Eli Lake here does a micro-analysis of AIPAC’s failure on its Iran sanctions bill. The timeline is confusing: AIPAC supported (and probably drafted, that’s how it’s usually done) the Kirk-Menendez-Schumer legislation designed to scuttle Obama’s Iran negotiations; then it appeared to back off, signaling through many channels that it wasn’t necessary to bring the bill (which gained 59 co-sponsors, a majority but not enough to break a filibuster or override a presidential veto) up for a vote immediately. This wasn’t AIPAC’s only mixed signal: AIPAC also appeared to attack Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic Congresswoman (and pro-Israel stalwart) representing an AIPAC stronghold in South Florida for not facilitating companion legislation in the House. Then it backed off from the attack and defended her. All this took place amidst an unprecedented public debate about sanctions and Iran diplomacy which put the organization under a spotlight; AIPAC lobbying for the bill was reported openly in the New York Times, an extremely rare occurrence. As a group which prefers to work behind the scenes and win its votes by overwhelming margins, this was a doubly uncomfortable situation.
Lake doesn’t try to draw big conclusions, but it is time for a reassessment. Is the eight hundred pound gorilla of Capitol Hill really weakened? On its way out? Was AIPAC always a bit of a paper tiger, which could be blown away as soon as an American president set his mind to it? These are critical questions, whose answers will shape American mideast policy for decades to come.
Between Obama’s phone call with Rouhani in October and the end of January, the nation’s key foreign policy players—lobbyists, legislators, journalists, indeed much of attentive public—fought an intense battle, set off by Bibi Netanyahu’s claim that the proposed interim deal with Iran was “bad and dangerous,” a great deal for Iran, terrible for everyone else. Netanyahu spoke before the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, urging American Jews to “stand up and be counted” against Obama’s effort. Israeli ministers flew to Washington to lobby Congress, joined by Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer. Two months ago, Foreign Policy reported that Israel seemed to be winning an information war on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers spouted Israeli talking points (considered factually incorrect by the administration) about details of the interim deal with Iran. After a few weeks and several false starts, the Bibi-led forces coalesced behind the Kirk-Schumer-Menendez bill, a poison pill designed to ensure the Iran negotiation’s failure. And yet, after six weeks of intense maneuvering, AIPAC, whose leaders had once boasted of being able to round up seventy Senators in a single day, were unable to get past 59.
Over the past few months, AIPAC faced, for the first time ever, a broad and multilayered coalition of old and new forces. Read More…
“If these negotiations [with Iran] fail, there are two grim alternatives,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, “a nuclear Iran, or war, or perhaps both.”
Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham returned from the Munich security conference saying that even John Kerry agrees that President Obama’s Syrian policy has failed. They are urging another look at air strikes.
North Korea is warning that should the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises go forward in March, it could mean war, possibly nuclear war.
Philippines President Benigno Aquino III this week compared his country’s situation to Czechoslovakia in 1938, and the disputed islets off his coast in the South China Sea to the Sudetenland. Like Hitler in Europe, Aquino is saying, China is on the march in Asia.
Aquino wants the world, i.e., us, to stand up to China.
At Davos, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared Japan’s clash with China over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea to German-British tensions on the eve of World War I. Though they were major trading partners, like China and Japan, said Abe, Germany and Britain went to war.
China’s foreign ministry charged Abe with “saying these things for the purpose of escaping Japan’s history of aggression.”
China was enraged by Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine where Japanese war dead are commemorated, including Hideki Tojo and 13 other Class-A war criminals.
Asia today is like “19th-century Europe, where military conflict is not ruled out,” said Henry Kissinger at Munich.
Cal Coolidge’s admonition not to panic—”If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you”—is often wise counsel. Yet, any of these five situations could bring about a war, a war involving us. For we are obligated by treaty to defend South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. And the Obama “pivot” to Asia is seen by Beijing as a U.S. strategic move to contain China’s rise to superpower status.
The possibility of America being dragged into a new war is growing. Read More…
Like many committed to a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I feel an ambivalence about the John Kerry mission. The leaked contours of the “framework” agreement seem lopsided in favor of Israel, especially if Israel is allowed to keep the major settlement blocs of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumin. These settlements were designed in part to divide the West Bank into non-contiguous cantons and to cordon off Jerusalem from major Palestinian population centers—i.e., to prevent a viable Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority may be sufficiently worn down by the peace process to accept less than a viable state. Abbas has limited legitmacy—his party lost the last election (in 2006) it allowed to take place. But other Palestinian options are not great: they can embark on a long game, hoping that the boycott and divestment movement (BDS) against Israel continues to grow, and that an internationally isolated Israel will be compelled to negotiate on a more level field. But that’s a generation-long struggle, with no certain result. Meanwhile the degree of Palestinian suffering right now should not be underestimated; the Israeli occupation regime of checkpoints, home demolitions, imprisonment without trial, destruction of water resources, settlers destroying Palestinian crops with impunity, etc. is a constant grinding pressure on Palestinian life, and the rationale for any Palestinian leader to make a deal that could alleviate much of it is obvious. To be added, of course, are the blandishments of possible enrichment through crony capitalism: you can be sure that every member of the extended families of every key Palestinian negotiator are aware that a signed deal might put them squarely in the path of an international money stream. The Palestinians long ago agreed to accept half a loaf—a state on the West Bank and Gaza and a shared Jerusalem. Will they now go for the quarter loaf—a trisected and unviable territory they can call a state, in lieu of something better?
For his troubles, Kerry has received unprecedented abuse from the Israel right, a reaction which illuminates how little Israelis think of the United States as any sort of genuine ally. The composition of his negotiating team, described in some detail in a recent article in the Guardian, implicitly acknowledges that his mission is based almost entirely on placating the American Israel lobby and critics on the Israeli right: not only does it lack any Arab-Americans, or Muslims of any sort, but also seems astonishingly thin on American Catholics and Protestants. As a team which “looks like America” it certainly fails, but it is likely that the key constituencies in Congress and public opinion which have to be brought on board probably don’t care that it doesn’t. Kerry needs to be able to state that his diplomacy is good for Israel, and has negotiated accordingly. Even so, it’s not clear whether he will get Israel to agree to the terms he proposes. But if he does manage to produce an agreement loaded in Israel’s favor and squeeze acquiescence to it from Abbas, it remains an open question whether it will actually resolve the conflict, or be vulnerable to campaigns to reopen the negotiations, which will seem more reasonable as recognition of the unviability of what the Palestinians have actually gained inevitably sets in.
China is losing its villages at an exponential rate, according to the New York Times. Reporter Ian Johnson shares the numbers: “In 2000, China had 3.7 million villages, according to research by Tianjin University. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 2.6 million, a loss of about 300 villages a day.”
Johnson reported in the Times last June that the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress was planning to build a city of 260 million people, in an effort to propagate economic growth and consumption. This mammoth enterprise would require moving 250 million people from farm to city in the next dozen years, according to Forbes contributor Gordon G. Chang. “Across China, bulldozers are leveling villages that date to long-ago dynasties,” wrote Johnson. “Towers now sprout skyward from dusty plains and verdant hillsides.”
Beyond the crushing loss of countryside and agriculture this rapid urbanization will bring about, Johnson’s new article notes the cultural loss involved: “Across China, cultural traditions like the Lei family’s music are under threat. Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history.”
Why are villages so important? What makes them distinct and culturally significant compared to cities? Villages support subsidiarity and diversity, whereas cities usually promote mass movement and centralization. Of course, the village’s specificity has downsides: it can foster clannishness and biases toward “outsiders.” Nonetheless, without the village, we would lack the kaleidoscopic culture that makes art and life so rich.
Without the village, we’d likely forget valuable traditions. Villages tend to have a longer memory than cities, due to their permanency. Landowners and families are generally more stayed, often remaining in the same area for generations. In contrast, cities often inspire new enterprise and “the next big thing.” They foster pop culture, not folk culture. In the small community, neighbors, family, and friends are almost inescapable. Whether gathering at the city hall, church, or merely visiting the grocery store, familiar faces abound. One must learn to live in communion with others. In cities, it is easier to live alone—and easier to be lost in the clamor and crowd.
The U.S. is voluntarily leaning toward urbanization: city growth outpaced suburban growth from 2011 to 2012, and continued into the spring of 2013. There was some rumored resurgence of the suburbs in September, and it will be interesting to track those trends. Suburban sprawl, some would argue, is even more culturally toxic than urban life. Of course, urban culture is not evil, nor is it necessarily second to village culture. Cities enable the meeting of great minds and talents. They enable entrepreneurs and artists to find a voice. Within moderation, such things are good. But without our folk culture, we lose an important piece of our identity. If the U.S. became a vast amalgam of giant cities, we would lose the federalist impulse that makes us great. The Appalachian communities of Tennessee would no longer differ, in character or culture, from the vast sprawling deserts of Arizona. All would be the same.
“Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based,” author and scholar Feng Jicai told Johnson. “Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone.” This is not only true of China. Without rural culture, we lose our grounding, history, and diversity. These things not only foster artistic wellbeing: they foster intellectual and political independence. Perhaps the Chinese government will ignore the debilitating effect this centralization has on their culture. But one hopes that other countries, the U.S. included, will consider the consequences.
Despite our endless blather about democracy, we Americans seem to be able to put our devotion to democratic principles on the shelf, when they get in the way of our New World Order. In 2012, in the presidential election in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won in a landslide. President Obama hailed the outcome. One year later, the Egyptian army ousted and arrested Morsi and gunned down a thousand members of his brotherhood. The coup was countenanced by John Kerry who explained that the Egyptian army was “restoring democracy.”
Comes now the turn of Ukraine.
In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, in what neutral observers called a free and fair election, was chosen president. His term ends in 2015. Yet since November, protesters have occupied Maidan Square in Kiev, battling police, and howling for Yanukovych’s resignation. The United States appears now to be collaborating with Europe in bringing about the neutering or overthrow of that democratically elected government. Military coups, a la Cairo, and mob uprisings, a la Kiev—are these now legitimate weapons in the arsenal of democracy?
What did Yanukovych do to deserve ouster by the street? He chose Russia over Europe.
In the competition between Vladimir Putin and the European Union over whose economic association to join, Yanukovych was betrothed to the EU. But after an offer of $15 billion from Putin, and a cut in fuel prices to his country, Yanukovych jilted the EU and ran off with Russia. Yanukovych felt he could not turn down Putin’s offer.
Western Ukraine, which favors the EU, was enraged. So out came the protesters to bring down the president. And into Kiev flew John McCain to declare our solidarity with the demonstrators.
Kerry has now joined McCain in meddling in this matter that is none of America’s business, declaring in Munich that, “Nowhere is the fight for a democratic European future more important than today in Ukraine.” We “stand with the people of Ukraine,” said Kerry. But which people? The Ukrainians who elected Yanukovych and still support him or the crowds in Maidan Square that want him out and will not vacate their fortified encampments until he goes?
Kerry is putting us on the side of mobs that want to bring down the president, force elections, and take power. Yet, Americans would never sit still should similar elements, with similar objectives, occupy our capital. Reportedly, we are now colluding with the Europeans to cobble together an aid package, should Yanukovych surrender, cut the knot with Russia, and sign on with the EU. But if Putin’s offer of $15 billion was a bribe, what else is this? Read More…
This can only end well.
Last night Reuters reported that Congress recently approved funding to send small arms and anti-tank rockets to perceived non-Islamist Syrian rebels, though it continued to withhold portable anti-aircraft rockets that could be used to shoot down civilian airliners. “The weapons deliveries have been funded by the U.S. Congress, in votes behind closed doors, through the end of government fiscal year 2014, which ends on September 30,” according to two officials.
Congress was apparently satisfied that the Obama administration and any intermediaries it was using would be able to reliably get the weapons to “moderate” rebels without strengthening the al-Qaeda-aligned rebel forces that have often proven militarily superior. Such funding had been suspended after reports of weapons filtering to more radical elements. It is unknown when this change of heart occurred, though the Reuters article notes that nonclassified defense funding passed in December.
While there is surely great diversity in Syrian rebel forces, the inclination of many prominent foreign policy voices in Congress and the media to follow John McCain’s lead in seeing a George Washington in every irregular colonel does not give one great confidence that classified Congressional appropriators are well positioned to put guns in good hands. At the very least, “moderate” may be the single least helpful adjective in foreign policy discussions. As Donald Devine wrote late last week,
Both administrations and the Journal view democracy and moderate leadership as their goals. But what does “moderate” mean? When this author was in Iraq in 2003, the moderate Shi’ite leadership was all for “democracy,” but freely admitted it was because their majority could institute their version of Sharia. …
It also wants to support “moderate opposition” in Syria and Iraq. But isn’t Maliki a moderate, who we allied with against Moqtada al-Sadr? Of course, he oppressed his Sunni moderates too, but who in the region does not oppress moderates? Do we support moderates generally in Iraq, only Sunni moderates, or only non-ruling Shi’ite moderates? In Syria, we support the Sunni moderates, but extremist rebels have defeated them at every turn, chasing the moderate military leader out of the country and turning back a recent moderate surge. The only one protecting Christian, Druze, and Turkmen minorities is the Shi’ite/Alawite dictator. There are no good choices in the Middle East.
Or, as TAC alum Michael Brendan Dougherty (who debuted his new position at The Week writing about the plight of Middle East Christians last week) put it:
“Want a gun?” “Yes!” “You’re going to kill Assad?” “Yes” “Going to kill Christian?” “Of course!..” *frowns* “..not” http://t.co/2h8jAhflcH
— Michael B Dougherty (@michaelbd) January 28, 2014
Also, while secrecy surely has a necessary place in foreign policy and military decision making, the sheer amount of uncertainty created by classified national security and military budgets necessarily undermines the possibility of democratic governance and accountability. The fact that not even the reporters breaking the story can quite nail down when the classified budget was passed makes combating waste and fraud seemingly a fool’s errand.
Does John Kerry understand the world he inherited? Is he in denial?
Consider. At Davos, Switzerland, Kerry called it a “myth” that America is withdrawing, and “the most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed U.S. retreat from the Middle East.”
Is he serious? How else does Kerry describe Obama’s pullout of all U.S. troops from Iraq, and from Afghanistan by year’s end?
Syria is “someone else’s civil war,” says President Obama. If we do any strikes there, promised Kerry, they will be “unbelievably small,” and rest assured there will be “no [U.S.] boots on the ground.”
When al-Qaeda and its allies seized Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province, Kerry rushed to the microphones: “We’re not … contemplating returning. We’re not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight. … this is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis.”
Yes it is. But does this sound like the defiant “This will not stand!” of George H. W. Bush, after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait?
Moreover, a Pew poll last fall found that 52 percent of the nation approves of U.S. disengagement, saying America should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”
Staying out of other countries’ quarrels and other nations’ wars is what Americans want, and Obama is delivering.
Why does John Kerry deny the obvious?
To his credit, the secretary has undertaken three diplomatic initiatives, the success of any one of which could earn him a Nobel: the Geneva II Conference on Syria, the U.S.-U.N. negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and the Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative.
Yet Kerry’s own undiplomatic conduct may be imperiling two of his initiatives, and naivete and hubris may be blinding him to the coming collapse of the third. Read More…
The media has missed the real story in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty. While coverage stresses his criticisms of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and the White House staff, his main target is the Pentagon, about which he writes, “no one knew what anyone else was doing.” The Pentagon’s byzantine administration ignored many of Gates’s commands and largely defeated or delayed his proposals. This is a common concern amongst those serving in top government positions, but the Pentagon is the most stubbornly labyrinthine.
Concerning the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions, Gates writes, “We entered both countries oblivious to how little we knew.” He generally concludes we should be more cautious in getting involved anywhere in the world and that we should plan our exit from the very beginning. Duty imparts much good sense. When NPR asked for his reaction to the media’s handling of his book, Gates’s greatest regret was that quipped sound bites from ideological partisans had displaced discussion of its deeper issues. Foreign policy should be serious business.
Unlike much of the media, the Wall Street Journal is indeed interested in such a debate, and argues that today’s greatest foreign-policy peril is an American “retreat” from “Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond.” Its editors criticize President Obama and “Rand Paul Republicans” for wanting to “avoid the world’s conflicts with good intentions and strategic retreat.” Indeed, most Americans “want to forget about” the U.S.’s strategic obligations, despite threats from Sunni extremists igniting car bombs in Lebanon and capturing cities in Iraq, Shi’ite Hezbollah moving anti-ship missiles into Lebanon to threaten Israel, and Shi’ite Iran advancing toward nuclear arms.
“The dangers are that the violence in Lebanon devolves into another civil war or that Hezbollah provokes Israel into a response like the 2006 war,” while Syria’s civil war spreads to Iraq and the entire Middle East. Much of the blame, the editors concede, goes to “the heavy-handed sectarian rule of Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,” but they believe major responsibility rests with U.S. refusal to help the “moderate Syrian opposition,” and Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq without leaving sufficient forces to act “as a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s revival and Iran’s regional domination.”
The editors represent an important voice in the debate and deserve a serious reply. First, withdrawal from Iraq was not a partisan decision. George W. Bush set the troop removal schedule, and neither his administration nor Obama’s could successfully negotiate for a residual force against the wishes of Iraq’s new leaders (whom both administrations spent American lives and money to place in power). More importantly, in the thousand-year war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, who are we retreating from? Even moderates on both sides of Islam view their opposites as heretics. The U.S. began by supporting Shi’ites in Iraq against a Sunni regime, but in Syria supported Sunni rebels against a Shi’ite/Alawite ruler. Whose side are we on? Read More…
It is too early to celebrate, but historians will note that the gears of history shifted during the past month. The United States and five major nations finalized a significant door-opening agreement with Iran. Despite mounting a substantial campaign, Israel and its American lobbyists (AIPAC, along with a large neoconservative and Israel-hawk media section) have thus far not managed to abort the diplomatic opening. The events signal not only an important opportunity towards forging a new relationship with Iran, an heretofore enemy and one of the largest and most advanced nations in the Muslim world, but signal a critical defeat for AIPAC, Washington’s most powerful foreign affairs lobby. The pro-Israel lobbying group has lost before, failing to block a major U.S. weapons sale to Saudi Arabia during the early years of the Reagan administration. But that defeat in the end mattered relatively little.
This month, the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer bill, the “bipartisan” legislation designed to scuttle the Washington-Tehran negotiation by requiring the administration to seek impossible concessions, stalled at less than sixty votes, well below a veto-proof threshold, in the Senate. As it was examined and discussed, the bill became increasingly mocked in the mass media—both for the fact many senators who signed up to support it hadn’t actually read it, and as nakedly a project of “the great state of Israel”—as Jon Stewart ironically put it. Never in American history has AIPAC-favored legislation been openly debated, scrutinized and criticized like this.
There is probably no more eloquent argument against Kirk-Menendez-Schumer than here, by Jessica Tuchman Mathews in the New York Review of Books. She covers all the terrain, from an opening paragaph which sets the scene:
In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.
Mathews moves to a nuanced discussion of what the more than forty-year-old Non Proliferation Treaty does and does not say, noting it provides no legal basis for restricting Iran’s nuclear program to zero enrichment, provided the program is peaceful. The “zero Iranian enrichment” option demanded by Netanyahu and his allies in the Senate is thus not only a non-starter in negotiating terms, but is not grounded in international law. One must assume that the AIPAC folks who wrote Kirk-Schumer-Menendez understood this, which is why they wrote their bill the way they did — not to “aid” Obama in negotiations as some senators often disingenuously claim, but to kill the negotiations. Importantly, Mathews also notes that the six-month interim deal which went into operation early this week (giving Iran access to some of its own money which had been held in foreign banks) is weighted heavily in the West’s favor, and makes sense for Tehran only if it paves the way to a larger agreement granting major relief from sanctions.
Mathews then comments about the “Go to war for Israel” part of the bill: Read More…
To be honest, apart from scanning for tidbits on a particular topic, I haven’t read a “big” Washington insider memoir at the time it came out since Henry Kissinger’s. I was glad then to see that veteran journalist Tom Ricks describe Robert Gates’s Duty as “probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever” because my reading in it made me wonder whether I’d been missing something important all these years. Gates’s book is extremely good, full of detail, knowledge, and apparent candor. Gates is an exemplar of a national public servant, patriotic, not flashy, makes no effort to present himself as a big conceptualizer, but someone who is able to generate informed opinions and options on an wide array of complicated subjects, while being able to get along with others at the highest levels of government. He’s the smart guy in the room who doesn’t seem to have his own agenda. He’s been in the room (as “notetaker”) when Zbigniew Brzezinski was trying to negotiate with the revolutionary government of Iran in 1979, and thirty years later as Secretary of Defense, alongside Ben Bernanke as the most important holdover from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
Early attention devoted to the book has focused on Gates’s claim that Obama seemed less than enthusiastic about the “mission” in Afghanistan, while deferring in practice to the military’s judgement about what should be done. Despite inevitable denials, the truth of this assertion seemed almost too obvious, perhaps to Obama’s supporters most of all. Would it really have served Obama’s purposes to pick an open fight with the the top brass over Afghanistan early in his administration? Of course not. He went along with what the generals wanted.
What struck me as most important in Gates’s memoir were the frequent references to the dangers of allowing the United States to get sucked into into wars serving other country’s agendas, especially in the Mideast. These are, remember, the concerns not of a peacenik professor but a veteran Cold Warrior after a long career at the center of the American national security establishment. They make up an extremely important data point about where mainstream American security professionals see danger arising—and one which varies quite a bit from ostensible concerns of Congress or the most influential national media. I would argue that worry about being drawn into wars on behalf of allies, (or perhaps “allies”) is (alongside such estimable things as duty, honor, country) the central theme of Gates’s work.
Here is a sample of the passages pushing this theme: Read More…