Archive for September, 2013

Putin the big winner in Syria affair

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013
Putin with tranquilizer gun

Russian PM Vladimir Putin holds a tranquilizer gun in 2008, when he (supposedly) helped wildlife authorities tag a tiger. Yesterday he tranquilized President Obama on Syria.

Thanks to the quick work of Vladimir Putin, there will almost certainly be no US attack on Syria.

Putin, as you have probably heard, picked up on an off-the-cuff remark made by Secretary of State Kerry that Assad could avoid an attack by placing his chemical weapons under international control, and Assad happily agreed.

So now any military action will be considered premature because a diplomatic solution is allegedly in the works. Putin and the Assad regime are putting together a ‘plan’, and Obama, along with European allies, has agreed to discuss it at the UN Security Council.

In one fell swoop, control of the affair has been taken out of Obama’s hands and placed in Putin’s. The US Senate has delayed its debate, and the chance that Congress will approve a military option — small to begin with — is now close to zero. Which is just as well, since military action without a concrete objective is usually disastrous.

This is a great victory for Putin, who is playing the role of world leader to the hilt, and for Assad, who will now be permitted to stay in power and continue his war against the various rebel groups. It remains to be seen to what degree the negotiations that will follow will legitimize the Butcher of Damascus and limit possible Western help to the rebels. But he isn’t going to give up his weapons (or even pretend to) for nothing.

Obama can relax that he is no longer required to make a decision and take responsibility for the consequences. He no longer needs to worry about losing a vote in Congress, even if in his heart of hearts he would prefer to do so. Members of Congress who favored intervention can relax in that they don’t have to take an unpopular position.

Obama will now pretend that his ‘courageous’ action forced a peaceful solution, but nobody will be fooled. His own and US credibility and posture of deterrence were severely damaged by his delay, vacillation and lack of focus — as well as the unprecedented leakage of the parameters of the planned strike.

The actual control or destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons will be complicated and difficult, and it is not at all certain that it can be accomplished. So the ‘solution’ may not be a solution after all, except that it will save Assad’s murderous ass.

From the Israeli point of view, the development is mixed. On the one hand, the possibility of a US strike developing into a regional war has been reduced (although most analysts thought that Israel’s warning of a strong response would have been an effective deterrent by itself). On the other hand, it isn’t clear what the effect of an international presence in Syria will be on the transfer of advanced weapons to Hizballah, something which Israel is absolutely committed to prevent.

One beneficiary will be Iran, which will keep its Syrian connection to Hizballah open, and whose busy little nuclear bees will continue to work while attention is diverted to the Syrian situation.

But the biggest winner of all is Vladimir Putin, now the go-to man in the Middle East.

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Let Syria stew and take care of Iran

Monday, September 9th, 2013

Israel is behind you T-shirt

It appears that Israel’s Prime Minister is supporting President Obama’s attempt to get congressional approval for an attack on Syria.

If nothing else, this explains the surprising decision of AIPAC to lobby for the President on this issue.

I have to admit that I don’t get it.

It is impossible for me to believe that an attack as carefully calibrated as this one is to not actually affect the situation on the ground, which has been publicly detailed weeks in advance, and which has already made the US and its leadership the butt of jokes the world over, will have a positive outcome.

There is no doubt that if the attack does occur, there will be severe consequences for US interests in the Middle East and other places, even terrorism in the US carried out by the worldwide terror network of Hizballah. Why not? They’ve had weeks to prepare. And the US and its leadership are perceived as weak, without the will to follow through if pushed.

A former Iranian official has threatened as much, including a direct threat to Obama’s family in the most vulgar terms (hint to Obama: you have drones. Use them. Take it from me, everyone in the Middle East will understand completely).

Obama probably knows this, and this is why he decided to offload the responsibility to Congress (although it presently is anything but certain that Congress will go along).

Obama has apparently exploited whatever hold he has over Israel’s PM — the same hold that enabled him to force Israel to release more than a hundred terrorists, including convicted mass murderers, for absolutely nothing in return from the Palestinians, or to veto a planned raid on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2012 — to get Israeli support, and therefore the support of pro-Israel American Jewish organizations like AIPAC.

We can assume that the quid pro quo has something to do with Iran, although I certainly hope that Israeli officials are not depending on Obama to take action before it’s too late.

In any event, Obama’s usual sources of support like his own “Organizing for Action” group are remaining quiet on this issue. You would think that the Arab-American community, most of whom are anything but fans of Assad might be behind him, but no. Nor are left-leaning or J Street.

No, the stage is being set to blame Israel, whatever the outcome. As Richard Baehr explains,

… if he wins the vote, he will get credit and leftist anti-war advocates can blame AIPAC and the Israel lobby for once again sending the U.S. to war. On the other hand, if the resolution does not pass, AIPAC looks weak, and its ability to achieve results on issues that actually matter to the community, and to both countries, such as Iran’s nuclear program, will be diminished.

Of course if the worst happens — if Obama actually makes his gesture and it does not turn out as uncomplicated as hoped — then there is a perfect scapegoat available: he did it for Israel, urged on by the Israel Lobby.

Former AIPAC employee Steven Rosen — who has the distinction of having been set up by the FBI and indicted for espionage in 2005 and then cleared — understands all of the above, but thinks that AIPAC (and Israel) had no choice:

[If] the red lines that have been declared by President Obama were to be wiped out by an isolationist Congress (much as British Prime Minister David Cameron was repudiated by Parliament), it could begin a wider U.S. retreat in the Middle East. It would certainly undermine the campaign to prevent Iran from completing its nuclear weapons program. Already, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are boasting about a “historic American retreat,” and extremist elements from al Qaeda to North Korea must be rubbing their hands in glee.

Without a strong United States, the world of our children will descend into a very dark void, because after America there is no one else waiting in line to assume leadership except these forces of evil and chaos.If AIPAC sits on its hands, Obama might well lose this historic vote on Capitol Hill. If so, the Rand Paul/isolationist right and the antiwar left may celebrate, and conservative critics can blame it on Obama’s feckless leadership. But it will be a disaster for the Middle East and the world, and it may be impossible to contain the damage.

This argument gets the problem exactly backwards. The Assad regime and its enemies are presently stalemated. A decisive victory for either side would probably be bad, from both a strategic and a humanitarian point of view, but that appears unlikely now. Obama Administration credibility and respect has already been shredded, and any action now will not restore it. Keep in mind that the planned operation has no clear and attainable military objective, a recipe for disaster. Resources — including diplomatic and political energy as well as Tomahawk missiles — should not be wasted on an action which can only make a bad situation worse.

The real danger comes from Iran, which is on the verge of being in position to assemble deliverable nuclear weapons in a period of time too short to allow interdiction. There is simply no greater threat to both US interests in the Middle East, and to Israel, than a nuclear Iran. Either from sheer geopolitical considerations or from the standpoint of US credibility — how many times has the President promised that it will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon? — Iran is of overriding importance.

I doubt that Russia would practically oppose a decision to take action on Iran. Even Putin does not want to see a radical Islamic nuclear power next door.

What the US should do now is let Syria stew and in the meantime present a non-negotiable ultimatum to Iran: either dismantle your nuclear program or force will be used to dismantle it for you.

Go ahead, Obama, for once do the right and courageous thing. As the T-Shirt says, Israel will stand behind you.

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Israel has no dog in this fight

Friday, September 6th, 2013

I was surprised to read that AIPAC, the so-called “Israel lobby” in the US (full disclosure: to which I am a contributor) has come out squarely in favor of an American strike against the Assad regime.

The powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC is planning to launch a major lobbying campaign to push wayward lawmakers to back the resolution authorizing U.S. strikes against Syria, sources said Thursday.

Officials say that some 250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week to persuade lawmakers that Congress must adopt the resolution or risk emboldening Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon. They are expected to lobby virtually every member of Congress, arguing that “barbarism” by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated, and that failing to act would “send a message” to Tehran that the U.S. won’t stand up to hostile countries’ efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, according to a source with the group.

In the past AIPAC has generally stayed close to the official positions of the Government of Israel. Unlike some other Jewish organizations, it has not in general taken the attitude that American Jews know better than Israelis what’s good for Israel.

But the official Israeli position on an American strike on Syria is neutral. For example, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said this Tuesday:

We aren’t getting involved in what is happening in Syria. What happened there crossed a red line from the Americans’ perspective, but we aren’t supporting, or involved in, a possible strike…

NY Times bureau chief Jodi Rudoren published an article yesterday in which she claims that “Mr. Obama’s limited strike proposal has one crucial foreign ally: Israel.” But she provides little evidence for this. Rather, she argues that Israel is happy with the continued stalemate between the forces of Assad, Iran and Hizballah on one side, vs. Sunni Jihadists on the other. True or not, this does not imply support for Obama’s military initiative, which increasingly appears to be intended to tilt the conflict toward the rebels.

The Obama Administration has been working hard to get the support of US Jewish groups, whom it believes are influential with Congress:

The message from the two senior administration officials to Jewish leaders during a large conference call September 3 was clear: The Obama administration, said deputy national security advisors Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken, believed that congressional approval of military action would send an important message to Iran, Israel’s most feared rival in the region.

“It is very important for us that we achieve a supportive vote in Congress,” said Blinken.

The two officials stopped short of directly calling on the Jewish community to put its weight behind President Obama’s request to authorize the use of military power against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. But the message was loud and clear, and at the call’s conclusion, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, promised his umbrella group would issue a supportive statement.

But he also cautioned the two advisors: “We don’t want to turn this into an Israel-centric issue.”

A statement put out by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, shortly after made this point clear. “Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass,” the statement said. …

Other Jewish groups also quickly fell in line with the new consensus supporting an attack against Syria. The Anti Defamation League issued its own strong statement of support for Obama and urged Congress to “act swiftly” to approve the resolution. The Republican Jewish coalition, in a rare show of support for the president, issued a call to its members to reach out to their elected officials and “ask them to support the upcoming resolution.”

It seems that the administration got what it wanted — despite the fears of the Jewish establishment that it would be painted as calling for war, and blamed for any negative results of Obama’s actions, as was (unfairly) the case with the Iraq war.

I think that this is a mistake on the part of AIPAC and the other organizations. Although there are arguments for and against intervention in Syria, I don’t see this as an Israeli or Jewish issue. Rudoren said that,

On Syria, in fact, Israel pioneered the kind of limited strike Mr. Obama is now proposing: four times this year, it has bombed convoys of advanced weapons it suspected were being transferred to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that Israel considers a major threat.

But in fact Israel’s strikes — which were precisely targeted to achieve very specific objectives — were not at all like the planned American attack, which seems to be intended to teach a lesson about President Obama’s seriousness, and has no concrete military objective.

I am also not convinced that this will send a useful message to Iran. Surely the best message to Iran would be an ultimatum to stop its nuclear program or face military action. The involvement in Syria simply provides extra time to Iran to continue its progress toward a deliverable weapon, and conveys the inability of the administration to plan and carry out even a small action without an extended and public political process.

Israel is not responsible for the barbaric actions of the barbarians that it is unlucky enough to have as neighbors. Israel’s sole responsibility in this connection is to take steps to protect its people, which it will do regardless of whether the US decides to punish the regime or not.

Israel simply does not have a dog in this fight.

This administration has pushed a ‘peace process’ that is both in opposition to the rights of the Jewish people in international law and highly dangerous to Israel’s security. It has supported Islamic radicals in Turkey and Egypt, also to the detriment of Israeli security. Despite promising to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it has allowed it to delay a reckoning to the point that it may already be impossible to stop the regime. It has even prevented Israel from taking action to protect itself! There is ample proof by now that the Obama administration is no friend to Israel or the Jewish people.

Now it has decided that Jewish support can be useful against the embarrassing possibility that Congress may make Obama look even more indecisive and unleaderly than he already does — and we fall all over ourselves to help him!

Keep in mind that if anything ugly hits the fan, then despite the care that AIPAC et al are taking to not make it appear that this as an “Israel-centric”  issue, that is how it will be spun, even by administration officials (who will speak anonymously, of course).

I simply don’t understand — and this isn’t the first time — why US Jews and Jewish organizations seem to be so anxious to support this administration, even when there is absolutely no reason to do so.

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Obama vetoed Netanyahu’s Iran hit

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

There was a great deal of speculation just prior to the 2012 US election that it was the perfect time for Israel to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities. It was thought that President Obama would be constrained by the oncoming election from punishing Israel, for which there was great sympathy in the US. It was expected — and it has turned out to be true — that the President’s oft-expressed ‘love’ for Israel would become much ‘tougher’ in his second term, and that there would not be a better time for Israel to strike.

It didn’t happen, and now a well-connected Israeli general explains why. The following article by Ma’ariv journalist Rotem Sela appeared on the Israeli news site mida yesterday, in Hebrew. My translation follows:

Exposed — Giora Eiland: Netanyahu was about to attack Iran, Obama cast a veto

Exclusive: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was about to order an attack on Iran [last October] but canceled the operation following American pressure, according to Gen. Giora Eiland (res), former head of [Israel’s] National Security Council.

Eiland, who made the claim two weeks ago at a closed meeting, added that “Israel has the real capability to destroy the nuclear program of Iran,” and that it is possible that the veto cast by the Americans was connected to the presidential race in the US that was in its final stages.

By Rotem Sela

“At that time the Prime Minister thought that we had reached a critical point on Iran, and planned to launch an attack,” Eiland said at a meeting August 19. He noted that “Although Israel does not in principle need American permission for military action, except when the US unequivocally demands that Israel refrain from a specific action,” such a demand was made at a meeting between Netanyahu and American officials, where it was made clear that the planned attack was not acceptable, leading to its cancellation.

Since the cancellation of the attack, the Iranian nuclear program has continued to progress. Today, Eiland said, Israel again faces a difficult choice. “Time has passed, and Israel stands at exactly the same critical junction, with less time to choose between bad and worse choices [lit: between plague and cholera].” He added that “not deciding is also a dramatic decision.”

In a discussion with us, Eiland confirmed that “on very many subjects Israel can do things independently. For building in Jerusalem, attacking Gaza, or other things in our sector, we don’t have to ask the Americans before we act,  even though they may not like what we do. Nevertheless, when we are talking about things that touch broad American interests, we can’t act in opposition to their judgment. And he confirmed that Netanyahu had come to the conclusion then that it was necessary to preempt, and attack Iran.

The best outcome for Israel would be an American attack on Iran, suggests Eiland. “The lack of American enthusiasm to act in Syria indicates that the possibility of this is unlikely.” The question of permission for an Israeli attack is still open. “There are variables that have changed since last year, in particular internal matters in the US, which was then in the final stages of an election.” At that precise time, Obama was in difficulty as a result of his failure in the first televised debate with Romney. It’s possible that he preferred to avoid igniting a war which might damage his campaign. …

Would today’s circumstances permit Netanyahu to attack? It’s hard to say. But while the story of Syria and Obama’s hesitation captures the headlines, it is important to remember that the real drama remains the countdown to the Iranian bomb.

The combination of an unfriendly US president, at a time of existential threat from a not-entirely-rational enemy which is on the verge of going nuclear, is something of a perfect storm. The fact that Obama is also proving weak and indecisive, as well as lacking in understanding of the importance in the Mideast of intangible factors like honor, shame and deterrence, does not increase my confidence that he will make the right decision when the time comes (if it isn’t already here).

What is particularly distressing is the degree to which a sovereign state like Israel can be forced to compromise the most critical decisions because of domestic American politics.

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Keep Israel out of it

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

The surprising saga of Barack Obama and Chemical Bashar continues with new twists and turns. First the President threatened, practically promised, a punitive (although strategically insignificant) missile strike in a matter of days, and then his people leaked precisely what it would be like in shocking, unprecedented detail — permitting Assad to vacate likely targets.

Israel placed its armed forces on alert, after threats from Iran, Syria and Hizballah, although — thanks to Israel’s credible promise of disproportionate response to any provocations — retaliation against it was considered unlikely. Israelis queued for gas masks and possibly even cleared the junk out of some bomb shelters.

Then the British Parliament embarrassed its PM by refusing to authorize the use of force against Syria. And the next day, Obama announced that he had decided to ask for the approval of Congress before taking action — and Congress is away on vacation until September 9.

How unfair! I can imagine the Syrians worrying about whether they ought to move their missiles back to their usual places, while Israelis stuff all the old baby strollers and lawn furniture back into their bomb shelters.

I have been watching the extended display of Western weakness and indecision, along with the unusual spectacle of Obama supporters calling for military action (at least, as long as he was) with interest.

It should be clear that — like most of the unrest in the Middle East today — the Syrian conflict has nothing to do with Israel, unless someone gets really stupid. Israel has done its best to remain neutral except insofar as it has acted to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hizballah.

But it seems to be just too tempting for some to resist trying to make Israel part of it in one way or another. For example, here is a piece of NPR’s morning newscast today, during which Hamlet Obama’s latest non-action is analyzed (my transcription):

Mara Liasson: What happened was the President changed his mind. He saw what happened in Great Britain, he knew he wasn’t getting the support of the United Nations Security Council, and, uh, although the White House insists they don’t need congressional approval to act, they are not legally required to get it, he felt that going to Congress would put any military action on a much stronger footing. It would also be consistent with the position that he’s taken all along, in favor of presidents going to Congress first. And especially with a public that’s deeply ambivalent about military action, he decided that a full debate with the people’s representatives was the best way to go. …

Wade Goodwyn: Will he get any support from Congress?

ML: Well, that’s the big question. If the vote was held right now I think the answer would be ‘no’, he’d lose. That’s what makes this such a hugely risky move on the President’s part, because a failure would weaken him immensely, the way it has for Prime Minister Cameron. But lots of members of Congress reacted favorably, as you said, to the decision to come to them, you know 200 of them had signed a letter demanding that he do so. But there are still many Republicans, especially in the House, who won’t approve of anything the President wants to do, and there are many Democrats who are against military action. And even in the Senate, where support for the President’s position is considered stronger, there are lawmakers like Lindsay Graham and John McCain who say they will vote ‘no’ because the tailored, limited, shot-across-the-bow type of military action that the President is describing won’t be effective.

So the public, as I said, is deeply ambivalent — for many members it is a lot tougher to vote ‘yes’ on this than ‘no’ — and the President is going to have to spend the next week or two working this very hard, and enlisting allies like Israel to help him sway members. [my emphasis]

Oh, please. Don’t drag Israel (and certainly not the ‘Israel Lobby’) into this! Except insofar as she has to be prepared to deter opportunistic attacks, Israel could not care less whether Obama  bombs some empty buildings to ‘teach Assad a lesson’. Whatever Obama does or does not do will be — or should be — based on his perception of US interests.

It is not Israel’s job to “help sway members” of Congress. Israel is not responsible for the barbaric behavior of Assad or his opponents, it is not responsible for anything that Obama does, and will not be responsible for anything that Assad and his allies may do to the US in return.

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I smell an attempt to position Israel to take the blame if something goes wrong with this already highly problematic exercise.

Update [1105 PDT]: The President and Secretary of State Kerry are both explicitly trying to relate this to Israel.

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