Iran And Nukes

Today the United States and a group of other countries reached agreement on a proposal that addressed the Iranian nuclear program.  The agreement is a temporary one, apparently designed to freeze the Iranian program in place so that additional negotiations can occur.

According to the BBC, the key elements of the agreement are that Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond a certain point, allow inspectors increased access to its nuclear sites, and stop development of a plant that could create plutonium, and in exchange no new sanctions will be imposed for six months and Iran will receive billions of dollars in relief from existing sanctions.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the deal gives the U.S., and Israel, “breathing space” for additional negotiations with Iran.  Iran says the deal recognizes its right to enrich uranium; Kerry denies that.

Is it a good deal?  I tend to trust Israel on Middle Eastern matters, because the Israelis have shown a very clear-eyed view of the realpolitik in that perpetually challenging region of the world.  They have to be clear-eyed, of course, because their very survival is on the line.  It’s fair to say the Israelis aren’t happy about this agreement, and neither are their supporters — both Republican and Democrat — in the U.S. Congress.  In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake.”  The Israelis and their supporters think the sanctions were working and should have been continued until Iran agreed to end its program.

I don’t trust Iran.  I don’t trust a government that has called for the obliteration of Israel, that still has a scent of fanaticism about it, that has cracked down on its own citizens as they have tried to exercise basic freedoms, and that has been a fomenter of terrorism and unrest in the Middle East for decades.  How do you negotiate with a country that you can’t trust?

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Well, That’s A Relief!

Today U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was interviewed on NBC’s Meet The Press about the international talks concerning the Iranian nuclear program.  At one point during the interview, Kerry said:  “We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid.”

Thank goodness the Secretary of State provided the world with such assurance!  Of course, it would have been more effective if he also had made it clear that the United States is not demented, deaf, morally bankrupt, hopelessly naive, or emotionally exhausted, either.

Weird that the Secretary of State would portray the American approach to the negotiations in such a defensive way, isn’t it?  Has our standing in the world reached such a point that we actually need to address international concerns that our most senior diplomats are being hoodwinked by the likes of the Iranians?

I don’t think America is blind or stupid, either.  I’m hoping that, as the talks with the Iranians proceed, our government is carefully coordinating with the Israelis and approaching Iranian promises with appropriate skepticism.  What does it say, though, that our allies apparently concerned about the quality and experience of our leaders that the American Secretary of State would feel impelled to say such a thing?

Amateur Hour

I can’t help but reach the conclusion that the Syrian situation has been badly handled by the White House and the State Department.

From the President’s early comments that purported to draw a “red line” if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, to the announcements that the U.S. would be involved in an imminent strike after claiming to have incontrovertible evidence of Syria’s use of gas against its own people, to Great Britain’s embarrassing refusal to become involved in any action, and finally to President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek Congressional approval for some kind of action against Syria, the Obama Administration seems to be making it up as it goes along. The President now needs to resort to what the New York Times describes as “the most extraordinary lobbying campaign of Mr. Obama’s presidency” to try to convince lawmakers to support the Administration’s plans and avoid a humiliating loss in Congress that would further undermine the President’s credibility abroad.  In the meantime, even the President’s supporters think his performance has been “embarrassing” and the Syrians feel like the President’s decision to reverse course is a victory of sorts.

This blundering means that the problem goes beyond Syria and its use of chemical weapons to raise much broader issues.  President Obama often seems to think that his rhetorical powers are so extraordinary that if he just gives a speech, everything will change — but that’s not how things work in the world.  He should never have drawn the “red line” without knowing that he would be supported, in Congress and in the world at large, in taking action if Syria crossed it.  Obviously, he didn’t do so.  Now, his credibility, and the credibility of the United States as a whole, is at stake.

Thanks to those mistakes, we’ll never have the ability as a country to have a free discussion about whether to intervene in Syria or, as Secretary of State John Kerry puts it, engage in “armchair isolationism,” because the congressional debate will be colored by comments, like those of Senator John McCain, that the failure to back the President’s hasty words with action could be “catastrophic.”  Such comments recognize that the Syrian chemical weapons issue, tragic as it is for the Syrian people, is a small blip on America’s geopolitical screen.  The much bigger and more important issues are what might happen if China or Russia — or Iran or North Korea — feel that the President’s words mean nothing.  Once he loses credibility with our adversaries it will never be fully regained.

I happen to think we shouldn’t intervene in Syria, and I don’t care whether a blowhard like John Kerry calls me an “armchair isolationist” or not.  As a country, America needs to address this issue and decide what our role in the world will be and make some hard choices about our vital interests in view of our finite economic resources.  Now we may be cornered and forced into taking ill-advised, poorly defined action in a country where our national interests really aren’t implicated because the President didn’t think before he talked.  Indeed, Kerry’s remarks yesterday suggest that the Obama Administration wants to leave open the option of sending our ground troops into Syria — which seems like an extraordinarily bad idea in just about every way.

These are an amateur’s unfortunate mistakes, but mistakes that could have real, painful consequences for our country nevertheless.

We Don’t Understand Iran, And They Don’t Understand Us

The Onion has fooled many with its fake news stories.  Now it has caught its biggest fish yet:  the official Iranian news agency, Fars.

Fars reported as fact an Onion spoof about a fake Gallup poll that found that 77 percent of rural white Americans would rather vote for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than President Obama.  The Fars story included The Onion‘s fake quote from a West Virginia resident who purportedly said the Iranian leader “takes national defence seriously, and he’d never let some gay protesters tell him how to run his country like Obama does”.

Fars has apologized for its blunder, but I think its apology tells us something more significant about Iran than the fact that Fars was initially duped by The Onion.  In the apology, the Fars editor-in-chief said:  “Although it does not justify our mistake, we do believe that if a free opinion poll is conducted in the US, a majority of Americans would prefer anyone outside the US political system to President Barack Obama and American statesmen.”

If the head of the official Iranian news agency truly believes that Americans would prefer a hateful, repressive, anti-Semitic figure like Ahmadinejad to our own President, there is a huge gulf in understanding between our two countries.  When those two countries are jousting about Iran’s reckless efforts to obtain nuclear capabilities, such a lack of understanding can be extremely dangerous.  If Iranians think it is plausible that rural Americans would vote for an intolerant, deluded bigot like Ahmadinejad, what are they thinking about President Obama’s warning, in his recent speech to the United Nations, that the United States “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”  Are they taking that warning seriously, or are they kidding themselves about that, too?

Barbie, Our Cultural Ambassador

Barbie, the popular doll, has been the target of criticism over the years.  Many people think that Barbie’s improbable figure projects unhealthy concepts about the ideal female body for the young girls who love the doll.  Others say Barbie is too frivolous and clothes-obsessed.  Mattel, the maker of Barbie, has tried to thread the needle by offering Barbies with professional careers — like Barbie the architect — while at the same time selling the clothes and cars and houses that the pre-teen Barbie owners crave.

A recent news story, however, may help to rehabilitate Barbie’s reputation.  It turns out that the doll is the subject of a crackdown by the Iranian government.  It is removing the dolls from stores because they say that Barbie is a “manifestation of Western culture.”  In a benighted land where women must wear head scarves, interaction between men and women is strictly regulated, and opportunities for women are few, Barbie’s miniskirts, makeup, and general air of fun and freedom make the government uncomfortable.  So, the dolls are being confiscated — which won’t be easy because Iranian girls apparently love Barbie just like American girls do and have resisted previous crackdowns.

Who would have thought that a little plastic toy could carry so much cultural weight?  Anything that make the Iranian government feel uncomfortable — and might cause Iranians to see their government for the repressive authoritarian regime that it truly is — can’t be all bad.  Maybe, instead of architect Barbie, Mattel should introduce Ambassador Barbie.  Hey, or even President Barbie!

Out Of Iraq, And Holding Our Breath

Today President Obama met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to commemorate the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.  By the end of this month, all troops will be gone, leaving Iraq as an ally that will have to fend for itself in one of the world’s most volatile regions, with Iran as its neighbor.

At this point, no one knows what Iraq’s future is — or whether America’s intervention in the affairs of that sovereign nation was beneficial or harmful, stabilizing or destabilizing, a game-changer or a waste of blood and treasure.  We know that America succeeded in overthrowing a murderous dictator and, after years of hard fighting and many American casualties, helped to establish a relatively peaceful democratic government in the vast, totalitarian expanse of the Middle East.  The question is the staying power of Iraq and its current government, and whether it can maintain order for long enough for democratic institutions to truly take root.  It will be years before the answers to those questions become clear.

I heard a report this morning that said that President Obama would spend this week touting the withdrawal of the troops and what he believes has been a foreign policy success.  This is not a time for a “Mission Accomplished” moment, however.  Proud words about America’s withdrawal and its meaning could quickly turn to ashes if the fragile Iraqi democracy collapses into a hell of suicide bombings and blood-soaked sectarian violence.

 

The Power Of Words, And The Power Of Guns

This morning’s BBC features this headline “Libya:  US urges tough United Nations resolution.” One can only imagine the rueful reaction to that headline in Benghazi, where rebels wait while the forces of Muammar Gaddafi close in, or in Tripoli, where Gaddafi and his bloodthirsty supporters must be laughing at an international community that has done little to prevent him from crushing the rebellion.  Given what has happened over the past few weeks, this headline on a Reuters story may be more apt:  “Leaders dither as Gaddafi hails final showdown.”

The reality is that urging “tough” United Nations resolutions doesn’t mean much in the face of guns and mercenaries.  And saying that a foreign leader should leave doesn’t mean much, either.  The days when pronouncements of American presidents left people quaking in their boots are long since over.  If there is no resolve to take actions, words ring hollow — but even meaningless words and lack of action nevertheless can have negative consequences.

If, as now appears likely, Gaddafi survives the rebellion and executes or imprisons all of those who defied him, what message has been sent?  If you live under an authoritarian regime and are considering a rebellion, the message is loud and clear — you might get a pat on the head from the ever-debating members of the U.N., but don’t expect much more than that.  If you are Hugo Chavez, or Robert Mugabe, or the leadership of Iran, you realize that there isn’t much stomach for confrontation, and perhaps you decide to conduct your affairs even more recklessly.  And if you are Israel, or some other pro-Western government in a volatile region, you begin to calculate your chances of survival if American words aren’t backed up with deeds and you adjust your policies accordingly.

I’m not saying that America should intervene militarily in every foreign policy crisis or act as the world’s policeman.  I am saying, however, America should zealously guard whatever is left of its credibility and not issue pronouncements unless it is willing to back them up.