Lessons from Crimea
Let us stipulate at the outset that neither Crimea nor even Ukraine is worth nuking it out with the Russians. Indeed there is no American interest that would justify risking a single American soldier in Russia's backyard.
Let us further stipulate, as Peggy Noonan put it, "Mr. Putin didn't go into Ukraine because of Mr. Obama. He just factored him in." Putin had plenty of good reasons for wanting Crimea, which has been part of Russia since the 18th century: the traditional Slavophile quest for empire; the desire to show up the United States and thereby reverse what Putin views as the humiliating end of the Cold War that left Russia stripped of much of its empire; the need to replenish the rapidly dwindling supply of ethnic Russians within Russia itself. Most important, Putin's constantly churning propaganda machine needs a constant supply of Russian triumphs – e.g., the Sochi Olympics -- to distract the populace from the kleptocracy that Putin presides over and profits from.
But those stipulations do not end the matter. First, as Leon Wieseltier pointed out in the liberal New Republic, "There is the question of how to respond practically to Putin's aggression and there is the question of how to respond intellectually. The latter is no less important. . ." There can be no doubt that President Obama was caught completely off guard by Russia's takeover of Crimea, and his surprise was typical. As Wiesletier observed, "The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil."
His err is an outgrowth of a certain solipsism – the lazy assumption that everybody thinks pretty much the same as you do and wants pretty much the same things you do. "You just don't in the 21st century behave in the 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext," Secretary of State John Kerry lectured Putin. To which the latter's response was effectively, "Oh yeah, why not? Who's going to stop me?"
The world is too "interdependent" for such behavior, a senior administration official chimed in. Interdependent is shorthand for the idea that rational people do not risk the economic benefits of international trade. That Putin might value other things above the Russian stock market does not seem to have occurred to Washington policymakers. In any event, he need not have worried. The first sanctions – travel restrictions and frozen bank accounts on seven Russian officials and four Ukrainians, but none on any oligarchs or Putin himself – were so weak that the Moscow stock exchange shot up 3.7% upon their announcement.
European sanctions were even weaker. "Interdependence," it turns out, goes two ways. Bankers in the City of London have been only too happy to service the Russian oligarchs and their billions, as have real estate agents in better neighborhoods across the continent and posh boarding schools catering to the oligarchs' children. They have no desire to lose those billions. A tweet from Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister, gave Putin every reason to believe that Europe is far more afraid of economic sanctions than he is. "On the one hand we cannot imagine delivering arms to Russia [a $1.7 billion miniature aircraft carrier ordered by Russia]; on the other, there is the reality of employment," Fabius broadcast to the world.
That same inability to conceive of other people as having different priorities so evident in American surprise at Putin's actions explains the perpetual failure of the Middle East "peace process." American policymakers cannot conceive that the Palestinians' primary goal is not the economic prosperity that would accompany a genuine peace with Israel, or that destroying the Jewish state remains more enticing to them – for reasons having deep roots in Islam (about which American policymakers are similarly incurious) – than the hard work that running a state of their own would entail.
EVERY ONE OF THE PRINCIPLES upon which President Obama's foreign policy is predicated has been refuted or called into serious question by Russia's invasion of Crimea. Walter Russell Mead, a 2008 Obama voter, lays them out in "Putin Invades Crimea: Obama Hardest Hit?" Obama's three big ideas are: (1) a working relationship with Russia can help the United States stabilize the Middle East; (2) a number of American adversaries are willing to settle their differences with us on the basis of compromises that we can accept; and (3) President Obama has the smarts to know who we can trust."
Obama's faith that Russia is a partner in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is a good example of living in what Germans call das Wolkenkuckkuchsheim, cloud cuckoo land. Not surprisingly, one of Putin's first threats in the face of Western lectures was to reconsider Russian's stance in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. The assistance Putin offered President Obama over Syrian chemical weapons was only for the purpose of humiliating him and demonstrating to Middle Eastern states that Syria is a stout friend, as he proved to Assad.
Mead continues, "What Obama's belief in the possibility of deals with countries like Russia and Iran leaves out is that some countries around the world may count the reduction of American power and prestige among their vital interests." In other words, there may be a reason that Iranian leaders have since 1979 referred to the United States as the Great Satan. If Obama was so smart about Putin in pushing the "reset" button of U.S.-Russian relations with a series of unreciprocated free gifts – e.g., reneging on the promise to supply Poland and Czechoslovakia, both on the Russian periphery, with missile defenses – is there any reason to believe he is any smarter in detecting a new moderation in Khameini's Iran?
MITT ROMNEY, whom Obama ridiculed in the presidential debates for his old-fashioned Cold War-mindset, after Romney listed Russia as America's primary geopolitical threat, noted in the Wall Street Journal that is insufficient to continually point to the lack of good choices. Often that lack of good choices results from the absence of sufficient prior analysis of the situations that can develop and preparation for those scenarios.
For example, Europe's energy policy has left it heavily dependent on Russian natural gas. That vulnerability should have been addressed long ago. Yet even in the wake of Russian aggression, the United States has announced no plans to ramp up delivery of liquefied gas to Europe to break the Russian stranglehold and render a serious blow to a Russian economy based largely on natural resource extraction.
Notably, Putin's first response to the most feeble of Western sanctions was to jack up the price of gas to Ukraine, and thereby further destabilize the country, and threaten to cut off the taps if billions of dollars in arrears payments are not forthcoming immediately. Result: the U.S. and Europe will be funneling billions of dollars into Putin's coffers to keep Ukraine afloat, even as he flouts his contempt for their scolding.
Other times, Romney noted, the lack of good choices results from the failure to take action when opportunities still exist out of an excess of caution. Syria provides a classic example of the latter. Today Syria presents an unsavory choice between Assad, a wanton butcher of his own civilians, and a variety of Islamic extremist groups in opposition. But quick action in 2011, when the rebellion against Assad's rule first broke out and before foreign Al Qaeda elements had gained control of the opposition, could have seriously weakened Assad without turning the country over to equally brutal characters.
One reason for the failure to act quickly was the long-held belief of the State Department that Assad could be cajoled into becoming a good international citizen. That view was espoused by then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who referred to Assad as a "reformer," and repeatedly by future Secretary of State John Kerry. More living in das Wolkenkuchkuchsheim.
Had President Obama thought more like Putin, and been less enamored by the fool's dream of enticing Iran into a nuclear deal by being super-nice and inoffensive, he would have seen weakening Assad as a key element in thwarting Iran's hegemonic desires by breaking up the Shiite Crescent stretching from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria.
Even last year, if Obama had made good on his threat to bomb Assad if the latter employed chemical weapons and destroyed Assad's airfields, the result would have been to strike a deep blow at Iran via Assad. Instead Obama allowed Putin to offer him a way of backing down from his red lines. The result was a fiasco that made Obama look both weak and as a neophyte. Only Obama's overweening ego prevented him to seeing how badly he had been humiliated by Putin's "help."
Meanwhile Russia gained prestige in the region by coming to the rescue of its Syrian client. The subsequent Syrian agreement to get rid of its chemical and biological stockpiles was in reality a gift to Assad, since under no conceivable circumstances will he ever require more than a small fraction of his non-conventional weapons – a quantity that is easily hidden -- and destroying the rest would have cost him billions of dollars. Better to let the U.S. pay for doing so.
After the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter awakened from his naivete in the Soviets' good intentions. Obama's ego, however, may be too large for him to admit, even to himself, that he has been had. Until then, he remains, in Walter Russell Mead's telling metaphor, like the hunter chased up a tree by a bear, who bravely proclaims, "I've got him right where I want him."
A Foreign Policy from Cloud Cuckoo Land
A bright line runs of narcissism and naivete runs through the Obama administration foreign policy from Crimea to the Middle East. The inability to grasp that other nations have a different hierarchy of values and view their national interests in ways irreconcilable with those of the United States has repeatedly caused the U.S. to be surprised by events and left with "no good choices."
Secretary of State John Kerry's shocked response to Russia's invasion of Crimea captures both qualities: "You just don't in the 21st century behave in the 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext." To which Putin effectively replied, "Oh yeah. Who's going to stop me?"
Leon Wieseltier of the liberal New Republic observed, "There can be no doubt that President Obama was caught off guard by Russia's takeover of Crimea, and his surprise was typical. The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil."
According to the regnant theory in Washington D.C., the world is simply too "interdependent" for such behavior: Nations will not risk their international standing and trade for the benefits of empire. It simply did not occur to American policymakers that Putin might value other things above the state of the Russian stock market. Not that Putin needed to worry much on that score. On the day the United States announced its first sanctions, the Moscow stock market rose 3.7% in relief.
Nor did it occur to the American policymakers that interdependence cuts two ways. Europe cannot even match the feeble sanctions imposed by the United States: Bankers in the City of London, real estate agents in better neighborhoods across the continent and those running posh boarding schools have grown too fond of the Russian oligarchs, with billions to spend freely. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius tweeted a succinct description of "interdependence" from the European standpoint: "On the one hand, we cannot imagine delivering arms to Russia [a $1.7 billion dollar submarine ordered by Russia]. On the other hand, there is the reality of employment."
PRESIDENT OBAMA'S assumptions about the international arena derive not from any study of other nations and cultures but from looking in the mirror and projecting himself on every other country. That narcissistic habit of mind has led to one foreign policy mishap after another.
Obama came into office confident that he could "reset" relations not just with Russia but with the entire world because "I look different than other presidents." With sufficient apologies for past American behavior, a few obsequious bows, deference to international institutions, and disavowal of American power, all would be well. Things have not quite worked out as he imagined. America's longstanding allies no longer trust America and enemies do not fear her. Even in European capitals, Obama commands less respect than his "cowboy" predecessor.
Last week, Secretary of State Kerry pleaded in vain with Arab League heads of state not to issue any statements on Israel as a Jewish state and thereby strip the "peace process" of its last fig leaf. They announced instead their "total rejection of the call to consider Israel a Jewish state."
To "reset" relations with Russia, Obama reneged on American promises of anti-missile defenses to Poland and Czechoslovakia, while asking for and receiving nothing in return. The President convinced himself that Putin is a partner for solving the Iranian nuclear conundrum, and he gratefully accepted Putin's face-saving offer of help when Assad ignored Obama's self-imposed red line and unleashed chemical weapons against civilians.
How has that partnership fared? Putin's first response to American sanctions over Crimea was to announce via his deputy foreign minister that Russia was re-evaluating its stance towards the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. And he took advantage of Obama reluctance to bomb Assad to rescue his Syrian client, thereby returning Russia to a position as a regional player that it has not enjoyed since Sadat sent his Soviet advisors packing nearly forty years ago. Russia, Putin proved, knows how to defend its clients.
Obama also came into office with a plan to win favor with Iran by advancing Iranian interests rather than thwarting them. His hand extended in friendship to the mullahs, he remained on the sidelines during Iran's 2009 Green Revolution, and consistently opposed sanctions legislation until it was forced on him, and has since then issued numerous waivers. Rather than seizing upon the rebellion against Assad in 2011, before extremist groups took over the opposition, as a means of striking a blow at Iran's hegemonic desires and breaking up the Shiite Crescent from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria, Obama used America non-intervention in Syria as a bargaining chip to be offered Iran.
Obama's foreign policy, writes Walter Russell Mead, was predicated on the assumption that acceptable compromises could be achieved with long-time adversaries and that he has the smarts to discern who could be trusted. He decided Putin was a partner; Assad a "reformer" (in Hilary Clinton's words), who could be induced into becoming a citizen in good standing of the international community, and Hezbollah and the Moslem Brotherhood moderating influences because of their willingness to participate in elections en route to dictatorship and because their ranks include "doctors and lawyers" (as per CIA chief John Brennan). Lately, he has discerned moderate tendencies in Iranian president Rouhani, who has absolutely no say over Iran's nuclear program.
What Obama failed to consider in dealing with countries like Iran and Russia, writes Mead, "is that some countries around the world may count the reduction of American power and prestige among their vital interests." Putin's resentment of the "dissolution of the bipolarity [i.e, the Soviet Union and the United States] on the planet" in favor ofarrogant Americans touting their own exceptionalism was on full display in his Crimea speech. And he has not missed an opportunity to humiliate Obama.
IN THE '30s, Western leaders refused to read Mein Kampf or to take Hitler's plans seriously. And similarly today, Obama clings stubbornly to the belief that religion doesn't matter, traditional Russian aspirations to empire are relics of the past – in short, that enemies can't really mean what they say because all people and nations primarily seek just a little more material plenty.
That theory prevents him from asking why Iran's leaders have denounced the U.S. as the "Big Satan" since 1979; or wondering why, despite the fact that "everyone already knows the lines of the eventual settlement" of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, Mahmoud Abbas cannot sign an end of conflict agreement with Israel, without himself becoming a "sacrifice for peace;" or entertaining seriously the possibility that the Iranian mullahs view nuclear weapons as an important instrument for spreading the Islamic Revolution and might actually use them.
THE "ACHIEVEMENTS" of Obama's foreign policy have been primarily of the negative variety. His trust in international institutions to maintain international order in place of American power was exposed by Russia's Security Council veto of any UN response to its Crimea invasion. An increasingly assertive China would do the same with respect to any Security Council resolutions relating to it.
Secretary of State Kerry's obsessive efforts to secure a framework agreement have only served to make clear that the Palestinians will not make peace with Israel. Abbas and his successors will from time to time agree to talk to gain prisoner releases and the like, but they will not negotiate peace.
With respect to his signature issue, nuclear non-proliferation, however, Obama has made things exponentially worse. By failing to stop Iran's nuclear program, he will likely trigger a rush for nuclear weapons in the world's most unstable region. If Iran reaches breakout capacity, Saudi Arabia will surely rush to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan, and Egypt and Turkey would probably follow suit.
The experience of Libya and Ukraine after voluntarily giving up their nuclear programs ensures that no other country will ever emulate their example. In 2003, the Great Loon dismantled his nuclear program, which the IAEA estimated was 3-7 years from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Nine years later, the international community, with the U.S. leading from behind, deposed Gaddafi and left a vacuum in Libya quickly filled by terrorist groups and local militias. In 1994, Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons it acquired in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in return for guarantees of its territorial integrity from the U.S., Britain, and Russia. The worth of those guarantees is now painfully clear.
In short, treating the rest of the world as a gentlemen's club of fine fellows engaged in a bit of harmless bartering over a little bigger piece of the pie has proven to be a policy guide from what the Germans calldas Wolkenkuchkuchsheim, cload cuckoo land.
ma�Kio0� �_� word-spacing: 0px; -webkit-text-stroke-width: 0px; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255); margin: 0cm 0cm 0.0001pt; line-height: 16.8pt; vertical-align: baseline;">The brothers were essentially sucked into an insane debate, as their father's body lay there unburied. But the longer the argument with Esav stretched the greater the air of normalcy that attached to the discussions. Only Chush cut through the nonsense. He saw one thing and one thing only: the disgrace of his grandfather lying unburied. And he acted immediately.
The Palestinian-Israel "peace negotiations" have long since been conclusively revealed as a farce. The ongoing discussions taking place as I write have nothing to do with peace negotiations and everything to do with saving the face of the Obama administration.
Mahmoud Abbas is only too happy to agree from time to time to further talks, as long his consent has to be purchased each time with expensive gifts from Israel. At present the discussions involve Israel releasing the fourth bunch of prisoners it previously agreed to release (when it still could be argued that serious negotiations were in the offing) and some Israeli Arabs, including the really big fish Marwan Barghouti, who were not included in the original prisoner exchange.
To sweeten the offer for Israel, the United States has offered to release Jonathan Pollard in time for Pesach. By dangling Pollard in front of Israel, Kerry has effectively admitted that his continued imprisonment – 29 years and counting, far longer than any spy similarly charged in American history – has nothing to do with justice or American security. He is being held as a bargaining chip. Already at Wye Plantation in 1998, President Clinton dangled Pollard in this fashion before Netanyahu. The use of Pollard in this fashion is a profound insult to American Jewry. To his credit, Pollard has indicated he has no desire to be released as part of such a shameful deal.
EVERY NEW ROUND OF NEGOTIATIONS is preceded by pressure on Israel to ante up some new prize that Abbas can hold up as evidence of his success in squeezing Israel. Nothing is ever demanded from the Palestinians, other than that they show up for a few photo-ops and endure a few more visits from Secretary of State John Kerry before finding some pretext for pulling out of negotiations
The message of the one-sided concessions at the beginning of each round of talks is: Peace is for Israel's benefit so Israel must pay for talks; the Palestinians have nothing to gain. That is not a message that can serve as the foundation for an enduring peace, or any peace for that matter. Until the Palestinians truly feel that peace is in their interests there will be no peace. And there should be no peace process either.
The concessions demanded of Israel have nothing to do with confidence building or with any plausible peace process. If there really were such a process, those concessions would set it back. When Israelis watch vicious murderers of Israeli civilians greeted as returning heroes by Abbas and the Palestinian population and their deeds help up by the Palestinian media for emulation, their skepticism about the existence of a "peace partner" is only strengthened -- and for good reason.
The last year of efforts by Secretary of State Kerry and his boss have not been totally worthless. Ironically, they have succeeded in fully unmasking Abbas. He is incapable (out of fear) or unwilling to negotiate seriously with Israel. Prior to visiting President Obama recently in Washington, Abbas orchestrated demonstrations throughout Judea and Samaria demanding that he refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He returned home proclaiming himself a hero for having blown off the president. He told President Obama that Secretary of State Kerry's proposals were "immature" since they did not call for a full Israeli withdrawal from eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City, where more than 250,000 Jews live.
That position and the continued insistence of full implementation of the right of return, among other Palestinian positions, only confirm the judgment of Jackson Diehl, deputy opinion page editor of theWashington Post, that Secretary of State Kerry's promise last November of an agreement by April was and remains "delusional."
Now is time for a modern Chush ben Dan to stand up and proclaim an end to the farce of a peace process that has only one purpose: to wrest unreciprocated gifts from Israel. Israel has to stop paying vigorish to induce the Palestinians to pose for pictures.
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