obama from their mutual University of Chicago days, now holds a chair named in Said’s honor at Columbia University. He has consistently argued that politicians and diplomats do not listen to those like himself who claim expertise in the Middle East. This was a complaint which permeated his 2004 book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, which I reviewed here. The irony here, of course, is that Khalidi, who was previously the PLO spokesman in Beirut, had never been to Iraq but nevertheless castigated policymakers for ignoring his advice on the subject.

Khalidi, as with many others in his field, both sought to prioritize and amplify the importance of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, he appears obsessed with post-colonial theory. American power is corrosive, and the road to Middle East peace runs through Jerusalem. Likewise, cultural equivalence predominates: what the West calls terrorism is not so black and white. Hateful ideologies? They are simply the result of grievance. America should apologize and understand and accommodate to the position of the other if it is committed truly to peace.

Obama entered office internalizing such beliefs. Rather than act as leader of the free world, he approached the Middle East as a zoning commissioner. What he lacked in understanding, he compensated for with arrogance—dispensing with decades of accumulated wisdom and experience of predecessors both Democrat and Republican. Rather than jump start the peace process, Obama succeeded in setting it back decades.

When it comes to the U.S. military, there are few places with less trust and understanding than the university campus. Generations have now passed through the Ivory Tower since the end of conscription and, especially at elite universities, few professors or students have any experience in or with the military. The U.S. military is treated in an almost cartoonish, condescending fashion. Rather than see its projection as the enabler of peace, Obama—like many of his university colleagues—saw it as an arrow in the U.S. policy quiver with which past American presidents engaged in wars of choice and unjust gunboat diplomacy. Sovereignty and nationalism were enablers of evil; it was the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that held the key to peace and justice, if only they might operate unimpeded by the United States.

Of course, when put to the test, these assumptions failed completely. Obama’s promise to withdraw from Iraq did not win that country peace and stability, but condemned it to a return to terror and war. His failure to intervene in Syria early transferred a situation that might have been resolved with minimum force into a cancer which now spreads throughout the region. His outreach to Iran has shaken decades-long alliances with Arab allies to the core, and broken a trust in the United States and its red lines which will take decades to restore. Never before—not in 1979, not in 1967—has the Middle East been so torn asunder.

And yet, all Obama did was follow the prescriptions taught at so many American universities today: reconcile with Iran, condemn Israel, rationalize terror, trust Islamist movements, and refuse military solutions. The Middle East will test whoever succeeds Obama. It is doubtful that either a Democrat or a Republican will follow Obama’s path. History will treat him as an outlier. Still, it is worth considering whether Obama represents academe’s first grand experiment, enabling area studies professors to see their ideas put into action on the world stage. If so, perhaps it is worth considering whether many Middle Eastern studies programs are repositories of expertise, or rather have transformed themselves because of their own ideological conformity and blinders into a dustbin of wasted potential.

Read Less

Iran and the Problem of Off-Site Research

The current U.S. approach to the P5+1 nuclear negotiation seems so bizarre as to be lifted from the Twilight Zone: The deal as it is taking shape fails to address the key concerns which sparked the crisis. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry treat Iranian redlines as sacrosanct, but readily dispense with those of the United States or its allies. Obama effectively acts like a battered spouse: he insists the abuser truly loves him, and he lashes out at any friend who speaks honestly about how self-destructive his attitudes are.

Read More

The current U.S. approach to the P5+1 nuclear negotiation seems so bizarre as to be lifted from the Twilight Zone: The deal as it is taking shape fails to address the key concerns which sparked the crisis. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry treat Iranian redlines as sacrosanct, but readily dispense with those of the United States or its allies. Obama effectively acts like a battered spouse: he insists the abuser truly loves him, and he lashes out at any friend who speaks honestly about how self-destructive his attitudes are.

As a result, John Kerry’s triumph not only fails to constrain Iranian enrichment or to answer questions about possible military dimensions and past military nuclear research, but also doesn’t address basic fallacies of logic such as why Iran says its motivation is an indigenous energy supply when its gas and oil resources provide far greater security at a fraction of the price, as well as why an above-board program would seek to construct covert, undeclared nuclear sites in the first place.

When it comes to potential weaponization work, there is one other major problem Kerry leaves unaddressed: the problem of off-site research. The Iranians have always been out-of-the-box thinkers. Putting aside that even inside Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not have the right by its own bylaws to inspect any covert site—it will only access declared nuclear facilities and sites—nothing in the agreement prevents Iran from setting up collaborative laboratories in countries like North Korea. North Korean and Iranian engineers already are present at each other’s ballistic-missile tests. Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian has already called North Korea a model for the Islamic Republic to emulate.

And while North Korea is the most secure and likely venue for Iranian scientists to establish satellite laboratories, theHermit Kingdom is not alone as a possible venue for offsite Iranian nuclear work. Russian President Vladimir Putin has quietly encouraged Iran’s nuclear work from the get-go, and may see provision of laboratory space as a way to keep tabs on Iranian work he recognizes is going to continue anyway. Saudi Arabia is trying to flip Sudan, but may not be successful; Khartoum provides another possibility, even if less secure. And should Bashar al-Assad reassert control—as Obama and Kerry now seem to hope—then Syria too might provide some facilities.

Alas, the adage where there’s a will, there’s a way increasingly applies not only to the ability to achieve a preliminary agreement, but also to Iran’s ability to bypass inspections to achieve the weaponry so many Iranian figures have claimed they seek.

Read Less

New York Times Whitewashes Iran’s Religious Oppression

My oh my. The New York Times published an interview with Thomas Erdbrink, its man in Tehran, about life in Iran. Here’s what he had to say about religious minorities:

Read More

My oh my. The New York Times published an interview with Thomas Erdbrink, its man in Tehran, about life in Iran. Here’s what he had to say about religious minorities:

Is there a Sunni population there or other minorities? How are they treated? – Phelps Shepard; Monmouth, Ore.

My mother-in-law, who taught me to speak Persian, is an Iranian Kurd. She is a proud and strong woman, loves Iranian Kurdistan just as much as she loves Iran. Kurds are Sunni, but not like Arab Sunnis. Her husband is Shia. They have been happily married for almost 38 years.

Now while there are issues for religious minorities, such as Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews, they are in much better positions compared with minorities in other countries in the region.

In Iran, those minorities have their own members of Parliament and are granted their places of worship. There are dozens of synagogues in Tehran, and thousands of Jews here — the most in the region after Israel.

The minority that has serious problems in Iran are the Baha’i, who are not allowed to attend universities or have houses of worship. Iran’s Shiite clerics do not accept the Baha’i belief that their prophet came after Mohammad, who the Muslims say is the final prophet. — T.E.

Where to begin? Firstly, Iran boasted a Jewish community of more than 100,000 before the Islamic Revolution. Today, it has just one-fifth that. When a community loses 80 percent of its population in a generation or two, that’s hardly evidence of religious and sectarian tolerance. The numbers Erdbrink cites have been cited as conventional wisdom for almost two decades. How sad it is that the paper for which Erdbrink works hasn’t seen fit to actually check the facts it takes at face value.

Nor for that matter are there dozens of synagogues in Tehran: There are a dozen, perhaps 13, many of which stand nearly empty. Does Iran boast more Jews than any other country in the region besides Israel? Hard to say any longer: Turkey may have more. But in a race to the bottom, second place isn’t necessarily a good sign.

Is there a seat in parliament reserved for a Jew? Yes. When I would attend synagogue in Isfahan and Tehran, however, congregants treated that parliamentarian with disdain. Nor did Jews feel free to speak openly inside synagogue; instead, they would hold certain conversations only outside walking along busy streets or against the backdrop of overwhelming noise to defeat the regime’s invisible ears.

Are the Baha’is the only minority to suffer serious problems? No. Sunnis constitute perhaps ten percent of Iran’s population, and are discriminated against hugely. There may be synagogues and churches in Tehran and, indeed, there is an Armenian cathedral in the center of town, but a Sunni mosque in a city of 14 million even though Sunnis number perhaps nine million in Iran? Good luck. Likewise, while Armenians might be tolerated, Protestant churches frequently run into trouble. Christians have disappeared and been murdered, as the State Department human-rights reports have chronicled over the years. How sad it is that Erdbrink doesn’t see fit to mention Saeed Abedini, an Iranian American imprisoned because of his Christian faith.

When it comes to religious freedom, there is no whitewashing Iranian repression. Unless, of course, one works for the New York Times. All the news that’s fit to print, indeed.

Read Less

Shi’ite Militias Don’t Cause Iraqi Sunni Extremism

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Read More

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Many political leaders, diplomats, and military officers are prone, however, to attribute Sunni extremism in Iraq to simply a backlash to Shi’ite sectarianism and the rise of militias. This may be putting the cart before the horse, although it is true that the goal of the United States should be to defeat extremism regardless of the sect.

There are two false assumptions that undercut the thesis that Iraqi Sunni extremism—not only that of the Islamic State but also that of men like Tariq al-Hashemi who sponsored sectarian terrorism to more limited ends—is simply a reaction to Shi’ite militias.

The first is that the evidence doesn’t fit the thesis. If the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is simply a response to grievances perpetrated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian backed militias–which the former selectively tolerated and which propped up the latter–then what explains the rise of the Islamic State in Libya or in the Sinai or elsewhere? After all, Sunnis in both Libya and the Sinai don’t face a threat from Shi’ite militias or Shi’ite sectarianism. The common denominator here is not abuses by nefarious, Iranian-backed militias but rather the extremism promoted by and funded through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. This is not to suggest that Iranian Shi’ite militias do not pose a serious challenge; they do and should be rolled back. But to focus solely on Shi’ites as the problem is to miss the point.

The second is that too many officials believe that a clear separation exists between Baathism and the most virulent forms of Sunni Islamist extremism. Baathism may have been founded by a Christian as an Arab socialist, secular ideology, but decades before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, it had shed its ideological pedigree and instead simply become a cover for bigotry and tyranny. After his 1991 defeat in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein found religion, hence the Koran written in his blood and “God is Great” written in Arabic on the Iraqi flag. In 2000 and 2001, the Fedayeen Saddam ran around Baghdad, beheading women it considered un-Islamic. The failure to recognize that Baathism is more about power and tyranny than loyalty to any single ideology has cost American lives. While heading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus empowered former Baathists. They spoke English and told him the things he wanted to hear. Alas, they also cooperated with the Islamist insurgents, turning over the keys to the insurgents when the subsidies Petraeus paid to them ran dry upon his departure. Many made the mistake in subsequent years. After all, trapped within the walls of the U.S. embassy and seldom traveling outside their own diplomatic bubble, too many diplomats simply reinforced each other’s biases. Then, of course, there is the present crisis. According to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Islamic State caliph, had been a Baathist before he decided to form the Islamic State.

Sunni extremism in Iraq is not going to be resolved by blaming outsiders; it is going to require introspection. The real tragedy of Iran’s incursions is, beyond substituting one flavor of extremism for another, it simply provides a distraction and an excuse for Iraqi Sunnis not to address an extremist problem whose cause lies within their own community.

Read Less

Iran’s Existential Threat to Israel Not Exaggerated

As President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry rush to a nuclear deal that addresses few of the original issues that have sparked international concern with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, it may be useful to consider just why Israel has come to view a nuclear capable Islamic Republic of Iran as an existential threat. While there is much to criticize in the technicalities of the agreement, the consistency and frequency of Iranian threats against the Jewish state, as well as the prestige within Iran of those who have made such threats, are too often ignored.

Read More

As President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry rush to a nuclear deal that addresses few of the original issues that have sparked international concern with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, it may be useful to consider just why Israel has come to view a nuclear capable Islamic Republic of Iran as an existential threat. While there is much to criticize in the technicalities of the agreement, the consistency and frequency of Iranian threats against the Jewish state, as well as the prestige within Iran of those who have made such threats, are too often ignored.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an unabashed racist and anti-Semite. He began his seminal essay on Islamic government—the exegesis that underlays the Islamic Revolution and Islamic Republic—by cursing the Jews. “From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam has had to contend with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda and engaged in various stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to the present,” he declared.

Then, of course, there have been the repeated declarations about Israel’s destruction. Iranian authorities have declared the last Friday in Ramadan to be “Qods [Jerusalem] Day” and have reserved it for the most vitriolic sermons and threats. It was on Qods Day in 2001 that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and one of the most influential regime figures, declared, “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” Hassan Rouhani was, of course, Supreme National Security Council chairman at the time. He applauded. Has he changed? No. One of his first actions as president was to underscore the importance of the annual Qods Day rally.

Other Iranian figures appointed by the supreme leader have also threatened to eradicate Israel by means of nuclear weapons. Why Western diplomats believe the assurances they receive in English when the supreme leader’s inner circle says quite the opposite in Persian is something someone might want to ask America’s nuclear negotiators. Likewise, while Obama seems to embrace the pre-World War I notion of secret treaties, there is no reason why the supreme leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons should remain secret unless, of course, the assurance which Obama so often cites simply does not exist. Certainly, if the backbone of newfound trust in Iran is such a fatwa, the White House could provide its text. That it chooses not to do so again amplifies concerns that Obama has become Khamenei’s useful idiot.

Underlying concerns about Iran’s intentions have been frequent statements by Iranian officials attesting to Iran’s genocidal intent. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map,” academic apologists for Iran ran interference. Here, for example, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole suggested that the New York Times had mistranslated Ahmadinejad’s quote of Khomeini, and suggested the phrase he used was perhaps drawn from medieval poetry and had nothing to do with tanks. Of course, this is belied by the Iranian regime itself, which in bilingual posters made clear its intent and which tended to repeat its declaration not in poetry slams but rather in military parades.

And while Obama and Kerry put their head in the sand with regard to Iran’s nuclear intentions, those within range of Iran’s missiles remember the last will and testament of Maj.-Gen. Hassan Tehrani-Moghadam, the overseer of Iran’s missile program, who died in an explosion in 2011. While not published in English, the Iranian press highlighted how Moghadam had asked that his epitaph read, “Write on my tombstone: This is the grave of someone who wanted to annihilate Israel.”

Perhaps Obama and Kerry wish to ignore the frequency of Iranian statements seeking an end to Israel’s existence. They may see it as rhetorical excess only, but never bother to ask why a regime would embrace such rhetoric in the first place. Make no mistake: Anti-Zionism may be the cool new trend in Western Europe and in American universities, but wishing Israel out of existence is akin to seeking the eradication of the people who populate the country. And the Iranian regime, which has been a charter member of the “eradicate Israel” camp will, thanks to Obama and Kerry, soon have the means to fulfill their dream. The deal Obama now strikes is analogous to trusting Hutus in early 1990s Rwanda to manufacture and use machetes for agricultural purposes only despite their rhetoric to cut Tutsis to pieces.

Yes, Israel must take Iran at its word and recognize that the nightmare of an Iranian regime able to back its rhetoric with substance will soon be its new reality. Under such circumstances, the Israelis would be foolish to respond to the threat with inaction.

Read Less

Obama’s Other Turf War: Free Trade

Republicans frustrated by President Obama’s persistent efforts to avoid congressional input and oversight–for example, in the nuclear talks with Iran–have at times lamented that congressional Democrats don’t seem to want to defend their turf alongside them. But now it turns out that’s generally been the case because Democratic congressional leaders simply agree with Obama or trust him enough to cut a deal. Not so with free trade. And now Democrats are elbowing their way into trade negotiations at the president’s expense.

Read More

Republicans frustrated by President Obama’s persistent efforts to avoid congressional input and oversight–for example, in the nuclear talks with Iran–have at times lamented that congressional Democrats don’t seem to want to defend their turf alongside them. But now it turns out that’s generally been the case because Democratic congressional leaders simply agree with Obama or trust him enough to cut a deal. Not so with free trade. And now Democrats are elbowing their way into trade negotiations at the president’s expense.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent details the efforts that labor groups are expending in trying to shape the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade deal that has been brewing for years and that the Obama administration continues to negotiate. What the president wants is “fast-track” authority, which would mean Obama could negotiate the deal itself and Congress would get an up-or-down vote on it, no amendments. But much like Republicans (and some Democrats) on the Iran deal, Democrats (and some Republicans) don’t trust Obama on trade.

And AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka is pushing Congress to adopt a rather creative way to get around fast-track authority:

But Trumka and other critics of the process are pushing for additional built-in accountability mechanisms. Among them would be a provision that would allow Congress to revoke this fast-track authority by a simple-majority vote, once the details of the trade deal are known. This would allow Congress to, in effect, press the administration to renegotiate a better deal if it falls short. The administration would surely argue that this risks scuttling the whole process. But such a move, the AFL-CIO maintains, would essentially reinforce Congressional oversight over the process and also place some accountability for it on Congress, rather than allowing Members to throw up their hands and say, “well, we only have the power to vote on the final bill now, so let’s approve it; it’s better than nothing.”

Trumka claims that a failure to pursue such changes would amount to Congressional abdication of responsibility. “The Constitution vests power over international trade with the Congress,” Trumka says in his letter to Senators. “Congress should not abandon its Constitutional authority by allowing the executive branch to disregard its objectives and hide its activities but still be awarded with preferential and expedited treatment.”

Trumka’s point about congressional oversight is well taken. But not only is his solution unrealistic; it appears to be nothing but a poison pill to scuttle trade talks.

The reason a president asks for “fast-track” authority (also known as Trade Promotion Authority) is because it can coax trade partners to the table–and get them to stay there. Trade deals are complex agreements, and foreign governments aren’t always willing to negotiate with the roster of the U.S. Congress in addition to the president’s team. Fast-track authority is a way to get around the thorniest possible sticking points, such as union and environmental concerns. And Congress still gets a vote.

Trumka’s idea of getting Congress to enact a rule enabling them to retroactively revoke fast-track authority once the deal is finalized is worse than opening the negotiations to Congress, as far as foreign governments are concerned. It means all their work could be undone because Congress doesn’t like the final terms, but congressional input won’t be part of the equation along the way, so they’ll all be flying blind.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but no negotiator worth his salt would ever agree to a deal with an American president under these circumstances, especially not when fast-track authority is still a possibility. Trumka’s idea is too clever by half. It would wreck the process.

Is that the intent? Perhaps. And Democratic opposition to trade is particularly challenging for a Democratic president (just as Republican opposition would be for a Republican president) because the party out of power tends to view trade with more skepticism than they do when their party controls the White House. As Gallup notes, a majority in the U.S. still see trade as an opportunity to grow the U.S. economy vs. a threat from foreign imports. But party affiliation tends to sway:

From 2001 to 2011, spanning the entire presidency of George W. Bush and the first two years of Obama’s presidency, the percentage of Republicans seeing foreign trade as an opportunity was higher than that of Democrats — in several cases, by double-digit margins. In 2012 and 2013, Democrats grew sharply more positive about trade, even as Republican views languished in the 40% to low 50% range. Opinion among the two party groups converged in 2014, but this year, Republicans’ optimism about foreign trade is flat at 51%, while Democrats’ has increased slightly, to 61%.

The good news for Obama, then, is that there is public support on the Democratic side for free trade. The bad news is they’re the ones digging in their heels against letting him negotiate a deal.

Those numbers tell us something else: Trumka is making a tough bet here. If a Republican wins in 2016, it’ll likely mean the Senate stays red too. With a Republican president, expect Republican support for free trade to increase again. (It’s still a majority, remember, so it’ll likely go even higher.) Does Trumka think he can stop a deal then? Maybe Obama’s his best chance to get a labor-friendly agreement.

The other issue here is that it’s not just the GOP that objects to Obama’s intent to go around Congress; the level of outrage just depends on the issue. Between Obama’s executive actions on immigration, his pending treaty with Iran, and the massive trade deal, among others, there does not appear to be any element of Obama’s second-term agenda he believes he needs Congress for. Even Democrats were bound to object once his quest for uncontested rule made their interest groups sufficiently uncomfortable.

Read Less

Rand Paul, Paleoneoconrealitarian Uniter

When speculation about the 2016 presidential election first began, the question about Rand Paul was whether his candidacy would closely mimic his father’s or whether he’d carve out his own independent identity. Now we know the answer: Neither. He’s running as Marco Rubio. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but it points to Paul’s recent moves that put him closer to the Republican mainstream and farther from his own distinctive base of support. And it’s beginning to look like if he had to choose between the two, Paul might choose not to dance with the one that brung ’im.

Read More

When speculation about the 2016 presidential election first began, the question about Rand Paul was whether his candidacy would closely mimic his father’s or whether he’d carve out his own independent identity. Now we know the answer: Neither. He’s running as Marco Rubio. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but it points to Paul’s recent moves that put him closer to the Republican mainstream and farther from his own distinctive base of support. And it’s beginning to look like if he had to choose between the two, Paul might choose not to dance with the one that brung ’im.

To be sure, Paul is far from a carbon copy of defense hawks. But he’s spending considerable energy blurring those distinctions. And a turning point does seem to have been reached, ironically, thanks to the recent open letter to Iranian leaders signed by Republican senators who are opposed to a nuclear Iran and the president’s attempts to go around Congress. Paul, surprisingly, also signed the letter. And he’s continuing down that path with his proposed amendment that would, as Time revealed this morning, boost defense spending:

In an olive branch to defense hawks hell-bent on curtailing his White House ambitions, the libertarian Senator introduced a budget amendment late Wednesday calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years—a roughly 16 percent increase.

Paul’s amendment brings him in line with his likely presidential primary rivals, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced a measure calling for nearly the same level of increases just days ago. The amendment was first noticed by TIME and later confirmed by Paul’s office.

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

I have been sympathetic, as I’ve written in the past, to Paul’s objections to what he and his supporters see as the exaggeration of the extent of his apparent political conversions. But his claim to consistency is going to start looking absurd on its face, and his defense-spending amendment is one reason why.

The Time piece helpfully goes back about four years to show just how far Paul has come on this issue. But even as his term in the Senate went on, Paul continued to be an advocate for cutting defense spending not only on fiscal grounds but on national-security grounds as well. Paul had crafted a very clear rationale for reducing the defense budget, and even sought to draw a contrast with Mitt Romney’s own views on the subject less than a month before the 2012 presidential election. In an op-ed for CNN, Paul wrote:

Romney chose to criticize President Obama for seeking to cut a bloated Defense Department and for not being bellicose enough in the Middle East, two assertions with which I cannot agree.

Defense and war spending has grown 137% since 2001. That kind of growth is not sustainable.

Adm. Michael Mullen stated earlier this year that the biggest threat to our national security is our debt.

If debt is our gravest threat, adding to the debt by expanding military spending further threatens our national security.

Paul’s decision to sign the open letter to Iran, an effort led by Senator Tom Cotton, attracted two kinds of very interesting criticism. One was the antiwar movement’s treatment of Paul as a sellout to the cause. The other was the more muted criticism from the realist and paleoconservative right, which seemed to accept Time’s own formulation that Paul is extending an “olive branch”–or, at this point, a series of olive branches–to those with whom he disagrees. That is, their criticism of him is tempered by their belief he’s not being wholly honest.

That resulted in a moment of near-unity as conservatives pushed back on the hysterical attempt by the left to brand the dissenting senators’ actions as treasonous. There were far fewer cases of terms like “neocon warmonger” being tossed casually at those who oppose the emerging nuke deal with Iran than there might otherwise have been.

Again, muted criticism of Paul is not the same as no criticism of Paul. But suddenly hawkish policies were being combed for nuance. It was a glimpse of what the foreign-policy debate on the right could look like when advocates of greater restraint are willing to characterize hawks as something other than a cross between Dick Cheney and Dr. Strangelove.

That moment of grace will surely pass. But there are likely to be other such moments, as long as Paul continues his flirtation with a more hawkish approach to foreign affairs. The question, then, will be whether he will have mortgaged his candidacy’s raison d’être in the process and allowed his carefully cultivated image to disintegrate. To prevent that, he’ll need to find a balance between those he hopes will believe him and those he needs to assume he’s merely pretending.

Read Less

In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

Read More

General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

This may sound plausible in a Washington briefing room, but there are holes in this strategy big enough to drive an Iranian T-72 tank through. While it’s true that the Shiite militias appear to have pulled back a bit, they remain close to Tikrit. They were apparently pulling back anyway before the U.S. launched air strikes because of the mauling they have taken in heavy street fighting for which they were manifestly unprepared. Rumors suggest that the militias may have lost as many as 6,000 fighters out of a force of 20,000—staggering losses that would render the attacking force combat ineffective. That’s why in recent days there was word that the attackers would be “regrouping,” and cordoning off Tikrit rather than storming it, supposedly to spare civilian lives.

Problem is, U.S. airstrikes may well be bailing the Iranians and their proxies out of the jam they’re in. Assume that somehow the U.S. attacks dislodge the ISIS fighters. There are only an estimated 3,000 Iraqi troops in and around Tikrit (and many of them will also have affiliations with the Badr Organization or other militias, which makes it likely that many of their requests for air strikes will originate with the militia commanders). They will be in no position to clear, much less to hold, Tikrit by themselves. It’s a safe bet that the Shiite militias will then rush in and claim credit for a great victory over ISIS, arguing, as they are already doing, that U.S. airstrikes were not needed. Given the dismal human-rights record of Shiite militias in previous Sunni towns they have captured, it’s hard to know what would prevent them from abusing the population of Tikrit. And the U.S., having helped to rout ISIS, will then become morally and politically culpable for the crimes they commit.

It is a poor bargain, as I have previously argued, to rout ISIS out of Tikrit only to allow Iran’s proxies to occupy it. The U.S. would be better advised to stick to training and arming Sunni tribesmen to fight ISIS and doing what we can to oppose, rather than advance, Iranian designs.

The Saudi bombing of Yemen, designed to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis, is a welcome sign of long overdue efforts to oppose the Iranian power grab in the region, and the Obama administration is to be commended for providing intelligence and other support for this operation—but of course this is a move being driven by Riyadh, not Washington. In fact General Austin said he learned of the Saudi bombing only shortly before it began.

Increasingly, with Washington seemingly tilting toward Tehran (a point I make in the Wall Street Journal today), our regional allies are going their own way. The coalition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia has already attacked Islamist radicals in Libya; now they are attacking Shiite radicals in Yemen. This is a sign of what the U.S. too should be doing in opposing the extremes of both the Shiite and Sunni sides—instead of appearing to tilt toward one side, the Iranian side, as we seem to be doing in Tikrit despite all the official protestations to the contrary.

Read Less

America’s New Role: As Iran’s Air Force

Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

Read More

Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from news reports that the U.S. is now conducting bombing as well as surveillance flights in support of the Iranian-directed forces that are besieging Tikrit. The operation, launched almost entirely by Shiite militias under the supervision of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, began on March 2. The Iraqis were quite proud of the assistance they received from Iran, which included Iranian tanks and rockets arriving in Iraq.

The attacking forces soon advanced into town and all but declared victory. Prematurely, as it turns out. Nearly a month later, hundreds of ISIS fighters are still dug in behind thick belts of IEDs and they are reportedly taking a terrible toll on the attackers.

All of this is hardly a surprise, given the difficulties experience by far more capable U.S. forces in two offensives in Fallujah in 2004. Urban combat is hard against fanatical, dug-in defenders. It’s especially hard when sectarian Shiite forces are attacking a Sunni town. The town’s residents are hardly going to welcome Shiite ethnic-cleansing squads with open arms—not when they know what the Shiite militias have done in other Sunni towns they have taken. Human Rights Watch, for example, recently released a report on the aftermath of the conquest of the town of Amerli last September, when “militias looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages.”

The U.S. had stood aloof from the Tikrit offensive until recently—not denouncing the attack but not actively assisting it either. But now that the offensive has stalled, the Iraqis have screamed for American assistance and the Obama administration has delivered.

I can sympathize with the impulse to battle the evil that is ISIS. But we gain nothing if we replace the murderous theocratic control of ISIS with the murderous theocratic control of Iran. That’s a basic truth that this administration is willfully blind to.

All the way back in January 2014, Michael Doran and I warned that Obama was acting as if Iran were our ally rather than our enemy. Recent developments in Tikrit, alas, simply confirm the validity of that analysis. While Obama appears intent on treating Benjamin Netanyahu as our enemy, he gives every indication of treating Ayatollah Khamenei as our friend—even going as so far as to ignore or explain away the supreme leader’s ritual chants of “Death to America.” And now—in a day that I thought would never come—the U.S. is sending our pilots in our aircraft to drop our bombs in support of Shiite militias who not long ago were killing our own troops in Iraq.

The White House may think that this will demonstrate to the Iraqis that they need U.S. help and that the Iranians can’t deliver; but Iranian proxies such as the Badr Organization and Asaib ahl al-Haq are hardly going to turn on their patrons no matter how much support the U.S. provides. They will simply think the Americans are useful idiots, and they will be right.

Perhaps this is meant as a sweetener to get the Iranians to sign on the dotted line in Geneva, where nuclear talks face a March 31 deadline? A signal of how much we will do to assist the Iranian power-grab in the region in return for some modest controls on the Iranian nuclear program? As if any of that would actually lead the Iranians to give up their long-cherished dreams of becoming a nuclear power.

Whatever the thinking behind this move, this is a tragically misguided, indeed perverse policy that will enhance both the power of Iran and of the Sunni jihadists in ISIS who will be seen, more and more, as the only defenders left of Sunnis against Shiite aggression.

Read Less

Obama’s Speech Revealed Ignorance of Iran

I’ve been traveling and away from email and, indeed, the internet for much of the past two weeks and so just now read President Barack Obama’s March 19 Nowruz speech to the Iranian people. It is a depressing read, not because Obama delivered it; indeed, reaching out to the Iranian people is a good thing. But rather because it reflects a huge ignorance of Iran in the White House and, presumably, at the State Department and National Security Council, both of which likely had inputs into the draft.

Read More

I’ve been traveling and away from email and, indeed, the internet for much of the past two weeks and so just now read President Barack Obama’s March 19 Nowruz speech to the Iranian people. It is a depressing read, not because Obama delivered it; indeed, reaching out to the Iranian people is a good thing. But rather because it reflects a huge ignorance of Iran in the White House and, presumably, at the State Department and National Security Council, both of which likely had inputs into the draft.

First, the fact that Iran is not a democracy should be Iranian Studies 101. Yes, there are elections for the president in Iran, but they are so tightly controlled that usually less than one percent of the candidates who register are allowed to run; the other 99 percent are disqualified for being too liberal or insufficiently committed to the Islamic Revolution. In effect, to call Iran a democracy would be akin to calling the Soviet Union a democracy if it held elections in which only central committee members of the Politburo could run.

The 2013 election in which Hassan Rouhani was elected are no exception. Nor is it clear that such elections are free and fair. Iran doesn’t allow independent monitoring and those organizations that accept Iranian government-provided statistics at face value—alas, the White House and major newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post among them—are doing themselves and the Iranian people a disservice. Iranian elections are less about expressions of popular will than they are about recalibrating the system to bring those too powerful down to size and replace them with the weaker. It is by being the master marionette that the supreme leader prevents any one power center or faction from consolidating so much power that they pose a challenge to him. It was no coincidence that former military man Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replaced reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami and proceeded then to push out many of the reformist clerics who staffed government under him and replace them with veterans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The rise of Rouhani was as deliberate: he is a regime operator, not a reformer. That is why he replaced IRGC veterans in the cabinet with intelligence ministry veterans. In effect, he presides over a KGB cabinet.

And, yet, Obama continues to believe that, under the dictatorship that is the Islamic Republic, somehow the attitude of the Iranian people matters to their rulers. Hence, he frames his speech as a direct appeal “to the people and leaders of Iran,” as if the Iranian people have a choice. If he did believe they had a choice, perhaps he would have spoken up on their behalf in 2009 when they came to the streets to protest against the dictatorship.

Obama then declares, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has said that Iran would never develop a nuclear weapon.” This is simply ignorant. It’s time for Obama to publish the fatwa if any such fatwa exists. The simple fact, however, is that while various Iranian propagandists and officials have referred to such a fatwa it is suspiciously absent from the Supreme Leader’s collections of fatwas. And when Iranian officials pretend to quote it, the comparison of their quotes suggest they are making it up as they go along. What about the idea that Rouhani has sworn that Iran would never build a nuclear weapon? There are many instances (some of which are listed here) in which Iranian officials have talked about producing nuclear weapons. And then, of course, there was former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s threat not only to produce but also to use nuclear weapons in a first strike back in 2001. This is significant, of course, because Hassan Rouhani was at the time the chairman of the Supreme National Security Council and chose not to correct his colleague. Perhaps he should read Rouhani’s February 9, 2005 speech in which he outlined a doctrine of surprise in which he suggested the Islamic Republic would always be victorious so long as it lulled the United States into complacency before delivering a knockout blow.

As for the idea of a fork in the road for Iran, Obama needs to start measuring time as B.O. and A.O, Before Obama and After Obama, for history did not begin the moment he entered the Oval Office. When he declares:

Iran’s leaders have a choice between two paths.  If they cannot agree to a reasonable deal, they will keep Iran on the path it’s on today—a path that has isolated Iran, and the Iranian people, from so much of the world, caused so much hardship for Iranian families, and deprived so many young Iranians of the jobs and opportunities they deserve. On the other hand, if Iran’s leaders can agree to a reasonable deal, it can lead to a better path—the path of greater opportunities for the Iranian people.

He forgets that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a very similar speech nine years ago, in which she declared:

Today, the Iranian regime can decide on one of two paths, one of two fundamentally different futures for its people and for its relationship with the international community. The Iranian government’s choices are clear. The negative choice is for the regime to maintain its current course, pursuing nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community and its international obligations. If the regime does so, it will incur only great costs.

We and our European partners agree that path will lead to international isolation and progressively stronger political and economic sanctions. The positive and constructive choice is for the Iranian regime to alter its present course and cooperate in resolving the nuclear issue, beginning by immediately resuming suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, as well as full cooperation with the IAEA and returning to implementation of the Additional Protocol providing greater access for the IAEA. This path would lead to the real benefit and longer-term security of the Iranian people, the region and the world as a whole.

In hindsight it was clear that Rice’s words were empty. Iran suffered no real consequence for its nuclear defiance; quite the contrary, it has collected great rewards. Obama has even less gravitas when talking about coercion than Rice. The president has never met a red line he has not rationalized and voided. There is simply no reason that a regime paid almost $12 billion for defying its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Safeguards Agreement would believe that Obama’s threats of coercion are serious.

Obama was not the first president to send Nowruz greetings to the Iranian people, but he was the first, back in 2009, to acknowledge the Islamic Republic as their legitimate representative. The president might believe he is extending an olive branch to the Iranian people, but he is patronizing them, using the most important holiday in Iranian culture to validate their oppression and broadcast his ignorance of their plight. It is both embarrassing and a sign of just how under Obama, the United States has shifted from being a beacon of freedom for the oppressed to an apologist for their oppression.

Read Less

Heed Petraeus’s Critique of Obama

For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

Read More

For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

“The foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.”

“The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State.”

“As for the U.S. role, could all of this have been averted if we had kept 10,000 troops here? I honestly don’t know. I certainly wish we could have tested the proposition and kept a substantial force on the ground. For that matter, should we have pushed harder for an alternative to PM Maliki during government formation in 2010? “

“Whether fair or not, those in the region will also offer that our withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 contributed to a perception that the U.S. was pulling back from the Middle East. This perception has complicated our ability to shape developments in the region and thus to further our interests. These perceptions have also shaken many of our allies and, for a period at least, made it harder to persuade them to support our approaches. “

“Any acceptable outcome (in Syria) requires the build-up of capable, anti-Daesh opposition forces whom we support on the battlefield. Although it is encouraging to see the administration’s support for this initiative, I think there are legitimate questions that can be raised about the sufficiency of the present scale, scope, speed, and resourcing of this effort.”

The word “Obama” is never once mentioned by the ever-diplomatic General Petraeus, but reading between the lines this is a devastating criticism of the president’s policy from the man who was once his CIA director, Central Command commander, and Afghanistan commander.

When Petraeus feels compelled to point out that Iran “is not our ally,” he is speaking directly to a White House that imagines otherwise. When he says that the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011 “complicated our ability to shape developments in the region,” he is indirectly criticizing Obama, in part, for failing to win a Status of Forces Agreement. And when he criticizes the “scale, scope, speed, and resourcing” of US efforts to support the moderate Syrian opposition, he is indicting the president for not backing the Free Syrian Army, as CIA Director Petraeus and much of the Obama security cabinet had proposed to do in 2012.

Obama wasn’t listening to Petraeus then. Let’s hope he—and the whole world–is listening now. Petraeus’s comments are entirely on the mark.

Read Less

Obama Evolves on the Concept of Credibility

As Congress has attempted to assert its role in the ongoing Iran negotiations, one of the interesting objections from the Obama White House has been on the grounds that it will erode Obama’s credibility. It’s interesting because defenders of the White House’s various zigs and zags on foreign policy have argued against elevating intangibles like credibility where foreign affairs are concerned. To be clear, Obama’s defenders have not been entirely wrong; as I’ve argued before, there are always risks in trying to pin down evasive concepts like credibility. But it does mean that the White House’s new foreign-policy mantra, Don’t undermine me bro, rings a bit hollow.

Read More

As Congress has attempted to assert its role in the ongoing Iran negotiations, one of the interesting objections from the Obama White House has been on the grounds that it will erode Obama’s credibility. It’s interesting because defenders of the White House’s various zigs and zags on foreign policy have argued against elevating intangibles like credibility where foreign affairs are concerned. To be clear, Obama’s defenders have not been entirely wrong; as I’ve argued before, there are always risks in trying to pin down evasive concepts like credibility. But it does mean that the White House’s new foreign-policy mantra, Don’t undermine me bro, rings a bit hollow.

The president’s most famous brush with the issue of credibility is, of course, Syria. In August 2012, Obama very clearly and very plainly said, regarding Syria: “We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

Any attempt to deny he set such a red line would be absurd, which is why he did exactly that. “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said once the red line was crossed. If a credibility gap were to open up, that would seem to be the time. In addition, Obama had gone from asserting that Bashar al-Assad would have to end his rule in Syria to making Assad a partner in the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, which would turn out to be a failure as well once Syria continued using chemical weapons.

But no, said the president: “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America’s and Congress’s credibility is on the line.” His credibility is not at risk, and if it were, so is yours. So there. The food’s no good and the portions are too small.

Next was Ukraine. The president’s dithering on Ukraine sent a dangerous message to Russia, didn’t it? And in fact, it sent a message about the president’s credibility more broadly, since the administration was trying to reassure countries in the Middle East about protecting them from an Iranian nuke and yet here was Ukraine, a country we (in the Budapest Memorandum) got to give up its own nukes on the promises its sovereignty would be respected. It turned out everybody lied–that’s got to deplete our credibility, right?

The Economist said yes, Peter Beinart said no, and Tom Rogan sided with The Economist:

For a start, take Dexter Filkins’s study of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force and an archetypal hardliner of the regime. In his meticulous analysis, Filkins shows how the sharp edge of Iranian strategy is shaped significantly by perceptions of American global resolve. Where America is seen to be resolute and determined, Iran is deterred. Where America is seen to be timid and uncertain, Iran is emboldened.

And perceptions of U.S. credibility among players who are not part of a foreign regime are also important. Take America’s adversaries in the Middle Eastern media. Opinion makers there now present Obama as the master of a rudderless agenda. These populist narratives are important — they mobilize political agendas in ways that are either favorable or problematic for the United States.

Point to Rogan, I would think. Do our past actions really not indicate a future course, especially under the same president? That might be why the administration has evolved, as the president might say, on the issue of credibility.

When Tom Cotton and 46 other senators wrote their open letter to the Iranian government asserting congressional authority over arms treaties, the White House responded with a statement from Vice President Biden: “This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments — a message that is as false as it is dangerous.” Credibility was back in vogue.

And it continued to be. Republican Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the White House Congress was considering new legislation that would give Congress a say on the agreement the president is negotiating with Iran. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough wrote back to Corker that the president would prefer to sign the deal first, present a fait accompli to the Congress, and grant Congress permission to rubber-stamp the deal. For credibility’s sake:

We believe that the legislation would likely have a profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations–emboldening Iranian hard-liners, inviting a counter-productive response from the Iranian majiles; differentiating the U.S. position from our allies in the negotiations; and once again call into question our ability to negotiate this deal.

Put simply, the Obama administration wants it both ways on credibility. And for their own legacy, they should probably hope they’re wrong this time. After all, if credibility truly matters, the Obama administration’s legacy is going to consist of a Europe at war for the near future, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and general instability as states react to the president’s continuing incoherence on foreign affairs.

Read Less

Kerry’s Accidental Admission on Assad

All the way back in August 2011 President Obama said, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Read More

All the way back in August 2011 President Obama said, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

That was then, this is now. Having done virtually nothing to compel Assad to step down, the Obama administration appears to have accommodated itself to his indefinite continuation in office, even as he continues to drop barrel bombs on civilians, pushing the death toll of the civil war well north of 200,000. Naturally the administration won’t admit what it’s doing, which appears to be part of a wider outreach to Iran, Assad’s No. 1 sponsor. But occasionally an administration official “misspeaks” and reveals a bit of the truth.

Thus on Face the Nation on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said, in the words of a news article, “that he still believed it was important to achieve a diplomatic solution for the conflict in Syria and that the negotiations should involve President Bashar al-Assad.” True, Kerry said that he would talk to Assad only if he committed to the goal of the Geneva process that Kerry set up with Russia, designed to eventually ease Assad out of power through some kind of constitutional process. But his words will be read in the Middle East as a sign that the administration is reaching out to Assad and seeking to accommodate him–a perception that was already strong when in September 2013 the administration, rather than bomb Assad for his crossing of a “red line,” instead reached an accord with him to remove his chemical weapons from the country.

Naturally State Department officials rushed in to deny that Kerry said what he plainly said. As the New York Times noted: “State Department officials later said that the United States was not open to direct talks with Mr. Assad, despite what Mr. Kerry appeared to suggest in his television appearance.”

For my part, I’m skeptical of the denials. This sounds to me like Michael Kinsley’s classic definition of a Washington gaffe, which occurs when a politician speaks the truth.

In this case the truth appears to be that the administration has decided that Assad is the lesser evil, next to ISIS, and that it is willing to throw him a life preserver to get in good with the mullahs in Iran. Too bad the administration isn’t willing to come clean about what it’s up to in pursuing this amoral (and, I would argue, futile) policy that is likely to strengthen the hand of both ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, which will posture as the defenders of Syria’s Sunni majority against the Alawites and Shiites, Hezbollah and the Quds Force.

Read Less

The Cotton Letter and Obama’s Iran Deal

Having spent last week in Japan, I missed the brouhaha over the open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, organized by Sen. Tom Cotton and signed by 46 Senate colleagues, declaring: “We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

Read More

Having spent last week in Japan, I missed the brouhaha over the open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, organized by Sen. Tom Cotton and signed by 46 Senate colleagues, declaring: “We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

Herewith a few thoughts on the controversy.

Thought No. 1: Tom Cotton is a rising star in Republican foreign policy. A 37-year-old, Harvard-educated combat-veteran, he has deep knowledge and interest in foreign policy and considerable credibility in speaking out. All of the controversy over the letter will do nothing to dim his allure—being criticized by one’s political foes is welcome for most GOP leaders; being criticized by America’s enemies in Iran is a bonus. It is welcome to see Cotton joining Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk as leaders of the younger generation of foreign-policy hawks in the Senate, joining the likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Thought No. 2: The criticisms of Cotton et al. as #47Traitors and the like are beyond parody. Wasn’t it only 2004 when John Kerry was running for president claiming that differences of opinion should not lead anyone to “question his patriotism”? The rule against questioning a political adversary’s patriotism remains a good one, and should apply equally to Republicans and Democrats. It is particularly ludicrous to question the patriotism of someone like Cotton, who, as noted above, volunteered for combat as an army officer.

Thought No. 3: The Cotton letter was immediately pounced upon by the White House and leading Democrats because it offered a welcome distraction from debating the merits of a nuclear accord that would reputedly allow Iran to keep thousands of centrifuges and that would expire within a decade. In that respect, the letter was similar to the controversy over Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. In both cases, by ramping up the criticism, the White House sought to make this a partisan issue, thereby, it hopes, forcing Democrats in Congress to rally to its cause. If that strategy works (and it’s too soon to tell), the letter may have backfired because Democratic votes will be needed to block an agreement with Iran if it is a bad one—although, admittedly, even before the Cotton letter and the Netanyahu speech, it is doubtful whether there were enough Democratic votes to override a presidential veto.

Thought No. 4: The letter also allows Obama to try to spread some of the blame to Republicans if he is not successful in concluding an agreement. In reality, however, it is doubtful that this letter tells the Iranian leaders—many of them educated in the United States—anything they don’t already know. If an agreement is not concluded, it will not be because of Iranian fears that a future president may renege on Obama’s commitments; it will be because the Supreme Leader is afraid that concluding an agreement with the Great Satan will undermine the Iranian Revolution’s ideological legitimacy and set back the regime’s goal of achieving economic self-sufficiency.

Thought No. 5: Although the Cotton letter is technically accurate, it is also somewhat misleading. Executive agreements, of the kind that Obama hopes to reach with Iran, are hardly rare. A comprehensive study from the Congressional Research Service finds “that over 18,500 executive agreements have been concluded by the United States since 1789 (more than 17,300 of which were concluded since 1939), compared to roughly 1,100 treaties that have been ratified by the United States.” Agreements ranging from the 1945 Yalta accords to the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq have been concluded unilaterally by presidents, and just because they lack Senate ratification doesn’t mean that they lack the force of law. A president of the United States has the right to commit the United States to various international obligations without congressional say-so. Likewise a successor has the right to extract the U.S. from those obligations without congressional say-so—the point made by the Cotton letter—but in practice it is not so easy for one president to renege on a previous president’s commitments. In this case, it would take an exceptionally strong and bold chief executive to rip up an accord with Iran unless there is clear-cut evidence of cheating by the mullahs—which is unlikely. (Iran will probably cheat in ways that are hard to detect.)

So for better or worse, an agreement, if one is concluded by Obama, is likely to be long-lasting. And even if a future president were to decide to exit from the nuclear accord, by the time he or she takes office Iran would have reaped untold billions in sanctions relief between now and 2017—money that will fuel the Iranian economy along with its nuclear program and its support for terrorism abroad. That makes it all the more imperative that any agreement that is concluded be a good one from the standpoint of American interests, rather than counting on a future president to rescue us from the consequences of a bad accord.

Read Less

History Rhyming

President Obama has made it more than plain that he wants no interference from Congress regarding the agreement he is pursuing with Iran. When 47 senators sent the leadership in Iran a letter stating that no agreement between the United States and another country is binding without a two-thirds vote of the Senate, the reaction of the White House and its minions in the media was a very angry one. Yesterday the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, sent Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a letter telling him in no uncertain terms to butt out. It said, in essence, that once the administration has reached agreement with Iran and the UN Security Council has signed off on it, there will be plenty of time for Congress to acquiesce in a fait accompli.

Read More

President Obama has made it more than plain that he wants no interference from Congress regarding the agreement he is pursuing with Iran. When 47 senators sent the leadership in Iran a letter stating that no agreement between the United States and another country is binding without a two-thirds vote of the Senate, the reaction of the White House and its minions in the media was a very angry one. Yesterday the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, sent Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a letter telling him in no uncertain terms to butt out. It said, in essence, that once the administration has reached agreement with Iran and the UN Security Council has signed off on it, there will be plenty of time for Congress to acquiesce in a fait accompli.

Presidents quite rightly defend their power to set foreign policy. But wise ones know that Congress has a legitimate role and they work with Congress to further the interests of the country, assuring broad public support. The technical term for this is “politics.” Those presidents who don’t play the political game often end up a failure.

Woodrow Wilson is a classic example. When he went to Paris to negotiate the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I, he refused to take any senators along, even though the Senate had turned Republican in the November 1918 election and Republican votes would be needed to ratify whatever came out of the conference. Wilson was determined to establish the League of Nations exactly as he conceived it and he knew that Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican leader in the Senate, opposed parts of his plan. So he just ignored Lodge’s concerns.

Wilson gave up much to get the other powers to agree to establishing a league. Britain and France were indifferent about the league, but used it as leverage to get Wilson to agree with much of what they wanted. In other words, the cynical David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau played the idealistic Wilson like a fiddle. An intellectual to his finger tips, Wilson was just no good at the art of negotiation. As John Maynard Keynes wrote about Wilson at the conference, “There can seldom have been a statesman of the first rank more incompetent than the President in the agilities of the council chamber.”

Lodge opposed the League because, among other concerns, he thought the League impinged upon American sovereignty and might commit American forces abroad without a vote by Congress to declare war. Wilson, rather than seek a compromise with Lodge, went on a speaking tour to convince the nation of the rightness of his cause. His health already declining, he suffered a severe stroke and returned to Washington an invalid. When others cobbled together a compromise that would probably have passed the Senate, Wilson asked Democrats to vote against it and it failed.

So Wilson, instead of getting the best he could get, got nothing. And his beloved League of Nations was effectively stillborn without American participation.

Obama and Wilson have much in common. Both are intellectuals (although Wilson, who had a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, had considerable scholarship in his field, seven books; Obama has written two books about himself). Both are gifted public speakers. Both are lousy negotiators. Both are arrogant and aloof, with chilly personalities. Both have won Nobel Peace Prizes (Wilson for his hopes for the League of Nations, Obama for … well, what, exactly?). And both have been foreign-policy disasters.

As Mark Twain famously said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Read Less

The Administration’s Latest Plan to Get Around Congress on Iran

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to President Obama yesterday, citing reports that the administration plans to take its nuclear agreement with Iran to the UN Security Council for a vote, and would veto any legislation allowing Congress to vote on it first. Corker asked the president to “advise us as to whether you are considering going to the [UN] Security Council without coming to Congress.” As it happens, Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, answered Sen. Corker’s question in his response to the “open letter” to Iran by 47 senators.
Read More

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to President Obama yesterday, citing reports that the administration plans to take its nuclear agreement with Iran to the UN Security Council for a vote, and would veto any legislation allowing Congress to vote on it first. Corker asked the president to “advise us as to whether you are considering going to the [UN] Security Council without coming to Congress.” As it happens, Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, answered Sen. Corker’s question in his response to the “open letter” to Iran by 47 senators.

Zarif informed the senators that “if the current negotiation with the P5+1 results in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it will not be a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US, but rather one that will be concluded with … all permanent members of the Security Council [the P5], and will be endorsed by a Security Council resolution.” [Emphasis added.]

So the plan is to transform existing UN resolutions, which ban Iran’s enrichment and related nuclear activities, into a brand-new resolution that allows them. The foreign minister added that he hoped his comments would “enrich” the senators’ knowledge of international law: he took it upon himself to instruct the senators that the U.S. will be bound by the new UN resolution.

The administration’s plan is apparently, as Jonathan Tobin wrote earlier, to assert that the Iranian deal is not legally binding–and thus is not a “treaty” requiring a vote by the Senate–and then present it to the UN for incorporation into a “binding” UN resolution. At yesterday’s State Department press conference, spokesperson Jen Psaki was, understandably, having trouble explaining the administration’s strategy:

QUESTION: … can you clear up this whole nonbinding agreement thing? Seems to be a lot of confusion everywhere about why it is the Administration would even bother, commit the time and energy and expense to negotiate something that neither it nor the Iranians nor any other member of the negotiating team are going to be bound to.

MS. PSAKI: … the overriding reason to prefer a nonbinding international arrangement to a treaty is the need to preserve the greatest possible flexibility to re-impose sanctions if we believe Iran is not meeting its commitments under a joint comprehensive plan of action. …

QUESTION: Well, but – wait a – you want a nonbinding agreement because that will give you more flexibility to re-impose – I mean, Congress wants to put sanctions on now that would take effect if …

MS. PSAKI: — which would likely lead to the international sanctions regime falling apart and the deal falling apart.

QUESTION: — which would go – only go into effect if … the framework isn’t reached or if Iran is found to be in violation of it.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And you’re saying you want a nonbinding agreement to do precisely the same thing?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m saying what this – the nonbinding international arrangement or international arrangement that consists of political commitments provides us with that flexibility to snap back sanctions in a faster manner.

QUESTION: Why can’t you do that in a binding agreement?

MS. PSAKI: Because it’s an international – you’d have to have approval of all countries involved.

QUESTION: Well, couldn’t you devise a binding agreement that would provide you with the flexibility to impose sanctions quickly or immediately if you conclude that one of the other parties to the agreement has violated it?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Arshad, what I’m trying to explain here is why we’re pursuing this particular path, and why our policy team has determined this is the right approach. So I’m not going to play the game of what other options could have been discussed. This is the path that we’re pursuing and those are the reasons why.

QUESTION: But your argument is that it would not – your argument is that you have more flexibility with a nonbinding agreement. And what I don’t understand is why you couldn’t have the same flexibility in a binding agreement.

MS. PSAKI: Because that’s not how these have typically worked. This is the path we’ve determined is the best path forward.

It is an explanation worthy of the administration’s former secretary of state: just as it’s so much “more convenient” to have only one email account on one phone, it’s so much easier to have a non-binding agreement rather than a binding one with identical provisions. As Ms. Psaki attempted to explain to incredulous reporters, this is the way these things “have typically worked,” and it’s been “determined” to be “the best path forward.”

Somewhere in the administration, the Jonathan Gruber of foreign policy is smiling.

Read Less

The Cost of Obama’s Syria Disgrace

Four years ago, civil unrest began in Syria against the despotic rule of Bashar Assad. After more than 40 years of rule by the Assad clan and in the wake of Arab Spring protests happening elsewhere in the Middle East, Syria’s people began to make their voices heard. The brutal and corrupt regime responded with violence and what followed was a civil war that has, to date, cost the lives of more than 200,000 persons and made millions homeless. The toll of this catastrophe was aptly illustrated in a New York Times graphic feature, “Syria After Four Years of Mayhem.” But what isn’t noted there is that much of this heartbreak might have been averted had the West done something to stop Assad from making war on his own people before the war escalated to the current level of chaos. Though President Obama condemned the violence in Syria, called on Assad to go, and even warned that his use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would force the United States to act, the administration did nothing. As much as this anniversary should cause us to mourn the dead, it should also be noted as a disgrace that stands as an apt symbol of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy.

Read More

Four years ago, civil unrest began in Syria against the despotic rule of Bashar Assad. After more than 40 years of rule by the Assad clan and in the wake of Arab Spring protests happening elsewhere in the Middle East, Syria’s people began to make their voices heard. The brutal and corrupt regime responded with violence and what followed was a civil war that has, to date, cost the lives of more than 200,000 persons and made millions homeless. The toll of this catastrophe was aptly illustrated in a New York Times graphic feature, “Syria After Four Years of Mayhem.” But what isn’t noted there is that much of this heartbreak might have been averted had the West done something to stop Assad from making war on his own people before the war escalated to the current level of chaos. Though President Obama condemned the violence in Syria, called on Assad to go, and even warned that his use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would force the United States to act, the administration did nothing. As much as this anniversary should cause us to mourn the dead, it should also be noted as a disgrace that stands as an apt symbol of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy.

The graphic illustrates the toll the war has taken on that tortured country. Most dramatic is its depiction of satellite photos that illustrate the collapse of Syria’s population centers. The photos show that Syria is 83 percent darker at night than it was before the start of the war. Sir Edward Gray’s famous comment at the start of World War One that, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” seems apt for Syria as well. The war has caused an exodus of epic proportions. Approximately 7.6 million people have been displaced inside of Syria as a result of the fight. But 3.9 million, approximately half of them children, have been forced out of the country and are living as refugees elsewhere in great squalor and suffering.

Also depicted is the current division of the country between armed forces loyal to the government, ISIS, and moderate rebels. But those maps don’t tell the full story either of how the current situation came to be or what is really going on today.

The weakest of the three sides in this civil war are the non-ISIS rebels. Some are genuine moderates. Others are connected to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile the pro-government areas are as likely to contain Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists with a sprinkling of Iranian volunteers as they are Assad’s Alawite base of support within the pre-war Syrian army.

But that current division couldn’t have come about had President Obama not played Hamlet on Syria for two years as the original more moderate rebel forces came to be either dominated or pushed aside by more radical elements tied to al-Qaeda. Even more to the point, it was the vacuum created by the West’s indecision as well as the administration’s fateful decision to pull completely out of Iraq that allowed ISIS to arise while Obama was trying to decide what to do.

Four years later, it’s probably too late to expect Syrian moderates now getting some minimal Western aid to do much about an Assad regime that was backed to the hilt by its Iranian ally and their Lebanese auxiliaries. Even worse, the real explanation for American hesitancy to do something about Syria might have been the president’s desire for a rapprochement with Iran.

It is true that any decision to act on Syria would have been fraught with danger. Intervention in Iraq created a host of unintended consequences—such as the strengthening of Iran—which Americans now regret. There was no guarantee that action would not have created other problems and exposed American forces to terror attacks. But we do know what happened because President Obama either couldn’t make up his mind or was too intent on making nice with Iran to act decisively. Could the fallout from a decision to oust Assad before Iran could rescue him or ISIS arose have resulted in more casualties or refugees? Could the strategic situation have been any worse than the one in which ISIS now controls much of the country while the U.S. has been forced into a tacit alliance with the Islamist despots of Tehran and the butcher of Damascus in order to hold them back?

The debate about the answers to these questions will interest historians in future generations. But for now, all we need to know is that the greatest human-rights catastrophe since Barack Obama became president might well have been averted or at least lessened by decisive American leadership. Along with his many other failures and mistakes, this horror should never be forgotten or be allowed to be obscured as the president’s fans seek to celebrate him. Such a disgrace isn’t merely a bad political choice; it’s a permanent commitment to infamy.

Read Less

Obama Gives Sisi the Netanyahu Treatment

In a Middle East where Islamist terror groups and the Iranian regime and its allies have been on the offensive in recent years, the one bright spot for the West in the region (other, that is, than Israel) is the way Egypt has returned to its old role as a bulwark of moderation and opposition to extremism. The current government led by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has clamped down on Hamas terrorists and has been willing to deploy its armed forces to fight ISIS in Libya while also clamping down on a Muslim Brotherhood movement that seeks to transform Egypt into another Islamist state. Yet despite this, the Obama administration is unhappy with Egypt. Much to Cairo’s consternation, the United States is squeezing its government on the military aid it needs to fight ISIS in Libya and Sinai terrorists. As the Israeli government has already learned to its sorrow, the Egyptians now understand that being an ally of the United States is a lot less comfortable position than to be a foe like Iran.

Read More

In a Middle East where Islamist terror groups and the Iranian regime and its allies have been on the offensive in recent years, the one bright spot for the West in the region (other, that is, than Israel) is the way Egypt has returned to its old role as a bulwark of moderation and opposition to extremism. The current government led by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has clamped down on Hamas terrorists and has been willing to deploy its armed forces to fight ISIS in Libya while also clamping down on a Muslim Brotherhood movement that seeks to transform Egypt into another Islamist state. Yet despite this, the Obama administration is unhappy with Egypt. Much to Cairo’s consternation, the United States is squeezing its government on the military aid it needs to fight ISIS in Libya and Sinai terrorists. As the Israeli government has already learned to its sorrow, the Egyptians now understand that being an ally of the United States is a lot less comfortable position than to be a foe like Iran.

The ostensible reason for the holdup in aid is that the Egyptian government is a human-rights violator. Those concerns are accurate. Sisi’s government has been ruthless in cracking down on the same Muslim Brotherhood faction that was running the country until a popular coup brought it down in the summer of 2013. But contrary to the illusions of an Obama administration that hastened the fall of Hosni Mubarak and then foolishly embraced his Muslim Brotherhood successors, democracy was never one of the available options in Egypt.

The choice in Egypt remains stark. It’s either going to be run by Islamists bent on taking the most populous Arab country down the dark road of extremism or by a military regime that will keep that from happening. The obvious Western choice must be the latter, and Sisi has turned out to be an even better ally than Washington could have dreamed of, as he ensured that the Brotherhood would not return to power, took on Hamas in Gaza, and even made public calls for Muslims to turn against religious extremists.

But rather than that endearing him to the administration, this outstanding record has earned Sisi the Netanyahu treatment. Indeed, like other moderate Arab leaders in the Middle East, Sisi understands that President Obama has no great love for his country’s allies. Besotted as he is by the idea of bringing Iran in from the cold, the American government has allied itself with Tehran in the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria. He also understands that both of those ongoing wars were made far worse by the president’s dithering for years, a stance that may well have been motivated by a desire to avoid antagonizing Iran by seeking to topple their Syrian ally.

But those issues notwithstanding, one of the major changes that took place on President Obama’s watch was a conscious decision to downgrade relations with Cairo, a nation that his predecessors of both parties had recognized as a lynchpin of U.S. interests in the region. The current weapons supply squeeze is not only a blow to the efforts of a nation that is actually willing to fight ISIS and other Islamist terrorists; it’s a statement about what it means to be an American ally in the age of Obama.

As the Times of Israel reported:

On Monday Sisi was asked what he and the other Arab allies thought of U.S. leadership in the region. It is hard to put his response in words, mainly due to his prolonged silence.

“Difficult question,” he said after some moments, while his body language expressed contempt and disgust. “The suspending of US equipment and arms was an indicator for the public that the United States is not standing by the Egyptians.”

It turns out that although the American administration recently agreed to provide the Egyptian Air Force with Apache attack helicopters; it has been making it increasingly difficult for Cairo to make additional military purchases.

For example, the U.S. is delaying the shipment of tanks, spare parts and other weapons that the army desperately needs in its war against Islamic State.

This development raises serious questions not only about U.S.-Egyptian relations but the administration’s vision for the region.

This is, after all, a time when the administration is going all out to make common cause with Iran, an open enemy that is currently the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. President Obama is pursuing a diplomatic arrangement that will strengthen the Iranian regime and guarantee the survival of a nuclear program that moderate Arabs see as being as much of a threat to them as it is to Israel or the West.

The Egyptians understand that Washington isn’t interested in their friendship. Nor is the administration particularly supportive of Cairo’s efforts to rein in Hamas or to fight ISIS. Indeed, the Egyptians are now experiencing the same sort of treatment that has heretofore been reserved for the Israelis. That’s especially true in light of the arms resupply cutoff against Israel Obama ordered during last summer’s war in Gaza.

Despite flirting with Russia, Egypt may, like Israel, have no real alternative to the United States as an ally. Perhaps that’s why Obama takes it for granted. But if the U.S. is serious about fighting ISIS as opposed to just talking about it, Washington will have to start treating Egypt and its military as a priority rather than an embarrassment.

Read Less

Presidential Commitments Then and Now

The White House “outrage” at the “open letter” to Iran signed by 47 senators, led by Sen. Tom Cotton, was reinforced by Vice President Biden’s formal statement, which intoned that “America’s influence depends on its ability to honor its commitments,” including those made by a president without a vote of Congress. Perhaps we should welcome Biden’s belated insight. As Jonathan Tobin notes, President Obama on taking office in 2009 refused to be bound by the 2004 Gaza disengagement deal in the letters exchanged between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that such commitments were “unenforceable”–that they were non-binding on the new administration. In 2009, Obama disregarded previous commitments not only to Israel but also to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Georgia; he “fundamentally transformed” America’s previous commitments, as he likes to describe the essential element of his entire presidency.

Read More

The White House “outrage” at the “open letter” to Iran signed by 47 senators, led by Sen. Tom Cotton, was reinforced by Vice President Biden’s formal statement, which intoned that “America’s influence depends on its ability to honor its commitments,” including those made by a president without a vote of Congress. Perhaps we should welcome Biden’s belated insight. As Jonathan Tobin notes, President Obama on taking office in 2009 refused to be bound by the 2004 Gaza disengagement deal in the letters exchanged between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that such commitments were “unenforceable”–that they were non-binding on the new administration. In 2009, Obama disregarded previous commitments not only to Israel but also to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Georgia; he “fundamentally transformed” America’s previous commitments, as he likes to describe the essential element of his entire presidency.

The Gaza disengagement deal was (1) approved by Congress; (2) included in the Gaza disengagement plan presented to the Israeli Knesset, and (3) relied on by Israel in withdrawing from Gaza later in 2005. The history of the deal (which the current secretary of state endorsed at the time as a U.S. “commitment”) is set forth here, and the reason Obama sought to undo it is discussed here. In 2009, the Obama administration refused at least 22 times to answer whether it considered itself bound by the deal; in 2011 it openly reneged on key aspects of it.

President Obama is currently negotiating an arms control agreement in secret, refusing to disclose the details of the offers his administration has made to Iran, a terrorist state according to his own State Department, and a self-described enemy of the United States since 1979. He has opposed not only a congressional debate before he concludes the deal but also a congressional vote afterwards. If he closes a deal with Iran on that basis, it will not be binding on any future president–at least not if that president chooses to follow the precedent Obama himself set in 2009.

If the administration is now seeking to restore the credibility of presidential commitments, the president might consider taking two steps: (1) acknowledge that the U.S. is bound by the disengagement deal negotiated by President Bush with Israel, endorsed by a vote of Congress; and (2) promise to put his prospective deal with Iran to a similar congressional vote once the deal is done. If not, perhaps a reporter at his next press conference will ask how he reconciles his position that (a) he could ignore President Bush’s congressionally approved deal with his view that (b) future presidents must honor the non-congressionally approved one he is negotiating now.

Read Less

A Hollow Victory in Tikrit

There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

Read More

There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

But even if this “victory” stands up, our jubilation should be tightly controlled. Yes, it’s a good thing if ISIS is suffering defeats, but who’s winning? It’s not the United States and it’s not  the lawful Iraqi state led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The real victor here, if there is a victory, is Iran. Most of the fighters who are taking Tikrit are Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, not soldiers of Iraq. The real leader of this operation is not any general appointed by Prime Minister Abadi but rather Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, who has been a high-profile presence on the front lines.

And this is not an isolated occurrence. With Iran and its proxies taking the lead in fighting ISIS, there is a real danger that U.S. support for the anti-ISIS drive will wind up delivering Iraq into the hands of Iran. This is, of course, the danger that many opponents of the Iraq War warned about, but it was a danger kept in check as long as there was a substantial U.S. troop presence in Iraq. The U.S. departure at the end of 2011, however, opened the floodgates for Iranian influence.

By focusing U.S. efforts solely on rolling back ISIS, President Obama is providing another opportunity for Iran to expand its influence. This is a very bad development for two reasons: First, the obvious reason–Iran believes that the U.S. is the Great Satan and it is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, with a track record going back to 1979 of mounting terrorist attacks on American targets. So its success in expanding its influence into countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen is a defeat for the U.S.

Second, Iran is anathema to the region’s Sunnis. The more successful that Iran appears to be, the more that Sunnis will flock for protection to ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and other Sunnis terrorist groups.

The U.S. desperately needs a plan not to just to roll back ISIS influence but also to roll back Iranian influence. The kind of plan implemented in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraues in Iraq, when U.S. forces targeted Iranian operatives for exposure and arrest. There is, alas, no sign of such a plan today–if anything, the U.S. seems to be tacitly conceding Iran the right to a dominant role in Iraq, Syria, etc., as part of a broader rapprochement that, Obama hopes, will include a nuclear deal.

This is a monstrous mistake. A victory over the terrorists of ISIS in Iraq, even if it is forthcoming, will be hollow indeed if it becomes a victory for the terrorists of Iran.

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.