Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Kerry

If Iran Gets Nukes, Will Obama Be Satisfied with Imposing “Costs?”

President Obama’s interview with Fareed Zakaria, aired yesterday on CNN, had been teased out last week with excerpts on the president’s response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress. It was the least important part of the interview; all schoolyard drama, no substance. Which is precisely why CNN used it as viewer bait. But in the full interview, the president actually said something quite important. Though the comment was about Ukraine, it has significant implications for the effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

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President Obama’s interview with Fareed Zakaria, aired yesterday on CNN, had been teased out last week with excerpts on the president’s response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress. It was the least important part of the interview; all schoolyard drama, no substance. Which is precisely why CNN used it as viewer bait. But in the full interview, the president actually said something quite important. Though the comment was about Ukraine, it has significant implications for the effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Admittedly, what the president said wasn’t exactly new. It was a new riff on an old song. But its timing offers a window into how the president approaches conflict resolution around the world. “Would it be fair to say,” Zakaria asked the president, “that with regard to Russia your policy has been pretty effective in imposing real costs on the Russian economy, but it has not deterred Vladimir Putin from creating instability in Ukraine?” The president agreed: “I think that’s entirely fair.” But then he went back to a familiar well: “And I think that is a testament to the bad decisions that Mr. Putin is making on behalf of his country.”

He went on to say this:

There’s no formula in which this ends up being good for Russia. The annexation of Crimea is a cost, not a benefit to Russia. The days, in which conquest of land somehow was a formula for great nation status is over. The power of countries today is measured by your knowledge, your skills, your ability to export goods to invent new products and new services, your influence. And none of those things are provided by his strategy. Now, but what is absolutely true is that if you have a leader who continually drives past the off ramps that we’ve provided, given the size of the Russian military, given the fact that Ukraine is not a NATO country, and so as a consequence there are clear limits in terms of what we would do militarily, Mr. Putin has not been stopped so far.

The obvious takeaway is that what Obama said isn’t true, nor is it close to being true. It is, in fact, an astoundingly silly view of the world, which explains quite a bit about why the president’s approach to foreign policy has been so disastrous. It’s also contradictory; after all, if the “power of countries today is measured” in part by “your influence,” then Russia gets more than a passing grade. Additionally, we should all hope that with an Obama-Biden-Kerry team at the helm, power isn’t “measured by your knowledge.”

But the president’s statement is completed by his next sentence:

To those who would suggest that we need to do more, what I’ve said to them is that we can exact higher and higher costs and that’s exactly what we’re doing, and we can bring diplomatic pressure to bear.

This is the key to understanding Obama’s strategy, such as it is, to these conflicts. Obama’s goal is not to prevent nor reverse the rogue states’ actions. He aims not to turn Russia back nor even really stop what’s going on in eastern Ukraine. He simply wants Putin to one day regret his actions. He wants to exact “costs”–and that’s all.

The administration is reportedly considering giving real support to Ukrainian forces, a development that would be far too late to undo most of the damage but might stop Ukraine from slowly disintegrating. Yet they are still not ready to pull the trigger, apparently, and we all know how well the administration’s plan to arm the Syrian rebels–delayed, bungled, and abandoned–worked out. More likely, the president is simply looking for a way to be able to say he did more than he did.

Which is why the “cost” theory Obama’s so fond of should worry those opposed to a nuclear Iran, among other conflicts. Obama is not generally a fan of sanctions; on both Russia and Iran, he’s been an obstacle to meaningful sanctions. But when he does begrudgingly sign sanctions legislation he’s unable to prevent, he likes to think his work is done.

That’s the point of Obama’s protestation that “we can exact higher and higher costs.” Russia will still get to do what it wants and take what it wants, but Obama hopes it will cost them some cash. What’s alarming about this (as opposed to just insulting, which it is to the Ukrainians) is that if it were applied to Iran, it would mean Obama sees sanctions and penalties as an end in themselves, not as a tactic to help obtain a specific outcome.

That would mean an Iranian nuke (or the Iranians being beyond the point of no return) and Obama would sit there smirking about it on CNN talking about all the costs Iran has accumulated in order to get that bomb. He would admonish Iran that they may have achieved nuclear capability, but great nations aren’t measured by their power and prestige, they’re measured by whether Barack Obama thinks they’ve made prudent financial investments.

If Obama wants to write a column for the Financial Times, he’d still be wrong. But he’d leave a lot less rubble in his wake.

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Kerry’s Diplomatic Protection Racket and Netanyahu’s Reelection Campaign

The U.S. political scene churns out quite a number of battle-tested campaign strategists. And we export them. Hence, when the dust settled on Israel’s surprising 2013 Knesset elections, the Forward noted that the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were felt acutely by several Americans: “[Mark] Mellman led Yesh Atid’s campaign; Finkelstein and his partner, George Birnbaum, worked on Netanyahu’s campaign; the Labor Party relied on the services of Stanley Greenberg, and Kadima hired David Eichenbaum.” So the newsworthy part of the revelation that an Obama campaign field director is in Israel working against Netanyahu’s reelection this year is not that fact itself, but rather that this group has been receiving money from John Kerry’s State Department.

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The U.S. political scene churns out quite a number of battle-tested campaign strategists. And we export them. Hence, when the dust settled on Israel’s surprising 2013 Knesset elections, the Forward noted that the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were felt acutely by several Americans: “[Mark] Mellman led Yesh Atid’s campaign; Finkelstein and his partner, George Birnbaum, worked on Netanyahu’s campaign; the Labor Party relied on the services of Stanley Greenberg, and Kadima hired David Eichenbaum.” So the newsworthy part of the revelation that an Obama campaign field director is in Israel working against Netanyahu’s reelection this year is not that fact itself, but rather that this group has been receiving money from John Kerry’s State Department.

As our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman notes over at the Free Beacon, Haaretz this week broke news that an American organization called OneVoice International has joined up with an Israeli organization called V15. OneVoice has received two State Department grants in the past year, and Jeremy Bird, a former national field director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, will be working with the effort from an office in Tel Aviv, according to Haaretz. The groups are believed to be behind the “anyone but Bibi” mantra floating around left-of-center political circles in the leadup to the election. Goodman writes:

While V15 has not endorsed any particular candidates, it is working to oppose Netanyahu in the March elections.

“We’ve formed a partnership with [V15], but it’s important to know we’re absolutely nonpartisan,” Taler told the Washington Free Beacon. “Our biggest emphasis and focus right now is just getting people out to vote.”

OneVoice said in a press release on Tuesday that it is teaming up with V15 because Israel “need[s] a prime minister and a government who will be responsive to the people.”

It is tempting to see this story in light of the ongoing feud between Obama and Netanyahu in which both men have stumbled in trying to win each news cycle devoted to the drama. But if Obama even knows who Bird is, it’s doubtful he’s taking any direction from the president. It’s not inappropriate for Bird to follow in the footsteps of numerous other campaign veterans to find some work in Israel during American off-years.

What is more interesting is that the group involved has been receiving grants from the State Department. OneVoice didn’t have a convincing rejoinder to the news, so they gave Goodman the following canned response:

Taler said the group is not using this money for its Israeli election-related efforts.

“No government funding has gone toward any of the activities we’re doing right now whatsoever,” she said.

It’s silly, because of course money is fungible. But what could she say? More concerning is that this fits into a topic we’ve covered here extensively: the peace process, especially as led by John Kerry, resembles nothing so much as a diplomatic protection racket. There was his claim to Israeli TV that the alternative to more Israeli concessions was a “third intifada,” giving the prospect of anti-Semitic violence dangerous credibility. (The country seemed on the verge of just such an intifada after Kerry’s talks predictably failed.) And then there was the American warning that Kerry’s diplomatic initiative was the only thing holding back EU sanctions against Israel. Should Kerry come away without a deal, there would be no stopping European retaliatory actions against Israel.

The message coming from the State Department was always clear. What gave the threats teeth was the fact that Obama has been trying to unseat Netanyahu from the beginning. It wasn’t just about European sanctions or whitewashing Palestinian violence. It was also about the Obama team’s personal obsession with undermining Bibi.

And this obsession is shared widely. Last year I quoted a disturbing anecdote from an August column by Chemi Shalev, who wrote: “a very senior Washington figure recently told an Israeli counterpart that each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.” Now compare that with what Jeremy Bird—the Obama campaign field director involved in the campaign to unseat Netanyahu—said when Netanyahu was invited by House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress: “What do you think Adelson promised GOP in exchange for this insane BiBi House visit? Blatant attempt to bolster Israeli PM before elections”.

The same paranoia and psychological projection seems to infect all those involved in Obama’s political campaigns: they assume American Jewish donor money is behind all opposition. It does appear to be an escalation, however, for the State Department to be pressuring Netanyahu into making concessions to the Palestinians while funding groups working to defeat him. I would say it’s a conflict of interests, but it’s more like a concert of interests—all the levers of the Obama administration’s anti-Netanyahu efforts pulling in the same direction.

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Why Integration Won’t Stop Radicalization

Earlier this week at a joint press conference, President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron were asked about domestic radicalization in the U.S. and Europe. Obama said that “Our biggest advantage … is that our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans. And there is this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength.” The president was right. But it raised an important question: How much of Europe’s radicalized Muslim population can be deterred by better integration into society?

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Earlier this week at a joint press conference, President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron were asked about domestic radicalization in the U.S. and Europe. Obama said that “Our biggest advantage … is that our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans. And there is this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength.” The president was right. But it raised an important question: How much of Europe’s radicalized Muslim population can be deterred by better integration into society?

The Obama administration seems to think the answer is: a lot. Yesterday Secretary of State Kerry met with his EU counterpart Federica Mogherini, and the two took questions from the press. Kerry followed up on Obama’s comments and went a step further, as the Weekly Standard reports:

I entered college in 1962. And in 1963, ’4, ’5, we were deeply embroiled in this country, and we – college students in the Civil Rights Movement. And we were deeply impacted by that and have always been, I think, as a generation, much more sensitive to this question of minority and rights and integration and so forth. We’ve made unbelievable progress in our nation, unbelievable progress in the years since then. But it would be completely disingenuous not to say to you that we still have some distance to travel. …

And Federica is absolutely correct; this particular incident of violence wasn’t a specific targeting that grew out of that, but we all can do work in many parts of the world that I have seen where one minority or another or another is not able to share fully in the full integration in whatever country they happen to be living.

Seeing the Muslim integration problem through the prism of Jim Crow is deeply misguided. (This is a bipartisan temptation; Condoleezza Rice once explained that she understood the Palestinian grievance against checkpoints because of her childhood in the segregated South.) Not only are the two situations dissimilar, but Kerry is offering Europe’s Muslim communities a broad claim of injustice and victimhood while laying much of it at the individual governments’ feet.

Kerry did say that the recent Paris terror attack was not the result of a lack of integration. But if he were to examine why that is, he would learn much about the limits of his argument.

In the past, one of the popular beliefs about terrorism was that it stemmed from poverty. The search for “root causes” usually meant the search for conditions that would rob terrorists of their agency. It wouldn’t excuse the violence, but it would tiptoe far too close to doing so.

And–here’s the key–it was wrong. The idea that poverty is a root cause of terrorism has long been debunked. It crops up again from time to time, a zombie theory with its stubborn adherents. But paternalistic Westerners have always liked this explanation because it suggests an easy response–give them money–while laying their endemic societal problems at the feet of Western imperialism.

The “integration” issue is certainly a legitimate concern for Europe these days. And there’s even a certain amount of logic to the belief that it must play a role in the radicalization of Europe’s Muslim minority. But in an intriguing and thorough article today, terrorism analyst Lorenzo Vidino reveals that the “integration” theory is limited, to say the least:

Several studies seem to disprove the connection. A recent and extensive study conducted at Queen Mary University on a relatively large sample of young British Muslims, for example, showed that those most at risk of radicalization were 18- to 20-year-olds involved in advanced education from wealthy families who spoke English at home. …

Dounia Bouzar, director of the Centre for Prevention Against Islamic Sectarianism, recently published the results of her study of 160 French families that had contacted her center seeking help with their children’s radicalization. She found that two thirds of the families were middle class. Moreover, according to another study, 23% of French jihadists in Syria are converts. Discrimination against Muslim immigrants could hardly be seen as the factor triggering the radicalization of this sizeable cross section of French jihadists. If we add to that that many French converts hail from affluent families (see for example this interesting New York Times article on radicalization in the town of Lunel, in which one of the individuals profiled is the son of a Jewish engineer who grew up in a comfortable home with a swimming pool recently died in Syria), we see that in many cases socio-economic issues are equally irrelevant to explain radicalization processes.

I recommend reading the whole thing. In retrospect, the falsity of the “integration” argument should probably seem as obvious as its initial rationality sounded. After all, if poverty doesn’t cause terrorism, then the least-integrated immigrants probably aren’t the most easily radicalized. If terrorists come from the educated and the middle class, they are probably well integrated.

That does not mean that Europe has no integration challenge. It does. And integration is still important for education, economic mobility, and social cohesion. But it does mean that once again, there is no easy answer. There is no wad of cash or welfare-state program that can serve as a magic bullet here. And there is no simple way to blame the West for the violence employed against it. The hard work of diligent counterterrorism has no substitute.

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Allies Know They Haven’t “Got a Friend” in Obama’s America

One of the basic rules of satire is that it is virtually impossible to satirize something that is already inherently ridiculous. That axiom is brought to mind as America belatedly sought to reaffirm its friendship with France in the wake of the administration’s decision to snub the Paris unity rally that commemorated the terror attack on the Charlie Hebdo office and a kosher market. Neither the president nor the vice president or even Secretary of State John Kerry bothered to come to a gathering attended by over 40 world leaders. But to make up for this, Kerry brought folk rock singer James Taylor to Paris to serenade French officials with a version of Carol King’s classic ballad, “You’ve Got a Friend.” This is something so absurd that it isn’t clear even the cleverest minds at Saturday Night Live or even Charlie Hebdo could adequately convey the sophomoric nature of a lame attempt to make up for a gaffe. While the real problem is the administration’s lack of comfort in standing up for the rights of cartoonists to offend Islamists as evidenced by the decision to stay away from the rally, it also tells us something significant about the inadequate man who is serving as the nation’s chief diplomat.

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One of the basic rules of satire is that it is virtually impossible to satirize something that is already inherently ridiculous. That axiom is brought to mind as America belatedly sought to reaffirm its friendship with France in the wake of the administration’s decision to snub the Paris unity rally that commemorated the terror attack on the Charlie Hebdo office and a kosher market. Neither the president nor the vice president or even Secretary of State John Kerry bothered to come to a gathering attended by over 40 world leaders. But to make up for this, Kerry brought folk rock singer James Taylor to Paris to serenade French officials with a version of Carol King’s classic ballad, “You’ve Got a Friend.” This is something so absurd that it isn’t clear even the cleverest minds at Saturday Night Live or even Charlie Hebdo could adequately convey the sophomoric nature of a lame attempt to make up for a gaffe. While the real problem is the administration’s lack of comfort in standing up for the rights of cartoonists to offend Islamists as evidenced by the decision to stay away from the rally, it also tells us something significant about the inadequate man who is serving as the nation’s chief diplomat.

That Kerry would think schlepping an aging rock icon from his youth to Paris to tell the French that “all you’ve got to do is just ca-aall” if they need us is the sort of thing that makes one longs for the diplomacy of an earlier era when envoys wore uniforms, swords, and feathered hats and stuck to rigid formality.

That’s not just because such a gesture is jejune as well as puerile, though it is both of those things as well as a clear reflection of Kerry’s lack of seriousness as a public official. It’s that the French and the rest of Europe know very well that the last thing they can count on in a crisis is the willingness of the Obama administration to “be there” for their oldest ally or anyone else for that matter.

This is an administration that has spent six years offending and snubbing allies all the while seeking in vain to appease old foes and rivals such as Russia and Iran. Though U.S. and French policies often intersect, Paris and the rest of Europe have come to understand that Obama is as uninterested in their point of view or their needs as he is of those of congressional Republicans. In a week when French officials were rightly calling on the world to join them in the fight against Islamist terror, Washington was dithering and couldn’t even force itself to say the word “Islamist.”

As is well known, French opinion about the United States is decidedly mixed with resentment of American wealth and culture often overwhelming the basic commonality of interests shared by two great democracies. A James Taylor concert won’t make things much worse but neither will it improve the situation. What it will do is to remind Europe and those enemies once again that this is an administration that neither understands symbolism or how to reaffirm an alliance.

It is no small irony that an administration that came into office determined to work with the international community, and our allies rather than to be Bush-like unilateral cowboys, is now reduced to this sort of nonsense. What the French or any ally wants is not a touchy-feely Oldies song but a sense that the U.S. believes it is still part of the war against international terror. To the contrary, Obama’s instincts are such that allies have come to expect his contempt or disinterest in their problems.

Kerry’s cringe-inducing turn hosting his friend Taylor isn’t the dumbest thing he has done at the State Department by a long shot. Having faith in Mahmoud Abbas as a champion of peace and signing a weak nuclear deal with Iran are hard to top. But is an iconic moment that will symbolize Obama and Kerry’s ham-handed approach to allies. A song, even a folk rock classic that allows Kerry to reminisce about his youth spent falsely testifying against his fellow Vietnam vets, can’t substitute for a strong stand against Islamists or even the ability to say the word. Prior to this, it was possible to argue that U.S. foreign policy had become a joke. But after Taylor had finished warbling, even the president and his inner White House circle must be wondering what sort of a fool they’ve unleashed on the world.

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Putin’s Gambit and the Future of Ukraine

Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I’ve referred to the “Georgia precedent”: the idea that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed Vladimir Putin how much he could get away with in terms of violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. In truth, the Georgia precedent is about more than the invasion, which was, in Georgia’s case, the culmination of about a decade of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare and boosting separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia essentially followed the same playbook in Ukraine, but took it one step further and actually annexed territory. Now Putin may be about to do the same in Georgia.

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Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I’ve referred to the “Georgia precedent”: the idea that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed Vladimir Putin how much he could get away with in terms of violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. In truth, the Georgia precedent is about more than the invasion, which was, in Georgia’s case, the culmination of about a decade of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare and boosting separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia essentially followed the same playbook in Ukraine, but took it one step further and actually annexed territory. Now Putin may be about to do the same in Georgia.

Over at Quartz, Steve LeVine points to news of Russia and South Ossetia signing an integration treaty. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment explains at Carnegie’s website that much of this is formality: Russia was already effectively in control of South Ossetia. And as I’ve pointed out in the past, Russia had staffed key posts in the breakaway provinces and even distributed Russian passports. Nonetheless, this is clearly an escalation in the “frozen” conflict. Here’s de Waal:

The document goes much further than the treaty signed between Abkhazia and Russia in November. The Abkhaz re-drafted their treaty to keep several elements of their de facto sovereignty. The South Ossetian version, also written by Kremlin adviser and spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov, envisages the Ossetians conducting an “agreed-upon foreign policy” and hands over full control of their security and borders to Russia. South Ossetia is being swallowed up.

The treaty should come as no surprise. Moscow has been fully in control of South Ossetia since it recognized it as independent in 2008. Compared to Abkhazia, the population is tiny. South Ossetia had 100,000 citizens in 1989 but, after years of conflict and the flight of most of the Georgian population, just 21,000 people voted in the parliamentary election last June. The anomaly represented by South Ossetia’s supposed independent statehood, while North Ossetia, with a population of 700,000 is a mere autonomous region of Russia, has never been so glaring.

The obvious question is: Why is Putin doing this–or at least, why now? Only Putin knows for sure, but it does demonstrate how differently the conflict is viewed from Washington and from Moscow.

It further exposes the Obama administration’s “off-ramp” delusions. President Obama has operated under the impression that Putin is looking for a way out. In his estimation, Putin didn’t realize what he was getting himself into, acted rashly, and needed a way to save face that didn’t look like a retreat. That obviously failed. So the next idea was to essentially accept Putin’s land grabs and merely try to get him not to take any more.

As Josh Rogin reported last month, the Obama administration has been working on new “outreach” to Moscow. Believing that sanctions on Russia are having their desired effect, the administration has, apparently, been willing to offer Putin a pretty sweet deal: he gets to keep what he’s already taken. Here’s Rogin:

In several conversations with Lavrov, Kerry has floated an offer to Russia that would pave the way for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions. Kerry’s conditions included Russia adhering to September’s Minsk agreement and ceasing direct military support for the Ukrainian separatists. The issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.

It’s true that the West is not going to dislodge Russia from Crimea. But there is still reasonable opposition to any agreement that would seem to bestow the West’s acceptance of the Crimean occupation and annexation on the criminal Putin regime. This opposition mainly stems from moral outrage, but now the Russian integration treaty with South Ossetia gives the West strategic reason to oppose treating Crimea as officially a fait accompli.

What Putin is demonstrating is, first of all, patience. But also bad faith. If the West treats the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine–where Russian-armed and directed separatists shot down a passenger plane, remember–as the only aspect of the larger conflict in Ukraine that is open to negotiation and adjustment, Putin will pocket the concession of Crimea. Then he will simply wait out the president.

That will be the easiest part of all. As Max wrote earlier, Obama seems to want to drag out various foreign conflicts long enough to hand off to his successor. But just as in Georgia, Putin can be expected to escalate once again when he thinks the time is right. In other words, if the West agrees to merely pause the conflict in eastern Ukraine right now, they are still abandoning Ukraine to Russia. Putin will see it as a victory in eastern Ukraine too, not just in Crimea. And we’ll have given him no reason to think otherwise.

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The Senate Should Wipe the Smile From Zarif’s Face

Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Geneva this week where he met again with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the ongoing effort to forge a final agreement on that country’s nuclear program. But not even the secretary of his State Department spin masters tried to represent this latest effort to cajole the Iranians into giving the Obama administration a much-needed diplomatic triumph as anything other than just one more scene in a long-running play directed by the Islamist regime. That the Iranians have the patience and the confidence to wait out the administration until it is willing to give them whatever they want is no longer in question. But as Congress prepares to consider new sanctions legislation that could strengthen the hands of Western negotiators, the spectacle of Kerry scurrying to and from Geneva, in vain attempts to convince Zarif to play nicely while Iran proceeds with building new nuclear infrastructure projects, should only reinforce their resolve to stick to their guns despite threats of a presidential veto.

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Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Geneva this week where he met again with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the ongoing effort to forge a final agreement on that country’s nuclear program. But not even the secretary of his State Department spin masters tried to represent this latest effort to cajole the Iranians into giving the Obama administration a much-needed diplomatic triumph as anything other than just one more scene in a long-running play directed by the Islamist regime. That the Iranians have the patience and the confidence to wait out the administration until it is willing to give them whatever they want is no longer in question. But as Congress prepares to consider new sanctions legislation that could strengthen the hands of Western negotiators, the spectacle of Kerry scurrying to and from Geneva, in vain attempts to convince Zarif to play nicely while Iran proceeds with building new nuclear infrastructure projects, should only reinforce their resolve to stick to their guns despite threats of a presidential veto.

While Kerry was in Geneva, the Iranian media was trumpeting the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced plans to construct two new nuclear power plants in the southern province of Bushehr. The supposed moderate claimed that this shows that Iran was only interested in peaceful uses of nuclear power, but the massive investment in nuclear infrastructure for a country with some of the largest oil reserves in the world is inherently suspicious. Western intelligence agencies have already conceded that they have little confidence about their ability to detect any secret military nuclear programs hidden throughout the country. The decision to build more expensive nuclear plants at a time when the country is financially pressed demonstrates that their commitment to expanding their capability is about more than clean energy.

We can’t know exactly what the Iranians are up to in Bushehr. But the brazen nature of this effort while they continue to stall the Geneva talks speaks volumes about their belief that they can tell the Americans anything they like and still expect Kerry to keep crawling back to see them in the vain hope that next time they’ll gratify his zeal for a deal.

Indeed, by talking about the need to pick up the pace of the talks, Zarif was teasing Kerry as if he was handing a ball of yarn to a kitten. As CBS News reported his remarks:

Zarif was coy when asked if he thought the deadline could be met and what particular issues were most vexing.

“We’ll see,” he said. “All issues are hard until you resolve them and all issues are easy if you resolve them,” he said. “I believe all of them are easy anyway.”

He’s right about that in the sense that since the prelude to the weak interim deal signed in November 2013, the Obama administration’s approach to resolving issues with Iran is to simply gradually concede all points to them. That’s how Iran got Kerry to tacitly recognize their right to enrich uranium and to allow them to hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel that could easily be re-activated and converted to use for a weapon in a breakout scenario. That’s also how they have managed to move the position of the U.S. from President Obama’s 2012 campaign pledge to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program to today’s laughable goal of lengthening a potential breakout period.

Zarif was also coy about whether he and Kerry could come to an agreement by the time the latest deadline for the end of the talks expires in July. But since two such deadlines have come and gone without this failure prompting Obama and Kerry to issue ultimatums to the Iranians, there is no reason for Zarif to think they will behave any differently in the future. He can merely wait for them to come to him. That means he thinks he can insist on a deal that will give an international seal of approval and end of sanctions while Iran is permitted to retain the infrastructure and capability to be a threshold nuclear power. Moreover, Zarif also has figured out that the president’s real goal is not so much an acceptable nuclear deal as a new détente with Iran. Since he knows the Americans fear offending him, that gives him the power to be as obdurate as he likes without fear of any consequences.

Obama and Kerry may seek to portray such a disastrous result as the best the West could get in much the same manner as the way they claimed the interim deal was an imperfect yet acceptable bargain. But what these talks desperately need is a change in the dynamic that will wipe that Cheshire cat smile off of Zarif’s face and inject some doubt into Tehran’s calculations about America’s willingness to swallow any Iranian demand or delay. Only more sanctions legislation will do that. The Senate should proceed accordingly.

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Who Derailed Middle East Peace? Ross and Obama Should Look in the Mirror.

On yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page, former veteran State Department Middle East hand Dennis Ross made a strong case for the world to stop “giving the Palestinians a pass” for actions intended to derail the peace process. In doing so Ross is taking up the cudgels for the position of the Obama administration against that of its European allies on the question of tolerating a Palestinian diplomatic offensive at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Both he and the administration are correct that the Palestinian Authority is sabotaging peace by abandoning negotiations and seeking instead to use international pressure to brand Israel as a pariah. But what Ross leaves out of his argument is as interesting as what he says. The proof that his position is correct lies in the history of his own failures and that of the administrations he served as they wrongly appeased the Palestinians and instead pressured Israel.

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On yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page, former veteran State Department Middle East hand Dennis Ross made a strong case for the world to stop “giving the Palestinians a pass” for actions intended to derail the peace process. In doing so Ross is taking up the cudgels for the position of the Obama administration against that of its European allies on the question of tolerating a Palestinian diplomatic offensive at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Both he and the administration are correct that the Palestinian Authority is sabotaging peace by abandoning negotiations and seeking instead to use international pressure to brand Israel as a pariah. But what Ross leaves out of his argument is as interesting as what he says. The proof that his position is correct lies in the history of his own failures and that of the administrations he served as they wrongly appeased the Palestinians and instead pressured Israel.

Ross deserves credit for mentioning some facts that are almost never mentioned in either the news or opinion pages of the Times. Namely, that the Palestinians rejected three clear offers of peace and independence in 2000, 2001, and 2008 that would have given them a state in almost all of the West Bank, a share of Jerusalem, and Gaza. The first two were turned down flat by Yasir Arafat while his successor Mahmoud Abbas fled the negotiating table rather than be forced to give an answer to the third. He might have added that Abbas refused to discuss a U.S. framework along the same lines in 2014 and blew up those talks that had been painstakingly nurtured by Secretary of State John Kerry.

But in discussing the Europeans’ foolish insistence on backing a Palestinian diplomatic gambit whose only purpose is to avoid peace negotiations rather than jumpstart them, Ross ought to mention the sorry history of U.S. diplomatic efforts that were based on the same wrongheaded premise.

Ross served as a U.S. diplomat for decades and was a principal architect of the Clinton administration’s Middle East policies and subsequently advised candidate Barack Obama and then assumed a major State Department post in his administration. The keynote of both Clinton and Obama’s attitudes toward the Palestinians was a desire to whitewash the Palestinian Authority’s violations of its peace pledges in the Oslo Accords and a predilection to pressure the Israelis instead of the other side. Though some criticized Ross as too disposed to take Israeli attitudes into account, that was in the context of administrations that were dedicated to tilting the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction. Even he admitted that the Clinton administration had made a mistake when it decided not to take Arafat’s undermining of the peace process and the PA’s fomenting of hatred against Israel and Jews seriously.

This is a crucial point today because just as Arafat thought he could act with impunity because of the West’s bias against Israel, the same factor motivated Abbas to sandbag Kerry in the peace talks. Indeed, Obama and Kerry were so concerned about not ruffling the Palestinians’ feathers that they responded to Abbas’s decision to make peace with Hamas instead of Israel and to make an end run to the UN by blaming Israel for the problem. Abbas’s conclusion from this decision was entirely logical. If he could behave in such a manner and still be rewarded with praise for himself and attacks on Israel, why shouldn’t he believe that even more of this would yield the same result. But in leading him to this conclusion, Kerry was only making the same mistake that Ross and others in the Clinton and Obama administrations had previously committed.

As right as he may be about the Europeans today, it is churlish of Ross to stand in judgment about their blind behavior without owning up to his past errors and those of the Obama administration. If he wants to lead an effort to evaluate the mistakes that have doomed peace efforts, rather than focusing on the wrongheaded policies of the Europeans, Ross should be looking in the mirror and issuing mea culpas for his own mistakes and those of Obama.

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Russia Seeks Advantage from America’s Syria Paralysis

Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat briefly with Salih Muslim, the head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. Muslim is probably the most influential figure in Rojava, as Syrian Kurdistan is called. While some American senators still talk about the Free Syrian Army as an alternative to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Bashar al-Assad regime, the simple fact is that Muslim controls the only stable, secular, and tolerant region within Syria today. His power is not theoretical—hatched in a diplomatic conference—but rather hard won, the result of pushing back or quarantining Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed army and checking or defeating the Islamic State. In areas Muslim’s party controls, Christians, Yezidis, and Muslims worship freely, girls go to school—the same schools and the same classes as boys—and municipalities provide services ranging from trash pick-up to arbitration and peaceful dispute resolution.

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Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat briefly with Salih Muslim, the head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. Muslim is probably the most influential figure in Rojava, as Syrian Kurdistan is called. While some American senators still talk about the Free Syrian Army as an alternative to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Bashar al-Assad regime, the simple fact is that Muslim controls the only stable, secular, and tolerant region within Syria today. His power is not theoretical—hatched in a diplomatic conference—but rather hard won, the result of pushing back or quarantining Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed army and checking or defeating the Islamic State. In areas Muslim’s party controls, Christians, Yezidis, and Muslims worship freely, girls go to school—the same schools and the same classes as boys—and municipalities provide services ranging from trash pick-up to arbitration and peaceful dispute resolution.

So what does Secretary of State John Kerry do? He bans Salih Muslim from coming to the United States, refusing him visas on several occasions over the past year. Not only that, but Kerry has refused to extend Muslim invitations to attend Syrian opposition conferences. His reasoning is illogical: he has accused Muslim of cooperating too much with Assad, a charge Muslim denies. Regardless, Kerry—who repeatedly referred to Assad as “my good friend” while a senator accepting Assad’s hospitality—has allowed Assad proxies a seat at the table, so his refusal to deal with Muslim appears even more bizarre.

Part of the problem may be that the PYD is seen as too close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States designates a terrorist group. If this is the case, however, Kerry should call his office because, after air dropping supplies to Syrian Kurds loyal to the PYD fighting in Kobane, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied the PYD was a terrorist group under U.S. law. Regardless, even if that wasn’t the State Department’s position, it wouldn’t necessary be the end-all and be-all because the U.S. government had managed until just a few months ago to categorize both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party—both U.S. allies—as terrorist groups.

So what is Salih Muslim to do? He’s made in recent months two or perhaps even three visits to Moscow to meet with Russian officials, most recently over Christmas. One really cannot blame Muslim. He is not anti-American; quite the contrary, he seeks greater American ties and influence. But only Russia is answering his calls. The Kremlin, however, seldom provides assistance altruistically; it will expect a quid pro quo, and that won’t be to America’s favor.

Perhaps Obama and Kerry could begin by dealing with the reality of Syria rather than an imaginary moderate opposition that either does not exist or does not recognize the multi-ethnic, federal reality of Syria’s future. It costs nothing to issue a visa to Muslim. And it might enable a diplomatic breakthrough that would disadvantage both the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, while at the same time capitalizing on a model that has already proven successful on the dusty and war-weary plains of Syria.

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Iran Depicts American Navy as Weak, Cowardly

Iran’s Fars News Agency has released footage of an Iranian plane buzzing the USS Gridley, an American destroyer, apparently in the Persian Gulf. The video depicts de-conflicting communication between the Iranian Air Force and the U.S. ship, and concludes with the USS Gridley acceding to the Iranian aircraft’s demands.

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Iran’s Fars News Agency has released footage of an Iranian plane buzzing the USS Gridley, an American destroyer, apparently in the Persian Gulf. The video depicts de-conflicting communication between the Iranian Air Force and the U.S. ship, and concludes with the USS Gridley acceding to the Iranian aircraft’s demands.

Now, the Gridley may have acted normally given its location but, even if not, it is the policy of the Obama administration to seek to de-escalate conflict by withdrawing from confrontation (in sharp contrast to Ronald Reagan, for example, who in both the Gulf of Sitra and the Persian Gulf used the U.S. Navy to confirm the sanctity of international waters).

But it does say a lot about Iranian cockiness and how they wish to depict their strength relative to the United States Navy that the Iranian Air Force would offer Iranian journalists a ride essentially to seek out an American ship and depict it following Iranian orders and “fleeing.”

President Obama may believe concession shows sincerity and provides a path to peace but, alas, to many states in the Middle East, compromise is a sign of weakness. Regardless, as optimistic as Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may be about bringing Iran in from the cold, the Iranian press—strictly controlled by the Iranian leadership—appears not to have gotten the message; quite the contrary, it seems prepared to ramp up its efforts to humiliate rather than seek partnership with America. If Obama is truly interested in bringing peace and security to the region, he might reflect on his instincts and do the exact opposite. Sometimes, standing one’s ground, abiding by red lines, and showing seriousness of purpose sends a message that even Tehran cannot ignore.

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2014: Bashar al-Assad’s Comeback Year

The idea that there are no winners in war has long been a rallying cry for peace. But right now in the Middle East, what should concern American policymakers most is that the reverse is never true: whether or not there are winners, there’s always a loser. And in Syria at the moment, every side seems to be winning except ours.

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The idea that there are no winners in war has long been a rallying cry for peace. But right now in the Middle East, what should concern American policymakers most is that the reverse is never true: whether or not there are winners, there’s always a loser. And in Syria at the moment, every side seems to be winning except ours.

NPR tempers the holiday spirit today with an important reminder of just how much has changed, for the worse, in the Syrian civil war and the cross-border ISIS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, NPR notes, is ending the year in a far better place than he started it. Although that seems obvious, it’s disturbing to think back what a difference a year makes:

At the beginning of 2014, Syrian President Bashar Assad had agreed to send his ministers to take part in negotiations in Switzerland, and his future as Syria’s ruler was not looking very bright.

He was accused of killing tens of thousands of his own people in a civil war that was nearly three years old. The opposition was demanding Assad’s ouster. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Switzerland and called loudly for a political transition in Syria. He was clear about who would not be involved.

“Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way — no way possible in the imagination — that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” he said.

Fast-forward to the present. Those talks were abandoned. Assad is still in the presidential palace in Damascus. And although the United States is bombing Syria, it’s not targeting Assad’s army but the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

The key quote comes next from Joshua Landis. “I think Assad is in a stronger position today in many respects, certainly on the battlefield, and he has the United States as a strategic ally,” he told NPR.

Think about that. It was less than a year ago that the American secretary of state was asserting unequivocally that Assad was done and that certainly his days of being treated as a legitimate head of state were over. Now “he has the United States as a strategic ally.”

This isn’t some random simple twist of fate. Assad’s survival depended on his playing his cards just right. In the preceding years of the civil war that still rages in his country, Assad was facing a collection of rebels, a disorganized circus of armed opposition. Assad knew how to prioritize his defense.

In August, the New York Times’s Room for Debate feature asked the following question: “Should the U.S. Work With Assad to Fight ISIS?” One of the panel contributors, The National columnist Hassan Hassan, pointed out the absurdity of relying on Assad as a partner against ISIS:

The idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be a partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, ignores a basic fact: Assad has been key to its rise in Syria and beyond. When Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, the first province to fall under rebels’ control in its entirety, it was remarkable that the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.

Raqqa was saved the fate of Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Homs and Deraa. ISIS soon controlled the province, painted government buildings in black and turned them into bases. The group’s bases were easy to spot, for about a year and a half. Elsewhere, too, Assad allowed ISIS to grow and fester. The regime has been buying oil from it and other extremist groups after it lost control of most of the country’s oilfields and gas plants.

Assad has gone from dead man walking to the once and future king in the space of a year because he made many enemies but then outmaneuvered them all. Earlier in the conflict, Assad was losing. He’s not anymore.

And neither is ISIS. After Assad allowed the terrorist group to fester and hold territory, it has been controlling areas of Syria and Iraq while using the resources of those territories to fund its terror state. Since the Obama administration’s plan has been to delay sending troops and then sending too few to defeat ISIS, disrupting the group’s revenue streams would be the next obvious step.

Unfortunately, the two can’t be so easily separated. As Foreign Policy reports, the anti-ISIS alliance has had some success in stemming oil revenue. But they haven’t stopped it. And disrupting other streams of terrorists’ revenue requires–you guessed it–boots on the ground: “But cutting off the group’s proceeds from other illegal activities like kidnapping and extortion is harder to do without first reconquering the territory where the militants operate what are effectively mafia-style criminal enterprises.”

So for now, ISIS isn’t losing either. We had two enemies in Syria, and they’re both doing OK for themselves at the moment. But someone has to be losing, and by process of elimination you can pretty much guess who it is. The “moderate” rebels–our previous strategic ally, before Assad supplanted them–have found themselves in a vicious cycle. They struggle because we aren’t helping them enough to succeed, which we then use as an excuse to help them less, which in turn leads to them struggling even more:

Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

And there’s one more loser in all this: America’s strategic interests. ISIS is undermining our attempts to leave behind a stable Iraq and splitting territory next door in Syria with Assad, Iran’s proxy. It’s true that Assad had a pretty good year considering where he was heading into 2014. But that’s another way of saying America’s enemies had a pretty good year.

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The World Won’t Listen to Livni If She Wins

In what has already been a topsy-turvy Israeli election campaign Hatnua Party co-leader Tzipi Livni caused an uproar when she bragged about her efforts to persuade Secretary of State John Kerry to “torpedo” the Palestinian effort to gain United Nations recognition for their independence. That led some on the Israeli right to accuse Kerry of trying to intervene in the elections because reportedly Livni told him that if the U.S. let a UN Security Council resolution pass it would help Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Knesset vote. But their outrage is to be expected. Everyone knows the Obama administration wants Netanyahu to lose and that Livni and her new partner, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, are looking for a little help from Washington. But what is of particular interest is that Livni actually thinks, as she said yesterday in an Israel Army Radio interview, “the world listens to me.” If she wins, she will soon find out that “the world” and even the Obama administration, doesn’t differentiate between Israeli politicians as much as she thinks.

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In what has already been a topsy-turvy Israeli election campaign Hatnua Party co-leader Tzipi Livni caused an uproar when she bragged about her efforts to persuade Secretary of State John Kerry to “torpedo” the Palestinian effort to gain United Nations recognition for their independence. That led some on the Israeli right to accuse Kerry of trying to intervene in the elections because reportedly Livni told him that if the U.S. let a UN Security Council resolution pass it would help Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Knesset vote. But their outrage is to be expected. Everyone knows the Obama administration wants Netanyahu to lose and that Livni and her new partner, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, are looking for a little help from Washington. But what is of particular interest is that Livni actually thinks, as she said yesterday in an Israel Army Radio interview, “the world listens to me.” If she wins, she will soon find out that “the world” and even the Obama administration, doesn’t differentiate between Israeli politicians as much as she thinks.

Livni, who is running for the Knesset on her fourth different political party in the last decade, scored a coup when she managed to persuade Herzog not only to run a joint ticket with her party but also to “rotate” the prime ministership between the two if they won. Considering that polls showed Hatnua wouldn’t win a seat on its own, that shows she’s better at driving good bargains for her party than she was for her country during her time as foreign minister under Ehud Olmert or as lead negotiator with the Palestinians under Netanyahu the last two years.

Though her eclectic and often changing positions on the issues have placed her all over the political map, her main claim to fame in the past few years has been as the Israeli politician that American and European leaders have hoped would topple the much disliked Netanyahu. Indeed, during the first two years of the Obama administration, the White House wrongly thought Livni would soon replace him as prime minister. So it’s hardly surprising that Livni would attempt to play that card again so as to convince Israeli voters that their country’s growing diplomatic isolation is purely the result of Netanyahu’s bad judgment and that it would all change if only Livni were in power.

But whatever her chances of helping to topple the prime minister, she’s wrong if she thinks the international community will be substantially friendlier to a government that she helped run than the one she just left. The reasons for this should be obvious even to her.

Livni is, after all, a veteran Israeli politician, who served in senior positions in the governments led by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as well as having a dual role as Minister of Justice and chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians under Netanyahu over the past two years. Though she has often garnered more sympathetic international press coverage than the notoriously prickly Netanyahu that has never translated into any actual support for her positions from foreign governments.

The problem for Livni is that while the differences between her and Netanyahu on the peace process can appear huge in an Israeli political context, they are actually insignificant when seen from the perspective of what the Palestinians and the international community are demanding of the Jewish state. Like Netanyahu, Livni believes the Palestinians must accept Israeli security guarantees, acknowledge that Israel will retain Jewish Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs in the West Bank as well as recognize it as the nation state of the Jewish people, ending the conflict for all time.

Had Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas been willing to accept those terms he might have signed a peace treaty with Israel when Livni and her boss Olmert offered him a state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem in 2008 when she was foreign minister. Indeed, had he been really willing to make peace, he would have cut a deal with Livni in the peace talks sponsored by Kerry that Abbas blew up last spring. As with every previous peace initiative, the Palestinians were unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. Like many another politician, Livni may believe her own public relations spin about her ability to dazzle foreign leaders. But it is hard to believe that after her own bitter experiences with Abbas, she really thinks he is a peace partner as she and Herzog claim.

This is no small point because although the defeat of Netanyahu would be greeted with relief in Washington and every European capital, Israel’s dilemma would not be materially altered. Not even Herzog and Livni could withdraw from the West Bank on terms that Abbas, worried as he is about competition from Hamas, could accept, continuing the diplomatic stalemate. That will mean the next Israeli government would be subjected to the same sort of pressure to make unilateral concessions that no Israeli coalition could ever live with. Indeed, after the failure of Sharon’s experiment with withdrawal in Gaza (something that happened while Livni was in his Cabinet), no sane Israeli wants to risk a repeat of that fiasco with a new Hamasistan in the far more strategic West Bank.

As unpopular as Netanyahu may be abroad, Israel was not particularly beloved under other leaders either. Though the meme of Israel becoming too nationalist, insular and intolerant is a popular one and is repeatedly endlessly on op-ed pages, the world’s quarrel with Israel is one that cuts across mainstream political lines in the Jewish state. Those who wish it to make unilateral concessions to Palestinians who are not interested in peace won’t like Livni’s stipulations about a potential treaty any more than they do those of Netanyahu. Especially since it was her who was negotiating on his behalf when Abbas was refusing to budge an inch, as Kerry knows all too well. The growing chorus of support boycotts of Israel will not be stifled by a Herzog/Livni led coalition. Nor will a slightly more accommodating Israeli government appease the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

As for the Obama administration, there is no question that there will be jubilation in the White House and the State Department if Netanyahu loses. It would be nice to think that Washington would then back Livni in talks with Abbas, but the Palestinians inability to make peace will inevitably frustrate the president and Kerry and lead them to behave as they have always done and blame the Israelis.

There may be reasons for Israelis to choose a new prime minister but the notion that Livni will magically erase the country’s diplomatic isolation is a delusion that rests upon her hubris and mistaken belief in the dubious magic of her personality. No rational person who has been paying attention to the way the world interacts with and judges Israel over the past 20 years of peace processing should take such a fanciful idea seriously.

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Should Obama Care Who Wins Israel’s Knesset Elections?

The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

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The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

Actually, the more interesting question is: Should Obama care who wins? Obviously we know he does care. He hates Netanyahu, and Obama and co-president Valerie Jarrett tend to make policy based on personal grievances and petty grudges rather than on basic rationality. So Obama will care who wins, and perhaps even seek to, yet again, influence the results.

But he shouldn’t care. (Even if he did, he shouldn’t meddle, but the days when Obama could be convinced to respect the sovereignty and democracy of allies are over, if they ever existed.) Bibi Derangement Syndrome has caused American politicos and commentators to do very strange things. For Obama, this has meant downgrading the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war. For commentators, this has meant trying to recruit the corrupt and unpopular Ehud Olmert to return to politics.

So, being that the results of the Western left’s interaction with Israeli politics range from terrible to awful, it would benefit everyone involved if Obama gave up on trying to sabotage Israeli governments. And perhaps one way to convince him of that is to explain very clearly why it would be futile for him to meddle anyway.

That’s not because the left doesn’t have a chance to unseat Bibi; indeed it does (though still a longshot). Rather, it’s because the outcome of a Labor victory is unlikely to fundamentally change anything about the peace process.

Obama’s interest in Israel starts and ends with his attempts to get the Jewish state to give away land so he can boost his own presidential legacy. This is in part why Israelis have never come to trust Obama. He doesn’t know much about Israel, and he doesn’t show any interest in learning. For all his mistakes, this was simply not true of Bill Clinton. It was the opposite of true for George W. Bush, who gave moving speeches in Israel that testified to his love of the country and his deep knowledge and appreciation of its people and its history. Obama’s lack of intellectual curiosity is not limited to Israel, of course, but it certainly applies to it.

And so if his interest in Israel starts and ends with the peace process, his interest in Israeli national elections starts and ends there too. Thus Obama might assume that since Labor is traditionally more supportive of the peace process than Likud, and since Labor has added Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s peace envoy, to its combined electoral slate, therefore this election presents a stark choice between those Obama can manipulate and those Obama cannot. The reality, however, is more complicated, as reality tends to be.

The Israeli right is still benefiting from the collapse in public confidence in the left’s prosecution of national-security policy. Labor has recovered somewhat, but in recent years economic issues have hovered pretty close to the surface for Israeli voters. If Labor wins the election, it almost certainly won’t be seen as a mandate for giving away land to the Palestinians.

This is not only because Labor has less room to maneuver on this issue than the more security-trusted Likud. It’s also because the peace process is at a low point of the modern era, and it’s there because of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The Clinton administration made some progress on this front, even if the ultimate failure of the Clinton initiative led to a wave of Palestinian violence. The Bush administration made more genuine progress on this front with the Gaza disengagement and the eventual proffer of a generous peace deal from Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas.

The Obama era has seen the resort to a wave of Palestinian violence but no progress leading up to it. In fact, the two sides have been pushed by Obama and Kerry farther apart than they’ve been in decades. When Obama gets involved in the peace process, there is simply no upside, only downside. If Labor wins, there is no room right now for a renewed peace process, and Obama only has two years left in office anyway.

Additionally, Labor would have to do more than just win the election. They would have to put together a governing coalition, and the math is aligned against them. This also mitigates against the Obama agenda; any coalition Labor could put together would probably have to include Avigdor Lieberman and/or the ultra-Orthodox.

It is doubtful that anything significant will change after the Knesset elections in March. That may be disappointing to Obama, but it also might stop him from once again recklessly meddling in the messy world of Israeli politics.

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Implications of Iranian Cheating at Arak

As Jonathan Tobin notes, Colum Lynch’s Foreign Policy bombshell report about Iran’s covert efforts to buy equipment for its Arak plant, a facility which could produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb, raises questions about the logic of the Obama administration, and the recent comments by both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry with regard to the wisdom of extending nuclear talks with Iran.

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As Jonathan Tobin notes, Colum Lynch’s Foreign Policy bombshell report about Iran’s covert efforts to buy equipment for its Arak plant, a facility which could produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb, raises questions about the logic of the Obama administration, and the recent comments by both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry with regard to the wisdom of extending nuclear talks with Iran.

If Lynch’s report is true—and it appears very much to be so—then there are two possibilities as to what happened vis-à-vis American diplomacy. The first is that Iranian diplomats were always insincere in pursuit of a nuclear resolution, and lied outright to Kerry, Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, Clinton, Biden-aide Jake Sullivan, and other officials who have championed the drive for nuclear talks with the current Iranian administration. That possibility is troubling enough, but the second scenario is as troubling, and that is that Iranian diplomats were perfectly sincere, but that the regime simply couldn’t care less what its diplomats said and pursued its own goals irrespective of any commitments they made.

A key theme of my recent book exploring the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes (of which Iran is the marquee example) is that the State Department never conducts lessons-learned exercises to determine why previous episodes of diplomacy have failed. One example they might consider is the pre-Iraq War negotiations with Iran: Immediately prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad along with Ambassador Ryan Crocker met with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s UN ambassador (and its current foreign minister) in secret talks in Geneva. Almost simultaneously, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw met with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Both talks solicited the same Iranian pledge: Iranian officials would not interfere with coalition forces in Iraq, and Iran would not insert its own personnel or militias into Iraq.

In hindsight, the Iranians there, too, lied. Soon after Saddam’s fall, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) infiltrated 2,000 fighters, militiamen, and Qods Force personnel into Iraq replete with radio transmitters, money, pamphlets, and supplies. The source for that statement? Iranian journalists. Those most enthusiastic for rapprochement, however, are now placing their hopes in the same Mr. Zarif, the man who a decade ago either lied shamelessly or bluffed about the power he did have to control the behavior of the IRGC and influence the supreme leader. Then again, there is a reason why, before he became vice president, Joe Biden was Tehran’s favorite senator.

Kerry is like a gambler who has lost everything, but figures if only he is given one more round at the craps table, he can win big. American national security, however, is nothing with which to gamble. Especially when a gambler is desperate, the house will always win. In this case, however, the house is not Washington, but rather Tehran.

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No, Iran Isn’t Protector of the Shi’ites

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry shrugged off Iranian military involvement in Iraq. Responding to senators’ concern regarding recent Iranian airstrikes, Kerry reportedly said: “Iraq is 80 percent Shi‘a. There are interests.”

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Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry shrugged off Iranian military involvement in Iraq. Responding to senators’ concern regarding recent Iranian airstrikes, Kerry reportedly said: “Iraq is 80 percent Shi‘a. There are interests.”

With all due respect to Mr. Kerry, his comments reflect ignorance of Iranian behavior, Iraqi Shi‘ites, and religious freedom. That the Islamic Republic is the only protector of Shi‘ites around the globe has long been a staple of Iranian propaganda. But the concept of clerical rule imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini (and subsequently by his stepchild, Hezbollah in Lebanon) has long been an outlier among traditional Shi‘ites because it violates the separation of mosque and state at the heart of traditional Shi‘ism.

In short, ordinary Shi‘ites believe that the religious authority to follow is an individual, personal decision and not a state decision. Theologically, mainstream Shi‘ism teaches that only with the re-emergence of the Mahdi, Shi‘ism’s messianic figure, will there be perfect, incorruptible, Islamic government on earth. Therefore, until his return, government is by definition imperfect, corrupt, and un-Islamic, whatever the claims of the politicians who lead it. Khomeini turned this on its head, effectively arguing that the Prophet Muhammad didn’t separate religion and state, so neither would he and that Shi‘ite religious figures could act as the Mahdi’s deputy. Most Shi‘ite religious leaders don’t accept Khomeini and Khamenei’s view, however, nor do most individuals, either in Iran or outside it.

Independent Shi‘ism is, more than political reformism or anything emerging from the amorphous Green Movement, the true Achilles’ heel for the Iranian regime. It created militias like the Badr Corps and Jaysh al-Mahdi not simply to fight Americans, but rather to impose through force of arms and intimidation what is not in the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqi Shi‘ites. Here’s the basic problem for the Iranian leadership. As supreme leader, Ali Khamenei claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on Earth. Khamenei’s religious credentials are greatly exaggerated, however, and every time he has sought to put himself forward as the chief source of emulation for the Islamic world, for example after the death of Grand Ayatollah Araki in 1994, he has been laughed off the stage, and subsequently withdrew his name to save face.

Earlier this year, my colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I published a short monograph based on travel and interviews which surveyed all the Shi‘ite communities surrounding Iran, and examining the nuanced and diverse strategies each of these communities embraced to maintain their own independence from Iranian attempts to speak and act on their behalf (and AEI produced a short video for its launch, here). Iraqi Shi‘ites have struggled to preserve and protect the religious independence of both Najaf and Karbala from those in Tehran who would seek to speak on their behalf. The Iranian government surely pressures Iraq to do its bidding, a job made all the easier by the American withdrawal. But Iraqi Shi‘ites don’t want to be Iranian puppets, and never have. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi Shi‘ites did most of the fighting; they didn’t defect en masse just because Khomeini claimed to be the voice of the Shi‘ites. In 2013, the governor of Basra inaugurated a new bridge (built with U.S. money) over the Shatt al-Arab. It was no coincidence that he chose to inaugurate it with a fireworks display on the anniversary of Khomeini’s death. The implication was clear: even Iraqi Shi’ites celebrate on a day when the Islamic Republic officially mourns.

Iran may want to defeat the Islamic State, but they do nothing altruistically. Once they enter Iraq, they will not leave simply because they cannot afford to have any Iraqi ayatollah resident in Najaf or Karbala contradict the word of the supreme leader. How ironic it is that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry defer so much more to the Iranians than even Iraqi Shi‘ites do. And how sad it is that the United States continues to treat religious freedom in the Middle East, whether practiced by Jews, Christians, or Shi‘ite Muslims, so cavalierly. Make no mistake: the Iranian regime isn’t the protector of the Shi‘ites; it is among their chief oppressors.

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Iran Cheating Debunks Biden, Kerry Boasts

Obama administration figures used the annual Saban Forum on Middle East issues in Washington this past weekend to launch their counter-offensive against efforts to pass new sanctions against Iran. Both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the event to tout the wisdom of the decision to allow the negotiations with the Islamist state to go into a second overtime period instead of the finite period they promised a year ago when they were extolling the virtues of a weak interim deal that we were told would soon be followed by an agreement that would end the nuclear threat. But Kerry’s talk of progress toward a deal and Biden’s stereotypical bombast about Iran not getting a bomb on this administration’s watch was given the lie by the report published today in Foreign Policy detailing American charges that Iran is already going on a spending spree buying material that could be used to produce nuclear-weapons grade plutonium for a bomb.

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Obama administration figures used the annual Saban Forum on Middle East issues in Washington this past weekend to launch their counter-offensive against efforts to pass new sanctions against Iran. Both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the event to tout the wisdom of the decision to allow the negotiations with the Islamist state to go into a second overtime period instead of the finite period they promised a year ago when they were extolling the virtues of a weak interim deal that we were told would soon be followed by an agreement that would end the nuclear threat. But Kerry’s talk of progress toward a deal and Biden’s stereotypical bombast about Iran not getting a bomb on this administration’s watch was given the lie by the report published today in Foreign Policy detailing American charges that Iran is already going on a spending spree buying material that could be used to produce nuclear-weapons grade plutonium for a bomb.

The Foreign Policy scoop discusses Iran’s efforts to violate international sanctions to purchase components that could be employed at their Arak plutonium plant at which last year’s interim deal compelled the regime to shut down nuclear activity. The allegations are found in a confidential report from a panel of experts that advises a United Nations Security Council committee that oversees compliance with sanctions. The findings showed a marked increase in procurement of equipment related to heavy water production in recent months.

This is significant in and of itself as evidence of Iran’s intention to push ahead toward a bomb on both uranium and plutonium based plants. But it is even more significant because one of the administration’s principle talking points against further sanctions is that the existing laws (to which the administration had to be dragged kicking and screaming) are not only working but that Iran isn’t cheating on them or the interim accord. The evidence of Iranian activity not only debunks these assurances, it also illustrates that U.S. intelligence about what Iran is doing, which is crucial to monitoring compliance with any further agreements on Iran’s part, may not be up to the task of discovering what is really going on in their nuclear facilities.

That all of this is going on while the Iranians have successfully strung along American diplomats in the nuclear talks further diminishes the credibility of the pledges uttered by both Biden and Kerry. At best, Biden’s boast about a bomb not happening on Obama’s watch might be true. The weak agreements the president has promoted in order to vainly pursue his long-sought goal of détente with Iran may not result in an Iranian bomb being produced before January 2017. But the erosion of the sanctions and the West’s agreement to tacitly recognize an Iranian right to enrich uranium, combined with an inability to do much about Arak, force Tehran to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to find out about their military-applications research, or to get the Iranians to negotiate about their ballistic-missile program may lead to one being produced on the watch of his successor.

All of these developments make it obvious that the only thing that can rescue diplomacy with Iran is for the U.S. to increase pressure on Tehran, not to play nice with the regime, as Obama always seems inclined to do. Last year, the administration beat back an effort to pass more sanctions that would have shut down Iran’s oil trade but would not have gone into effect unless diplomacy failed. The result of their conscious decision to play with a weak hand was a predictable failure. Faced with similar results as last year, the Obama foreign-policy team is undaunted and is pulling out the stops again to foil the majority of both Houses of Congress that want more sanctions.

The new Congress should ignore both Biden and Kerry and take it as a given that in the absence of real pressure, Iran will never give in on its nuclear ambition. The news about Iranian cheating as well as Kerry’s failure to get even a weak nuclear deal makes it imperative that both the House and the Senate should pass sanctions that remain the only option short of force that might have a change to derail Iran’s nuclear quest.

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Bennett Routs Indyk, In a Victory for Truth

Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.

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Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.

Bennett’s challenge was twofold. First, he had to exhibit restraint and treat Indyk as a legitimate interlocutor. Indyk, of course, has spent the past decade and a half representing Democratic U.S. governments in the peace process intent on undermining the sitting Israeli prime minister, subverting Israeli democracy, and poisoning the well by badmouthing Israeli officials to the press behind their backs. The current violent turmoil in and around Jerusalem is a hangover from the failed peace talks. And the failed peace talks were due in large part to Kerry’s team, led by Indyk.

The second part of Bennett’s challenge was to recognize that amid current or former Obama administration officials, he had a tough crowd. That was only exacerbated by the upcoming Israeli elections. Before the last elections liberal American journalists and commentators, whose opinions are considered fringe in Israel but who live in a bubble of unearned self-righteousness here in the States, engaged in a collective freakout over the prospect of Naftali Bennett succeeding. He was projected to win as many as fifteen seats; they projected the end of the world.

Both were wrong: Bennett fell to a late surge by Yair Lapid, and the earth didn’t open up and swallow humanity whole as punishment for the electoral success of religious Zionists. Now there is another Israeli election looming; Bennett is projected to fare rather well; and liberal American commentators and journalists are once again, like the late Harold Camping, marking their calendars for the reckoning.

It was into this atmosphere that Bennett sat down for his on-the-record discussion with Indyk, after which he took questions from the audience. The transcript is here, and I recommend the full discussion, but there are a couple of points worth highlighting.

Bennett’s strategy was to be a forceful defender of Israel without lapsing into humorlessness. He succeeded, and at no point in this discussion was that success more impressive than when Indyk–who took potshots at the Israeli government after the talks’ collapse and was later found to be rambling at a bar to all who would listen about Israel’s perfidy–accused Bennett of being disrespectful to the U.S. government. It was milestone in the annals of hypocrisy, a particular talent of Indyk’s that repeated failure has only sharpened.

But Bennett was unafraid to hit back. He repeatedly made an important point that generally goes ignored in the Western press: Israel’s citizens make their own decisions. He knew his audience, he just refused to kowtow to it. When Indyk kept badgering him about global opinion, Bennett said:

Now, it’s the people of Israel — I want to point something out. The audience here and, you know, these sort of conferences does not at all — if I put a poll here probably Zahava Gal-On would be prime minister and maybe Tzipi Livni number two. The only problem with Israel is that for some strange reason they put the polling booths all across Israel and they actually let the public speak up. And the public, which is a very healthy public, does not think that Jerusalem should be split. It does not think that our land is occupied. It does not want to commit suicide.

Later, Bennett pressed Indyk on the fact that the peace process was supposed to bring, you know, peace. And yet, everyone wants to continue without learning from those failures. When Indyk told Bennett “I just think you live in another reality,” Bennett responded:

How many missiles need to fall on Ashkelon until you’ll wake up? How many? How many people need to die in our country until you wake up from this illusion? You know, the Oslo process took more than a thousand lives in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, and I didn’t hear anyone say, you know what, I made a mistake. When are you going to wake up? When is Tzipi Livni going to wake up?

This will not endear him to his critics on the left, especially in America. But it will be seen as a breath of fresh air to the reality-based community. And when Indyk foolishly propagated the long-debunked myth of the so-called root causes of terrorism that put the blame on Israel, Bennett shot back: “Right, because that’s why ISIS is cutting off heads because of Judea and Samaria. Come on, give me a break.”

One of the most important comments Bennett made was an otherwise unremarkable line about Israel’s reputation. In response to Indyk’s warning of Israel’s isolation, Bennett said that Israel’s government has to learn to change the conversation and challenge the false accusations leveled against its democracy: “if something is false and it’s repeated enough times, it becomes sort of common wisdom. We have to undo that.”

And in this Bennett was also revealing something else: one reason for the rise of Bennett and others on the right is the fact that the international community–including now the Obama administration–pulls the conversation so far to the left that Israel must defend itself. The more the world delegitimizes Israel’s rights, the more Israel will need to put those like Naftali Bennett front and center, to pull the conversation back closer to sanity. It’s ironic that the Martin Indyks of the world lament the rise of people like Naftali Bennett, when they do so much to bring it about.

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Feinstein Putting Petty Politics above National Security

During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

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During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

On Friday, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin broke the news that:

Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein… to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials. Kerry was not going rogue — his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning,  could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad.  Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.

Kerry is absolutely right to delay the report; he would be even more correct to ask Feinstein to table the report forever, if he and she valued the protection of American national interests over petty political vendettas. After all, if Feinstein were truly acting on principle, she would have targeted President Bill Clinton for investigation with the same gusto with which she came after the Bush administration. According to Washington Post columnist and former Bush administration speech writer Marc Thiessen:

…The men who decided to carry out the first extraordinary rendition of a terrorist target — over the legal objections of the White House counsel’s office — were Al Gore and Bill Clinton, according a description of the meeting by the counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, in his memoir, “Against All Enemies.”

Back to Feinstein: Rogin provides further details on how Feinstein has sought to have the report identify in reality if not in name the countries which assisted the United States with extraordinary rendition:

Feinstein was able to ensure that her release would include information about countries that secretly helped the CIA hide and abuse prisoners, although those countries would not be named directly.

This illustrates the unfortunate and growing tendency in Congress and within the Obama administration to treat allies with disdain. If blogger and writer Jeffrey Goldberg is to be believed, a senior Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “chickenshit” and bragged about how Netanyahu couldn’t possibly strike at Iran, hardly a sign of gratitude to a leader who agreed to delay any military strike against Iran at the request of President Obama. Rather than thank Israel for its deference, the White House deliberately sought to humiliate its ally.

In the days, months, and, indeed, years after 9/11, allies bent over backwards to help the United States respond to a growing terror scourge unlike anything the world had ever seen. Some did so reluctantly. Some disagreed with American policy, but bit their tongue and cooperated simply because that is what allies do in times of need when they receive such a request. Feinstein, however, is willing to punish them simply because she does not like George W. Bush. Make no mistake, Feinstein and Kerry may see the world through a partisan lens, but most U.S. allies support what the United States stands for regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. To embarrass these countries for domestic partisan reasons is short-sighted.

The next time the United States has a request—and it won’t matter what party occupies the White House or controls the Congress or what exactly the United States asks—it will be all the more difficult if not impossible to achieve international cooperation. After all, allies might conclude it simply isn’t worth the political risk that they will be targeted because of Washington vendettas that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Feinstein might believe that the United States will never face a parallel to what occurred during the Bush administration, but the nature of crises is that they are simply unpredictable.

Senators should be able to see the big picture, and they should never subordinate national security and national interests to short-term and cynical political agendas. The bigger threats now are the those posed by Russia, Iran, and China, countries which do far worse than the United States on a daily basis. Exposing American operations doesn’t convince the world the Americans are clean; it simply feeds the propaganda outlets in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing.

Don’t like CIA methods and extraordinary rendition? By all means, use all legislative and oversight power to put an end to it. But don’t drag allies into a political debate or air dirty laundry publicly. Don’t damage relations. Trust is at the heart of alliances, and once destroyed, it will never be rebuilt. Let us never punish allies and their leaders for standing by America when the request comes, no matter what politicians may, in hindsight, think of that request.

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Why the U.S. Can’t Influence Israel’s Vote

The reaction from Washington to Israel’s decision to move to new elections in March was fairly circumspect. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the U.S. had no intention of trying to influence an “internal matter” and reaffirmed support for its ally, though he also said he hoped the next government would be one that could negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinians. But the subtext was obvious. As former peace processor Aaron David Miller wrote today in Foreign Policy, “thoughts of a new prime minister are now dancing in the heads” of President Obama and Kerry. The early vote gives the administration’s ceaseless quest to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from office one last chance. Yet with Netanyahu on track to emerge even stronger from the election that he is today, it might be time for Obama and Kerry to re-examine their argument with Jerusalem. The fact that they seem incapable of doing so speaks volumes about how out of touch Washington is from the realities of the Middle East.

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The reaction from Washington to Israel’s decision to move to new elections in March was fairly circumspect. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the U.S. had no intention of trying to influence an “internal matter” and reaffirmed support for its ally, though he also said he hoped the next government would be one that could negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinians. But the subtext was obvious. As former peace processor Aaron David Miller wrote today in Foreign Policy, “thoughts of a new prime minister are now dancing in the heads” of President Obama and Kerry. The early vote gives the administration’s ceaseless quest to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from office one last chance. Yet with Netanyahu on track to emerge even stronger from the election that he is today, it might be time for Obama and Kerry to re-examine their argument with Jerusalem. The fact that they seem incapable of doing so speaks volumes about how out of touch Washington is from the realities of the Middle East.

From the moment that Netanyahu took office only weeks after Obama’s inauguration, the administration has been seeking the Israeli’s downfall. In his first months, Obama seemed to harbor hopes that Tzipi Livni might supplant him. But that idea flopped as Netanyahu outmaneuvered the former Kadima Party leader and gained strength every time Obama picked fights with the Israeli government on issues like Jerusalem where the prime minister represented the Israeli consensus. After a pause for a Jewish charm offensive designed to enhance Obama’s reelection prospects, the feud was back in force in the last year as he and Kerry chose to wrongly blame Netanyahu for the failure off their futile attempt to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

As Miller writes, American governments have intervened in Israeli politics before in 1992 and 1996 when they openly supported Labor Party efforts to defeat the Likud. But Miller cautions against trying again in no small measure because the only possible alternative to Netanyahu might be the Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett, who is very much to the right of the prime minister. While I think Netanyahu doesn’t have to worry about Bennett supplanting him for the moment, his point is well taken. As I wrote on both Monday and Tuesday of this week about the move to new elections, the balance of Israeli politics has dramatically shifted to the right and the next Knesset is likely to be one in which left-wing parties favored by the administration will be weaker.

This is a source of great frustration for the president who lamented in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly about Israelis no longer being willing to do the hard work to make peace. But in saying that, he didn’t examine fully why it was that Israelis felt that way. Israelis want peace more than ever especially in the aftermath of another conflict with Hamas that saw much of the country’s population spending the summer dashing to and from bomb shelters as thousands of rockets rained down on their heads.

But what they have noticed and what the administration and liberal American critics of Netanyahu are determined to ignore is the fact that the Palestinians have consistently rejected peace offers from Israel. Even their so-called moderate leader is unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and incites hatred and violence against Israel. With no peace partner in sight, Israelis rightly understand that the best they can hope for is an attempt to manage the conflict, not to solve it.

Unlike his predecessors and Kerry, Netanyahu isn’t driven to create a legacy by negotiating a peace accord. He knows that making more concessions to the Palestinians will lead, as did all the attempts by his predecessors to make peace, to more violence and suffering, not peace. Unlike the administration, Netanyahu grasps the fact that peace won’t be possible until the Palestinians undergo a sea change in their political culture that will enable them to give up their dreams of Israel’s destruction. That is why his party and its right-wing allies/rivals are likely to emerge victorious in March. Indeed, the latest polls show that the right led by Netanyahu will gain enough votes for a Knesset majority even without seeking a coalition with centrist or religious parties.

Yet for the U.S. the disillusionment of the Israeli electorate with the discredited peace process remains inexplicable or a function of what liberals claim is a drift toward extremism in the Jewish state. But instead of attempting to force Israel to make more dangerous concessions to a peace partner that doesn’t want peace, Washington should be signaling the Palestinians that if they truly do want independence, they are going to have lose their delusions about Israel’s impermanence. They must stop lauding PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as hero for peace even though he has become a primary obstacle to its achievement.

If the U.S. does stay out of the Israeli campaign it will not be because Obama and Kerry respect Israeli democracy—they do not—or oppose interventions of this sort. It will because the administration understands that Israelis hold their premise about the conflict to be utter bunk. But instead of resenting this, as both Obama and Kerry obviously do, they should be wondering what it is that the people of Israel know about the situation that they can’t grasp.

But if there is anything we’ve learned in the past six years about this president and his administration, it is that it is not overly fond of admitting mistakes or rethinking cherished, if failed, ideologies about the world. While Israelis rightly care about their essential alliance with the United States and don’t personally love Netanyahu, they know better than to trust Obama’s judgment rather than their own lying eyes.

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Netanyahu Chooses the Lesser of Two Evils

Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.

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Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.

Despite not criticizing the extension, Netanyahu made it clear that he is appalled by the direction in which the talks are heading. Had the Iranians accepted the West’s current offer, “the deal would’ve left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium for an atomic bomb while removing the sanctions.” He believes the only deal with Iran that makes sense is one that “will dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atom bombs,” a formula he takes to mean no uranium enrichment of any kind rather than the compromise put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry which would for all intents and purposes allow them to become a nuclear threshold state.

Seen from that perspective, the Israeli relief about the continuation of the talks seems misplaced. If Netanyahu doesn’t like the deal Kerry put on the table over the past weekend that Iran rejected, he should expect to be even less pleased with subsequent offers that the West will make in order to entice Iran to finally sign even a weak nuclear agreement that will give President Obama the sham foreign-policy success that he so badly needs.

Indeed, as Dennis Ross, the longtime State Department peace processor and subsequently a special advisor to the Obama administration on Iran and the Persian Gulf said today, Iran has showed no flexibility in the nuclear talks. The history of the last two years of discussions that led up to the interim deal signed last November (which relaxed sanctions and gave tacit recognition to Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for measures that did little to halt the Islamist regime’s nuclear progress) and the subsequent standoff in the current talks has been marked by a steady Western retreat from its positions. Throughout this period, the U.S. has shown “flexibility” rather than standing up for its principle and as a result has thrown away the considerable economic and political leverage it had over Tehran.

There’s little question that any negotiations in the seven more months that have been added to the yearlong quest for a final agreement are likely to yield even more concessions. Indeed, why should the Iranians who have stood their ground throughout this process, demanding and getting a steady stream of Western retreats on issues such as enrichment, the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and allowed other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism to be kept off the agenda of the negotiations?

So what possible good can come out of the delay?

One obvious possibility is that Iran is so now so confident in their ability to string Obama, Kerry, and company along that they will never sign any deal. In one sense that would be a disaster since it would mean the West had wasted two more years on futile negotiations while Iran got even closer to realizing its nuclear goal. However, another failure to get Iran to sign would force the president to come face to face with the fact that his policies had failed and drop his push for appeasement in the hope of creating a new détente with Iran.

Clearly, Obama would not abandon his hopes for a rapprochement with Iran without a struggle. But it remains possible that Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will never agree to any deal no matter how favorable it might be for his country. If so, that sets the stage for the imposition of the sort of tough sanctions—amounting to an economic embargo on Iran and the halting of all oil sales—that could bring the country to its knees.

But for that to happen, it will be necessary for Congress to ignore Obama and Kerry’s pleas and enact the next round of sanctions now in order to have them in place and ready when the negotiations fail. By piping down now, Netanyahu is rightly adding weight to the bipartisan majority in Congress in favor of increasing the economic restrictions on doing business with Iran. Moreover, by not publicly opposing the administration’s decision, the Israelis are making it clear to both Congress and the American public that their goal is not the use of force but rather an effort to recreate the strong position the West held over Iran before Kerry folded during the interim talks last year. Another pointless spat with Obama would be a needless distraction that would undermine support for sanctions.

A choice between a “terrible” agreement and a postponement that also seems to play into Tehran’s hands is not one anyone outside of Iran should relish. Yet a lot can happen in seven months. Though there is a very real possibility that the next round will yield more concessions and an even weaker deal, the chance exists that a combination of Iranian rejectionism and congressional action will create a turnabout that will force the U.S. to stop appeasing the Islamist regime and return to a policy based on strength and common sense. If so, Netanyahu’s decision to choose the lesser of two evils and keep his powder dry this week will turn out to be a smart move he won’t regret.

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How Big of a Problem Is Susan Rice?

Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

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Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

It’s true that this isn’t the first time we’re hearing of the toxic atmosphere and mismanagement at Rice’s National Security Council. But it’s striking how clearly the battle lines appear to be drawn in the steady stream of bitter leaks aimed at Hagel, designed to kick him while he’s down. The cruelty with which the Obama insiders are behaving right now is unsettling, to be sure. But more relevant to the formation of national-security policy is the question of whether Susan Rice’s incompetence and pride are playing a role in the constant stream of Obama foreign-policy failures.

About two weeks ago, Foreign Policy magazine CEO David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, previewed his new book on American foreign policy in the age of Obama by sitting for an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Rothkopf has written a book on the history of the NSC, so Goldberg asked him about the NSC under Susan Rice. His opinion was pretty brutal.

Goldberg and Rothkopf discussed the mixed record of national security advisors over the last few decades, and Rothkopf summed it up this way: “If there are lessons to be drawn from this track record, they include the fact that it’s harder to be the first national security advisor of a president with little foreign-policy experience and, in the end, more broadly, the national security advisor is really only ever as good as his or her president enables him or her to be.”

That sounded like he was letting Rice off the hook a bit, but he returned to the topic to dispel any such impression. In fact, Obama and Rice seemed to reinforce each other’s weaknesses:

If Obama had any material management or foreign-policy experience prior to coming in to office or if he had the character of our stronger leaders on these issues—notably a more strategic than tactical orientation, more trust in his team, less risk aversion, etc.—she would be better off, as would we all. But his flaws are compounded by a system that lets him pick and empower those around him. So, if he chooses to surround himself with a small team of “true believers” who won’t challenge him as all leaders need to be challenged, if he picks campaign staffers that maintain campaign mode, if he over-empowers political advisors at the expense of those with national-security experience, that takes his weaknesses and multiplies them by those of the team around him.

And whatever Susan Rice’s many strengths are, she is ill-suited for the job she has. She is not seen as an honest broker. She has big gaps in her international experience and understanding—Asia. She is needlessly combative and has alienated key members of her staff, the cabinet, and overseas leaders. She is also not strategic and is reactive like her boss. So whereas the system does have the capability of offsetting the weaknesses of a president, if he is surrounded by strong advisors to whom he listens and who he empowers to do their jobs, it can also reinforce and exacerbate those weaknesses—as it is doing now.

And indeed, while Hagel was no superstar, Rice crops up in each account of his ouster. Politico reports that “Hagel’s main gripe, according to people close to him, was what he viewed as a disorganized National Security Council run by Ricea criticism shared by [White House chief of staff Denis] McDonough, according to a senior administration official.” Politico also points out that in this respect, Hagel was no outlier; his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, shared this concern.

And according to the New York Times: “White House officials also expressed annoyance over a sharply critical two-page memo that Mr. Hagel sent to Ms. Rice last month, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad. Senior officials complained that Mr. Hagel had never made such a case in internal debates, suggesting that he was trying to position himself for history on a crucial issue as he was talking to Mr. Obama about leaving his job.”

It’s debatable what the worst part of that is. That the White House was bothered enough by one critical memo for it to appear in a story on the secretary of defense’s dismissal? That the secretary of defense and the national security advisor are communicating this through memos? That White House officials thought Hagel put his thoughts in writing out of borderline-disloyalty and the hope of abandoning a sinking ship?

I was among those singing Rice’s praises as a whipsmart advisor and a tough-as-nails negotiator, at least in the context of her candidacy to be secretary of state. Yet it’s become clear she feeds on conflict. It’s possible that instinct would be more beneficial were she at State and dealing with those shoving John Kerry around on the world stage. But Chuck Hagel is not Sergei Lavrov, and Rice’s conflation of all adversaries, personal and political, is tearing the White House’s national-security team apart.

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