Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Kerry

Obama’s Pointless Israel Spats Illustrate Spite, Not Strategy

A week has now passed since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected in a decisive win that deeply disappointed the Obama administration that made no secret of its desire that he be defeated. But rather than cut its losses, the White House continues to dig itself in deeper in a conflict with the Israelis with an interview in which President Obama expressed concern for the future of Israeli democracy all the while making it clear that he would like to invalidate the verdict of Israeli voters. But that was not all. The president also sent his chief of staff to speak at the conference of the left-wing J Street lobby. There, James McDonough brought an audience of critics of Israel to its feet by vowing that the U.S. would not cease its efforts to force the Netanyahu government to “end 50 years of occupation.” All of this stoking the fires of conflict forces us to ask why the president is so invested in this effort. The answer isn’t reassuring, especially for those who wanted to believe the president’s 2012 re-election pitch that claimed he was a true friend of Israel.

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A week has now passed since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected in a decisive win that deeply disappointed the Obama administration that made no secret of its desire that he be defeated. But rather than cut its losses, the White House continues to dig itself in deeper in a conflict with the Israelis with an interview in which President Obama expressed concern for the future of Israeli democracy all the while making it clear that he would like to invalidate the verdict of Israeli voters. But that was not all. The president also sent his chief of staff to speak at the conference of the left-wing J Street lobby. There, James McDonough brought an audience of critics of Israel to its feet by vowing that the U.S. would not cease its efforts to force the Netanyahu government to “end 50 years of occupation.” All of this stoking the fires of conflict forces us to ask why the president is so invested in this effort. The answer isn’t reassuring, especially for those who wanted to believe the president’s 2012 re-election pitch that claimed he was a true friend of Israel.

As I noted yesterday, one motive for the conflict with Israel is the disagreement over the Iran nuclear negotiations. The president clearly is not willing to get past his anger about Netanyahu speaking to Congress in opposition to the deal that the U.S. is offering the Iranian regime. With the talks moving into their final stages, it seems likely that Iran will sign an accord, especially since, that country’s so-called “hard-liners” appear to be thrilled with the concessions that their nation has forced out of an Obama administration so fixated on its goal of détente with the Islamist regime that it is willing to retreat from every principle it went into the talks to defend.

Suppressing criticism of the deal has become the top foreign policy priority for the White House and that means keeping the extravagant concessions made to Iran secret for as long as possible. As our Max Boot noted earlier, the administration bizarrely claimed today that Israel was spying on U.S. negotiators with Iran and sharing the information with an entity that the president considers a hostile power — Congress — while admitting that it knows this is true because of U.S. spying on Israel.

But while the nuclear issue and Obama’s acquiescence to Iran’s quest for regional hegemony is a huge part of the current tangle with Israel, that does not completely account for the administration’s bold talk about reviving the dead-in-the-water peace process.

This has, after all, been a constant theme since the president took office in January 2009 determined to make a correction from what he felt was the Bush administration’s coziness with Israel. Throughout the last six years, with only a one-year break for a re-election campaign Jewish charm offensive, President Obama has picked numerous fights with Netanyahu government over settlement building and borders as well as the status of Jerusalem. The goal throughout has been to persuade Israel to take “risks for peace” involving retreating from the West Bank and dividing Jerusalem.

This struggle has been undertaken in the name of saving Israel from itself because as the president noted in his Huffington Post interview, he wanted to preserve Israel’s democracy. But, like his admirers among the crowd at J Street, at no point has the president chosen to hold the Palestinians accountable for their consistent rejection of Israeli peace offers or efforts to torpedo talks, such as the end run around negotiations and unity pact with Hamas that blew up the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry last year.

Nor is there any answer to the widespread concern voiced by Israeli voters about what would happen if their country heeded Obama’s advice and withdrew from the West Bank, whether to the 1967 lines or not. After the example of Gaza, from which Israeli pulled out every last soldier and settler and which was then transformed into a vast terror base from which rockets are rained down on Israeli cities, why should Israelis believe a pullout from the West Bank end any differently.

Moreover, when McDonough speaks of “ending occupation,” Palestinians hear something very different from Americans. When Fatah and Hamas talk about occupation they are referring not just to parts of the West Bank that even most Israelis would happily exit in exchange for true peace, but all of the country, including those parts that were not taken in the 1967 war. When such a high official uses language that is routinely employed by Hamas, albeit for different purposes, why should anyone be surprised if those terrorists regard the White House temper tantrum as a green light for a repeat of last summer’s bloody and pointless war? If Obama was prepared to cut off arms resupply for the Israeli army during that conflict, what might he do next time?

One may disagree with Netanyahu on many things and even fervently advocate for a two-state solution and still understand that White House pressure on Israel about the Palestinians in the absence of any sign that the PA will ever make peace on any terms is utterly irresponsible. Until PA leader Mahmoud Abbas or his Hamas rivals have change their minds about refusing to agree to any deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, a return to the table isn’t merely pointless, it’s an invitation to more mayhem as the Palestinians raise the ante in hopes that the U.S. will abandon its Israeli ally.

From January 2009 to the present, the conflict between Israel and the United States has never been connected to any real chance of peace or ending the conflict in a manner that is consistent with American pledges about ensuring the Jewish state’s security. At this point, it is time for even those that have rationalized and apologized for Obama’s penchant for attacking Israel to face up to the fact that his behavior requires a better explanation than an alleged desire to save it from itself. Nor is the argument about Iran enough to justify what we are witnessing. Nothing about the current argument can be traced to U.S. security needs. Rather, its motive seems more about personal anger and vague ideological assumptions about Israel and the Palestinians that have no connection to reality.

That is a sobering thought that should motivate even those Democrats who are no fans of Netanyahu to begin speaking up against an administration policy that seems rooted in spite, not strategy.

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If Iran’s ‘Hard-Liners’ Are Happy, Americans Should Be Worried

According to the New York Times’ man in Tehran, Iran’s “hard-liners” are being unusually quiet these days. Bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink reports that what one of his sources among the regime’s Revolutionary Guards calls their “remarkably quiet” behavior is significant. Rather than orchestrating demonstrations or otherwise showing their displeasure with the nuclear talks with the West, as they have at times in the past, this faction is doing nothing. This reflects, he writes, “a general satisfaction with the direction of the talks and the successes Iran is enjoying, extending and deepening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.” One can’t blame them for thinking so but the apt question here isn’t about what the Times considers the surprising support for the negotiations from the country’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his followers but why those tasked with protecting America’s security shouldn’t be worried about Iran’s contentment?

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According to the New York Times’ man in Tehran, Iran’s “hard-liners” are being unusually quiet these days. Bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink reports that what one of his sources among the regime’s Revolutionary Guards calls their “remarkably quiet” behavior is significant. Rather than orchestrating demonstrations or otherwise showing their displeasure with the nuclear talks with the West, as they have at times in the past, this faction is doing nothing. This reflects, he writes, “a general satisfaction with the direction of the talks and the successes Iran is enjoying, extending and deepening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.” One can’t blame them for thinking so but the apt question here isn’t about what the Times considers the surprising support for the negotiations from the country’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his followers but why those tasked with protecting America’s security shouldn’t be worried about Iran’s contentment?

While Iran’s political system is complex, the Times article reflects a basic misconception about the Islamist regime that is widespread in the West. There are various competing factions within Iran’s government, security forces and religious institutions, the assumption that a group “hard-liners” is fighting against supposed moderates over the future of the country is something of a misnomer. Iran is not one big happy family of Islamists but the division has a lot to do with personalities, institutional loyalties and shades of fanaticism and not much to do with Western beliefs and hopes that Iranian society will become a more liberal place. Just as many American analyses of the politics of the former Soviet Union were driven by misinformed speculation about an ongoing battle between so-called hawks and doves within the Kremlin, so, too, is much of the talk about Iran rendered useless by similar talk about hard-liners and moderates, who are allegedly led by President Hassan Rouhani.

On the issues that matter, be it the theocratic nature of the state, support for international terrorism, the regime’s ambition for regional hegemony and nuclear weapons or the destruction of Israel, there are no real moderates or hard-liners in Tehran as these goals are shared by all the factions. The only differences are about nuances or how much they think they can get away with in pushing the West. If even those identified by the New York Times are pleased with the nuclear talks as well as by their country’s success in spreading their influence around the region via terrorism and support of allied despotic regimes such as that of Bashar Assad in Syria, that is not a sign that Khamenei and his followers are softening up but that they are realizing their objectives.

They have, after all, good reason to be happy.

By merely standing their ground in the negotiations the Iranians have been able to persuade President Obama to abandon his 2012 campaign promises about forcing Iran to give up its nuclear program as well as the United Nations Security Council resolutions forbidding them to enrich uranium. Instead of increasing sanctions until the tottering Iranian economy, undermined by the crash in oil prices, forced a shaky regime to start making concessions, it was the Americans who cracked and gave up all of their considerable economic and political leverage in the talks. Now, 16 months after the interim agreement signed by the U.S. gave a Western seal of approval to the survival of Iran’s nuclear program, the Americans have gone further, agreeing that Tehran can keep thousands of centrifuges and even putting in a sunset clause in the offer put on the table that will eventually end all restrictions on their behavior. The Iranians know the one year “break out” period President Obama thinks gives him enough leeway to stop a bomb is meaningless since Western intelligence there is poor and the decision-making process to re-impose sanctions or take other action will take too long and will be unable to prevent them from cheating. But even if they abide by the deal, the sunset clause will ensure that eventually they will move from the status of threshold nuclear power to one with a bomb if they choose.

Even more important, Khamenei understands that President Obama’s belief in a détente with Iran that will enable it “to get right with the world” is also giving his nation the ability to extend its influence over the region in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. With victories in Syria and Yemen and alliances with terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza, they are now able to credibly threaten every moderate Arab regime as well as Israel. Iranian hard-liners may well say, as one of Erdbrink’s sources puts it, that their movement is “at new peaks of our power.”

But what is missing from this story and much of the mainstream media’s uncritical coverage of administration policy, is any explanation as to why it would be in America’s strategic interests to be so accommodating to forces that hate the West and whose dearest wish is to inflict great harm on the “Great Satan” — America or its partner, “Little Satan” Israel.

The administration may answer that any negotiation cannot be a zero-sum game in which Iran will get nothing. But what President Obama has done is to conduct talks in which Iran gets everything it asks for and the West receives next to nothing. The glee of the “hard-liners” is proof that what Secretary of State John Kerry has negotiated isn’t so much a “bad deal” but a one-sided and shameful appeasement, the details of which the administration has worked hard to conceal from both Congress and its Israeli and Arab allies. The happier the “hard-liners” are, the more worried Americans and those who rely on U.S. strength should be.

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What Motivates Iranian Diplomacy?

A major theme of my recent book about the history of negotiating with rogue regimes (a new, paperback edition of which came out last week) is that American leaders’ habit of projecting Western motivations and sincerity onto partners often opens the door for adversaries to outplay the State Department at the bargaining table. It’s important to consider Iranian motivations and how Tehran’s decision-making and strategic goals differ from those of the United States.

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A major theme of my recent book about the history of negotiating with rogue regimes (a new, paperback edition of which came out last week) is that American leaders’ habit of projecting Western motivations and sincerity onto partners often opens the door for adversaries to outplay the State Department at the bargaining table. It’s important to consider Iranian motivations and how Tehran’s decision-making and strategic goals differ from those of the United States.

There’s a certain pattern with regard to Iranian willingness to engage in talks that is deeply troubling: Whenever Iranian leaders demonstrate behavior that, under any honest and dispassionate reading of diplomatic norms or international law would constitute an act of war, those Iranian leaders either solicit or rush to accept offers to engage in a diplomatic process.

Within days of the original Iran hostage crisis, for example, Iranian intermediaries—foreign ministers Abulhassan Bani Sadr and Sadegh Qotbzadeh—accepted offers to negotiate with the Americans, and the Carter administration kept military action off the table. There was absolutely no progress, however, nor did Tehran mean there to be. The only thing that ultimately brought the hostages home was a combination of the Iraqi invasion of Iran—an event that raised the cost to Iran of its international isolation—and the election of Ronald Reagan, who Iranian leaders seemed to fear was stronger and not as indecisive as Jimmy Carter.

In 1983, Iranian-backed terrorist blew up the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut. The Marines, of course, were in Beirut as peacekeepers against the backdrop of Lebanon’s civil war. Once again, the Iranians faced no consequence: Instead, Reagan administration officials did not want to undercut the secret diplomacy which today Americans know as the Arms-for-Hostages scandal.

In 1996, Iranian operatives helped plan and execute the truck bombing of the Khobar Towers, killing 19 American airmen. The FBI investigated the terrorist attack and its report fingered very specific individuals in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian regime. But as momentum grew for a response, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami offered a “dialogue of civilizations,” and Bill Clinton ordered the FBI report withdrawn, and shelved any thought of retaliation. While that dialogue never went anywhere, it did provide space for Iran both to bolster its nuclear program and support logistically the 9/11 hijackers.

The strategy continued under George W. Bush. Despite building a covert enrichment plant and, separately, experimenting with items like nuclear triggers that only had military applications, Iranians defused any serious repercussions by offering an olive branch to the European Union, and offering once again to negotiate. Hassan Rouhani, at the time Iran’s Supreme National Security Council chairman later bragged about how he had played the Europeans and even installed new centrifuges while he was receiving European plaudits for suspending enrichment.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts to negotiate with Iran—an outreach with which Tehran flirted—simply gave Iran a pass from accountability as it smuggled in explosively formed projectiles and funded militias responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.

Never before has a country repeatedly declared its goal was “death to America,” taken clear actions to achieve that aim, and suffered no serious consequences for its actions. The reason for this is Iran’s diplomatic brilliance. They have conditioned successive administrations as easily as Pavlov: They hint at diplomacy, and get a free pass for abusing and murdering Americans.

Secretary of State John Kerry may see himself on the verge of winning the Nobel Peace prize he so passionately desires, but the Iranians are playing him like a fiddle. At the same time, they realize by feigning sincerity they can achieve their nuclear aims, once again bypassing consequence for their illegal activities. How sad it is that the White House is playing into Supreme Leader Khamenei’s hands.

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What South Africa Teaches Us About Suspect Nuclear Programs

Just as two decades ago in the run-up to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, enthusiasm for a nuclear deal has trumped good sense and careful consideration about the implications of some of the concessions the White House was willing to make. Back in 1994, President Bill Clinton and his aides gave the South Korean president what might today be called “the Netanyahu treatment,” demonizing the leader of a democratic and pro-American country for having the temerity of raising concerns regarding how a rushed and ill-conceived diplomatic bargain cold undercut his own country’s security. At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—which had just been burned when it emerged that Iraq had had a covert nuclear program despite 11 IAEA clean bills of health—began raising concerns that concessions which the Clinton administration negotiators had made with Pyongyang would make it impossible for the IAEA to do its job. Hindsight shows both the Seoul and the IAEA were right. The irony today is, of course, that Kerry has appointed to be his Iran negotiators some of the same individuals who brought us the Agreed Framework and, by extension, a North Korean nuclear arsenal.

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Just as two decades ago in the run-up to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, enthusiasm for a nuclear deal has trumped good sense and careful consideration about the implications of some of the concessions the White House was willing to make. Back in 1994, President Bill Clinton and his aides gave the South Korean president what might today be called “the Netanyahu treatment,” demonizing the leader of a democratic and pro-American country for having the temerity of raising concerns regarding how a rushed and ill-conceived diplomatic bargain cold undercut his own country’s security. At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—which had just been burned when it emerged that Iraq had had a covert nuclear program despite 11 IAEA clean bills of health—began raising concerns that concessions which the Clinton administration negotiators had made with Pyongyang would make it impossible for the IAEA to do its job. Hindsight shows both the Seoul and the IAEA were right. The irony today is, of course, that Kerry has appointed to be his Iran negotiators some of the same individuals who brought us the Agreed Framework and, by extension, a North Korean nuclear arsenal.

It is useful, however, to consider successful examples in which countries have abandoned their military nuclear programs. Libya is one example, of course. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi agreed to abandon his nuclear program in 2003 against the backdrop first of the invasion of Iraq, and then Saddam’s capture. But, even then, American and international experts rushed around the clock to remove nuclear equipment and records in case the famously mercurial Qaddafi changed his mind. Obama has effectively voided six United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding a complete cessation of Iranian enrichment, and he has acceded to Iranian demands that enrichment occur inside Iran, rather than abroad, with a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel for Iran’s plants.

South Africa is another example. After years of suspicion with regard to its nuclear intentions and, indeed, a weapons program, in 1991 South Africa agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA moved in to assess South Africa’s compliance. In order to verify the completeness of South Africa’s declaration of inventory of nuclear material and facilities, the IAEA required more than two decades of past records into South Africa’s nuclear program. Ultimately, the organization was able to then trace and account for all nuclear material and verify that South Africa was in compliance.

Alas, Obama and Kerry have in effect acceded to Iran’s demand that transparency and accountability start only when a framework agreement is signed, and that there will be no requirement that Iran come clean about its past. In reality, however, the IAEA will need full and complete records going back to the mid-1980s when the Islamic Republic restarted its nuclear program. The IAEA is right to complain that it is being put in an impossible position because Kerry’s team is prioritizing imagery over substance. Rather than uphold South Africa’s nuclear negotiations as a model, Kerry is effectively allowing Iran to replicate the North Korea model, a model that Iranian nuclear negotiators have embraced. Alas, North Korea has already shown the world where that leads.

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The Last Time Iran Lied

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry put a great deal of faith in their Iranian interlocutors, chief among them Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After all, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decreed that the negotiations should occur between foreign ministers, and if there has been one consistent pattern in the current negotiations, it is that Obama is unnervingly deferential to the Supreme Leader’s red lines.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry put a great deal of faith in their Iranian interlocutors, chief among them Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After all, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decreed that the negotiations should occur between foreign ministers, and if there has been one consistent pattern in the current negotiations, it is that Obama is unnervingly deferential to the Supreme Leader’s red lines.

Too often, presidents enter the Oval Office convinced that the failure of diplomacy rests more with their predecessors than with their adversaries. Obama is no exception. The State Department meanwhile has not, in the last half century at least, conducted a lessons-learned exercise to determine why its high-profile engagement diplomacy with rogue regimes—North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq, the PLO, the Taliban, or Iran—never seems to work. All too often, it seems history repeats.

It’s worth considering, then, what happened the last time the United States negotiated in earnest with Zarif. In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, both Zalmay Khalilzad (at the time a senior National Security Council official) and Ryan Crocker (then a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State), traveled to Geneva to meet secretly with Zarif. Their goal was to come to an understanding with Iran ahead of the start of hostilities commencing with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: Basically, the U.S. side sought not interference and non-intervention with Iran. Zarif readily agreed that Iran would not interfere with any American pilots who strayed into Iraqi airspace, nor would Iran interfere in Iraq by inserting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Iranian-backed militias into the country.

Just days later, Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced and almost immediately, more than 2,000 Revolutionary Guardsmen and militiamen infiltrated into Iraq. The Iranian movement was reported first by an Iranian journalist close to former President Mohammad Khatami. In other words, Zarif gave his firm commitment that Iran would not conduct an action, and then Iran subsequently and blatantly violated that agreement.

There are two possible explanations: The first is that Zarif lied. The second is that the then-UN Ambassador was sincere, but he had no power to force groups like the Revolutionary Guards to abide by his negotiated commitments. Either way, the result was the same: Hundreds of Americans died because senior diplomats and the Bush administration chose to trust the Iranians.

The stakes with Iran are even higher today; perhaps it’s time for Kerry to explain in precise detail how it is that a man whose word was without meaning a decade ago has become a trusted intermediary. No one should hold their breath, however, because there is no good answer.

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Assad Crosses Obama’s ‘Red Line’ Again

The Syrian civil war has been a nonstop horror show not only for the people of Syria and their neighbors but also for the United States. After setting up an Atrocities Prevention Board and vowing to stop crimes against humanity, President Obama has done essentially nothing even as the civil war has consumed more than 200,000 lives and displaced more than half of the population. American neglect has allowed the country to be divided between Iranian-backed Shiite extremists such as Hezbollah and Sunni extremists such as the Al Nusra Front and ISIS. Amid this parade of atrocities, virtually the only thing that Obama could boast of was that he had engineered, along with Vladimir Putin, a deal to take away Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons.

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The Syrian civil war has been a nonstop horror show not only for the people of Syria and their neighbors but also for the United States. After setting up an Atrocities Prevention Board and vowing to stop crimes against humanity, President Obama has done essentially nothing even as the civil war has consumed more than 200,000 lives and displaced more than half of the population. American neglect has allowed the country to be divided between Iranian-backed Shiite extremists such as Hezbollah and Sunni extremists such as the Al Nusra Front and ISIS. Amid this parade of atrocities, virtually the only thing that Obama could boast of was that he had engineered, along with Vladimir Putin, a deal to take away Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons.

If so, then why is there credible evidence that the Assad regime has been dropping chlorine gas on civilians in recent days? As Josh Rogin of Bloomberg notes, “Unfortunately, chlorine, which has non-military uses, was not part of that deal. Assad has flaunted the loophole.” The fact that chlorine was not included was bizarre; it is the original chemical weapon, having first been used at the Battle of Ypres in 1915.

But the UN Security Council has acted to erase the loophole. On March 6, the Security Council passed a resolution condemning the regime’s use of chlorine gas after concluding “with a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used repeatedly and systematically as a weapon in the Syrian Arab Republic.” The Security Council members stressed “that those individuals responsible for any use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical, must be held accountable.”

That would seem to present yet another “red line” that the administration can either enforce or ignore. Opposition activists believe that Assad is once again testing the international community with a series of small attacks utilizing chlorine gas to see how they react. He did the same thing with sarin gas, and when he found little resistance in the world, he unleashed an attack in August 2013 that killed 1,400 people. If left unchecked, we can expect to see chlorine gas employed on an even bigger and deadlier scale, along of course with barrel bombs and other favored instruments of mass destruction employed by the Assad regime and its Iranian patrons.

It will be fascinating to know what if anything the administration will do about this—just as it would be fascinating to know what the administration plans to do to dislodge either ISIS (which it has pledged to defeat) or Assad (whose downfall it once advocated). Secretary of State Kerry who called this week on Assad to get involved in negotiations with the U.S. probably delivered the answer. If only hot air could somehow be utilized as an effective antidote to poison gas.

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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.”

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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.

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Calling a Bad Iran Deal By Its Right Name

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and condemned the letter signed by 47 Republican senators warning that any agreement with Iran that was not ratified by Congress would not be legally binding. But despite all of the secretary’s huffing and puffing that was cheered and echoed in the mainstream liberal press, his statement in which he conceded that the deal would not be legally binding confirmed the truth of what the letter asserted. Yet the arguments about the Senate letter and even the brazen plans of the administration to refuse to submit any nuclear agreement with Iran to Congress for ratification have sidelined the necessary debate that we are not currently having about the merits of Kerry’s efforts. Fortunately, Foreign Policy has now published a piece that is a good deal more honest about the administration’s efforts than Kerry or President Obama has been. Jeffrey Lewis writes to say that contrary to the assertions of the secretary and the president, a “bad deal with Iran is better than no deal at all.” Though he’s dead wrong, this is exactly the discussion we should be having about Iran right now.

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Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and condemned the letter signed by 47 Republican senators warning that any agreement with Iran that was not ratified by Congress would not be legally binding. But despite all of the secretary’s huffing and puffing that was cheered and echoed in the mainstream liberal press, his statement in which he conceded that the deal would not be legally binding confirmed the truth of what the letter asserted. Yet the arguments about the Senate letter and even the brazen plans of the administration to refuse to submit any nuclear agreement with Iran to Congress for ratification have sidelined the necessary debate that we are not currently having about the merits of Kerry’s efforts. Fortunately, Foreign Policy has now published a piece that is a good deal more honest about the administration’s efforts than Kerry or President Obama has been. Jeffrey Lewis writes to say that contrary to the assertions of the secretary and the president, a “bad deal with Iran is better than no deal at all.” Though he’s dead wrong, this is exactly the discussion we should be having about Iran right now.

Throughout the last two years of negotiations with Iran, both Obama and Kerry have specified that they will walk away from the talks rather than sign a bad deal that won’t accomplish America’s goal of stopping the Islamist regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Considering that they have extended the current talks with Iran three times after deadlines expired as Iran refused to make concessions shows this promise to be nothing more than rhetoric. But their hypocrisy nevertheless pays tribute to what they understand to be the imperatives of U.S. security policy. Even though the president is clearly intent on not only signing a deal at any cost but also using it as a springboard for a new era of détente with Iran, he understands that open advocacy of appeasement is not something the American public will tolerate. So they are obligated to treat the endless series of concessions and retreats from U.S. security principles as actually great victories for the cause of non-proliferation even if these are transparent deceptions.

This is, after all, the same President Barack Obama who promised in his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney that any deal struck with Iran would obligate the regime to close down its nuclear program. But in the subsequent two years, he has not only recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium but also demonstrated a willingness to let it keep thousands of centrifuges and even offered to sunset any restrictions on their efforts after a decade. Given the lack of transparency about Iran’s current efforts and the dynamic of any such deal in which the U.S. and its allies will be doing everything to pretend that the agreement is a success, not only will Iran be able to cheat its way to a bomb; it may also be able to get one even by complying with the deal.

That is, by virtually any diplomatic definition, a bad deal in that it will mean that Iran must immediately be considered a threshold nuclear power and that its possession of what even the president called a “game changing” weapon is inevitable. That will immeasurably aid Tehran’s quest for regional hegemony and give its terrorist auxiliaries (Hezbollah) and allies (Hamas) even more confidence to continue attacks on Israel. It will also destabilize moderate Arab countries that must, as Saudi Arabia has demonstrated, look to get their own nuclear program to defend themselves.

But Lewis is not constrained by the same political boundaries that require Obama, Kerry, and their apologists to pretend that what is happening will be a good deal.

Lewis admits that the deal is bad by the criteria the administration has established. The deal will not end the danger Iran poses to its neighbors. At best, it will slow down Iran’s progress toward a bomb, not eliminate or foreclose such a possibility as we’ve been told. But he says that such a bad deal will be preferable to walking away from the talks because the West has neither the will nor the ability to stop Iran by means short of war. He wrongly mocks the Senate Republicans for their criticism by saying that they have no definition of what a good deal would be. Even worse, he blames North Korea’s march to a bomb as being somehow the fault of the Bush administration for its belated efforts to get tough with Pyongyang.

He’s right that the Bush administration failed miserably with respect to North Korea as it first depended on diplomacy and concessions to end the threat and then watched different tactics also fail. But the problem didn’t start with Bush. Instead, it began earlier when Obama’s current chief negotiator with Iran, Wendy Sherman, was crafting another bad deal with North Korea while working in the Clinton administration. The moment the West started making concessions to the West and bribing the North Koreans to stop working toward a bomb, the mad Communist dictatorship knew it had won.

The same test applies to the current negotiations.

In classic Obama administration style, Lewis offers us false choices about Iran saying the choice is between a bad deal that might retard their progress and walking away which will mean an Iranian race to a bomb. To the contrary, what the Obama administration could have done—and could still do if it had the wisdom and the guts—was to pursue the policy that led Iran to return to the talks in 2013. Tough sanctions (that the Obama administration opposed when Congress debated them) should have been kept in place and then strengthened. With oil prices declining, Iran’s economy might be brought to its knees. U.S. leadership might have imposed a true economic blockade of Iran that could have weakened the Islamist leadership to the point where it might have given up its nuclear toys. That could still happen even though every passing year that Obama has wasted in his vain pursuit of an entente with a regime that despises the West and seeks only regional hegemony makes such a result harder to achieve.

Appeasement of Iran will not slow its path to a nuclear weapon; it will merely guarantee what the president repeatedly vowed would never happen becomes a reality.

But at least Lewis is telling us what we are getting as a result of Kerry’s diplomacy: a bad deal. Congress should oppose it and insist that it be given a chance to vote on this disaster in the making.

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Iran Hardliners Don’t Need GOP Help; They’re Already in Power

Three days have gone by since 47 Senate Republicans signed a letter sent to Iran’s leadership informing them that future presidents could overturn any nuclear deal they might strike with the United States that is not ratified by Congress. Yesterday’s liberal talking point about the letter was the absurd claim that by publicly opposing an administration initiative and communicating it abroad, the senators had committed treason or were in violation of the Logan Act that prohibits negotiations with foreign powers. Today’s equally fanciful theme, sounded both by Secretary of State John Kerry in testimony given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in a Politico Magazine article is that by stating no more than the obvious, the senators were somehow aiding the cause of “hardliners” in Tehran who are opposed to a nuclear deal as well as reform of the Islamist state. There are a number of problems with this last thesis, but none is more important than the fact that the hardliners are already in power in Iran and nothing written by any member of the Senate is likely to decrease or enhance their chances of holding onto control.

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Three days have gone by since 47 Senate Republicans signed a letter sent to Iran’s leadership informing them that future presidents could overturn any nuclear deal they might strike with the United States that is not ratified by Congress. Yesterday’s liberal talking point about the letter was the absurd claim that by publicly opposing an administration initiative and communicating it abroad, the senators had committed treason or were in violation of the Logan Act that prohibits negotiations with foreign powers. Today’s equally fanciful theme, sounded both by Secretary of State John Kerry in testimony given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in a Politico Magazine article is that by stating no more than the obvious, the senators were somehow aiding the cause of “hardliners” in Tehran who are opposed to a nuclear deal as well as reform of the Islamist state. There are a number of problems with this last thesis, but none is more important than the fact that the hardliners are already in power in Iran and nothing written by any member of the Senate is likely to decrease or enhance their chances of holding onto control.

The focus about the supposedly outrageous nature of the letter is, as I wrote yesterday, merely a calculated attempt by the administration and its allies and apologists to distract both Congress and the public from the real issues at stake in the negotiations with Iran. That is to say, the egregious nature of the concessions offered to Iran by President Obama and his decision not to submit any such accord to Congress for approval as required by the Constitution.

It is the latter point that the Senate letter, which was spearheaded by freshman Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas, took up. Contrary to Kerry’s assertion, and as John Yoo points out today in National Review, the GOP letter gets the Constitution exactly right. By choosing to bypass Congress and the Constitution, any deal signed with Iran won’t have the force of law. Like any such commitment, it can be overturned by one of Obama’s successors just as he overturned the Bush administration’s promises to Israel.

The question of helping Iranian hardliners is a bit more nuanced. That argument holds that by undermining the current negotiations with Iran, the senators are aiding the efforts of extremists in Tehran who want to end any chance of a nuclear agreement as well as to stifle efforts to reform the Islamist state. The Politico piece points out that Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ill and may be replaced by someone implacably hostile to the West, ensuring that the conflict with Iran continues indefinitely. In this reading, the Republicans are not only wrong but also morally equivalent to Iran’s Republican Guard and other Iranian extremists.

The argument that Americans who don’t want to appease a terrorist-supporting, anti-Semitic, aggressive Islamist state are somehow comparable to the tyrants they oppose isn’t worthy of a response.

But what is worth pointing out is that the supposed dichotomy between moderate Iranians that current President Hassan Rouhani is alleged to lead and the extreme mullahs is a myth. Politics within the regime may be cutthroat but the notion of Rouhani’s moderation is more a matter of Western wishful thinking than hardheaded analysis. Just as Rouhani, a veteran Islamist operative who has been doing the bidding of the extremists his entire career, is no moderate, neither are any of the potential successors to the supreme leader. If Khamenei approves the gift of a deal that Obama is offering—which may allow the Iranians to cheat their way to a weapon or even to get one while complying with its terms—it is because he believes it will ensure the survival of the regime’s nuclear ambitions. None of the factions in Tehran really want to, in President Obama’s words, “get right with the world.”

Whatever their differences on internal issues, both moderates and hardliners in Iran want to keep their nuclear program and to achieve regional hegemony, a goal that the informal alliance it has struck with the United States in Iraq and Syria has made more possible.

Yet if Americans really are interested in aiding the efforts of genuine moderates or at least discomfiting the Islamists in control in Tehran, the only thing they can do is to oppose President Obama’s reckless push for détente with the regime. The nuclear deal he is offering Iran will let the leadership keep their nuclear infrastructure and their hopes of a bomb. More to the point, the loosening of sanctions will give the country’s tottering economy, depressed by both the restrictions on trade and the collapse of oil prices, a much needed shot in the arm. Nothing will enhance the ability of the ayatollahs to hold onto their monopoly on power like a nuclear agreement that will allow Iran back into the global economy without requiring it to change its behavior.

So rather than condemning the 47 Republicans and tut-tutting over their brash partisanship, their colleagues, and other Americans who are genuinely interested in ensuring that Iran becomes a responsible nation, they ought to be joining with them. Only by returning to a strategy of tough sanctions and international isolation, a tactic that was no sooner put in place by the Obama administration than it was abandoned in favor of secret negotiations to appease the Iranian hardliners, can there be any hope of a moderate Iran that isn’t a threat to its neighbors and the world. That, and not specious accusation of treason or aiding hardliners, should be the topic of discussion about Iran policy.

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Bibi Was Ready for Peace, Abbas Wasn’t

When the Middle East peace talks collapsed last spring, the Obama administration made no secret of its willingness to blame Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative. According to both Kerry and President Obama, it was Netanyahu’s actions on settlements and refusal to accommodate the Palestinians that undermined the effort. Even for those not privy to inside information this made no sense and it was even contradicted by the testimony of Tzipi Livni, one of Netanyahu’s main rivals for power. But now a new document has surfaced detailing just how far Netanyahu was willing to go to make peace. But don’t expect this to change the minds of an administration that has, from its first moments in 2009, sought to distance the U.S. from the Jewish state. But it does provide even more evidence for those who are capable of being persuaded by facts that it remains the Palestinian refusal to make peace on even the most favorable terms that prevents the end of the conflict. That means the talk about a new U.S. initiative in the waning months of the Obama presidency is doomed no matter how much pressure is placed on the Israelis.

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When the Middle East peace talks collapsed last spring, the Obama administration made no secret of its willingness to blame Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative. According to both Kerry and President Obama, it was Netanyahu’s actions on settlements and refusal to accommodate the Palestinians that undermined the effort. Even for those not privy to inside information this made no sense and it was even contradicted by the testimony of Tzipi Livni, one of Netanyahu’s main rivals for power. But now a new document has surfaced detailing just how far Netanyahu was willing to go to make peace. But don’t expect this to change the minds of an administration that has, from its first moments in 2009, sought to distance the U.S. from the Jewish state. But it does provide even more evidence for those who are capable of being persuaded by facts that it remains the Palestinian refusal to make peace on even the most favorable terms that prevents the end of the conflict. That means the talk about a new U.S. initiative in the waning months of the Obama presidency is doomed no matter how much pressure is placed on the Israelis.

For those who care to remember what actually happened in the spring of 2014, the facts aren’t in much dispute. After several months of Palestinian stonewalling in the peace talks, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas blew them up by signing a unity deal with Hamas. He then compounded that folly by ignoring his obligations under the Oslo Accords and heading to the United Nations in a vain attempt to gain recognition for Palestinian independence at the world body. That Obama and Kerry chose to ignore these actions and instead blame it all on Netanyahu was a clear measure of their disdain for the prime minister and his country.

But even Livni, who despises Netanyahu and is working to defeat him in the Knesset Elections this month told the New York Times last year that it was the Palestinians who derailed any chance of peace by stonewalling the talks at crucial moments. Given that the same PA turned down offers of peace and independence in almost all the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001 and 2008, this is a hardly a surprise. The political culture of the Palestinians makes it impossible for Abbas to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

But in spite of these facts, Americans still speak of the intransigent Abbas as a champion of peace and Netanyahu as an obstacle to it. This document will hurt Netanyahu with his right-wing base but it undermines the narrative about his opposition to peace. This latest evidence reported today in Yediot Aharonoth shows that Netanyahu told the Palestinians he was prepared to go as far as the Obama administration had been urging him to do with respect to borders, settlements and Jerusalem. But, as they had three times before, the PA wanted no part of peace even on the terms Obama wanted. Why? Palestinian nationalism is still intrinsically tied to rejection of a Jewish state on any terms that allow for its survival. Until that changes, peace remains just a dream.

That’s why the next Obama peace push will fail as miserably as the last one. When it does, the president will blame Netanyahu or whoever is in power in Israel. But it will be just as much of a lie then as it was in 2014.

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Obama’s Main Achievement: Iran in Iraq

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

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Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

As the Times notes:

The road from Baghdad to Tikrit is dotted with security checkpoints, many festooned with posters of Iran’s supreme leader and other Shiite figures. They stretch as far north as the village of Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on the edge of Tikrit, within sight of the hulking palaces of the former ruler who ruthlessly crushed Shiite dissent.

More openly than ever before, Iran’s powerful influence in Iraq has been on display as the counteroffensive against Islamic State militants around Tikrit has unfolded in recent days. At every point, the Iranian-backed militias have taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State here. Senior Iranian leaders have been openly helping direct the battle, and American officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part.

The president’s apologists may blame this on George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place as well as his kicking the can down the road on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s some truth to that but Bush left Obama a war that was already won by the 2007 U.S. surge. Bush may have laid the groundwork for the current mess. But its shape and the scale of the disaster is Obama’s responsibility.

Iranian influence among fellow Shiites in Iraq is nothing new. But the scale of the current effort and the open nature of the way Iran’s forces are now flexing their muscles — even in the Tikrit region where Sunnis dominate — demonstrates that the rise of ISIS was not the only negative consequence of President Obama’s decision to completely pull U.S. forces out of Iraq when negotiations about their staying got sticky. That enabled him to brag during the 2012 presidential campaign that he had “ended” the Iraq War (the same campaign where he pledged Iran would not be allowed to keep a nuclear program) but neither ISIS nor Iran got that memo. The war continues but the difference is that instead of an Iraq influenced by the U.S., it is now Iran that is the dominant force.

The same is true throughout the region. President Obama spent years dithering about the collapse of Syria even while demanding that Bashar Assad give up power and enunciating “red lines” about the use of chemical weapons. But while he stalled, moderate rebels withered, ISIS grew and Iran’s ally Assad stayed in Damascus, bucked up by Iranian help and troops supplied by Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries.

So when the Saudis look at a potential deal that will allow Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure and ultimately expire in ten years, they know that it is directly connected to America’s apparent decision to acquiesce to Iranian dominance in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Though Netanyahu’s speech centered mostly on the nuclear threat, like their Arab neighbors, Israelis are well aware of the peril that Iranian hegemony poses to their security. The brief bout of fighting on the northern border after Hezbollah and Iran attempted to set up a base to shoot missiles into the Jewish state from Syria showed the depth of the Iranian connection to the terror war against Israel.

Should the Iranians sign the deal, the administration will claim it as a triumph. But while the president pats himself on the back for appeasing Iran on the nuclear issue, Israelis and Arabs will also focus on the way Iran has used Obama’s desire to abandon the region as a wedge by which they have advanced their interests. Détente with Iran means more than an ally against ISIS; it means a Middle East in which Iran is the strong horse. That’s a development that gives the lie to Kerry’s reassurances.

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Bibi’s Speech Already Bearing Fruit

Part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role today was as a representative of his region of the world. It tells you just how concerned those who deal with Iran are about the pending nuke deal that the Israeli leader was voicing–genuinely and accurately, by the way–the nervousness of not just Israel but Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf allies of the U.S. And on that front, Netanyahu may have already succeeded.

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Part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role today was as a representative of his region of the world. It tells you just how concerned those who deal with Iran are about the pending nuke deal that the Israeli leader was voicing–genuinely and accurately, by the way–the nervousness of not just Israel but Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf allies of the U.S. And on that front, Netanyahu may have already succeeded.

Obviously the main point of the speech was Iran’s nuclear program. But Netanyahu also sought to convey the kind of regime Iran is and what it does with its military and financial might. “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country,” Netanyahu said. He recited a litany of examples of Iranian troublemaking, and pointed out that these are all recent–that this is the regime on a path to a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu said:

Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Back by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Back by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world’s oil supply.

Just last week, near Hormuz, Iran carried out a military exercise blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier. That’s just last week, while they’re having nuclear talks with the United States. But unfortunately, for the last 36 years, Iran’s attacks against the United States have been anything but mock. And the targets have been all too real.

Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beyond the Middle East, Iran attacks America and its allies through its global terror network. It blew up the Jewish community center and the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. It helped Al Qaida bomb U.S. embassies in Africa. It even attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, right here in Washington, D.C.

In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow.

Netanyahu wants the West’s negotiators to curb Iran’s terrorism and expansionism as part of the negotiations. And he’s not alone.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry cannot dispute the characterization of Iran in Netanyahu’s speech, and don’t try to do so. What he said is the uncontested truth. Obama sees Iran’s regional influence as either inevitable or ultimately desirable. Yet those in the region are well aware that Obama’s view of Iran is a fantasy; Tehran is the prime agent of destabilization throughout the Middle East.

One triumph of Netanyahu’s speech today seems to have been to get Obama and especially Kerry to do something they often appear completely incapable of doing: listening to allies. AFP reports that Kerry is heading to the region to try to convince allies that the Obama administration takes the Iranian threat much more seriously than they appear to, nuke or no nuke:

The United States will “confront aggressively” Iran’s bid to expand its influence across the Middle East even if a nuclear deal is reached, a State Department official said Tuesday.

The official’s comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a controversial address to the US Congress, sought to highlight Iran’s expansionist hopes as one reason to halt the nuclear talks.

Top US diplomat John Kerry will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to reassure US Gulf allies that an Iran deal would not mean Washington would turn a blind eye to the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions.

“Regardless of what happens in the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region and Iranian aggressiveness in the region,” the official said.

It’s a tough sell. The Obama administration has found itself enabling that very expansion in the stubborn belief that the U.S. and Iran not only share interests but can cooperate to the West’s benefit on various conflicts around the Middle East.

The administration wants to divorce its nuclear diplomacy from Iranian expansionism because it doesn’t want an Iranian retreat in the Middle East, not while ISIS slaughters its way across Iraq and Syria, and not while the administration is intent on leaving a vacuum of American influence into which any number of militant groups can step.

It’s also a tough sell because of the administration’s own rhetoric. AFP quotes a State Department official today as follows: “You can’t read into the nuclear negotiation any kind of determination of where the US relationship with Iran may go in the future.”

In fact, you absolutely can. The administration’s posture toward Iran, as evident in this conciliatory deal on the table, is that Tehran is a power with legitimate “rights” to enrich uranium and have a nuclear program in place, and that it’s a country that can be trusted with a sunset clause to boot. Netanyahu’s speech clearly and convincingly laid out the case against that view. And Kerry knows it.

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Have a Strategy to Stop Iran? Not Obama.

In an interview with Reuters intended as a rebuttal to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, President Obama claims that his critics are not only wrong about his negotiating strategy with Iran, but that they lack one of their own other than to declare war. The attempt to depict his critics as warmongers is a classic Obama straw man. Opponents of his policy do have an alternative: returning to the policy of pressure and sanctions that the president discarded in 2013 which offered the only way, short of the use of force, to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But the real fallacy here is not so much the typical administration smears of critics. It is the fact that the president has an Iran strategy at all. Having made concession after concession to Iran in the last two years, there is little reason to believe that the current negotiations will stop Iran. To the contrary, the president appears set on a path that ensures that, sooner or later, Iran will get its bomb.

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In an interview with Reuters intended as a rebuttal to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, President Obama claims that his critics are not only wrong about his negotiating strategy with Iran, but that they lack one of their own other than to declare war. The attempt to depict his critics as warmongers is a classic Obama straw man. Opponents of his policy do have an alternative: returning to the policy of pressure and sanctions that the president discarded in 2013 which offered the only way, short of the use of force, to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But the real fallacy here is not so much the typical administration smears of critics. It is the fact that the president has an Iran strategy at all. Having made concession after concession to Iran in the last two years, there is little reason to believe that the current negotiations will stop Iran. To the contrary, the president appears set on a path that ensures that, sooner or later, Iran will get its bomb.

Let’s examine the president’s claims.

Both the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have insisted that agreeing to let Iran keep its nuclear program—something that he specifically promised he would never do in his 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney—was unavoidable. They claim that Western pressure would never have forced Iran to surrender its nukes. More than that, they assert that their concessions have enticed Iran to agree to strictures that have halted Tehran’s progress toward a bomb.

The answer to the first claim is that we don’t know if that would have worked because Obama never tried it. By abandoning sanctions just at the moment when Iran seemed to be feeling the pressure—and prior to an oil price collapse that would have made them even less capable of resisting foreign pressure—the president ensured that the Islamist regime never had to face a worst-case scenario. Instead of waiting for them to fold, he did, and the result was a nuclear deal that undid years of diplomacy aimed at building an international consensus against Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

The president and Kerry are now boasting that their interim deal hasn’t been violated by Iran and that it has stopped their progress in its tracks. But given the poor intelligence that the U.S. has about Iran and the regime’s lack of cooperation with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, this is purely a matter of conjecture and faith on the part of the president and his apologists. But even if we were to believe, in spite of Iran’s long record of cheating on nuclear issues, that somehow the interim deal was succeeding, even the president concedes that allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure means that Iran could always go back on its promises, re-activate the stockpile of nuclear fuel still in its possession, and “break out” to a bomb in short order.

The length of a “break out” is a key point in the president’s defense of his strategy. He told Reuters that as long as long as this period was at least a year, the U.S. would be able to detect it in time to re-impose sanctions or use force to stop them from obtaining a bomb. But this is another argument based more on faith than facts and which, even in the unlikely event it is vindicated, still makes Iran stronger and puts U.S. allies in the region as well as the West in peril.

The prediction of a year is an optimistic conjecture embraced by the president because it sounds better than the few months some others think is a more sensible estimate. The lack of credible inspections of Iran’s military research makes any predictions about the length of a breakout a guess, and not even an educated one. U.S. intelligence in Iran is negligible. Even the IAEA concedes that Iran may have extensive nuclear facilities that the West knows nothing about.

But let’s say it is a year. Given the poor state of U.S. intelligence on Iran, why would anyone believe Obama’s promise that he’ll know what’s going on in their secret facilities? This is the same president who assured us that his intelligence told him that ISIS was merely a “jayvee” terror team not worth worrying about. And even if a U.S. president did learn the truth about their plans, would Obama or a similarly weak-willed Democratic successor be ready and willing to believe the intelligence that showed a cherished diplomatic strategy had failed and be ready to re-impose sanctions, let alone order the use of force?

Obama’s commitment to the negotiations isn’t purely one of belief that it is the only way to stop Iran’s nuclear dreams. It’s a path to his dream of a new détente with Iran that will erase decades of enmity and create a new era of cooperation with that tyrannical, anti-Semitic, and terror-sponsoring regime. Why should we believe that he is ready to give up his hopes if he has already proven himself to be unconvinced by Iran’s past deceptions and prevarications? Why should any American president, even one more sensible about Iran than Obama, think that once sanctions are dismantled, our Western allies who are eager to do business with the regime would be willing to give up their profits to redeem a promise made by Obama?

Moreover, by reportedly agreeing to a sunset clause, the president has already legitimized Iran’s nuclear dreams and rendered it almost certain that the ten-year period now being mooted for the agreement will be shortened one way or the other.

The president’s critics can’t be sure that their strategy of a return to sanctions and tough pressure on Iran aimed at bringing the regime to its knees will succeed. But, despite the president’s claims, he never tried it before he prematurely abandoned pressure for appeasement. But we can be almost certain that a strategy that aims at entente with Iran is guaranteed to fail miserably. Indeed, it is not so much a recipe for failure as it is one for a completely different approach to Iran that is ready to acquiesce to their demands.

That is a position that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu does well to protest tomorrow in his speech to Congress. So should Democrats and Republicans who take their pledges to stop Iran more seriously than the president.

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No, Mr. Kerry, There Can Be No Benefit of the Doubt on Iran

Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that the United States deserves benefit of the doubt when it comes to U.S. diplomacy with Iran. About the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Kerry said, “It is better to do this by diplomacy than to have to do a strategy militarily which you would have to repeat over and over again and which everybody believes ought to be after you have exhausted all the diplomatic remedies.”

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Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that the United States deserves benefit of the doubt when it comes to U.S. diplomacy with Iran. About the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Kerry said, “It is better to do this by diplomacy than to have to do a strategy militarily which you would have to repeat over and over again and which everybody believes ought to be after you have exhausted all the diplomatic remedies.”

Mr. Kerry is right to highlight the problem with military action. At best, it would delay Iran’s program by two or three years. Those who believe a one-time strike would end Iran’s program are unrealistic. There is no parallel to Israel’s 1981 strike on the Osirak reactor in Iraq, an airstrike that crippled Iraq’s bomb program until Saddam Hussein’s regime ultimately fell. After all, Saddam was unable to rebuild Osirak because Iraq was embroiled first in an eight-year, World War I-style fight against Iran of Saddam’s own making. No sooner did that end that Saddam ordered Iraqi forces into Kuwait, unleashing a cascade of events that crippled Iraq further. It is doubtful that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would make the same mistakes in the wake of any potential strike.

To have American aircraft bomb Iran’s nuclear program, however, would effectively be using American servicemen to kick the can down the road because the White House, State Department, and Congress can’t come to a policy consensus about what it would take realistically to blunt the threat of any Iranian nuclear arsenal. The problem isn’t simply the nuclear weapons, but rather the ideology of the regime which would wield them.

This is where Kerry shows himself a narrow, shallow thinker. He artificially boils Iran options down to two: Either cut a deal, no matter how bad and no matter how likely Iran is to cheat, or engage in military action that will be expensive and won’t end with a single strike. He refuses to recognize that either way, it is the Iranian regime which is the problem.

This doesn’t mean the United States should engage in Iraq- or Libya-style regime change. But what Kerry and crew have essentially done is take a regime foundering under decades of economic mismanagement and sanctions, and effectively subsidized its survival to the tune of $7 billion per year (and $11 billion total) since negotiations began. They did this against the backdrop of a dramatic decline in the price of oil and so forfeited the best opportunity in decades not to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees but rather to allow it to stumble and trip on its own. Ultimately, if the Iran problem is going to be resolved, it will mean an end to the clerical regime, not Kerry’s false choice. Trusting Iran is a non-starter. And that is exactly what Kerry seeks when he asks for benefit of the doubt on an agreement whose parameters he is too embarrassed to show to America’s Arab allies and Israel because he knows they will point out the obvious loopholes. No, Mr. Kerry, neither the White House nor Iran deserve benefit of the doubt on nuclear negotiations. The world cannot afford the consequences.

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The Anti-Bibi Offensive Reaches the Point of Diminishing Returns

Taken in isolation, it’s hard to fathom exactly what was going through Secretary of State John Kerry’s mind when he attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seeking to discredit the Israeli’s critique of the administration’s efforts to strike a bargain with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, Kerry dipped back into history and cited Netanyahu’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as proof of his questionable judgment. Netanyahu’s 2002 testimony before the same committee doesn’t qualify him for the title of prophet. But one wonders why no one among the posse of yes-men and flatterers that follow the secretary about on his travels thought to remind him that as lacking in prescience as Netanyahu’s remarks might have been, it was he, in his capacity at that time as a U.S. senator, who actually voted for the war a few weeks after the Israeli’s testimony. But his foolish eagerness to join the administration’s gang tackle of Netanyahu tells us more about the administration’s desperation and the counterproductive nature of its effort to discredit the Israeli than anything else.

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Taken in isolation, it’s hard to fathom exactly what was going through Secretary of State John Kerry’s mind when he attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seeking to discredit the Israeli’s critique of the administration’s efforts to strike a bargain with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, Kerry dipped back into history and cited Netanyahu’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as proof of his questionable judgment. Netanyahu’s 2002 testimony before the same committee doesn’t qualify him for the title of prophet. But one wonders why no one among the posse of yes-men and flatterers that follow the secretary about on his travels thought to remind him that as lacking in prescience as Netanyahu’s remarks might have been, it was he, in his capacity at that time as a U.S. senator, who actually voted for the war a few weeks after the Israeli’s testimony. But his foolish eagerness to join the administration’s gang tackle of Netanyahu tells us more about the administration’s desperation and the counterproductive nature of its effort to discredit the Israeli than anything else.

After several weeks of feuding over Netanyahu’s alleged breach of protocol in accepting an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner, the breach between the two governments has now reached the stage where it cannot be dismissed as a mere spat. The administration’s commitment to a policy shift on Iran, in which the effort to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon has been set aside in favor of a push for détente with the Islamist regime, has created more than just a little daylight between Israel and the United States. But what is curious is the way leading figures in President Obama’s foreign-policy team, whether it be Kerry or National Security Advisor Susan Rice, have chosen to treat Netanyahu as a major threat to its objective rather than just the leader of a small, albeit influential, allied country who is not in a position to do anything to stop Obama from doing as he likes.

The most remarkable thing about the piling on the Israeli this week is the disproportionate nature of the attacks. That this treatment has been ordered from the top—which is to say, the president—isn’t doubted by anyone in the know. But in doing so, the administration is now running the risk of losing the advantage it obtained when it was able to use Netanyahu’s blunder about the speech to divert the national discussion from its indefensible position on Iran. Rather than damaging Netanyahu’s credibility and increasing his isolation (an absurd charge since few took notice of Netanyahu’s testimony on Iraq at the time), this all-out offensive is making him seem a more sympathetic figure that deserves a hearing.

Netanyahu has shown remarkably poor judgment in recent weeks that belied the supposedly deft understanding of Washington and American politics that has been his trademark and that of Ron Dermer, his ambassador to the United States. Accepting Boehner’s invitation without clearing it with the White House allowed Obama to make Netanyahu the issue rather than the administration’s opposition to a sanctions bill that would have strengthened its hands in the Iran talks. The prime minister compounded that mistake by then refusing an invitation to meet privately with Senate Democrats because he feared that might constitute an admission that he was colluding with the Republicans.

The administration ought to be wary of overplaying its hand on Netanyahu. After all, no matter how much applause he gets or doesn’t get when he gives his speech to Congress next week, none of that can prevent Kerry from cutting a disastrous deal with Iran if the ayatollahs are ready to make one at all. Given the president’s plans not to present any agreement to the Senate for approval as a treaty and the poor chances of an override of a veto of an Iran sanctions bill, he might be better off ignoring Israeli objections rather than jousting with him.

Though Obama has a reputation as a cold-blooded decision maker, he seems to have let his hatred for Netanyahu get the better of him and ordered his minions to launch a general offensive against Israel in order to crush the prime minister even before he opens his mouth in Washington. Why is he bothering?

The answer is that deep underneath the president’s cool exterior and his conviction that he and only he understands what is right for the country is a fear that Netanyahu’s powerful arguments against appeasing Iran will be heard and believed. That gives the Israeli more credit than he may deserve, but it also reflects Obama’s awareness that if openly debated, his string of unprecedented concessions to Iran can’t be easily defended.

After promising in his 2012 reelection campaign that any deal with Iran would ensure that its nuclear program be eliminated, the president is now preparing to not only guarantee its continued possession of a vast nuclear infrastructure but the phased portion of the current proposal on the table would implicitly grant the Islamist regime the ability to build a bomb after a ten-year period. Just as importantly, the U.S. now seems as indifferent to Iran’s support of international terrorism, its anti-Semitism, threats to destroy Israel, and its push for regional hegemony as it is to the prospect of it being a threshold nuclear power.

In pursuit of this agenda with Iran, the president has ruthlessly played the partisan card (while accusing Netanyahu of doing the same), pushing Democrats to abandon what was formerly a true bipartisan consensus against Iran and seeking to undermine the pro-Israel coalition in Congress. But as long as pundits are discussing or bashing Netanyahu, these issues have been marginalized. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing even when it comes to sniping at the Israeli leader.

Kerry’s absurd overreach against Netanyahu while lamely seeking to defend his current concessions to Iran shows that the administration has reached the point of diminishing returns with respect to the Israeli. Whether Netanyahu was wise to plan this speech is now beside the point. The more the administration seeks to shut him up, the more credence his remarks get. Whereas the address might have been just a Washington story had the White House not gone ballistic about it, it will now be treated as a major international event raising the stakes on the Iran debate just at the moment the administration would like to calm things down. The time has come for the administration to back down and let him talk lest the country listen to Netanyahu’s arguments and realize the president is selling them a bill of goods on Iran.

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Selling the ObamaCare of Foreign Policy

Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with significant skepticism at yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, not only from Republicans, but Democrats as well. Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) told Kerry “we’re hearing troubling reports on the scale and duration of the program that Iran may be allowed as part of a deal.” He noted “very disturbing” reports that the administration “would ease limits on Iran’s production during the later years of an accord … [as] an attempt to bridge the difference between the two sides over how long an agreement should last.”

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Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with significant skepticism at yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, not only from Republicans, but Democrats as well. Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) told Kerry “we’re hearing troubling reports on the scale and duration of the program that Iran may be allowed as part of a deal.” He noted “very disturbing” reports that the administration “would ease limits on Iran’s production during the later years of an accord … [as] an attempt to bridge the difference between the two sides over how long an agreement should last.”

Kerry did not deny those reports.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) asked Kerry whether he was “willing to accept an agreement in which the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] does not have the right to go anywhere on short notice to look at undeclared or potentially undeclared” nuclear sites. Kerry responded only that “we are negotiating for the appropriate standards.” Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) noted that the IAEA has “published 12 sets of questions about Iran’s past work and Iran has only partially tackled one of those issues.” He asked if Kerry could confirm that “any deal can only be agreed upon if it provides for anytime, anywhere inspections.”

Kerry managed to dodge that question too.

At the beginning of the hearing, Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) offered a devastating critique of the administration’s talks with Iran, as well as the administration’s entire foreign policy:

[T]he committee, as you know, has real concerns about the direction of these talks. I’m hearing less about dismantlement and more about the performance of Iran’s nuclear program. That’s particularly disturbing when you consider that international inspectors report that Iran has still not revealed its past bomb work.

This should be treated as a fundamental test of the ayatollah’s intention to uphold any agreement. Iran is failing that test. Also, it is still illicitly procuring nuclear technology. Recently, Iran was caught testing a new generation of supersonic centrifuges. To be frank, as this committee reads about us being on the brink of a historic agreement, you have a challenge in terms of congressional buy-in.

Meanwhile, Iran and its proxies are wreaking havoc throughout the region. … And in the Middle East, ISIS is on the march. The administration was tragically slow to react to ISIS’s rise, missing the chance to devastate them with airstrikes during the first eight months of ISIS moving from Syria into Iraq, town by town, taking these cities. Air power was not used to devastate these columns out on the open road as it should have been applied.

Today the Kurds are still severely outgunned, our training of the Syrian opposition isn’t off the ground, and Arab allies complain they don’t have the weapons needed. And while the administration is focused on the fight against ISIS in Iraq today, it’s still unclear what its plans are for Syrian tomorrow. … In the past half year, the [State] Department has had to evacuate staff from two U.S. embassies: Libya and Yemen …

It is beginning to dawn on Democrats–at least those on the House Foreign Affairs Committee–that the Obama administration is cooking up the ObamaCare of foreign policy: a deal that will be presented at the twelfth hour as a fait accompli, without debate or congressional oversight beforehand, nor even public disclosure of the basic concessions in the offers already made in the current negotiations, much less a vote by Congress before proceeding with an agreement more important than any treaty in decades. The administration’s repeated assurances that it won’t sign a “bad deal” sound as reliable as the assertions that people could keep their insurance if they liked it–or the “red line” for Syria, or the “reset” with Russia, or the “success” of the withdrawal from Iraq, or the “success” in Yemen, et al.

The administration appears virtually in meltdown mode because the democratically-elected leader of a frontline ally will address a co-equal branch of government at the invitation of the speaker of the House. At yesterday’s hearing, Kerry resorted to a gratuitous ad hominem attack on Prime Minister Netanyahu–the surest sign that it is neither protocol nor politics that concern the administration, but rather the substance of what Netanyahu will say about the pending deal with Iran. Some Democrats may boycott the address–like Iranian delegates who exit the UN rather than be present to hear Israel’s prime minister–but yesterday’s House hearing, combined with (a) the warnings last month from former secretaries of state Kissinger and Shultz, and (b) Michael Doran’s comprehensive Mosaic article, “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy” (which has thus far attracted 220,000 unique visitors), suggest that the importance of the issue is belatedly drawing the necessary notice on Capitol Hill, after all the distractions regarding how Netanyahu’s speech was arranged.

At the eleventh hour, the prospect of Netanyahu’s address is focusing the attention of Congress on the on the distinct possibility that a very “bad deal” with Iran is in the works. The administration’s unseemly attacks on Netanyahu may, in the end, serve only to increase the attention that will–and should–be paid to his address by the Congress, the country, and the world.

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Israel, Jordan, and the Disproportionate Response

In the wake of the brutal execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS, Jordan has unleashed a barrage of air attacks on the Islamist rebels. Over three days the Hashemite kingdom boasted of having hit some 56 targets and of killing 7,000 ISIS fighters. Whatever the actual figures, there can be no doubt that Jordan has massively increased its action against the jihadists, and now, with Jordanian television endlessly broadcasting images of King Abdullah in camouflage uniform strategizing alongside his generals, it is being reported that the Jordanians are moving a large force to the country’s Iraqi border. To be clear, there is nothing disproportionate about any of this. ISIS represents a very real threat to what is generally thought of as one of the weaker Arab states and the Jordanians are now using the kind of force warranted to seriously combat ISIS. But imagine if instead of ISIS it was Hamas, and if instead of Jordan boasting of 7,000 killed, it was Israel.

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In the wake of the brutal execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS, Jordan has unleashed a barrage of air attacks on the Islamist rebels. Over three days the Hashemite kingdom boasted of having hit some 56 targets and of killing 7,000 ISIS fighters. Whatever the actual figures, there can be no doubt that Jordan has massively increased its action against the jihadists, and now, with Jordanian television endlessly broadcasting images of King Abdullah in camouflage uniform strategizing alongside his generals, it is being reported that the Jordanians are moving a large force to the country’s Iraqi border. To be clear, there is nothing disproportionate about any of this. ISIS represents a very real threat to what is generally thought of as one of the weaker Arab states and the Jordanians are now using the kind of force warranted to seriously combat ISIS. But imagine if instead of ISIS it was Hamas, and if instead of Jordan boasting of 7,000 killed, it was Israel.

Of course Jordan had been participating in strikes against ISIS long before the kidnapping and murder of al-Kasasbeh. Back in September Jordan had joined with the Gulf states as part of the U.S.-led effort against ISIS. But since al-Kasasbeh’s horrific murder Jordan has begun to seriously flex what military muscle it has. Indeed, it is doing so in an open display of revenge against ISIS. Quite apart from the fact that many will consider such revenge a just response, it is also fully in Jordan’s national interest to push back ISIS before the rebels are able to cross the country’s porous desert border. No doubt many in the region will simply be grateful to see someone displaying the will to take serious action against ISIS and the terrible prospect that its rapid expansion represents.

Yet, watching all of this unfold one can’t help but think of the war that took place this summer shortly before allied strikes on ISIS began. The world was indeed shocked, albeit momentarily, by the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers while on their way home from school. But as Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in an attempt to find the boys and to round up Hamas operatives in the West Bank, there were already the first mutterings that Israel needed to show restraint. Concerns were expressed that Israel’s operation in the West Bank might “destabilize” the situation.

Then when a desperate Hamas short on friends and money used these events as an excuse to unleash an unprecedented wave of rocket and tunnel warfare against Israeli civilians, Israel’s allies formed a chorus calling on the Israeli government to show maximum restraint. That phrase was so chilling in its moral redundancy and yet so commonly heard that it became inspiration for a remarkably apt song by Peter Himmelman.

Fortunately, Israel ignored the calls coming from Washington and the European capitals, and acting in its national interest hit Hamas hard. But for doing so the Israelis were now subjected to another allegation; that this was a disproportionate response. Even John Kerry was unwittingly caught on camera discussing the matter in angry and condescending tones; “it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation!” the secretary of state was heard saying.

The discussion around the escalation in Jordan’s war against ISIS has been unrecognizable in comparison. Even if the claim that 7,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in airstrikes is true, how many civilians have been killed alongside those fighters? Today the question of civilian casualties goes virtually unmentioned, whereas during Israel’s war with Hamas every news screen seemed to keep a running tally of the numbers killed in Gaza, always with an emphasis on the claim that these were mostly civilians, often accompanied by sneering remarks by journalists about how few Israeli casualties there had been. Not enough for the liking of those in Europe such as Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, that was for sure.

Then of course there has been the death of American hostage Kayla Mueller. ISIS had claimed she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, however the Pentagon has made clear its belief that Mueller was in fact murdered by ISIS directly. But either way, imagine if it was being claimed that an American citizen had been killed during Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. What would be the reaction then, and where would most of the blame be placed?

To be clear, Jordan is not using disproportionate force against ISIS. Proportionality is measured in terms of the amount of force legitimately warranted to militarily defeat an enemy. It does not mean that if Hamas indiscriminately fires thousands of projectiles into Israeli civilian areas then Israel should simply do the same back to Gaza. Nor that if ISIS burns a Jordanian pilot to death then Jordan is only permitted to execute one ISIS fighter. Far from it. Jordan is permitted to use the amount of force necessary to defeat ISIS, but not more.

The truth is that most people agree that ISIS should be defeated, they agree ISIS is unquestionably evil. Not so with Hamas. Similarly, almost nobody in the West questions Jordan’s right to have taken preemptive action against ISIS in the first place. But clearly very many people fiercely opposed Israel’s right to take any real action to stop the attacks being launched against its people. Rather, most of Israel’s supposed allies applied pressure to try and force Israel into stopping the rockets by appeasing Hamas’s demands.

For many it seems that the definition of disproportionate is any action taken by the Jewish state that might limit its enemy’s abilities to eventually destroy it.

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The Crisis of American Strategy

President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

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President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

The reason “leading from behind” stuck is, plainly, because it is true. “Leading from behind” is another way of saying “following.” And that is precisely what the Obama administration has done. But Obama’s own stubbornness has impeded his attempts to shake this catchphrase. Rather than actually changing strategy to better assert American leadership, he has spent his time and energy finding creative ways to counter it with rhetoric, not action. And he has failed.

This is evident in the administration’s advance PR for Obama’s new National Security Strategy, his second (and almost certainly last) during his time in office, which is being released today. The administration sent deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes out to spin the New York Times, an exceedingly unwise choice, as his comments make clear:

“There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?”

He’s right about Ebola. But the administration’s confused and clumsy anti-ISIS effort is thus far a failure, as is the administration’s staggeringly weak approach to Russia. Rhodes wants Obama to take credit for colossal failures, because that’s all they’ve got. It is, however, a kind of clever defense of Obama if taken to its logical conclusion: Do you really want Obama to “lead” when this is what happens?

Meanwhile Foreign Policy magazine chose to focus on the phrase “strategic patience”–another piece of transparent, Orwellian spin. What “strategic patience” means in practice is that the administration thinks letting countries like Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria collapse does no harm to American strategic interests, or at least that the harm it does is outweighed by the benefit of watching the international state system disintegrate. (The administration really hasn’t thought this through.)

But in Obama’s defense, if you stick around on Foreign Policy’s website you can see one reason there is such a lack of strategic vision in America. The magazine conducts an annual survey of “America’s top International Relations scholars on foreign-policy research,” and this year’s shows that the ivory tower, at least with regard to international relations, is experiencing a rather horrid intellectual crisis.

For all you can say about Obama’s National Security Strategy, it stems from a better understanding of events than the field of international-relations scholars. In one question, they were asked to list the top foreign-policy issues for the next ten years. Here’s the result:

1. Global climate change 40.96%

2. Armed conflict in Middle East 26.81%

3. Failed or failing states 22.29%

4. China’s rising military power 21.54%

5. Transnational terrorism 21.23%

6. Renewed Russian assertiveness 17.47%

7. Global poverty 16.42%

8. Global wealth disparities 15.66%

9. China’s economic influence 15.51%

10. Proliferation of WMD 14.01%

10. Transnational political violence 14.01%

As you can see, Foreign Policy appears to have accidentally polled the international-relations scholars on Earth-2, a planet where the sun just invaded Ukraine, economic inequality is beheading prisoners in Iraq and Syria, and poverty just hacked America’s second-largest health insurer.

Is inequality a larger foreign-policy issue than transnational political violence and nuclear proliferation? Yes, according to America’s top international-relations scholars; no, according to anyone with a modicum of common sense and access to a newspaper. When you think of it this way, considering Obama’s academic pedigree, it’s a surprise his foreign policy hasn’t been even more of a disaster.

There are some other fun nuggets in the FP survey. For example, they asked the esteemed scholars of this alternate reality, “Who was the most effective U.S. secretary of state of the past 50 years?” I wish I were kidding when I say this was the list they came up with:

1. Henry Kissinger 32.21%

2. Don’t know 18.32%

3. James Baker 17.71%

4. Madeleine Albright 8.70%

4. Hillary Clinton 8.70%

6. George Shultz 5.65%

7. Dean Rusk 3.51%

8. Warren Christopher 1.53%

8. Cyrus Vance 1.53%

10. Colin Powell 1.07%

11. Condoleezza Rice 0.46%

12. Lawrence Eagleburger 0.31%

13. John Kerry 0.31%

There was much mocking of John Kerry on Twitter for coming in dead last here. But I think the rest of the poll vindicates him. Any survey that finds George Shultz on a lower rung than Hillary Clinton is deserving of exactly zero credibility. (Also, “don’t know” coming in at No. 2? International-relations scholars don’t have opinions on America’s high-level diplomacy? OK then.)

What we’re seeing, both within the Obama administration and in the broader academic world, is a shocking dearth of strategic thinking in favor of the various passing fads of conventional wisdom and political correctness. And as the postwar international system continues its collapse, the consequences are plain to see.

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U.S., Germany, and France to Putin: The World Is Too Weak to Stop You

Vladimir Putin may be reckless, but he seems to be guided by one valuable strategic rule when picking fights in Europe: divide the west to conquer the east. And dividing the west doesn’t just mean dividing Western Europe among itself; it also means dividing Western Europe from the rest of the West. It broadens the (likely apocryphal) Kissinger quote about calling Europe, and updates it for modern times. If you want to talk to “the West,” whom do you call?

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Vladimir Putin may be reckless, but he seems to be guided by one valuable strategic rule when picking fights in Europe: divide the west to conquer the east. And dividing the west doesn’t just mean dividing Western Europe among itself; it also means dividing Western Europe from the rest of the West. It broadens the (likely apocryphal) Kissinger quote about calling Europe, and updates it for modern times. If you want to talk to “the West,” whom do you call?

The sudden rush of new peace conferences to solve the conflict in Ukraine prove this point. This New York Times rundown of the various meetings and pressers and conferences is thorough but also thoroughly maddening. It is headlined “U.S. Joins Europe in Efforts to End Fighting in Ukraine,” but good luck finding any semblance of a workable solution in any of the proposals and declarations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande met in Kiev with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. No progress seems to have been made in halting or turning back the Russian invasion in Ukraine’s east. But that’s not surprising when you consider what the aim of the Franco-German trip was in the first place. As the Wall Street Journal noted today:

The trip also comes as political momentum grows in the U.S. to deliver weapons to Ukrainian forces—a step that the German and French leaders oppose because they say it would only lead to more violence.

So the purpose of German and French diplomatic intervention was to stop the U.S. from helping Ukraine too much. Mission accomplished.

Not that the U.S. is ready to take that step anyway. There continue to be Obama administration figures who support arming Ukraine, but until that group includes President Obama, this is all they’re going to get, as the Times reported:

Mr. Kerry, who announced $16.4 million in humanitarian assistance for eastern Ukraine, plans to press for a new cease-fire.

In a joint appearance with Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Kerry said that France, Germany and the United States were united in supporting a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And he called for Russia to agree to a cease-fire.

“Our choice is a peaceful solution, but Russia needs to make its choices,” Mr. Kerry said.

Russia, in fact, has made its choice–repeatedly. That choice has been a relatively easy one for Putin because no one is willing to defend Ukraine. What would possibly give American officials the idea that Putin would retreat without real resistance? That’s where what is possibly the most damning line in the Times story comes in:

The Obama administration’s hope is that its widely reported deliberations over whether to send defensive weapons to Ukraine and about additional economic sanctions will induce Russia to agree to a halt in the fighting and, ultimately, to a political agreement within the framework of the Minsk accord.

This is strategic ineptitude of the first order. Obama’s defenders like to scoff at the notion of “credibility”–that Obama retreating on a red line in, say, Syria would enter the calculus of someone like Putin when considering American opposition to his invasions of Ukraine. We are told that “credibility” is overrated, but it’s more accurate to say it’s simply unquantifiable.

But you have to ask yourself: why would Vladimir Putin believe Obama’s threats when he doesn’t follow through? You have to make a rational calculation, and right now the smart money will always be on Obama bluffing. It’s just who he is; he says things but doesn’t mean them. The sound of his own voice is pleasing to him, but the content is irrelevant.

Additionally, Obama keeps undercutting any such threat. One way he does this is in the implied threat itself: Obama thinks leaking that the administration is debating arming Ukraine will spook Putin, but that very leak is based on the fact that Obama is personally opposed to arming Ukraine, so it’s toothless.

More importantly, the administration keeps undercutting the idea that the aid would help anyway. On Tuesday, CBS’s Mark Knoller tweeted the administration’s justification for not giving Ukraine military aid. He wrote: “On Ukraine, WH says its (sic) not possible for US to put Ukraine on par militarily with Russia. Stands by objective of diplomatic resolution.”

So here’s Obama’s opinion: Ukraine should not get military aid from the West because even with American help, Russia would still mop the floor with them. And this, according to the Times, is what Obama thinks will intimidate Putin into signing a peace treaty. I’ll offer the president some free advice: telling Putin the world is too weak to stop him isn’t very intimidating.

Yet even if the West got Putin to sign on to a new agreement, nothing will have been accomplished. Putin has been violating the last ceasefire agreement, because there’s no one to enforce it. What Obama, Merkel, and Hollande are working for, then, is a non-solution–an agreement that would allow everyone involved to pretend it’s more than it is, and which would implicitly (if not explicitly) accept Putin’s previous land grabs in Ukraine while asking him nicely–on the honor system–to stop taking more land.

You can see what bothers the Ukrainians about this. They are at war, and high-level delegations from France, Germany, and the United States all flew in to tell them, personally, that they’re a lost cause. They either don’t realize it or don’t seem to care, but three major Western powers just went out of their way to ostentatiously humiliate their besieged ally on the world stage.

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What Is the U.S. Doing to Make Its Case in Iraq?

Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports from Baghdad that the U.S. ambassador has flat out offered to coordinate U.S. air strikes with the Badr Organization, an Iraqi Shi‘ite militia trained and perhaps even directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As Lake writes:

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Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports from Baghdad that the U.S. ambassador has flat out offered to coordinate U.S. air strikes with the Badr Organization, an Iraqi Shi‘ite militia trained and perhaps even directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As Lake writes:

[Badr Organization leader Hadi al-] Amiri told me that late last month he met with U.S. ambassador Stuart Jones at his home, where the ambassador made the offer of U.S. air support to his ground campaign.  “He told me, frankly speaking, ‘We are ready to offer back up in air strikes for the volunteers,’ ” Amiri said, using the term many militia leaders use to refer to the fighters under their command. Amiri said he thanked Jones for the offer, but told him he worried the U.S. Air Force could make a mistake and end up hitting his men instead of the Islamic State. When asked about the meeting, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Jeffrey Loree, told me: “We don’t confirm the details of our conversations.  Our policy is that we support the ISF with air strikes and we have urged that the militias be under the command and control of the ISF.”

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse in a way that Lake did not address. Most Iraqis believe that the United States is not only responsible for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) but actively supports it. This is not the result of one or two conversations with Iraqis inside the Green Zone, but rather a pernicious belief that the majority of Iraqis harbor, in Kirkuk, Baghdad, Karbala, and presumably elsewhere.

The reason is simple: Iran. The basis of American influence operations is always to be truthful, and through truth build credibility. Iran has a different strategy, however: metaphorically to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Just yesterday, Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Amir Abdollahian called the U.S. fight against terrorism “insincere.” None other than the supreme leader has been preaching, here at a meeting of Islamic scholars, that the Islamic State is an American creation. Speaking about the rise of Islamist extremism in the Islamic State’s mold, Ayatollah Khamenei said:

…It is a few years now that it has been revived and strengthened with the plots of arrogance, with the money of some regional governments and with the schemes of the intelligence services of colonialist countries such as America, England and the Zionist regime… There is an undeniable point which is the fact that the takfiri orientation and the governments which support and advocate it move completely in the direction of the goals of arrogance and Zionism. Their work is in line with the goals of America, the colonialist governments in Europe and the government of the usurping Zionist regime. This movement is at the service of arrogance. It is at the service of America and England. What they do is at the service of the intelligence services of America and England. It is at the service of Mossad and other such intelligence services.

That may sound like the ranting and raving of a tired, old, paranoid dictator. But, alas, it has stuck, especially after one packet in an airdrop meant for the Kurdish resistance in Kobane went array and was recovered by the Islamic State.

The problem isn’t that the Iranian government actively spreads anti-American propaganda. That should be expected of a regime that, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s pronouncements aside, remains unrepentant. Rather, the problem is that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad remains silent. The embassy hosts hundreds of diplomats, but few get outside the blast walls surrounding the embassy complex, even to go elsewhere in the Green Zone. Rumors swirl, unrebutted by anyone in the U.S. embassy. Baghdad isn’t known for its security, but millions live outside the Green Zone, and diplomats from Iran, Turkey, and many other states regularly traverse the city. Even before Benghazi, guaranteeing diplomats’ security trumped any sense that they needed to circulate to do their jobs.

Security and effectiveness are always a precarious balance but they are no excuse for the United States to keep from being able to refute rumors and rebuff enemy information operations. There’s no point spending billions on an embassy if it is too afraid to function. That Iran gets away with blaming the United States for the Islamic State when Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s proxy in Damascus, refused for years to use his air force against the group as it grew and gathered strength in Raqqa says a lot about Iranian cynicism. Alas, that the United States refuses to make its case and allows Iranian lies to be the first draft of history says a lot about State Department’s incompetence.

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