Obama's time warp: The U.S. is still the bad guy

Michael Barone:

(…)But some people, including Barack Obama, whose college thesis written in those years has never been made public, seem stuck in a time warp in which the United States is the bad guy.

That, at least, seems to explain Obama’s latest foreign policy moves, starting with Honduras, where the president was ousted by the Supreme Court for violating a constitutional provision that forbids any moves to seek a second term. (Other Latin countries, notably Mexico, have similar constitutional prohibitions.) The White House immediately interpreted this as a military coup and decided that, this time, the United States would come out on the side of “the people.” In fact, we find ourselves siding with a friend of the Iranian mullahs, Hugo Chavez, who swept aside similar constitutional limits in Venezuela, and opposing the elected Congress, courts and civil society of Honduras.

Honduras is not the only or, sad to say, most important example of where this administration has come out on the side of our enemies and against our friends. Israel has been told that it must stop all settlement construction, even the adding of spare rooms for newly arrived infants, while nothing is asked of the Palestinians.

In eastern Europe, Obama acknowledged last spring the importance of placing missile defense installations in our NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic, then reversed himself this month and canceled the program.

The president of Poland, which has sent brave and effective troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, was given an after-midnight phone call, which he declined to take. The president of Russia, which has declined to aid our efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons programs, expressed his delight — and pointedly made no concessions in return.

(…) The reaction to the most recent moves has been harsh, and from unexpected quarters. Leslie Gelb, former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the editorial writers of The Washington Post have expressed astonishment at Obama’s apparent switch on Afghanistan. Edward Lucas, Eastern European correspondent for the Economist, wrote in the Telegraph of London, “The picture emerging from the White House is a disturbing one, of timidity, clumsiness and short-term calculation. Some say he is the weakest president since Jimmy Carter.”

Please continue reading…

The Power Vacuum in the Middle East

Chilling commentary from David Goldman (as Spengler). We’re too busy preparing to sail for Hawaii to do any research now or for a while, so don’t have much clarity on the accuracy of Goldman’s perspective:

Writing this morning in Asia Times Online, I draw out the implications of the power vacuum left by the collapse of American foreign policy with the Iranian elections. The editors’ summary is:

President Barack Obama has not betrayed the interests of the United States to any foreign power, but he has done the next worst thing, namely, to create a void by withdrawing American power. By removing America as a referee, he will provoke more violence than the United States ever did. A very, very dangerous period is about to begin, and it could start with Iran.

I wrote:

There’s a joke about a man who tells a psychiatrist, “Everybody hates me,” to which the psychiatrist responds, “That’s ridiculous – everyone doesn’t know you, yet.” Which brings me to Barack Obama: one of the best-informed people in the American security establishment told me the other day that the president is a “Manchurian Candidate”.

Follow the link above for the rest.

That can’t be true – Manchuria isn’t in the business of brainwashing prospective presidential candidates any more. There’s no one left to betray America to. Obama is creating a strategic void in which no major power will dominate, and every minor power must fend for itself. The outcome is incalculably hard to analyze and terrifying to consider.

Obama doesn’t want to betray the United States; he only wants to empower America’s enemies. Forcing Israel to abandon its strategic buffer (the so-called settlements) was supposed to placate Iran, so that Iran would help America stabilize Iraq, where its influence looms large over the Shi’ite majority.

America also sought Iran’s help in suppressing the Taliban in Afghanistan. In Obama’s imagination, a Sunni Arab coalition – empowered by Washington’s turn against Israel – would encircle Iran and dissuade it from acquiring nuclear weapons, while an entirely separate Shi’ite coalition with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would suppress the radical Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was the worst-designed scheme concocted by a Western strategist since Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery attacked the bridges at Arnhem in 1944, and it has blown up in Obama’s face.

Iran already has made clear that casting America’s enemies in the leading role of an American operation has a defect, namely that America’s enemies rather would lose on their own terms than win on America’s terms.

[From The Power Vacuum in the Middle East]

The Palestinian Peace Process as Political Theater

For this reason, the entire peace process — including the two-state solution — is a chimera. Neither side can live with what the other can offer. But if it is a fiction, it is a fiction that serves U.S. purposes. The United States has interests that go well beyond Israeli interests and sometimes go in a different direction altogether. Like Israel, the United States understands that one of the major obstacles to any serious evolution toward a two-state solution is Arab hostility to such an outcome. — George Friedman

John Mauldin’s email newsletter came today incorporating a recent analysis by George Friedman of Stratfor. It is moderately long, so you’ll definitely want time to read the whole thing. I liked it because, in his usual style, George doesn’t pussyfoot around, clearly outlining the limited outcomes and the motives of the key players:

That Israel has a new prime minister and the United States a new president might appear to make this meeting significant. But this is Netanyahu’s second time as prime minister, and his government is as diverse and fractious as most recent Israeli governments. Israeli politics are in gridlock, with deep divisions along multiple fault lines and an electoral system designed to magnify disagreements.

Obama is much stronger politically, but he has consistently acted with caution, particularly in the foreign policy arena. Much of his foreign policy follows from the Bush administration. He has made no major breaks in foreign policy beyond rhetoric; his policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and Europe are essentially extensions of pre-existing policy. Obama faces major economic problems in the United States and clearly is not looking for major changes in foreign policy. He understands how quickly public sentiment can change, and he does not plan to take risks he does not have to take right now.

This, then, is the problem: Netanyahu is coming to Washington hoping to get Obama to agree to fundamental redefinitions of the regional dynamic. For example, he wants Obama to re-examine the commitment to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. (Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said Israel is no longer bound by prior commitments to that concept.) Netanyahu also wants the United States to commit itself to a finite time frame for talks with Iran, after which unspecified but ominous-sounding actions are to be taken.

Facing a major test in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has more than enough to deal with at the moment. Moreover, U.S. presidents who get involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations frequently get sucked into a morass from which they do not return. For Netanyahu to even request that the White House devote attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem at present is asking a lot. Asking for a complete review of the peace process is even less realistic.


For this reason, the entire peace process — including the two-state solution — is a chimera. Neither side can live with what the other can offer. But if it is a fiction, it is a fiction that serves U.S. purposes. The United States has interests that go well beyond Israeli interests and sometimes go in a different direction altogether. Like Israel, the United States understands that one of the major obstacles to any serious evolution toward a two-state solution is Arab hostility to such an outcome.

The Jordanians have feared and loathed Fatah in the West Bank ever since the Black September uprisings of 1970. The ruling Hashemites are ethnically different from the Palestinians (who constitute an overwhelming majority of the Jordanian population), and they fear that a Palestinian state under Fatah would threaten the Jordanian monarchy. For their part, the Egyptians see Hamas as a descendent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks the Mubarak government’s ouster — meaning Cairo would hate to see a Hamas-led state. Meanwhile, the Saudis and the other Arab states do not wish to see a radical altering of the status quo, which would likely come about with the rise of a Palestinian polity.

At the same time, whatever the basic strategic interests of the Arab regimes, all pay lip service to the principle of Palestinian statehood. This is hardly a unique situation. States frequently claim to favor various things they actually are either indifferent to or have no intention of doing anything about. Complicating matters for the Arab states is the fact that they have substantial populations that do care about the fate of the Palestinians. These states thus are caught between public passion on behalf of Palestinians and the regimes’ interests that are threatened by the Palestinian cause. The states’ challenge, accordingly, is to appear to be doing something on behalf of the Palestinians while in fact doing nothing.

The United States has a vested interest in the preservation of these states. The futures of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are of vital importance to Washington. The United States must therefore simultaneously publicly demonstrate its sensitivity to pressures from these nations over the Palestinian question while being careful to achieve nothing — an easy enough goal to achieve.

The various Israeli-Palestinian peace processes have thus served U.S. and Arab interests quite well. They provide the illusion of activity, with high-level visits breathlessly reported in the media, succeeded by talks and concessions — all followed by stalemate and new rounds of violence, thus beginning the cycle all over again.

Continue reading…

And Spengler is …

Aha — the pseudonymous “Spengler” (originally writing columns for Asia Times print editions) fame turns out to be one of Seekerblog’s reliable sources: former banker, former hedgie David P Goldman, who today writes the indispensable Inner Workings.

Since 1999 “Spengler” has written some 300 essays for Asia Times — so we who valued his writings did not have too long a wait between essays. Now there is even less of a wait, what with several essays each week appearing at Inner Workings, the “by Spengler” at Asia Times and David’s First Things essays, such as Demographics and Depression.

I recommend this site search which will provide you a ready list of sharp and insightful “Spengler” essays. I also recommend The Complete Spengler at Asia Times — which know hosts Spengler’s Forum.

Here is a fragment of the revelatory essay at Asia Times:

And Spengler is …

By Spengler

During the too-brief run of the Asia Times print edition in the 1990s, the newspaper asked me to write a humor column, and I chose the name “Spengler” as a joke – a columnist for an Asian daily using the name of the author of The Decline of the West.

Barely a dozen “Spengler” items appeared before the print edition went down in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. A malicious thought crossed my mind in 1999, though, as the Internet euphoria engulfed world markets: was it really possible for a medium whose premise was the rise of a homogeneous global youth culture to drive world economic growth?

Youth culture, I argued, was an oxymoron, for culture itself was a bridge across generations, a means of cheating mortality. The old and angry cultures of the world, fighting for room to breath against the onset of globalization, would not go quietly into the homogenizer. Many of them would fight to survive, but fight in vain, for the tide of modernity could not be rolled back.

As in the great extinction of the tribes in late antiquity, individuals might save themselves from the incurable necrosis of their own ethnicity through adoption into the eternal people, that is, Israel. The great German-Jewish theologian and student of the existential angst of dying nations, Franz Rosenzweig, had commanded undivided attention during the 1990s, and I had a pair of essays about him for the Jewish-Christian Relations website. Rosenzweig’s theology, it occurred to me, had broader applications.

The end of the old ethnicities, I believed, would dominate the cultural and strategic agenda of the next several decades. Great countries were failing of their will to live, and it was easy to imagine a world in which Japanese, German, Italian and Russian would turn into dying languages only a century hence. Modernity taxed the Muslim world even more severely, although the results sometimes were less obvious.

The 300 or so essays that I have published in this space since 1999 all proceeded from the theme formulated by Rosenzweig: the mortality of nations and its causes, Western secularism, Asian anomie, and unadaptable Islam.

Why raise these issues under a pseudonym? There is a simple answer, and a less simple one. To inform a culture that it is going to die does not necessarily win friends, and what I needed to say would be hurtful to many readers. I needed to tell the Europeans that their post-national, secular dystopia was a death-trap whence no-one would get out alive.

I needed to tell the Muslims that nothing would alleviate the unbearable sense of humiliation and loss that globalization inflicted on a civilization that once had pretensions to world dominance. I needed to tell Asians that materialism leads only to despair. And I needed to tell the Americans that their smugness would be their undoing.


As I wrote pseudonymously for Asia Times Online, new friends announced themselves – journalists, academics, clergy, and people of faith from many walks of life, not least the indefatigable group of good friends that manages the Spengler Forum. The editors of First Things asked me for an essay on Franz Rosenzweig and Islam, which I published in 2007, and later a piece entitled “Zionism for Christians”, which appeared in 2008 under the pseudonym “David Shushon”. That was a milestone for me.

I had subscribed to the journal not long after its inception in 1990, the year I finished my PhD coursework in music. To write for First Things was an unanticipated honor. I came to know the magazine’s editor Joseph Bottum, as well as such regular contributors as George Weigel, Russell Hittinger and R R Reno.

On January 8, 2009, the magazine’s founder Richard John Neuhaus died. A few weeks later Jody Bottum asked me to join the staff of First Things as an editor and writer. It seems only heartbeats ago that I was in dark seas, looking up at this beacon; now it is my turn to help keep the lighthouse.

As for Asia Times Online – this scrappy, virtual expat bar – I was there at the founding, and will contribute to it as long it continues to upload, if somewhat less frequently than before.

“Spengler” is channeled by David P Goldman, associate editor of First Things (www.firstthings.com).

Bueno de Mesquita on Iran and Threats to U.S. Security

The Aug 11, 2008 Russ Roberts Econtalk interview with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita was fascinating. You can directly download the MP3 audio of the interview here. Better, subscribe to the Econtalk series at iTunes.

Russ has a short and very terse set of notes from the interview, including a couple of paragraphs on the threat profile of Iran, and of particular interest, how important is Pres. Ahmadinejad in the Iranian hierarchy? We knew he was effectively a figurehead or “front man” for the Supreme Council. But, typically, de Mesquita’s research puts Ahmadinejad at 18th in the ranking:

Intro. Danger, threats to the United States. Are Iran Ahmadinejad a threat to the U.S.? Threat to our friends. No missiles with sufficient range to reach the U.S. Can it smuggle a bomb into the U.S.? That’s more a matter of movies. Ahmadinejad is the President of Iran, but virtually all power there is held by the Supreme Council. Has veto power, can remove people from office; all people elected including Ahmadinejad serve at the pleasure of the Supreme Council. Interviews, Ahmadinejad ranked 18th in terms of power. At odds with most people’s public perception. Maybe he’s 17th or 19th; but he’s not 3rd or 4th. He is a very outspoken man, says many outrageous things, so he gets a lot of news coverage. Came to power by election from being mayor of Teheran by carving out a constituency of not-very-well educated who saw in him someone who would advance Iranian nationalist sentiment. His power has faded and his party keeps losing by elections. Media attention also because American media has poor or no access to Ali Khamenei, head of the Supreme Council, most powerful person in Iran. Putin had audience with Khamenei; Western leaders only get to see Ahmadinejad. Why would Khamenei want Ahmadinejad in power? Good for floating trial balloons, has a salutary effect in terms of foreign policy; has convinced some people that the Iranian leadership is irrational, and in doing so have attained a certain amount of deterrent clout. Very Schellingesque (Thomas Schelling, Nobel Prize winner), soft application of game theory to national security problems, brinksmanship. Strategy that if you convince the other guy that you’ll drive off the cliff, the other guy gets pretty nervous about it.

At 7:43 in the audio:

Do the 17 people ranked in front of Ahmadinejad have similar views? Do they want to build a nuclear weapon? Ahmadinejad would like to. Ali Khamenei would probably like the capacity to make weapons’ grade fuel, bargaining chip, but a weapon itself could lead to a pre-emptive attack by the Israelis. Others in power much more pragmatic, likely to advocate no more than a fuel cycle at the research level, not to produce enough actually to make a bomb. As a social scientist it makes sense to treat these people as if they are rational. Track record of predictions, last 24 years: 1984 predicted in print who would succeed Ayatollah Khomeini, designed someone; predicted instead shared leadership between Ali Khamenei and Rafsanjani. Khomeini died 5 years later. Based prediction on rationality assumption. Rationality doesn’t mean doing good things. It means doing things based on their own best interest. Logic of Political Survival, previous podcast, leaders want to keep their jobs. Data are consistent with Ali Khamenei’s wanting to stay in power. What would their motivations be to building a nuclear bomb? If they could get far enough without Israel’s attacking, they have a deterrent. India and Pakistan: since they both detonated nuclear weapons they have made an effort to get along. Argument is that deterrence claim is false because Israelis will move beforehand. Iran, Shiite force, is in competition with Al Qaeda, Sunni force to be the dominant leader in the Islamic world. They hate each other. Bomb would be a way of achieving nationalist pride, which keeps the party in power while the economy goes to hell. Rational reasons for wanting to build a nuclear weapon. They say want to develop nuclear power for peaceful energy uses, which is their right.

From other reading we have learned that de Mesquita has done repeated consulting assignments for the CIA. In this interview he said his work on Iran was for “confidential sources”.

Readers not familiar with de Mesquita’s work may conclude from this interview that he is an “Iran expert”. In fact the “Iran experts” called him a quack when in 1984, in “Forecasting Policy Decisions: An Expected Utility Approach to Post-Khomeini Iran,” Political Science (Spring, 1984), pp. 226-236, five years before the eventual succession, he correctly predicted that the successors to Khomeni would be the unknown clerics Rafsanjani and Khameini. His forecasting record has been built entirely upon the application of game theory to the politicians’ incentives — in the setting of their political structure.

Highly recommended.

"Drowning in Riches"

Brookings scholar Kenneth M. Pollack on the Middle East windfall — how it could lead to even more instability.

You might think that $140 per barrel oil would be good for at least one part of the world, the Middle East. It’s too soon to tell for certain, but the region may well turn out to be the part of the world that suffers the most.

An Indian labourer stands under futuristic Dubai skyline buildings

As painful as the current (or coming) oil-driven recession will be for Americans, it does seem to be convincing us to make the sacrifices necessary to diminish our reliance on oil. Over the long term, that could prove a huge boon for our economy, our environment and our national security.

In the Middle East, the situation may be reversed. Right now, the region is experiencing an economic boom, creating the opportunity to address the deep-seated political, economic and social problems that have spawned terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. That’s certainly what the people of the region hope.

The danger is that the way that the rising revenues are being spent will more likely worsen the region’s instability over time.

And that’s a problem, because problems in the Middle East have a bad habit of becoming big problems for the rest of the world. The Middle East isn’t Las Vegas: what happens there doesn’t stay there.

For those who don’t follow the Middle East closely, Pollack is a former Clinton National Security Council staffer, and the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. The book was highly influential among the policy community and remains today the best modern history of Saddam and the available policy options circa 2003. Pollack concluded that invasion was “the least worst choice” amongst a list of very unpleasant options.

Middle East May 2008

Just as Israel was attempting to draw Syria into this “circle of peace,” Syrian client Hezbollah was sinking its claws deeper into the government of Lebanon. Earlier this month, Hezbollah set off the worst round of killing in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. Now Lebanon’s weak government has given the Hezbollah-controlled opposition enough cabinet seats to veto any policy it opposes.

More of the ongoing bad news in the Middle East. Now in contrast with the continuing progress in Iraq:

Meanwhile, the “failure” in Iraq makes steady, substantive progress. In remarks yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Petraeus noted that much of the reduction in violence in Iraq is due to “recent operations” in Basra, Mosul and Sadr City. Those operations have succeeded in no small part from the increasingly positive performance of the Iraqi army. In Baghdad’s Sadr City this week, the Iraqi troops deployed through its neighborhoods without direct support from U.S. forces. Residents living in the grip of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militias openly welcomed the Iraqi troops, as long-closed businesses reopened.

Earlier this month, a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation moved into Mosul. This isn’t just another village but a city of some two million residents. Located in northern Iraq (close to Syria), it has long been a stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq. Virtually the entire city has been brought under control by the coalition forces, and violent incidents are down dramatically the past month.

The significance of these countervailing trends should be apparent. In Iraq since the onset of the surge, U.S. policy has been clear and consistent. By contrast, U.S. policy toward Syria has been impossible to discern. Obviously the two examples are not alike. Iraq is a U.S. military operation, while the rest of the region falls under the portfolio of State’s diplomats. But absent the will to make Syria pay a price for its destructive mischief, a U.S. policy vacuum exists. It’s no surprise the Syrians are taking advantage of it.

More from the WSJ Editorial Board…


1948, Israel and the Palestinians: The True Story

A quite excellent true history of the Middle East’s last sixty years by Professor Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, University of London, and the author most recently of “Islamic Imperialism: A History” (Yale). Much of this is based upon recently declassified documents from the British Mandate. Excerpt:

Sixty years after its establishment by an internationally recognized act of self-determination, Israel remains the only state in the world that is subjected to a constant outpouring of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and blood libels; whose policies and actions are obsessively condemned by the international community; and whose right to exist is constantly debated and challenged not only by its Arab enemies but by segments of advanced opinion in the West.

During the past decade or so, the actual elimination of the Jewish state has become a cause célèbre among many of these educated Westerners. The “one-state solution,” as it is called, is a euphemistic formula proposing the replacement of Israel by a state, theoretically comprising the whole of historic Palestine, in which Jews will be reduced to the status of a permanent minority. Only this, it is said, can expiate the “original sin” of Israel’s founding, an act built (in the words of one critic) “on the ruins of Arab Palestine” and achieved through the deliberate and aggressive dispossession of its native population.

This claim of premeditated dispossession and the consequent creation of the longstanding Palestinian “refugee problem” forms, indeed, the central plank in the bill of particulars pressed by Israel’s alleged victims and their Western supporters. It is a charge that has hardly gone undisputed. As early as the mid-1950s, the eminent American historian J.C. Hurewitz undertook a systematic refutation, and his findings were abundantly confirmed by later generations of scholars and writers. Even Benny Morris, the most influential of Israel’s revisionist “new historians,” and one who went out of his way to establish the case for Israel’s “original sin,” grudgingly stipulated that there was no “design” to displace the Palestinian Arabs.

The recent declassification of millions of documents from the period of the British Mandate (1920-48) and Israel’s early days, documents untapped by earlier generations of writers and ignored or distorted by the “new historians,” paints a much more definitive picture of the historical record. These documents reveal that the claim of dispossession is not only completely unfounded but the inverse of the truth. What follows is based on fresh research into these documents, which contain many facts and data hitherto unreported.

Highly recommended. I have archived the Karsh essay for future reference.

Karsh has authored several other books on the Middle East, including Fabricating Israeli History: The ‘New Historians’ (2000).

Incumbent Regimes and the “King’s Dilemma” in the Arab World: Promise and Threat of Managed Reform

• There is growing awareness in the Arab world that reforms are necessary to create a viable, competitive economy. Oil is no longer seen as an inexhaustible source of revenue that gives governments an infinite capacity to manipulate their citizens.

• Pressure from the United States. and Europe to introduce reforms has been inconsistent and has favored managed reforms, sending signals that external expectations are not very high, and that external actors can be easily appeased.

• Further political stagnation is the likely scenario for most Arab regimes, characterized by limited change rather than an uncontrolled slide into an uncertain future. The power of reformists remains limited in most countries, as they have generally failed to convince the population that they are serious about change, resulting in tarnished reputations.

• To be successful, regime reformers need to find allies in civil societies or moderate parties. Some reformers could decide that a competitive political environment would benefit their political future—yet a more participatory reform process could prove unpredictable.

“The evidence so far is that the top-down process is having very little effect, making at best a marginal difference on specific issues but not leading to the redistribution of power that a true process of democratization and even liberalization would entail. For domestic advocates of managed reform and for outsiders seeking to promote change alike, the lesson appears to be that political reform can never be risk free: Too much close management perpetuates authoritarianism, and unmanaged processes have unpredictable outcomes.”

Not much encouragement in this Dec 2007 Carnegie Endowment paper.

Honor killings

There is no clearer indicator of a “clash of civilizations” than the prevalence of honor killings in the Arab world. With all due respect to pluralism, universalism, and respect for the Other, here is a piece of intolerance that can unite all of us, left and right, liberal and conservative. The idea that one’s relationships are one’s own business is a cornerstone of liberal thinking. That a disapproved-of relationship justifies murder — that one should take pride in killing one’s own sister because of it — well, that’s just way, way outside the pale of anything we Westerners can handle. Honor killings are so shocking to even the most tolerant among us, that one wonders why the West has failed to express its moral outrage.