THE NEWEST AMERICAN DEBACLE IN THE NEAR EAST: A COMMENT
I have written myself about the Obama administration’s more-than-flatfooted policies on Syria (here, here, and here) and Iran (here, here, and here). So I am particularly gratified when I find myself in alignment with Barry Rubin, a truly brainy scholar with a slight polemical touch. His latest analysis is below.
Syria is a galling instance of the president’s obsessions ... and for several reasons. A weak country, both economically and militarily, its only possible political sway is to exacerbate the hatreds of its neighbors towards Israel. Were this Alawite dictatorship to somehow soften its line on Israel--which is extremely difficult to imagine since the hard line is central to its raison d'être--its allies (Hezbollah and Hamas) would simply proceed without Damascus and turn to Tehran for more of their sustenance than they already receive.
It still amazes me (although by now it shouldn’t) how comfortable Obama is in not only making overtures to, but in establishing pacts with governments like Syria. The Assads are the last regime except Gadhafi’s from the generation of the colonels, which goes back to Nasser and Hussein and whose chilling ethic is carried on by the opthamologist heir to his father Hafez, murderer of much too many to count. Do you recall how the press welcomed Bashar as a rational man of science?
In any case, the Obama courtship of Doctor Assad fell on bad times no sooner than it began. Assad knows well that any real standing he and his government might have in the Arab world is as a troublemaker. That is why he and the North Koreans cooked up a secret atomic weapons plant in northern Syria ... and also why Israel deftly took it out. Now, Assad alleges that Israel arranged for it to be put there precisely in order to destroy it. It is not so shocking that the dictator would think this. But it is shocking that even Assad could imagine that his subjects would believe this fantasy.
It is also shocking that the U.S. administration would be courting this flimflam government and counting on it to behave honorably. As it happens, the last few weeks should have been taken by the Obami as comeuppance. But they haven’t.
As Rubin suggests, a more serious defeat has already been integrated into the president’s view of the world. It is not so much the utter disdain for American efforts to pacify and palliate Tehran. Could the Iranian regime have made it any clearer? Indeed, even the administration’s indifference to the Green Movement, which was supposed to buy us credit with Tehran, brought forth its contempt.
As many of us may have noticed, Obama, poor Mrs. Clinton, and other spayed spokesmen for high Washington policy makers have themselves eased the sanctions they expect the United Nations to levy on Iran. Rubin points out that these sanctions will be directed at the economic affairs of particular elites, not at the country itself. Maybe this new formulation will entice support from Moscow and Beijing. But please take note of the fact that I do not believe it. It is another self-delusion of the president which will delude other liberals. Until Iran has one bomb and then many.
Since Obama has had his hands tied on domestic policy (I am generally on his side on these matters) by the fanatic Republican opposition, he has taken all the constitutional powers allotted to him and run with them, without even the advice of the Senate. So here his own instincts--untutored instincts and tiers mondiste instincts—are free to decide and to rule the roost. No president since Lyndon Johnson has so individually defined his international affairs agenda, although he had a cabinet around to check him. Hillary is now as influential as Dean Rusk was.
Of course, the Senate may someday also wake up to the worldwide diplomatic disaster that is the architecture of this president.
Martin Peretz, "The Multitudinous Disasters of the Obama Administration," 8 March 2010, in www.tnr.com
"It took a little over 24 hours, but in the end a version of events was agreed on that allowed for the resumption of something resembling business as usual in Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu had not known about the planning approval of 1600 housing units in Occupied East Jerusalem - this was all terribly embarrassing, Israel was sincerely sorry for the unpleasantness caused, and the minister directly responsible displayed appropriate contrition. You see, the relevant district planning committee in Jerusalem had its timing wrong, completing the approval process would anyway take several more months, and actual building on the ground would only happen some time in the distant future....
America and Israel are largely talking past each other, and either the U.S. just doesn't get it and fails to understand the dynamics at work in Israel or it has convinced itself that for its own political reasons it is unable to act in anything approaching a decisive manner. Both may be correct. Neither bode well for the future....
Understanding the Israeli reality is crucial to charting a smart policy as Sen. Mitchell seeks to advance peace negotiations. The Obama administration would hardly be alone in failing to appreciate the deep and structural dynamics that are in play in Israel. Many very smart Israeli analysts, commentators, and practitioners are in denial themselves (for example, Amos Harel here, putting this latest spat down to incompetence). It is all too easy to blame the Shas minister directly responsible, Eli Yishai, or Netanyahu's poor management, or coalition intrigues.
Of all the words Israeli officials have uttered in walking back this episode, one has been conspicuously missing - that it was "wrong". Netanyahu is reported to have said the following in yesterday's cabinet meeting, "Approving that plan when the vice president of the United States is visiting here is first-rate insensitivity... We will continue to build in Jerusalem." Aye, there's the rub....
Perhaps America will present Israel with a real choice and with consequences for recalcitrance. Thus far, that has not been the case. The U.S. backed down (again) over settlements last year and the suspicion of course exists that domestic political considerations continue to constrain an American president's freedom of action when it comes to securing an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
Israel is unlikely to make a choice until the U.S. makes its own choice, and this week demonstrated that papering over the chasm now existing between U.S. and Israeli positions is an ever-more transparently flawed exercise. America may only be paying attention when the vice president is in town, but the Arab and Muslim world views America as the enabler-in-chief of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and of the indignities being visited on Gaza's civilian population, every single day.
In the absence of decisive American leadership, Israel is likely to dig itself deeper into a hole, burying the last vestiges of hope for pragmatic Zionism. And America too will not emerge unscathed. The president can give any number of Cairo speeches and appoint Sen. Mitchell as special peace envoy, Sec. Clinton can appoint Farah Pandit as representative to Muslim communities and Rashad Hussain as envoy to the O.I.C., but these officials had all better be given the cellphone number of the Israeli interior ministry, Jerusalem district planning and building department, because that office and others in Israel's bureaucracy still have the deciding vote in framing America's image in the region".
Daniel Levy, "Biden, Netanyahu and papering over the Grand Canyon," 11 March 2010, in www.foreignpolicy.com
The diplomatic debacle which occurred last week in Israel, was an accident waiting to happen. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about what occurred. Nor should anyone on this side of the Atlantic be very surprised that the Israeli government under Prime Minister Netanyahu, decided to unveil this particular 'surprise' on the American Vice-President. The Israeli leader, who is nothing else, is a past-master of reading American leaders, knows that he has the American Administration 'number', diplomatically speaking. And, notwithstanding all of the post-facto complaints by the American Vice-President and subsequently, the American Secretary of State, there is nothing on the horizon which indicates that this state of affairs shall change anytime soon. Readers of this journal, may recall, that at the very outset of the new administration, I made a prediction that regardless of all the claims and hopes emitted by all and sundry, including by some people who should have know better in retrospect (like my sometime acquaintance Professor Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University and Syria Comment), that there was scant likelihood that anything substantive would occur in American Near Eastern diplomacy in the next four years. And, that was true specifically as per the Arab-Israeli dispute (see: "Whistling Dixie? Thoughts on what lies ahead for American Near Eastern Policy." 11 November 2008). Nothing in the 15 months since that post, has caused me to change my opinion. Ifthere is any movement in the Arab-Israeli dispute diplomatically speaking, it will be due to Israel, of its own volition, deciding to proceed with a peace agreement, either with Palestinian Authority President Abbas (highly unlikely under Netanyahu) or with Assad's Syria (more likely but by no means certain). There is, I am willing at this point to state categorically no likelihood that the current American administration, will prove able to move the diplomatic chess pieces forward in such a way as to advance prospects for peace. Rien plus.To expect otherwise is (in the words of Neville Chamberlain) "the very mid-summer of madness".