In 2008 -- 18 years after New York City threw him a ticker tape parade for helping to end apartheid -- it took an act of Congress to ensure that Nelson Mandela did not need a special waiver to enter the United States, finally removing his terrorist designation. In November 2011, Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah was removed from the "Individuals and Entities Designated by the State Department Under E.O. 13224" terrorist list. He had been dead for three and a half years. The "German Taliban," Eric Breininger, was dead for more than a week when he was added to the list. Although these may seem like bureaucratic oversights, they are indicative of wider problems in terrorist listing systems. While attempting to punish terrorist groups and restrict their activities, these systems have reduced the space for diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These disparate examples also highlight the continuing lack of agreement on who is a "terrorist."
Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to begin tomorrow for the first time since January 2011. These talks will offer one of the best opportunities that the current administration has had to begin a diplomatic process that could help end the nuclear stalemate with Iran.
Since discussion about the possibility of these talks first began last month we have heard much talk about a diplomatic "window of opportunity." This phrase made its first appearance at a White House press conference where U.S. President Barak Obama explained: "We still have a window of opportunity where [the standoff over Iran's nuclear program] can still be solved diplomatically." This phrase has since been repeated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, among others.
Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany resume again this weekend, with Tehran giving hints that it may take a more constructive attitude to negotiations than it did during the previous round in 2011. Iranian nuclear officials have suggested that Iran might curtail its 20 percent uranium enrichment program, which would meet almost halfway the expected demands of the United States and its so-called P5+1 negotiating partners.
The United States and its allies reportedly plan to demand the immediate cessation of uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and a closure of the hardened Fordow enrichment plant, possibly in exchange for promises of no further sanctions. If the United States and its international partners are able to achieve these objectives, they will significantly slow Iran's progress toward having the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, score a victory for the two-track policy of diplomacy and economic pressure, and provide a template for more fully resolving outstanding issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program in future talks.
Even before the looming confrontation with Iran, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been engaged in their own related tussle -- more civilized and subdued no doubt, but arguably no less consequential. Their dueling speeches this week were striking in the degree to which they simultaneously mirrored and defied each other. It was no coincidence.
The U.S. president lavished praise on the one Israeli in the audience who most accurately reflects his own pragmatic views (Israeli President Shimon Peres) while bringing up Netanyahu only fleetingly. The Israeli prime minister enthusiastically applauded the many Americans in the room who share his more belligerent stance (members of Congress) while politely referring to Obama. Each paid lip service to his counterpart's central claim -- Obama, by acknowledging that Israel was entitled to its own sovereign security decisions; Netanyahu by conceding that the nuclear standoff would be best resolved by diplomacy. Both then proceeded to ruthlessly tear it apart: the president, by underscoring the imprudence of precipitous military action and the need to give negotiations time; the prime minister by stating flatly that Israel had waited long enough. Finally, the two leaders took aim at statements they argued were either dead wrong, or deadly dangerous -- Obama decried careless talk of war; Netanyahu mocked the endless recitation of war's perils. Neither bothered mentioning to whom they were referring, but there was no need. Not a day goes by without Israeli officials raising the specter of military action; meanwhile, a succession of U.S. officials have warned about the catastrophe such action might provoke.
Seldom has it been as justified to be pessimistic about developments between the United States, Israel, and Iran. This dysfunctional state of affairs is getting so out of hand that the danger of war is no longer just a remote possibility but instead looms large on the horizon. David Ignatius reported on Feb. 2 in Washington Post that "[Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May, or June," though he does not believe that the final decision has been taken yet.
In a couple of days Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in Washington to reiterate the Israeli position that keeping up the pressure on Iran requires a credible threat of war. In effect he will argue that President Barack Obama must toe the Israeli party line both for the sake of keeping a united front against Iran but also, ironically, because he does not want his own decision-making process on a possible war on Iran influenced by Washington.
Critics are right to interpret the decision by the government of Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri -- to refer 43 pro-democracy activists, including 19 Americans, to trial before a criminal court, where they will be charged with distributing illegal foreign funds "with the intention of destabilizing Egypt's national security" -- as a blatant attempt to intimidate pro-democracy forces in the country.
Nor can there be the slightest doubt that Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is directly behind the attempt. The evidence is twofold. None of the three interim cabinets that have taken office since the SCAF assumed power in February 2011 has been able to undertake policy initiatives in any public sphere without military approval. Additionally, no mere civilian would be allowed to jeopardize United States military assistance worth $1.3 billion annually on his or her own initiative, as Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga has seemingly done.
After months of public demonstrations and brutal regime-directed violence, Syria appears to be slipping into an all-out insurrection. Anti-government forces have been able to seize pockets of territory and launch raids into Damascus. It may only be a matter of time before, as in Libya, clear front lines emerge and fighting escalates from an insurgency into fully-fledged civil war.
Any such escalation would almost certainly involve a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Thousands of refugees have already left Syria (itself home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Palestinians). There are nearly 10,000 Syrians being sheltered in camps in Turkey. If the conflict intensifies, the number could jump exponentially: up to a million fled Libya earlier this year.
In light of the resignation of the National Security Council's Dennis Ross, and as the international community waits for the United Nations to consider Palestine's road to formal statehood, we call upon the Obama administration and so-called Middle East experts advising the various presidential hopefuls to take some introspective "down time." The purpose is to reassess heretofore time-honored policies, practices, political campaign pronouncements, and come up with a realistic and viable way forward.
It is clear that Obama's efforts toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire have been nothing short of a failure. When tallying on to previous failed administration attempts, the cumulative effect has been a clear loss of strategic leverage. This loss is detrimental to the U.S. interest of securing two states living side by side in peace in the region, as well as influencing the likes of Syria and Iran at a critical time. This trend must be reversed and replaced by revitalized action on a critical U.S. national security issue.
So the UNESCO's general conference has voted to admit Palestine as a member. The U.S. government has made good on its Congressionally-mandated commitment to withhold its dues payments to UNESCO. Israel has come up with a cute PR line (UNESCO is supposed to be about science, not science fiction), Europe is hopelessly split -- oh, and the Palestinian territories are still occupied.
Nevertheless, there are a few signposts for what might be coming down the pike worth paying attention to after today's vote:
AFP/ Getty images
Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen stressed the need for the U.S. to maintain open channels of communication with the government of Iran.
"Even in the darkest days of the Cold War," Mullen said, "we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don't understand each other." Asked whether he was "specifically talking about military to military contact, or a broader set of engagement between the two countries," Mullen replied, "I'm talking about any channel that's open. We've not had a direct link of communication with Iran since 1979...Any channel would be terrific."
While President Obama made talking to Iran a central element of his foreign policy agenda upon taking office, no one expected that it would be easy. Over the last three years, Iran's leaders have done nothing to change that pessimism. Always skeptical of the prospect of negotiating with Iran, U.S. conservatives have criticized President Obama's engagement policy from the start. Most recently, in his first big foreign policy address last Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry scolded President Obama for "wasting precious time on a naïve policy of outreach" to Iran.
Cynicism and skepticism always have their place, but today might just go down as an historic day on the Israeli-Palestinian front. No, there is no direct or quick fix move from the Palestinian application for U.N. membership to the actual realization of a Palestinian state (and certainly not when one factors in the Israeli response) but the Palestinian U.N. move does represent the most definitive break yet with the failed and structurally flawed strategies for advancing peace of many a year. Many Palestinians and others are now suggesting that the PLO leadership progress from the symbolism of September 23rd to a concerted struggle for their freedom centered on nonviolent resistance, diplomacy, and international legality, believing that this would finally deliver a breakthrough.
In its theatrics, today was rather predictable -- other than the Quartet statement of the afternoon, on which more in a moment. The speeches of Abbas and Netanyahu held few, if any, surprises. Abbas played to the Palestinian community at home and around the world, and to the rest of the international community.
As President Mahmoud Abbas continues to prepare the Palestinian bid for "observer" status at the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, some members of congress have threatened to cut off economic and/or security aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). One might expect this threat to resonate in Ramallah. The PA has long been one of the most aid-dependent administrations in the world and contributing $833 million in 2009, the United States is its largest provider of official development assistance -- outmatching the second largest donor, the United Arab Emirates, by almost a factor of four.
Yet Abbas and his advisors have solidly rebuffed Obama administration pleas and congressional threats to abandon the PA's petition. Why hasn't the PA been dissuaded by the prospect of less (or no) U.S. aid in one year's time? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the homegrown political challenges confronting Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam al-Fayyad -- progress on which seems stagnant relative to the broader "Arab Awakening" in the region. Another part lies in the intransigence of the Netanyahu government, which offers little hope for meaningful negotiations. But the final part of the answer lies in the nature of U.S. aid itself.
Aid is best at buying leverage when it is in high demand by the recipient, unavailable from other donors, and does not directly serve donor interests. In these situations, donors can issue credible threats to withdraw aid if the recipient fails to implement the donor's foreign policy demands. This year, the United States will provide only about $400.4 million* in Economic Support Funds to the PA, much of which is distributed among technical assistance projects that are widely available from other donors. This is not good material for leverage -- Congress ought not bother. The two most important unique contributions that the United States makes to the PA are diplomatic support and security assistance. However, neither is well-suited to pressuring the PA on the statehood bid -- the former because it has proven ineffective, the latter because it serves U.S. and Israeli interests so well. And that leaves the US with few remaining cards to use with a desperate Palestinian leadership.
SAIF DAHLAH/AFP/Getty Image
While the relentless pace of developments in the Middle East shows little sign of flagging, the region will briefly cast its gaze to New York next week -- with the backdrop for the next installment on Israel-Palestine being provided by Manhattan's East side digs of the United Nations. Any thoughts of the Arab awakening "proving" that Palestine was in fact a marginal concern in the region were unequivocally banished in recent weeks. To imagine that a popular Arab push for democracy, freedom, and dignity would ignore Israel's denial of those same aspirations for Palestinians was a flight of fancy. The opposite is unsurprisingly proving true -- Arab democracy will be less tolerant of Palestinian disenfranchisement than was Arab autocracy.
What is actually likely to happen to the Palestinian effort at the United Nations and what might it mean for all concerned?
In the Republican presidential primary debate in Ames, Iowa two weeks ago, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) caused a bit of an uproar with his suggestion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not mean the end of the world. "Why would that be so strange," Paul asked, "if the Soviets and the Chinese had nuclear weapons? We tolerated the Soviets. We didn't attack them. And they were a much greater danger. They were the greatest danger to us in our whole history. But you [didn't] go to war with them."
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) quickly declared Paul's remarks to be evidence that Paul was "not the kind of guy you need to have sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." West insisted that the sort of deterrence that obtained between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War was "out the window with Iran. If they get a [nuclear] device, they've already told us what their intentions are."
Hailing West's comments, conservative Hot Air blogger Ed Morrissey helpfully explained that deterrence wouldn't work against Iran, because "The mullahs' strategic goals are metaphysical; they want their Messiah to arrive and establish a global Islamic rule. According to their view of Islam, that will come at the end of a great conflagration, and there isn't a much better way to start one of those than by lobbing nukes at Israel, the US, or both."
After serving nearly six years as the special advisor to the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I came home convinced of one thing, cognizant of another. The first was that a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not only in the vital security interests of Israel and the future state of Palestine, but also the United States. The second, initially noted two years ago by a former IDF Chief of Staff, was that, "The USSC, the IDF and the Palestinian Security Services were buying time, time for the politicians.... [A]nd they're wasting it." As we approach the United Nations General Assembly session in September, the first conviction remains immutable, while sadly, the reality of the general's observation appears not to have changed in the slightest.
T. E. Lawrence wrote in the aftermath of the First World War, "...[W]hen we achieved, and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew... We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly, and made their peace."
As more information seeps out from the Quartet principals meeting held in Washington on July 11, it becomes harder not to reach the conclusion that American policy on Israel-Palestine is now being driven almost exclusively by a desire to prevent any possible U.N. vote on the matter in the Autumn. Reading the draft text proposed as a Quartet statement by the U.S. (the text is not yet public, but the authenticity of the draft described here has been reliably confirmed) and rejected by the EU, Russia, and the U.N. Secretary General entrenches that conclusion -- and worse, that the U.S. was attempting to pull something of a diplomatic fast one on the senior Quartet officials assembled. But more on that later.
First, a veritable minefield of myths that have sprung up around a possible Palestine vote at the U.N. should be debunked.
No a U.N. vote will not in practical terms deliver a sovereign Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal and de-occupation. Nor will Israelis instantly be hauled in front of various international legal bodies as a consequence of a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution. Several other steps would have to take place subsequent to a U.N. vote for either of those things to happen and those do not flow seamlessly, one from the other.
A few months back I had a quick exchange with President Obama about the U.S. standing in the Arab World. When I mentioned that we would be conducting a poll to assess Arab attitudes two years after his Cairo speech, he responded that he expected that the ratings would be quite low and would remain low until the U.S. could help find a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Well, the results are in, and the President was right. In our survey of over 4,000 Arabs from six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), we found that favorable attitudes toward the U.S. had declined sharply since our last poll (which had been conducted in 2009 after Obama's first 100 days in office).
Back then, Arabs were hopeful that the new President would bring needed change to the U.S.-Arab relationship and the early steps taken by his administration only served to reinforce this view. As a result, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. climbed significantly from Bush-era lows. But as our respondents made clear in this year's survey, those expectations have not been met and U.S. favorability ratings, in most Arab countries, have now fallen to levels lower than they were in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration. In Morocco, for example, positive attitudes toward the United States went from 26 percent in 2008 to a high 55 percent in 2009. Today, they have fallen to 12 percent. The story was much the same in Egypt, where the U.S. rating went from 9 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2009, but has now plummeted to 5 percent in this year's survey.
Historical dates often emerge by sheer coincidence. In 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad formulated an operational goal for his tenure: by 2011 he wanted to build institutions that would justify the proclamation of a Palestinian state. This would not just have symbolic value, as PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat's statement in 1988, but would carry practical implications. Fayyad's efforts have commanded international admiration. The West Bank is indeed run in a way that meets many criteria for successful statehood. As opposed to the past, funds are used responsibly and accounting standards are transparent. The security forces -- originally trained by U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton -- are remarkably effective. Both the Palestinian population and the Israel Defense Forces rely on them more than ever. Hence, September 2011 began to crystallize as a realistic date for the founding of a Palestinian state.
Fayyad's 2011 deadline for the declaration of Palestinian statehood had acquired enormous importance, even though Fayyad never connected it to the bid for U.N. recognition. It has provided Palestinians with a political horizon and a strong motivation to try the route of peaceful resistance and reliance on the international community's support for the new state. The idea of turning to the U.N. for recognition of Palestine seems not to have been a long-term strategy; it emerged as an option faute de mieux, in the absence of negotiations, and without reasonable hope that Netanyahu has the will or the mandate for a meaningful Israeli compromise.
What conclusions are to be drawn about the state of Middle East peacemaking from the extraordinary spectacle of the adversarial encounter between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their several major adversarial addresses in the second half of May?
The spectacle did not bring an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement any closer. Indeed, Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress, no less than Congress's reaction to that speech, effectively buried the Middle East peace process for good. For what America's solons were jumping up and down to applaud so wildly as they pandered pathetically to the Israel lobby was Netanyahu's rejection of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, thus endorsing his determination to maintain permanently Israel's colonial project in the West Bank.
If Netanyahu succeeds in his objective, these members of Congress will be able to take credit for an Israeli apartheid regime that former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert predicted would be the inescapable consequence of policies the congressmen cheered and promised to continue to support as generously as they have in the past.
No sooner had reports surfaced of an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas than congressional calls for cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority began. A statement by House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen described PA president Mahmoud Abbas's decision to end the four-year rift with Hamas as a sign that his leadership was "not a partner for peace" and accused him of "standing with those who want only death and destruction for Israel."
Such sentiment is not surprising given Hamas's designation in the United States as a terrorist organization and the general antipathy on Capitol Hill to most things Palestinian. While Palestinian reconciliation would pose some serious political, diplomatic, and legal challenges for U.S. policymakers, the Obama administration should think twice before heeding such calls. American opposition to Palestinian unity, particularly at a time when the peace process and the entire region are in a state of flux, would be both futile and counterproductive. Details remain sketchy, but the deal seems to center around the formation of an interim government comprised of independents and technocrats not affiliated with either faction -- but approved by both. New parliamentary and presidential elections would then be held after one year.
Though it is not yet clear how -- or even if -- it will be implemented, the agreement is a major breakthrough for the Palestinians, whose four-year split has paralyzed domestic politics, hindered peace efforts, and demoralized ordinary Palestinians. Notwithstanding the humiliation inflicted by Israel's occupation, the self-inflicted nature of the Palestinian division was a source of intense collective shame. At a time when the United States is calling on Arab governments to be more responsive to the demands of their people, U.S. opposition to national unity, which has been a central demand of the Palestinian people for many years, would send all of the wrong messages to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo's Tahrir Square during her first visit to post-revolutionary Egypt last month, I watched the news unfold from several miles away in the damp, sparse offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary leaders.
"Why doesn't she meet with us?" asked one Brotherhood member.
"We know why," said another.
And then they both fell silent.
This week, in response to the highly publicized murder of a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, a group of 27 U.S. senators signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to press Palestinian leaders to end "incitement directed against Jews and Israel within the Palestinian media, mosques, and schools." According to the letter, the grisly killings in Itamar (for which no suspects, Palestinian or otherwise, have been identified), "is a sobering reminder that words matter, and that Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel can lead to violence and terror."
As evidence for the allegation of pervasive anti-Jewish incitement in Palestinian society, the letter cites a recent, official ceremony honoring Delal Mughrabi, a perpetrator of the 1978 coastal road massacre in Israel, as well as a payment of financial compensation made by the Palestinian Authority to the family of a deceased terror suspect.
Such actions are deserving of condemnation. But if it is indeed the case that "words matter" -and if the elimination of violent and dehumanizing rhetoric is, as the letter says, "critical to establishing the conditions [for] a secure and lasting peace"-then what can explain the senators' silence on the veritable carnival of hate and racist incitement against Arabs and Palestinians that has lately engulfed Israeli society?
With the rumblings of fresh protests in Tehran after over a year of relative quiet from the opposition, some members of the US congress, along with several other former officials, appear to be again dreaming of the possibility of a post-theocratic Iran. One significant sign is their renewed push to have the People's Mojahedin of Iran (also known as the MEK) removed from the State Departments list of designated foreign terrorist organizations. Echoing this sentiment last month, former Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, in an event designed to raise support for the MEK's removal from terror list, asked the audience, "Is it even possible to oppose a terrorist state, and be a terrorist yourself?"
No matter how one looks at that question, the answer must be a resounding "yes." MEK is a non-state organization that, at regular intervals over the years, has taken pride in attacks that have left innocent civilians dead. In the lexicon of our times that qualifies as terrorism. With their designation as a terrorist organization currently under review, the larger issue is not just whether the MEK is engaged in terrorism at the moment, but that if the organization is further legitimated by U.S. policy makers, it will prove to be yet another disastrous read by the U.S. government.
In March 2010, then-CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus set off a storm of protest among neoconservatives when, in his statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he named "insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace" as an obstacle to U.S. goals in the region.
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of responsibility]," read the statement. "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world." At the same time, Petraeus concluded, "Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
While this represented only one of a number of "cross cutting challenges to security and stability" detailed in his statement, Petraeus' analysis was too much for the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman, who quickly issued a scolding: "Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict," said Foxman. "This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive."
That such a carefully calibrated statement of the obvious should draw condemnation from the ADL -- as if the very suggestion that Israel's conflicts could create difficulties for its American patron were itself a form of defamation -- indicates how uncomfortable the notion of "linkage" makes many Israel hawks.
Later this evening, the House is set to vote on a resolution "condemning unilateral declarations of a Palestinian state." Introduced by Rep. Howard Berman, the outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the suspension bill urges Palestinian leaders to "ease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process, including efforts to gain recognition of a Palestinian state from other nations, within the United Nations, and in other international forums prior to achievement of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and calls upon foreign governments not to extend such recognition." In other words, despite the fact that the Netanyahu government recently rejected what Thomas Friedman characterized as a $3.5 billion "bribe," the blame, yet again, is put squarely on the Palestinians.
The riled-up congressional response is predictable but in way, it also contradicts the traditional hardline argument in favor of continued occupation. One might naively expect foreign policy hawks to be overjoyed at the news that Palestinian leaders are thinking about declaring a state along June 4, 1967 borders. The hawks have long insisted that the Palestinians' raison d'être is to eradicate Israel. For instance, Jonathan Schanzer, research director at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, writes in his book Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, "Palestinian nationalism has been based more on destruction (of a Jewish state) than creation (of its own state)."
But today we have Palestinians contemplating independence in territory limited to just 22% of historic Palestine. In other words, the very fact that the Palestinians are willing to settle for 22% of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean demonstrates that the issue they care about is having their own state and ending the occupation, not supplanting Israel. If Palestinians take their case to the United Nations, then it's proof that their nationalism isn't rooted in destruction. It's a move that you'd expect hawks - especially those who understand that the occupation jeopardizes Israel's character and security - to endorse.
With Republicans now sharing the burden of governing in the next Congress, President Barack Obama has an opportunity to define the terms of the Iran debate instead of spending two more years capitulating to a Democratic Congress worried about appearing weak or out of sync with hardliners on the Iran issue.
For a president who ran on the promise of fighting the "smallness" of Washington's political discourse that is unequipped for the immensity of the challenges America faces, few issues suffer more from that "smallness" than the Iran debate. In Washington, when in doubt, Iran saber rattling always seems to pay -- and the implications for our Iran policy could not be more disastrous. Obama had offered the promise of fighting this paradigm and supporting a new strategy of engagement, which is the only effective means to resolve the nuclear issue, address the human rights situation, and create space for pro-democracy activists in Iran.
Unfortunately, instead of fighting the Bush paradigm that rewards policymakers on the basis of bellicosity towards Iran, Obama has by and large perpetuated a political metric that defines success on Iran only in terms of pressure. Only if Obama raises the consequences of the dire alternative to a successful engagement strategy -- war with Iran -- and stakes out a new path to create his own political space for diplomacy, can the president effectively navigate the new reality in Congress and pursue a successful Iran agenda.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon last week, where he spent two days making highly scripted appearances, brought condemnation from Congress and the State Department. The visit was part of the Islamic Republic's ongoing campaign of attempting to strengthen ties not just with Shi'a militants in Hezbollah, but with the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah, which has received assistance from Iran for the past two-decades, has gained in strength since the 2006 Lebanon war and has tightened its control over large portions of Southern Lebanon along Israel's border. But with condemnations of Ahmadinejad's trip to Lebanon, and the near daily warnings about a third Lebanon war, the issue of U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which has been held up in Congress since August, is becoming a topic of growing importance. And withholding the aid could even be counterproductive to U.S. attempts to contain Iranian influence.
It's been over two months since the toughest Iran sanctions ever approved by Congress were signed into law, three months since the UN's latest resolution, and 15 months since Iran's post-election demonstrations began. Despite all of this, Iran's clerical government is not crumbling, nor has Iran shown any sign of giving in to the West on its nuclear program.
Recent weeks have seen a renewed discussion of military options for stopping Iran's nuclear program - kicked off by Jeffrey Goldberg's cover article in the Atlantic. But there is also a campaign underway to promote a different option on Iran: regime change, via Iranian dissidents in exile.
Tuesday's flare-up on the Israel-Lebanon border continues to be analyzed from every angle. Thus far at least, the deaths of three Lebanese (two soldiers and a journalist) and one Israeli soldier have not spiraled into a broader escalation. The much-dreaded and talked about summer war is still a matter of speculation, albeit now heightened (all of this exactly on the fourth anniversary of the 2006 war).
The exact sequence of events is still unclear. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had informed the relevant UN officials of a planned tree clearance deployment in the border area. UNIFIL updated the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as per protocol while apparently asking the IDF to postpone its activity. The Israelis undertook their somewhat python-esque mission (Israel has none-too-subtle surveillance cameras throughout its border area with Lebanon. The Lebanese don't like it, the trees get in the way, but until this week they were the only innocent victims). An Israeli soldier can be seen almost dangling from a crane to fell the tree - he is clearly over the border fence though the UN has clarified that this particular territory, while on the Lebanese side of the fence, is still on the Israeli side of the UN-demarcated blue line border. The Lebanese seem to be disputing this.
Here is where the respective versions of events go their separate ways. Seeing their side of the fence transgressed and having shouted for Israel to pull back, the LAF either fired warning shots or immediately responded with lethal fire at an IDF position. The IDF either responded with lethal fire of its own on LAF positions or escalated by taking this action. Initial investigations suggest that the Lebanese side escalated. A brief exchange between the LAF and IDF ensued, both sides took casualties, and UNIFIL together with Washington, Paris, and other capitols urgently intervened to prevent further escalation.
A game plan to draw the United
States into a third war in the Middle
East may be quietly unfolding before our eyes.
Late last week, Republicans in the House or Representatives unveiled
H.Res.1553, a resolution providing explicit support for an Israeli bombing
campaign against Iran. The measure, introduced by Texas Republican Louie Gohmert and forty-six of his
colleagues, endorses Israel's
use of "all means necessary" against Iran "including the use of military
"We have got to act," Gohmert has said in regard to the measure. "We've got to get this done. We need to show our support for Israel. We need to quit playing games with this critical ally in such a difficult area."
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