Sunday, April 04, 2010
Obama is allowing Iran to go nuclear
US President Barack Obama has decided to abandon any serious effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He is determined instead to live with a nuclear Iran, by containment and, if possible, negotiation.
This is the shifting tectonic plate in the Middle East.
This is the giant story of the past few weeks which the world has largely missed, distracted by the theatre of the absurd of Obama's contrived and mock confrontation with Israel over 1600 apartments to be built in three years' time in a Jewish suburb in East Jerusalem.
Iran is the only semi-intelligible explanation for Obama's bizarre over-reaction against the Israelis.
In the Middle East, today, Iran is the story. It is the consideration behind all other considerations.
Obama has not explicitly announced his new position and he and his cabinet secretaries still make speeches saying they will try to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. But if you look at the statements closely you see a steady weakening of resolve, a steady removal of any threat of any consequence for Iran. Similarly, if you look at the actions of the administration, the sombre conclusion is inescapable.
Given Iran's missile program, which has no conceivable military use except to carry nuclear weapons, and which can now reach Europe and in due course will have a longer range, the fundamental change in US policy has global security consequences.
It has global security consequences in other ways, as well. It profoundly undermines American strategic credibility, which is the bedrock of whatever global order this troubled planet enjoys.
The troubling realisation that the Americans have given up, or are in the process of giving up, the fight to prevent Iran going nuclear is backed by the best informed security sources in Washington, London, Jerusalem and Canberra.
The bust-up between Washington and Israel only makes sense in this context. Last week, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Obama in the White House, and also met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department. On both occasions, all photographers and all TV cameras were banned. This was a studied humiliation of Netanyahu and all, ostensibly, because Israel announced that in three years' time 1600 apartments would be built in a Jewish neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Yet the 10-month moratorium on new residential building in the West Bank which Netanyahu had announced in October to effusive US praise had specifically exempted East Jerusalem.
It is inconceivable that Obama would have treated any Arab or Muslim leader with the same considered contempt that he showed to Netanyahu. I speculated last week that Obama engaged in his furious over-reaction in order to pursue personal popularity in the Muslim world, and perhaps to force Israel to make so many concessions that the Palestinians would come back to negotiations. Although these negotiations would not produce a comprehensive peace deal, at least Obama could claim the talks themselves as a victory of sorts.
I still think these were important considerations but there was a much bigger strategic purpose, as well. In 2008, Israel told Washington it was planning to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. Washington talked Jerusalem out of the move, not least by showing its own determination to stop the Iranians.
In those days, senior Americans from then-president George W. Bush down, often said that "all options are on the table" in their determination to stop Iran acquiring nukes. All options explicitly included an American military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. When Obama spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2008, he said he would use "all elements of American power to pressure Iran".
He won a tumultuous standing ovation by using a repetition of a key word to emphasise his determination. He said: "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon - everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon - everything." That was Obama's equivalent to Bush's "all options".
Obama doesn't talk anything like that any more. In his message to Iran on the Iranian new year a few weeks ago, he reiterated his determination not to meddle in Iran's internal affairs and said the nuclear matter should still be negotiated.
Clinton, in her address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week, spoke only briefly about Iran, repeating a pro-forma US determination to stop it going nuclear. But there was no mention of all options, everything the US could do, or all aspects of US power. Instead, she said that while sanctions were taking a long time to work out at the UN, it was time well spent, and they would show Iran that its actions had consequences.
But the bulk of her speech was all about the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Presidential and Secretary of State speeches on subjects like this are given a level of attention that wouldn't be out of place in the preparation of a papal encyclical. The sub-text of Obama and Clinton's recent speeches can only be that they have decided that the battle against a nuclear-armed Iran is over.
One thing they are determined to do is to stop Israel from taking its own unilateral military action to stop or retard Iran's nuclear program. Israel has taken this type of action twice before. In 1981, it destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak. And in 2007, it bombed into obliteration a North Korean-supplied secret nuclear reactor in Syria.
It is impossible to know with absolute certainty what Israel's intentions were, or are, for the Iranian nuclear program. But for several years the most senior US officials would agree that a nuclear-armed Iran represented an existential threat to Israel. Iran's rulers, after all, not only deny the Holocaust but have made militant anti-Americanism, confrontation with Israel and even anti-Semitism, defining ideologies of the Iranian state. Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Most analysts believe that for all their extremism, the Iranian rulers are rational actors and would not actually use nuclear weapons. But this is a slender analytical thread to ask Israelis to hang their very lives on. And the danger of Iran proliferating some element of nuclear material or technology to terrorists is much more plausible.
This is where the Obama-Israel dust-up comes in. By so isolating Israel, by irresponsibly unleashing a global wave of anti-Israel sentiment, especially in nations which normally support Israel, Obama has made the possibility of Israel considering unilateral action against Iran much more unlikely. The Israelis would weigh such action very carefully. There are many pluses and minuses. By creating the impression of Israel as a besieged, isolated and reckless nation, which the wildly disproportionate reaction to the East Jerusalem apartments accomplished, Obama has made the potential cost to Israel of action against Iran much greater.
Is it fair to conclude definitively that Obama has decided to give up, except for symbolic and meaningless actions, the fight against a nuclear-armed Iran?
Obama might still change his mind - he is nothing, after all, if not flexible - but that is the inescapable conclusion of his actions so far.
He has set so many deadlines for Iran. Each of them has passed and nothing ever happens. There are never bad consequences for the US's enemies in Obama world, it seems, only for its friends.
Remember, initially, that the Obama administration wanted to wait for the Iranian election in the middle of last year before it exhausted dialogue or went down the sanctions road? Remember then the deadline was September? Remember the proposal for Iran's uranium to go to Russia for enrichment? Remember the revelation of Iran's secret nuclear facility at Qom? Remember Iran's announcement that it intended to enrich uranium up to 20 per cent, a vast leap on the technological road to weapons? Did you notice a couple of weeks ago Iran's announcement that it would build new nuclear facilities?
And where are we today? Now it is April and Obama is still talking in his feckless way about possible UN sanctions. Anything that is passed by China and Russia at the UN Security Council will be weak and ineffective. A serious US administration would have built a critical mass of like-minded countries to impose crippling sanctions on Iran outside the Security Council.
The only explanation that fits with all the facts is that the US administration is no longer serious about stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, writing in this month's Foreign Affairs, declare that: "If Iran's nuclear program continues to progress at its current rate, Tehran could have the nuclear material needed to build a bomb before US President Barack Obama's current term in office expires." The Foreign Affairs article, After Iran Gets the Bomb, is important in another way. It demonstrates the drift in the serious discussion in the US. It is no longer a discussion of how to stop Iran getting the bomb, but how to cope with a nuclear-armed Iran.
Here's something else you should know about Iran. US General David Petraeus, in written testimony to congress, has revealed that Iran is co-operating with al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, facilitating the movement of its leaders. The Sunday Times of London recently carried interviews with Taliban leaders who were trained in Iran.
There is no chance Obama will produce a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in his first term in office, which is how he would like to be remembered by history. There is every chance history will remember him for something altogether different, as the American president on whose watch Iran became a nuclear-weapons state.
Obama only likes America's enemies
Which is exactly what one would expect of the far-Leftist he is
The contretemps between President Obama and Israel needs to be seen in a broader global context. The president who ran against "unilateralism" in the 2008 campaign has worse relations overall with American allies than George W. Bush did in his second term.
Israelis shouldn't feel that they have been singled out. In Britain, people are talking about the end of the "special relationship" with America and worrying that Obama has no great regard for the British, despite their ongoing sacrifices in Afghanistan. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has openly criticized Obama for months (and is finally being rewarded with a private dinner, presumably to mend fences). In Eastern and Central Europe, there has been fear since the administration canceled long-planned missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic that the United States may no longer be a reliable guarantor of security. Among top E.U. officials there is consternation that neither the president nor even his Cabinet seems to have time for the European Union's new president, Herman Van Rompuy, who, while less than scintillating, is nevertheless the chosen representative of the post-Lisbon Treaty continent. Europeans in general, while still fond of Obama, have concluded that he is not so fond of them -- despite his six trips to Europe -- and is more of an Asian president.
The Asians, however, are not so sure. Relations with Japan are rocky, mostly because of the actions of the new government in Tokyo but partly because of a perception that the United States can't be counted on for the long term. In India, there are worries that the burgeoning strategic partnership forged in the Bush years has been demoted in the interest of better relations with China. Although the Obama administration promised to demonstrate that the United States "is back" in Asia after the alleged neglect of the Bush years, it has not yet convinced allies that they are the focus of American attention.
U.S. officials have any number of explanations for these concerns: that they are based on misunderstandings, the product of minor errors in execution, simply Bush's fault. By now, however, a moderately self-reflective administration might be asking why so many allies, everywhere, are worried.
Yet it isn't that surprising. Who has attracted attention in the Obama administration? The answer, so far, seems to be not America's allies but its competitors, and in some cases its adversaries. If there were a way to measure administration exertion in foreign policy, the meter would show the greatest concentration of energy, beyond the war in Afghanistan, has been devoted to four endeavors: the failed first-year attempt to improve relations with Iran; the ongoing attempt to improve relations with Russia; the stalled effort to improve cooperation with China; and the effort -- fruitless so far -- to prove to the Arab states that the United States is willing to pressure Israel to further the peace process. Add to these the efforts to improve relations with Syria, engage Burma and everything with Af-Pak, and not much has been left for the concerns of our allies.
This is bad enough, but compounding the problem has been the administration's evident impatience with allies who don't do as they are told. Europeans get spanked for a pallid commitment to NATO defense spending even as they contribute 30,000 troops to a distant war that European publics mostly don't believe in. Japan gets spanked when its new government insists on rethinking some recent agreements. In both cases, the administration has a point, but it's always easier to hammer allies when they misbehave than to hammer tough competitors such as Russia or China.
The president has shown seemingly limitless patience with the Russians as they stall an arms-control deal that could have been done in December. He accepted a year of Iranian insults and refusal to negotiate before hesitantly moving toward sanctions. The administration continues to woo Syria and Burma without much sign of reciprocation in Damascus or Rangoon. Yet Obama angrily orders a near-rupture of relations with Israel for a minor infraction like the recent settlement dispute -- and after the Israeli prime minister publicly apologized.
This may be the one great innovation of Obama foreign policy. While displaying more continuity than discontinuity in his policies toward Afghanistan, Iraq and the war against terrorism, and garnering as a result considerable bipartisan support for those policies, Obama appears to be departing from a 60-year-old American grand strategy when it comes to allies. The old strategy rested on a global network of formal military and political alliances, mostly though not exclusively with fellow democracies. The idea, Averell Harriman explained in 1947, was to create "a balance of power preponderantly in favor of the free countries." Under Bill Clinton, and the two Bushes, relations with Europe and Japan, and later India, were deepened and strengthened.
This administration pays lip-service to "multilateralism," but it is a multilateralism of accommodating autocratic rivals, not of solidifying relations with longtime democratic allies. Rather than strengthening the democratic foundation of the new "international architecture" -- the G-20 world -- the administration's posture is increasingly one of neutrality, at best, between allies and adversaries, and between democrats and autocrats. Israel is not the only unhappy ally, therefore; it's just the most vulnerable.
The elitists vs. the rest of us
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards twice ran unsuccessfully for president on a platform based on his contention that there are "two Americas: the America of the privileged and the wealthy, and the America of those who live from paycheck to paycheck." Edwards was right that there are two Americas, but he missed it completely on who resides where and why. One America is that of the liberal political elite that currently controls the White House and solid majorities in Congress, and dominates the traditional media, academia, and public intellectual ranks. The other America is the rest of us who are expected to shut up and do as we are told by the first America.
What is most worrisome here are the elitists' blatantly anti-democratic attitudes and authoritarian impulses. Three examples have been on raw display this week -- by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and James Lovelock, the British scientist who is revered by global warming crusaders.
Waxman threw a fit when a half dozen major corporations announced the first of a coming flood of downward revisions to projected profits because of Obamacare, the exceedingly unpopular health care measure that the California congressman co-sponsored in the House of Representatives. So he angrily scheduled a public grilling of the guilty executives and demanded that they provide in advance copies of all internal documents, including e-mails, that explain and justify their decisions. It was exactly the kind of unrestricted "fishing expedition' demand for documents -- many containing privileged commercial information -- that Waxman routinely condemned as an abuse of power when Republicans controlled Congress. Lesson: Elitists hate limits on their power.
Jackson is the agency head who told Congress last year that if it didn't pass a cap-and-trade bill to regulate greenhouse gases, her agency would regulate them unilaterally. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Monday that when she submitted a list of detailed questions to Jackson last month about how that would be done, the EPA head "refused to answer even the most basic questions about how many stationary sources will be regulated, when those sources will be regulated, what technologies will be mandated for compliance, and how much the regulations will cost." Lesson: Elitists disdain explaining their actions.
Then there is Lovelock, who told the Guardian newspaper in Britain that growing public skepticism here about anti-global warming measures like cap and trade makes him doubt that we humans are "clever enough to handle a situation as complex as climate change." Lovelock's solution? "Put democracy on hold for a while." Lesson: Elitists believe important decisions should be left to bright people like Waxman, Jackson, and Lovelock.
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Posted by JR at 8:37 PM