Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Issue of MERIA Journal: Articles on Egypt, Gulf, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey

The latest issue of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal (Vol. 13, No. 2, June 2009) is available . You can read online or download the following articles. You can also subscribe to have them delivered to you

Here are the articles, available in html and pdf:

Jonathan Spyer

Eser Sekercioglu

Barry Rubin

Panel Discussion

Adel Guindy

Joana Dodds and Ben Wilson

Panagiotis Dimtirakis

Obama and Iran: Beat Demonstrators, Build Bombs, But We’re Eager to Negotiate with You

By Barry Rubin

Put these two stories together.

The first is from the Times of London:

``More than 2,000 Iranians have been arrested and hundreds more have disappeared since the regime decided to crush dissent after the disputed presidential election, a leading human rights organisation said yesterday.

“`A climate of terror and of fear reigns in Iran today,'” the International Federation for Human Rights , an umbrella body for 155 human rights organizations, said as it released the startling figures.’’

And the second is from the Post of Washington:

``The Obama administration is open to discussions with Iran over its nuclear ambitions despite protests questioning the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, U.S. officials said Sunday….

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that the legitimacy of the government, while questioned by the people of Iran, is not the critical issue for the U.S. goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear capability…."It's in the United States' national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity," she said.

Both Rice and David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, said Ahmadinejad doesn't appear to have the final say over Iran's foreign policy.

Now, on the surface—but not really--Rice is right on the first point, but both Rice and Axelrod are wrong on the second.

Let’s review:

First, by announcing that the door is open for negotiations with Iran despite the repression at this moment, Rice says the United States is not doing the Tehran regime a favor. But of course it is doing the regime a favor. How? Well clever diplomatists are supposed to understand this. The signal being sent is this one:

Don’t worry. No matter how much you repress your people, now matter how many you murder, no matter how extreme you get, the door is still open. We are not, and will not, define you as an enemy.

Indeed, since we can't negotiate with you until you solve your internal unrest, hurry up and destroy the opposition demonstrations so you can take advantage of our offer. This is not the administration's intent, of course, but in effect that's what it is offering, an incentive for restoring "order" faster.

That policy is an extremely valuable asset for the Iranian government. The bridge to America is made of asbestos, it cannot burn (though it might be toxic). Not for one second does the regime need to fear that what it’s doing will limit its options internationally.

Here's how the real world works. If the Iranian regime believes that there will be diplomatic and economic costs if, for example,  it kills 500 people, the rulers may be less inclined to do so. But if the leaders know that the extent of repression will have no effect on their trade income, sanctions, or ability to stall of the West until their nuclear weapons are ready, they have no such restraint.

Regarding the U.S. national interest, of course, Washington wants to use all the elements at its disposal. The problem here is that the Obama position ignores the fact that the United States and Europe have been already doing this with Iran for a half-dozen years. By ignoring that history it can ignore the lesson of that experience: it doesn’t work.

In practice, also, Rice’s approach means that the United States will continue using such means—weak and without teeth—until the very moment that Iran gets nuclear weapons. The clock is ticking but the Obama administration hasn’t even started its stop-watch yet.

Finally, the Rice-Axelrod position is childish. If Iranian politics have shown anything in the last nune
months it's that supreme guide Ali Khamenei and supreme loudmouth president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are united on their policy and world view. By refusing to recognize this, even today, people like Rice and Axelrod show themselves to be unqualified to pronounce on such issues.

Obamapologists at this point get a smug expression on their face and ask, “Well, what would you have the president do on Iran?” Simple, and the answer is not, of course, any direct intervention. Arguing that the administration isn't endorsing the opposition for its own good is a red herring. What's required is not that but rather a strategic policy toward Iran that includes two elements:

1. Denounce the regime every day as an enemy of liberty, of its own people and of Western democracies. Point out that it has refused to negotiate in good faith on its nuclear weapons’ drive and continues to be the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism. The last point is in the State Department report on terrorism.

2. Announce that since the regime has shown its true nature, the United States will work with its allies to increase sanctions against Iran, that it is necessary to go into Phase Two of the effort to block Iran’s nuclear weapons.

The key points about the current situation are these:

--The Iranian regime is weakened, at least temporarily.

--It is also more extreme, having jettisoned the less hardline elements and united around the Ahmadinejad policy of screw the world, we’re taking over, what are you punks going to do about it?

--Every day, the regime isn’t just beating up demonstrators; it’s also setting up more centrifuges for building nuclear bombs, training terrorists to attack targets in Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, too.

And what’s the Obama administration’s response? We are prepared to wait until hell freezes over for you to negotiate with us! But until then we aren’t going to do anything.

Then administration officials smile broadly, shake hands, and gloat: Now we really have the Iranians where we want them!

Something is very wrong here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Obama Administration's Analytical Insanity: How Not to Respond to Iran's Turmoil

By Barry Rubin

Let me coin a phrase: "analytical insanity," by which I mean the inability of people professionally involved in international affairs to take a view of events that somehow corresponds to reality. As close readers know, while being quite critical of the Obama administration's policies I have really tried to be fair, sticking to the facts and to direct statements by officials in understanding what they are thinking and saying.

And yet one increasingly comes across statements made directly by officials in reputable publications that forces some question of their analytical sanity. Let me take here as example the material presented in a single article by Jay Solomon and Peter Spiegel in the Wall Street Journal. I will further note that the authors are not ridiculing or criticizing these statements but merely reporting them without making any remarks of their own.

The content makes me think of the Obama administration running down the field with a confident smile, football tucked under arm, and nobody between itself and the goal.

Unfortunately, it is running headlong toward its own goal.

Before proceeding let me make a very important point: the debate over U.S. policy in Iran is being systematically misrepresented. The issue is not that the United States should interfere directly in Iran, nor is it that the United States should declare that it sides with the pro-democracy protestors. This is a straw man that Obama's defenders are beating to death.

The issue is that the administration should draw certain conclusions about the Iranian regime's intentions, regional role, and ideology as relates to U.S. interests.

In other words, the key conclusion should not be to say "Hurray for the demonstrators! Let's make Iran a real democracy" but rather, "Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are united. Iran is an enemy that must be stopped because this regime cannot be moderated."

True, the administration is looking at the regional picture. But what is it concluding? The aforementioned  article, entitled, "In Iran Turmoil, U.S. Sees Chance to Gain Sway in Mideast" examines this issue. Here's what it concludes:

"U.S. strategists are assessing whether Iran's inner turmoil will force its clerical leaders to rein in support for [Hamas and Hizballah]and focus instead on quelling domestic dissent."

Well, let's see....Iran subsidizes these groups on the cheap and gives them relatively simple weapons. So in order to put down street demonstrations is it credible that the Iranian government is going to say to Hamas: "Sorry! We have pro-democracy demonstrators so no mortar shells for you this month!"

This is an idea which I think any serious undergraduate student would instantly see as absurd. Remember the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime is cracking down precisely to ensure the continuation of its policy of spreading Islamist revolution. And they are winning, rather easily to be honest about it.

"Or, as some U.S. strategists fear, whether Iran's leaders, feeling weakened at home, will seek to expand Iran's overseas operations in order to appear strong."

Well, that makes more sense. But somehow I have the feeling t this conclusion won't be acceptable to the White House. After all, this would show that Iran is a rather irreconcilable enemy at the moment when the administration is eager to negotiate with Tehran. It would also require U.S. responses, like get tougher in Iraq, support Israel, and drastically raise sanctions on Iran's nuclear drive.

"The White House decision this week to return an American ambassador to Damascus after a four-year hiatus was made, in part, by heightened hopes in Washington that Iran's internal instability could force Mr. Assad to rethink his partnership with Tehran, said U.S. officials."

Makes you want to laugh, doesn't it? Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, dictator, no doubt admires what the regime is doing in Iran and knows the government there is in no serious danger. Iran gives him a huge amount: Islamic religious cover; a lot of money; subsidizes his Hamas, Hizballah, and Iraqi insurgent clients; protects him--so he thinks--from America and Israel; and the list goes on. At the same time, he sees a weak and vacillating West, with the United States eager to give him unilateral concessions.

Are we to believe that he's quaking in his boots and thinking about switching sides? Rats jump from sinking ships to sturdy ones, not the other way around.

"`If Syria feels the Iranian situation is unraveling, that's a good thing from our perspective,'" said a senior Obama administration official working on the Middle East. He said the U.S. has been pushing Damascus to curtail Hamas's military activities and to pursue direct peace talks with Israel."

Hey, mister, the United States has been pushing Damascus to stop backing terrorists since the days President Obama was in high school with no result. Why do you think, now that their Hamas friends are securely in power in the Gaza Strip (thanks partly to the West restraining Israel) he's going to stop now?

"American and Middle East diplomats said Iran's internal instability could also aid U.S. efforts to push ahead with a broader Arab-Israeli peace initiative. A key stumbling block to the process has been the political split between the Palestinian territories' two main political factions, Fatah and Hamas.

"Any signs that Tehran's support for Hamas is ebbing, said these diplomats, could bolster the Egyptian-led effort to unify the two factions and accelerate peace talks with the Israelis."

Wishful thinking? That doesn't begin to describe such thinking.

But then comes the best line of all, a claim so bizarre, so redolent of ignorance of the Middle East that the mind reels. Are you sitting down? Ok, here we go!

"`You can't be killing people in your own country and expect to still have that kind of influence' in the region, said a senior U.S. military official familiar with internal discussions on Iran."

Right! If you are a dictatorship to murder people then who's going to listen to you in the region? Um, I believe you are thinking of Europe. In the Middle East, killing people in your own country--showing you are tough and determined--is the best way to have regional influence. Even Jordan's late King Hussein became an important figure only after crushing the PLO in September 1970.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser sent Muslim Brotherhood leaders to the gallows and used chemical weapons in Yemen.  Syrian and Iraqi rulers repeatedly smashed opponents and would-be coupmakers at home. The Middle East doesn't really work the way the Obama people think it does.

Yet that last quote really does show the Obama administration mindset, doesn't it? The point isn't to prove you are tough, standing up for friends and smiting enemies. The goal is to show you are kind, sensitive, eager to apologize, and to give gifts to enemies to show what a nice person you are.

This, of course, is also how the administration would like Israel to behave, and it faults Israel for not acting that way. And yet this kind of thinking is just as horrifying for Arabs who are either relatively moderate or who are in power and want to stay that way.

But the article's concept is a good one. There are ways for the United States to take advantage of Iran's turmoil to strengthen its own position. Denounce and discredit the Iranian regime and its allies; show its own strength; organize moderate Arabs, Israel, and Europeans into an anti-Islamist alliance; and defeat the Islamists among the Palestinians, Iraqis, and Lebanese.

Otherwise here's a more appropriate article to write: "In U.S. Foolishness and Incompetence, Iran sees Chance to gain Sway in Mideast."

Naivete Enthroned: A CNN editor discovers Islamism is impossible because Islam is good

By Barry Rubin

Analysis of Middle East events, it often seems, is the worst-managed of all intellectual chores concerning the contemporary world. There are ideological and political barriers that get in the way of accuracy (not to mention fairness); ignorance plays a role, as does fear. But often underlying everything is the fact that when the Middle East knocks at the door, common sense jumps out the back window.

Consider a blog posting entitled, “CNN journalist asks: `Punished mercilessly'–Is this Islam?’" I don’t write this to attack the author—whose intentions are clearly good ones--but merely to ask how people examine the regional issues. What makes this interesting is that the author is Octavia Nasr, Middle East Affairs editor for CNN, in other words a person who has a great deal to do with what appears on that channel and how it’s presented.

Nasr’s basic argument is that the Iranian regime’s repression of anti-government demonstrators is contrary to Islam. One should begin by noting that in the fictional world wherein we live today, a huge amount of attention is paid to the idea that Islam is treated worse (“Islamophobia”) than other religions or doctrines in terms of its intellectual and analytical examination. In fact, it is treated far better almost all of the time. It should be treated the same.

Nasr begins by quoting an Iranian cleric at a Friday prayer sermon who calls on supporters to “Annihilate the rioters” who “should be punished mercilessly.” The cleric `claims they are acting contrary to the decisions of Iran’s supreme guide who is acting according to God’s design in this world. Nasr wants to argue that this behavior is contrary to Islam.

Ironically, Nasr calls him a “fundamentalist,” a word that simultaneously could get her labeled an Islamophobe under other circumstances and reinforces the cleric’s own argument. After all, if he is getting back to Islam’s “fundamentals” that means he is returning to the proper roots of the religion, right? So the choice of words implies that he is correct. That’s why I never use that word and prefer Islamist, someone who uses their interpretation of Islam as a political doctrine.

“Some would say,” she continues, “those words couldn’t be more un-Islamic.” True. But others would say—including the government of Iran—that they couldn’t be more Islamic. This is what the great battle in the Middle East is about: which interpretation of Islam will prevail.

Arguing among non-Muslims which one is more “correct” is a wasted effort. There is no right answer. How Christians interpret their religion with utter certitude in 2009 is not the same as it was in 1009. Islam is neither a religion of peace nor the opposite. It is a body of holy writings, commentaries, practices, and history—just like other religions—which must be examined dispassionately as to how it functions in the world, among different groups, and in different places.

Nasr writes: “The entire religion is based on surrendering all aspect of oneself to `god.' (sic)....When moderate Muslims hear what this Mullah has called for, they wonder which brand of Islam he is advocating.”
Really? They wonder? The implication here is that Islam has never been used as a tool of repression in history; that it is astonishing someone might insist that he has the proper answer and everyone else must bow to that or suffer.

Christianity is arguably a religion of love—consider the “Sermon on the Mount,” yet how has it been used historically? If someone dares, in many nominally Christian circles, say something positive about Christianity, how many seconds will it be before someone brings up the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition?

Nasr points out that the most basic Muslim creed refers to God as “most merciful, most compassionate.” So where, she asks, is the mercy in this cleric’s statement?

Simple and it should quickly come to mind for anyone but the simple-minded. God also has commandments and in Islam it is clearly stated that believers should forbid what the deity doesn’t want and promote what the deity does want. And that’s precisely what this cleric says—and believes—he’s doing.

Nasr then goes on to support the opposition movement, extolling their courage and condemning the attempts to block reporting of what’s happening in Iran. This is all fine, leaving aside the question of whether an editor at a news channel should personally and openly take sides.

Frankly, I find this disturbing even if I think the cause is a good one. Journalists are supposed to be as neutral as possible. If they are reporting on something evil, they don’t have to take a personal stance on it. Just report the facts and assuming you’re right the reader or viewer will draw the appropriate conclusion. Alas, this kind of thinking about journalism is as dead as the dodo or the steam locomotive.

The problem, of course, is that once journalists decide to support one cause you might agree is a good one, they then go off backing a dozen others which don’t fit into that category. It sounds good that the poor, the “victimized,” and the “underdog” should be supported. But before you can say “suicide bomber” or “populist dictatorship,” that definition has come to encompass some dreadful things.

Yet what’s really bizarre about Nasr’s approach is that she speaks as if this cleric's statement is something new, that suddenly a single call for using violence in the name of Islam is some shocking innovation. 

But the Islamist regime in Iran has been in power for 30 years, doing precisely what it is doing today. Islamism—which rather explicitly bases itself on a vision of Islam—has been in business for even longer. The Iranian regime has executed hundreds of people over the years, tortured many more by defining their activities as being against proper Islam.

Meanwhile, thousands of terrorist attacks have been staged, tens of thousands of innocent civilians murdered in the name of Islam. The Saudi religious police go about their business; the Taliban terrorized Afghanistan. Writers are intimidated or killed, women who step out of line are murdered, and genocide against the Jews is advocated. 

And if we go back to past centuries we can find no shortage of occasions when Islam has been the basis of repression, aggressive warfare, and other such things.

So why suddenly is a cleric calling for putting down an opposition to a stolen election the beginning of a discovery on these matters?

And how can a non-Muslim confidentally state that the actions of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, including top clerics who have spent their life studying Islam are just flatly wrong because people who aren't Muslims think so?

Of course, she could say that there are two camps in Islam and she prefers the moderate one wins. She can cite many Muslims who do have a different interpretation of their religion (and are sometimes repressed or even murdered for having expressed it). But to say that a high proportion of actually living, breathing Muslims who believe in Islamism or the most common interpretations of Sharia law and jihad have just arrived from another planet with no connection to anything in their own religion isn't going to work.

Equally of course, it is better that such a discovery about what's going on in the world is being made. But let’s face it. The reason for the shock now is that the people being so repressed:

--Look like us in terms of their clothing and mannerisms because they are urban, middle class, and visibly Westernized in mannerisms and clothing.

--Are on television and computer.

--Are engaging in activities (peaceful mass demonstrations) on behalf of a cause (fair elections) which we can imagine ourselves doing and supporting.

The author, who is from a strongly Christian background in Lebanon, must be most familiar with the operations of Hizballah and the civil war there. Is Nasr, the Middle East editor at CNN, telling us that she's shocked to see radical Islamists preaching an intolerant version of Islam and implementing it? And is she equally telling us that very few Muslims believe this kind of thing?

Consider one detail of her own background. Nasr has a special interest in theatre, including having acted herself on the stage. If she were a Muslim woman, acting in a play might have been sufficient to inspire her family to murder her (in an urban middle class Beirut Sunni family, less likely of course but the point still applies) or certainly she would have been intimidated enough not to try. Could she possibly be unaware of this fact?

What we should be talking about is not the purity of Islam but the battle within Islam and the aggressive efforts of radical Islamists against others. Islam is being used—you can say abused if you want--in Iran and by other groups whose activities affect millions of people, from stoning in Afghanistan or Somalia, to decapitations in Thailand, to suicide bombings even in Spain, Britain, and on the New York skyline.

The article is entitled, "'Punished mercilessly'–Is this Islam?" In your or my preferred interpretation, perhaps not. But of course this is nothing new and also something extraordinarily important. One might better use the title: “`Punished mercilessly’—This is Islamism” or an interpretation of Islam which we don't like but one that is quite well-grounded on accepted and traditional Muslim history and sources.

If Nasr were a mere academic, it would not be so surprising she would say such things. But it is frightening to see a top journalist show such a naïve view of the world and its modern history, as well as apparent incomprehension of the workings of ideology, power, and politics.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's Response: A Narrative He Dares Not Speak

By Barry Rubin

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s big policy speech received global attention. Not so that of his Palestinian counterpart, Salam Fayyad. Fayyad’s June 22 presentation deserves careful analysis.

Fayyad is prime minister for one reason only: to please Western governments and financial donors. Lacking political skill, ideological influence, or strong support base, Fayyad does keep the money flowing since he’s relatively honest, moderate, and professional on economic issues.

But his own people don’t listen to him. Most PA politicians want him out. International pressure keeps him in.

So here’s the Fayyad paradox. If he really represented Palestinian stances and thinking, there’d be some hope for peace. Since he’s so out of tune with colleagues, though, Fayyad sounds sharply different from them. And even he’s highly restricted by what’s permissible in PA politics, limits which ensure the PA’s failure, absence of peace, and non-existence of a Palestinian state.

His first problem is that Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and seeks the PA’s overthrow in the West Bank. Most Fatah and PA leaders prefer peace with Hamas rather than Israel. Make no mistake: this is a mutually exclusive choice. If Hamas formed a coalition with the PA the resulting government would be far too radical to negotiate a solution, not to mention being en route to becoming dominated by Tehran-allied radical Islamism.

Moreover, to keep the door open for such conciliation, the PA can’t come closer to making a deal with Israel, since Hamas would reject anything like that.

But there’s more. In veiled—an appropriate word here--language, Fayyad says Palestinians must avoid “politicizing” the Gaza issue so that  sanctions  against the Hamas regime there cannot continue and there will be international pressure on Israel to deal with Hamas politically.

By not opposing the suicide bombers, Fayyad follows suicidal policies. By fighting any isolation or sanctions on Hamas, the PA ensures that Hamas tightens its hold on the Gaza Strip and so doesn’t need to accept PA leadership. By supporting Hamas’s ability to attack Israel without costs, the PA ensures its Islamist rival can appear to be the more effective fighter against Israel, thus undermining the appeal of PA leadership or of any peaceful solution.

Second, while not directly endorsing terrorism and violence--in contrast to most of his colleagues and the PA’s own institutions—Fayyad argues that Israel holding any Palestinian prisoners in jail is “a violation of international law.” In other words, if a Palestinian attacks or murders Israelis, Israel has no right to imprison him. What option does it have? Only to set them free to try again. Here, too, he supports and glorifies cost-free terrorism.

Indeed, only a few days before, some of his top officials sat in the audience of a show in which the ruling Fatah party bragged that it was the proper Palestinian leader because it was more effective at anti-Israel terorrism than Hamas.

Third, Fayyad argues that it’s not the PA’s job to convince Israel by its behavior or to negotiate bilaterally on the basis of mutual concessions and compromises. Instead, as other PA leaders have openly stated recently, the PA’s strategy is to get the world to pressure Israel to give it everything it wants.

While presenting his speech partly as a response to Netanyahu, Fayyad confronts none of the Israeli leader’s points, merely dismissing his position as "vague," which it certainly wasn’t. (Ironically, in contrast to most Western observers, Fayyad acknowledges that Netanyahu endorsed a two-state solution six years ago).

But it’s Fayyad who is vague—Netanyahu gives a list of specific Israeli conditions; Fayyad does nothing of the kind. In fact, he does something peculiar. According to him, Netanyahu is presenting an “Israeli narrative” about the conflict, while Palestinians say they have their own “narrative,” but Fayyad says he won’t talk about it!

Why is he so vague about giving his own case? Because he cannot do so.

The Israeli narrative as laid out by Netanyahu is clear: Jews want and merit a state; the conflict is due to an Arab refusal to accept that state’s existence. This Israeli narrative does not prevent a two- state solution, with one state for each people.

The Palestinian narrative, to this day, is that Jews have no such right to a state and that all the land is rightly Palestinian, Arab, and (for most) Muslim. This Palestinian narrative does prevent a two-state solution, and its continuity--even reinforcement by Hamas most of all but also by the PA--is the cause for the peace process's failure and the certainty that it will continue to fail.

That is what Fayyad cannot admit. Indeed, the main Palestinian strategy debate is merely about the most effective way of wiping Israel off the map.

He does claim that Palestinians’ “main aspiration” is to have their own homeland, which he promises will live in peace, cooperation, and respect with its neighbor. But he cannot say it would resettle all Palestinian refugees within its borders, won’t bring in foreign troops, will end the conflict permanently, or will provide Israel with security guarantees. It will certainly never recognize Israel as a Jewish state even while the PA's own constitution defines Palestine as an Arab and Muslim state.

Fayyad might prefer such an outcome, but that’s not the Palestinian position and he knows it.

Fayyad says the PA has done a good job and that “the citizens sense this progress.” Why, then, is the PA afraid to hold elections, even in the West Bank? It is no secret that the PA isn’t popular and fears Hamas’s appeal. He speaks of building a strong economy, dealing with poverty, developing social services yet gives no sense of how this might be done. Even given massive international subsidies, the PA’s management remains poor, riddled with corruption and incompetence. Fayyad can do nothing to reform it since the political elite isn’t with him and he has no power over the warlords and their gunmen who are often the real powers in the West Bank.

Finally, he predicts a Palestinian state within two years. Yet he has no way to make this happen except to prove that the real reason the peace process hasn’t succeeded is the misconception “that it is always possible to exert pressure on the weaker side in the conflict as if there is no limit to the concessions that it could offer.” In other words, the reason why peace has not been achieved is because the PA had to make all the concessions.

The truth, of course, is the exact opposite. Israel withdrew from most of the territory, allowed 200,000 Palestinians to come in, backed the formation of the Palestinian Authority as the power ruling the territories, cooperated in the establishment of security forces, agreed to billions of dollars in international subsidies for the PA, and so on.

And what concession did the Palestinians make? They said to international audiences—though not in their own media, mosques, schools, or internal statements—that they accepted Israel’s existence and sometimes—but far from always--when it suited them, stopped some terrorist attacks. That's it.

Yet, even aside from the fact that the one-sided process favored the Palestinians, doesn’t Fayyad see the irony in his words? He advocates precisely the same approach he claims has caused the peace process to fail.  He views Israel as the weaker side—in relation to the West—and yet thinks those other countries will force it to make concessions without limit.

By feeding the PA’s false belief that the West will pressure Israel into giving them a state in the borders they want, without concessions, restrictions, or even PA implementation of past promises, the U.S. and European governments are doing a very effective job in sabotaging any possibility for peace.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Why They Hate U.S.

By Barry Rubin

There's an argument on why Middle Eastern Muslims tend to dislike America or the West: policies or values? In fact, the simple answer is often misinformation. Just like the hatred of Israel. If you deal people that someone is evil and horrible they will take the hint.

Here is a letter on the Hizballah al-Manar site prompted by the Metro (subway) accident in Washington. See if you recognize the America you know:

"Washington DC is a very beautiful town and it has some of the most beautiful trees and land-marks (I just hope my Native brothers and sisters will agree with me). Every year Millions of people come to visit it from all over the world to enjoy its beauty and take pictures as souvenirs. And when these Millions of tourists take all the pictures they need they freely walk, drive, sail and or fly back-home being waved at by smiling American Government officials. But, when Muslim-American Veterans visit Washington DC to enjoy its beauty and take pictures they are automatically arrested, tortured, imprisoned and maliciously prosecuted for terrorism. If you are a non-White man or woman and you go to Washington DC and take pictures as souvenirs you will be arrested and prosecuted for terrorism."

Since relatively few Middle Eastern Muslims or Arabs have been to America a large segment is going to believe the kinds of things they are reading: that there is a reign of terror in the United States against Muslims and Middle Easterners. (This is not to negate the fact that many have a positive view of America’s relative freedom—though not Islamists—and most are drawn by the country’s prosperity.)

Yet this item is by no means an isolated event. Several Arab Muslim clerics, and also academics, who have lived in the United States (and often posed as moderate there), when they are visiting the Middle East and interviewed in Arabic by media there, give very negative portrayals of how Muslims are treated in America which have little resemblance to reality.

Come to think of it, though, if the person posting this note is so enamored of al-Manar--which is the arm of a terrorist group--keeping an eye on their surveillance efforts in Washington is probably a very reasonable thing to do.

Palestinian Leaders Prefer Advocating--Even When They're Not Practicing--Terrorist Violence

By Barry Rubin

Volcanoes are classified historically as active, dormant, and dead. The second group is merely inactive at present but could blow any time. As a terrorist organization, Fatah, the leading group in the Palestinian Authority (PA) which supplies nearly all of its leaders, is dormant, not dead.

The unfortunate reality is that the ideology that favors the total destruction of Israel as a higher priority than getting an independent Palestinian state is still dominant; all the mechanisms of terrorism are still in place; incitement goes on daily. It’s a very good thing that these are not active and it is important to try to keep them that way. But the real PA and Fatah are far from the diplomatists’ dreams and the journalists’ description of the group as “moderate.”

This is a problem not only because it blocks any hope of a negotiated peace, but it also ensures the group’s ineffectiveness. While Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is a pretty genuine moderate, he is also rather alone in that category.

What can Fatah and the PA offer better than Hamas? In theory, the answer is a simple one: a dedication to obtaining a state, living in peace, raising living standards, and providing West Bank Palestinians (the ones it rules) with a better life than Gaza Strip Palestinians (the ones Hamas rules).

There are, however, daily reminders by these same leaders--Fayyad excepted--that this is not the primary focus of Fatah and the PA. An interesting video is provided by the valuable and accurate Palestinian Media Watch group that illustrates this reality rather effectively.

The televised show was put on by Fatah in order to demonstrate why it is better than  Hamas. With top Fatah and PA officials prominently seated in the audience, the event is a mock debate in which Fatah “proves” it is better than Hamas. How? By getting Western aid? By having better schools? By holding out the likelihood of a Palestinian state where refugees can be resettled?

No. By more effectively killing Israelis.

Here’s the transcript of the key section:

Fatah student taunts Hamas: "Since Hamas seized power, we haven't heard of any martyrdom operation [suicide-bombing]."

Hamas teacher: "It's called 'fighter's rest.'"

Fatah student: "A Hamas fighter needs rest, but a Fatah fighter doesn't need rest?!"

Hamas teacher: "Every fighter has the right to rest."

Fatah student: "Why is it that when Fatah stops fighting, you [Hamas] say they're cowards, but when Hamas stops fighting, you say it's 'fighters' rest'?"

Hamas teacher: "I don't know much about resistance [terror] and fighters..."

Fatah student: "The first shot was fired by the PLO; the first Jihad was carried out by the PLO [audience applauds], with all the other factions - but Hamas always opposed.

Hamas student: "What do you say about Hamas having kidnapped the [Israeli] soldier Shalit [still held hostage - Ed.]?"

Hamas teacher: "Ahaaa!"

Student: "By Allah, it's good."

Hamas student: "Did Fatah ever capture a soldier?!"

Fatah student: "It was the [other] brigades who captured him [Shalit] and sold him to you [Hamas]. It's a deal that you [Hamas] made for your own benefit, not for the [Palestinian] people's benefit. [Applause]

Fatah student: Remember, in Ramallah the [PA-Fatah] police arrested two soldiers - have you forgotten, teacher?!"

And what happened in Ramallah? Two unarmed Israeli reservists who were driving got lost, wandered into Ramallah, were taken into custody by the PA police, and then turned over to a mob which tore them apart and murdered them in cold blood.

This is one of the greatest achievements Fatah offers to prove its superiority.

The other main Fatah point is that Hamas is "chicken" because it no longer fires as many rockets and mortars at Israel as it did before the attack. Of course, Fatah can't win on that point either since it wasn't firing any at all. And of course the implication is that Hamas should prove it is macho and an appropriate leader for the Palestinians by attacking Israel more.

Aside from the extremism and anti-peace views this approach indicates it is simply a losing argument for Fatah and the PA. Hamas can easily out-terrorism Fatah. If that is the criterion there is no doubt who will win in this competition.

Here is the problem with the argument, so often heard, that Fatah and the PA are "moderate," often accompanied by the speaker saying, "If I were them...." or "If they were smart...."

Well, if Fatah and the PA were led by Western Europeans or Obama supporters we would indeed be better off. They'd say: All Hamas can offer is more decades of bloodshed, whereas we can get Western support, get a state really fast, resettle all the refugees there, get billions of dollars in compensation money, raise living standards, and end the violence.

But they never say that to their constituents. Why? Because that isn't their set of priorities.

For Fatah and the PA the competition in violence and martyrdom, the seeking after total victory, the refusal to make concession or compromise isn't only an immoral argument, it is also an inevitably losing one against both Israel and Hamas.

It is, however, the policy they prefer because this is what the vast majority of them believes in and they also fear that if they were to adopt a real moderate policy they'd lose popular support. To debate the latter point is most interesting--the Fatah/PA leaders may not be right to think that--but those doing such debate are outsiders. The actual leaders know what they themselves think and will do.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

And in case the Obama administration hasn’t alienated Israel Enough…

By Barry Rubin

If you think the Obama administration has done more than enough to alienate Israel and Israelis, well, as my grandparent's cantor's son put it in the first all-talking moving picture: "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told a press briefing, June 21, that when the United States demands a complete freeze on construction within “settlements” this includes any parts of Jerusalem even a foot (or meter if you wish) over the pre-1967 ceasefire line.

Israel’s government and public have already overwhelmingly rejected the idea of freezing construction while:

--getting absolutely nothing in exchange,

--including a U.S. government refusal to pressure the Palestinians to keep their own commitments

--and a rejection of previous U.S. commitments Israel thought it had received in exchange for previous concessions.

It didn’t help any that the U.S. position was presented as an imperial decree with all the charm and sensitivity in dealing with an ally used in the diplomacy of Darth Vader. But this new clarification really tears it.

Again, it should be stressed that so far this is all talk and no material pressure has been applied.

But it is as if the administration really wants to destroy any possibility of a compromise or cooperation on this matter.

Quick, someone hand me a wheelbarrow, bricks, and mortar.

Obama Administration on Iran: They're ready to come out with their hands up!

By Barry Rubin

A “senior administration official,” which is codeword for a secretary of state or one of the top two levels below speaking on background, told reporters regarding Iran:

"The government's domestic political capital has been seriously eroded," said the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. "That may lead to willingness on their part to engage more."

It should be stressed that this did not come from a leak or rumor but a direct briefing. Obviously, the senior official said this to show that the administration is responding to the crisis in Iran and, at the same time, its pre-crisis strategy still makes sense, even more sense.

Does the Obama administration really believe that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime (which is what we should start calling it) has been so shaken by the upheaval in Iran that it is more likely to make a deal with America?

That may be how Western governments think (We’re weaker so we’d better make concessions).

It is not how Middle Eastern dictatorships think. Good grief! Haven’t these people ever heard of:

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (We’re weak? Let’s threaten to wipe out Israel and send our army into Sinai and see what they’ll do then!);

Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat (We’re surrounded! Let's raise our demands!), or

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (Retreat from Kuwait! Hah! I have the Americans just where I want them!) And many others.

No, the Tehranical regime cracked down on people at home to show its strong. It got rid of the moderately extreme extremists and enthroned the most fanatical, risk-taking leader since Idi Amin of Uganda. The regime has staked its future on an extremely extreme strategy and leadership.

And this is seen at the top levels of the Obama administration as a great opportunity for diplomacy?

One can only resort to the exclamation of Joseph Conrad’s character in “Heart of Darkness”:

The Horror! The Horror!


The Road to Hell, good intentions, and Iran

By Barry Rubin

Thirty years ago precisely--it's hard for me to believe--I wrote a book on U.S.-Iran relations as another revolution raged in that country. It is called Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran. The title, of course, is based on the saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions which seems an apt phrase for the current administration's policies as well.

Here's a passage from the beginning of the book. I think it stands up pretty well to the test of time:

"A country’s behavior, as the Iranian crisis so vividly demonstrates, is not merely a product of a rational pursuit of objective national interests. Rather it is the result of the interaction of the collective historical experience of the nation with individual life experiences of its citizens. The former creates a nation’s political course, the latter shapes its political consciousness. Whether or not the interaction contributes to the effective fulfillment of a nations objective interests, though not always the controlling question.

"There is also a rather common occurrence in politics that might be called the vector principle. A boat sets off from the opposite shore of a river, but because of various unconsidered currents, ends up several miles downstream. American policies often seemed in theory, if not in execution, directed towards reasonably obtainable, rational goals but failed nonetheless because they did not fully take into account the currents of Iranian and Middle East politics."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Iran's Crisis and All Quiet on the Western Front

By Barry Rubin

The Iranian crisis is being fought out on three fronts.

The first, and the one properly receiving the most attention, is inside Iran itself. Commentators have now found the perfect phrase for describing the outcome there: As a result of the stolen election, demonstrations, and repression, Iran will be changed forever.

OK. But changed how? If the regime puts down the demonstrations, it will be ruling lots of deeply dissatisfied citizens. Yet overall, not much will change within the country. Presumably, there will periodically other such upheavals until the day the regime is overthrown altogether. But how long will that take? None can say.

More can be said about the other two fronts. The one changing the least is the regional aspect. Events in Iran will not change minds in the Middle East.

On one side are the radical Islamists. These include pro-Iranian forces--Hamas and Hizballah; the Syrian regime, and many in Iraq--won’t have their minds changed by the post-election upheaval. They will go on being radical Islamists and believe that these demonstrations are creations of American intelligence (whether President Obama praises them or not will have no effect) and that the marches represent only a tiny minority of malcontents.

The same conclusion, however, will be reached by the anti-Iran Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and the much smaller base of al-Qaida. They and their supporters will go on seeking Islamist regimes in their countries, notably Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. They won't be affected either.

But there is another factor regarding the Islamist side. In thirty years I have literally never heard an Islamist say—in contrast to how Communists used to speak about the USSR, or China, or Cuba—that they want an Islamist state modeled on Iran. Obviously,  Sunni Islamists (including Hamas) want to downplay any such desire to clone Iran because its Shia republic is alien to their traditions.

And while Hizballah may be the closest of all followers for the Tehran regime, it also does not say that it's dreaming of an (Islamist) green Lebanon, just like the Islamist regime they know in Tehran.
For many years—20, even—Islamists in the Arab world have known that Iran is not a utopian society and that its institutions or practices don't appeal to the Arab masses. They have long learned to dissociate themselves from the social, economic, and cultural policies of Iran—which are already alien by being both Persian and Shia.

So proving that Iran is repressive will not weaken support for Islamism among Arabs. No Islamist in the Middle East is going to say: “Wow, that Iran is a terrible place! I better become a liberal democrat right away!”

Why then do people in the Middle East either follow Iran or have a similar ideological approach to the problems of their societies and states?

Simple: Power. The Iranian regime is strong. It fears no one and projects power. It defies the West and apologizes to no one. It swears allegiance only to Islam—at least in its own interpretation.  It rewards its friends and kills its enemies (I'm tempted--but won't--joke that the West does the exact opposite.) And soon it will have nuclear weapons, too.

Now, how will such people interpret the regime’s no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, tough-guy approach to internal dissent?

Will they say, as Westerners do—or at least should do—This is terrible! They are beating and repressing people?

Or, will they say: Awesome! Are these guys tough, or what?

Successful repression, like a successful terrorist attack with maximum civilian casualties, brings admiration, not horror in these circles.

But what about all those in the Middle East who hate Islamism and fear Iran? Well, they already feel that way, don’t they? The Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi governments, for example, may not be thrilled with the idea of mass street protests against another government, but they aren’t going to dislike Iran more than they already do. They are hardly surprised by that regime’s behavior. And so is the small minority of Arab liberals. No minds or policies changed here either.

Oh, but there is one aspect of the crisis that might affect their thinking:

Wow, those Westerners sure are afraid of criticizing Iran.

And that brings us to the Western front. Here is the one where change might be most significant.

Will people in western Europe and North America conclude from this that the Iranian regime is mad, bad, and its dangerous if Iran's rulers know how to make nuclear weapons? Are they going to perceive in the adventurous, risk-taking, brutal, and ideologically dizzied regime a true danger to themselves and their countries’ interests? Is the fact that it is a, to coin a phrase, “Tehranical” regime going to translate into an understanding of its foreign policy.

Surely, some of this has got to be sinking in, right?

But quick: how many massive street demonstrations are there in these countries condemning the trampling of the Iranian people’s rights and violent repression in tha tcountry? One-half of the reaction among students, elites, and supposed human rights' supporters to false accusations against Israel? One-fourth? One-eighth? Keep going into even smaller fractions.

And yet, it is here that the biggest and most important effect of the events in Iran might be felt. It isn’t too late to oppose Iran’s ambitions and nuclear weapons’ drive. Are people in democratic states going to wake up about the Iranian regime's threat?

The great danger is that one will be able to say regarding the effect of Iran’s current crisis:

All quiet on the Western front.

Obama's Big Freeze Leaves Israelis Cold

By Barry Rubin

Ironically, three of President Barack Obama’s ideas in dealing with foreign policy, so visible in his Iran policy, have had more impact on his relationship with Israel.

The first of these is that he held back on condemning the Iranian regime’s stealing an election and repressing its people for fear that this might provoke a patriotic reaction against him. In fact, he has united Israel’s citizens to view him as hostile.

Secondly, he suggested that the United States should not meddle in Iran’s affairs, implying that Iranians knew best what their country needed. This has not stopped the president and members of his administration, however, from telling Israel—on the basis of both ignorance regarding the facts on the ground and a poor understanding of the country’s situation—what’s best for its interests.

And finally, Obama’s cultural relativism—everything’s really the same in its differentness—which led him to equate the Iranian regime and opposition has made him equate democratic Israel and a Palestinian movement which has still not reconciled itself to a two-state solution.

While it should be stressed that so far the Obama administration has restricted itself to somewhat harsh words where Israel is concerned, the results have been remarkable. They also show that his mismanagement of relations with Israel is so most counterproductive for Obama’s own policy ambitions.

A recent public opinion survey by Israel’s most reliable polling company shows that only 6 percent of Jewish Israelis consider the administration to be pro-Israel. Israelis certainly gave Obama a chance. His personal popularity was sky-high at the time of his election and as late as May 17, Israelis viewed Obama’s administration to be pro-Israel rather than pro-Palestinian by a 31 to 14 margin, with 40 percent saying it was neutral.

It should be stressed that for 40 percent of Israelis to say the U.S. government is neutral between the two sides is not a vote of confidence or a sign of happiness with Washington.

Today, however 50 percent view the administration as pro-Palestinian, 36 percent say its policies are neutral, and only 6 percent think it is favorable to Israel.

To show how fully Obama misplayed his hand, the same poll showed that 57 percent are in favor of removing outposts and 52 percent support a freeze on construction in settlements deep within the West Bank. Regarding the “settlement blocs,” that is the close-in, higher-populated settlements that Israel wants to keep in any peace settlement, any freeze was opposed by a 69 to 27 margin.

Here’s what this tells us: If Obama had established himself as more skeptical about Palestinian demands and claims, more truly even-handed in his approach, he could have won strong support within Israel.

The approach could have been to renew what Israelis believe they were promised by his two predecessors: border modifications in any peace treaty with the Palestinians would allow the incorporation into Israel of relatively small areas of high settlement and strategic importance like Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion.

In this context, in exchange for some real concessions from the Palestinian Authority regarding incitement and anti-terrorist efforts, there would have been strong support for the removal of outposts and a freeze on construction in far-flung settlements built amidst Palestinian population concentrations.

But instead the administration used brutal language toward Israel, bossing it around as if it were some American puppet regime while simultaneously pandering to literally every other country on earth.

This administration has now created a big problem for itself without moving one millimeter for peace. Meanwhile, of course, the Palestinian Authority continues to ignore its commitments but instead pleads and demands that the United States give it everything it wants in exchange for no effort on its part.

Six months into an administration which promised rapid progress on what is euphemistically called the peace process, the Obama administration has already reached a dead-end. And as far as dead-ends go, this is only the beginning.

Here's What Obama Could/Should Say

By Barry Rubin

Administration policy toward America's enemies reminds me of one of the most famous jokes in radio history. Jack Benny, the comedian, pretended to be really cheap. On one of his shows, he's walking in a dark alley. A hold-up man says: "Your money or your life."

There's a long pause. The robber repeats, "I said, your money or your life!"

Benny quickly retorts: "I'm thinking! I'm thinking!"

So after he thinks about it a while longer, here's what the president should say:

The ongoing events in Iran show the true nature of the regime there. They make clear why there needs to be a broad alliance of Middle Eastern and Western states to counter Iran's efforts to expand its power and subvert neighbors. And most of all they show why the Iranian regime is the type of dictatorship which must be prevented from having nuclear weapons.

I call on America's allies to coordinate our strategy to increase the sanctions against the extremist regime and to isolate it politically and economically. Oh, and by the way, I do hope our allies don't empower such terrorist movements as Hamas and Hizballah which seek to create dictatorships in other places which would put into power a system similar to the one now repressing the Iranian people.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why Does the West Promote the Wrong Side in the Middle East?

By Barry Rubin

Britain's ambassador to Lebanon is meeting today with a Hizballah member of parliament, the first time a Western country has formally held talks with Hizballah since that group's patron, Syria, possibly with some Hizballah help, murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

This is a concession to Hizballah which has done nothing to deserve it. After all, Hizballah has not abided by the UN ceasefire resolution ending the 2006 war it began against Israel. Nor has it cooperated with the UNIFIL forces in the south, periodically threatening violence against them while rebuilding its military power in the region and smuggling in lots of arms from Syria. And it has continued to subvert Lebanon's state sovereignty by intimidation and the occasional use of force.

On top of all that, Hizballah just lost the election and the governing March 14 movement is rejecting its demand for veto power in the next government. At the moment when the West limits its criticism of Iran's stolen election, the British government undermines the results of Lebanon's fair election by helping to empower the anti-democratic loser, which is also the Tehran regime's client.

No wonder Western policy is the despair of pro-democratic forces and even more moderate dictatorial regimes in the region.

The left is supposed to understand this kind of thing. As the old coal mine union song put it:

"They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair."

Talking Iran Crisis Blues: What’s Wrong with Western Passivity

By Barry Rubin

Many years ago, I was asked to address a large conference of Iranian-Americans and Iranians in the United States. Annoyed by previous speakers who spoke as if all of Iranian history was determined by the United States and Britain—including claims that the 1979 Islamic revolution was an American operation and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a U.S. puppet--I included in my talk a strong rejection of these conspiracy theories.

Afterward, an audience member came up to me and said that he could not agree more with my talk. After all, he continued, “It wasn’t the Americans who really determined everything that happened in Iran and it wasn’t the British. It was the French!”

Clearly, Iranian political culture is saturated with belief that foreigners determine everything. Perhaps this has now changed somewhat, with the massive street demonstrations showing that Iranians are taking their fate into their own hands. If that’s true, they won’t care if the hated regime blames America for their movement; and if it is true they will cheer the United States if they believe this to be so.

One thing is certain, however. The way things are going now, they will curse the United States and the West for not doing more to help them. In fact, they will say—as many Turks in that country’s opposition do—that Washington and the West are actually on the side of the Islamist regime and want Ahmadinejad and Khamenei to win.

Indeed, to listen to what the Obama administration says—though it has moved up its rhetoric one step in recent days—there is some truth to that assertion. Yet it is foolish indeed for anyone to hope for that outcome.

What is the greater danger:

Iran has a less fanatical and adventurous faction in charge. It continues some of its problematic policies but is more cautious, less prone to risk-taking, devotes fewer resources to spreading revolution, and is more eager to avoid war.


Power being in the hands of a group determined to become the region’s dominant power, eager to use money, subversion, and even nuclear weapons to do so no matter what the consequences.

I’ll choose the first alternative.

And so when President Obama says there is no difference between these factions and gives only the minimum possible verbal support to the opposition, he is making a mistake that may in retrospect ensure that his administration is not only a failure but a disaster internationally.

What are the key factors here.

1. The administration does not speak about the revolt because it does not identify the Iranian regime as an adversary but as a potential negotiating partner. The problem is that the Tehran regime is an adversary and if it puts down this revolt it is going to be all the more hardline and dangerous. This is so not only because of the type of people running the regime but also due to the logic of such governments in such societies.
Westerners think that a regime at bay will be more flexible. The reverse is true—as the history of Middle East dictators should have taught policymakers—it is tougher in order to show its strength, rally support and intimidate people at home and in the neighborhood.

While Western societies extol weakness—people make fun of themselves, leaders apologize, governments think compromise is the route to survival—Middle Eastern dictatorships believe that strength is the best way to gain their objectives and stay in power.

2. The United States cannot speak about the revolt, goes the argument, because the regime will exploit this intervention. This is a typical example of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” This is one of two ideas President Obama seems to grasp about Iran and it’s as outdated as the idea that the supreme guide and not the president is the country’s real ruler. The regime will claim American intervention no matter what Washington does and there will be no gratitude for America’s standing by and letting the opposition be crushed. See the anecdote that opened this article. And also here is one of many examples of the regime making such claims already.

3. There is also a hidden reason. This administration holds the view that America interferes too much in other people’s business. What other countries and governments think of as legitimate great power behavior has become in the administration’s thinking shameful imperialism. Since America has no right to act, it cannot intervene anywhere. Since it is a land so loaded with sin, it has no right to judge others. Such ideological baggage can be lost by the airline of history but that isn’t inevitable and for this administration hasn’t happened yet.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


By Barry Rubin

Of course, the title above is meant in a joking manner. But after reading literally hundreds of articles and blog items on Iran, they seem to all be saying precisely the same thing which can be summarized as follows:

The regime is giving no ground and insisting the election will stand with Ahmadinejad reelected. The demonstrations continue. There are some killings but the events are mostly peaceful, marked more with harassment and beatings at the margin. The level of violence being used, however, is slowly rising. A few already known softer-liners among the hardest liners—notably Rafsanjani—are not supporting the regime. Arrests of some key figures are being made but there is no all-out crackdown. Western governments are being cautious, restricting themselves to generalized calls for fair elections and freedom of speech.

That’s about what we know, plus lots of amplifying details. So I’ve decided not to read all the dispatches and await further developments.

But what can we say we know? The regime believes that time is on its side and that the demonstrations will fade. It will not give ground. Despite defections, its ranks remain pretty solid. It will not use massive force unless that seems necessary, hoping the opposition will fade away. It will blame foreigners—the West and Israel—no matter what they do but those accusations aren’t going to change anyone’s mind in Iran.

The opposition can hope for no external help, no breakdown of the regime, no offer of huge concessions. On that last point, this is a dictatorial Islamist regime, not a European government. Armed struggle is not an option.

It is also important to understand that in Iran it isn’t a case of the people versus a few bloated oligarchs but a struggle between two camps, both of which are very large. The reformists outnumber the hardliners but the latter have the guns and instruments of power.

Given this situation, short of a deus ex machina (one might better say, a mahdi ex machina, that is a hugely influential external factor that changes everything unexpectedly), the regime will win. Then Western countries can get down to the “serious business” of wasting months to engage this regime without any productive result.

The central factor remains this issue: The West needs to recognize that the Iranian regime and its allies abroad are enemies, not negotiating partners. The regime’s behavior toward its own people has shaken up many people in the West, bringing them closer toward recognizing the true nature of this regime. The fact that it is weaker internally than they thought tends to delegitimize the regime and show that it does not represent most of the people there.

In short, it is not only aggressive abroad—using terrorism, destabilizing the region, seeking hegemony, getting nuclear weapons—but repressive at home.

Ordinarily, of course, governments are rightly more concerned with international behavior than with internal actions. It is primarily the Iranian regime’s international behavior that shows why it must be battled. When, however, a government passes a certain level in its internal repressiveness, that suggests an international response is warranted.

Iran now presents both of these aspects to the world.

There is a connection between them. The regime believes itself divinely ordained, is willing to use methods without limit, and is detached from reality.

Not the kind of people you want to have nuclear weapons.

Not the kind of people who are going to be talked out of having nuclear weapons.
Perhaps not the kind of people who are going to be talked out of using nuclear weapons or giving them others to use.

Certainly not the kind of people who are going to refrain from pointing to their possession of nuclear weapons as they seek to overthrow or intimidate all the other governments in the neighborhood; block any hope of Arab-Israeli peace; and destroy Western influence and interests.

As Bob Dylan put it:

‘How many years can some people exist
before they're allowed to be free
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see.”

And how long can the West go without seeing that it faces a very serious threat and a very determined enemy in the Iranian regime and the radical Islamist movement?

They’re Older and Wiser and that’s Why They are Turning Us In

By Barry Rubin

Many years ago, the singer-songwriter Phil Ochs wrote:

“Sure, once I was young and impulsive,
I wore every conceivable pin.
Even went to socialist meetings,
learned all the old union hymns.
Ah, but I've grown older and wiser
and that's why I'm turning you in.
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.”

Ochs meant the song to ridicule the liberals who supported civil rights and supported the Kennedys but actually had the temerity to think that Communism was bad.

But now these lyrics have a different meaning. The dominant social, intellectual, and political force in America and Europe today is a left that has hijacked liberalism. They’ve even elected a president of the United States who is one of them.

This movement’s background includes: the glorification of 1968 youth revolts, a hatred of repressive dictatorships and those who rationalize working with them, and repulsion at reactionary religious dogmas, among other things.

Why then is this the very movement and leadership so reluctant to support the youth-led revolt in Iran, keeps finding rationales to apologize for a religious-dominated dictatorship in Tehran, and treats those who oppose radical right-wing Islamist movements (like Hamas and Hizballah) the same way they treated those who opposed left-wing Communist movements?

I guess the only answer is that they’ve grown older and wiser so they are turning in those who don’t want to live under Islamist dictators or be murdered by clerical-fascist terrorists, including liberal democratic Israel, liberal democratic-minded Arabs, and democracy-demanding Iranians.

Paris 1968. Yeah! Cheer! Brave young people battling the evil tyrannical, um...French government?

Tehran 2009. Go away and let us make a deal with the tyrants.

Beirut, 2009. All we are saying is...give Hizballah a chance.

Ochs also wrote these appropriate words for our time, too:

“When the fascists started marching many millions had to pay;
We saw them rise to power but we looked the other way.
It happened once before and it can happen once again….”

That was before, however, a bold new idea was invented to justify looking the other way:

They're not fascists and reactionaries, they’re just expressing their different cultural and religious traditions.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bias Beyond Belief: The AP Can't Even Report Netanyahu's Speech Fairly

By Barry Rubin

Often, it's really hard to believe how biased and bad media coverage of Israel is. I've been watching this stuff for decades and it still amazes me. A subtle bias is one thing but when all caution or pretense of professionalism is abandoned--as it so often is--one can only gape in astonishment.

The Associated Press devoted more than 4000 words to reporting and analyzing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main policy speech and various reactions to it. President Obama welcomed it. (“Obama welcome's Israeli prime minister's speech, June 15, 2009); the European Union called it a step in the right direction (Robert Wielaard, “EU: Netanyahu speech step 'in right direction, June 16, 2009).

[For my view of the speech, go here]

Predictably, members of his coalition government supported it (Amy Teibel, “Coalition heavyweights embrace Netanyahu speech,” June 15, 2009. Yet even while reporting on Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state, the AP could not resist characterizing his government as “hawkish,” supported by “hardliners.” Of course, his coalition includes the Labor party and many people considered dovish but AP doesn’t tell us about that.

The article also mistakenly refers to “Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the most powerful hard-liner in Netanyahu's government,” which is just plain wrong. While Lieberman’s style is very tough, he is not a hardliner as such, having no problem with accepting a Palestinian state or giving up territory for peace. Lieberman’s reputation as a hardliner is due to his stand toward Arab citizens of Israel—and even here Lieberman has made no serious attempt to implement any new measures—not toward West Bank Palestinians. By making this statement, Teibel shows her ignorance of Israeli politics.

Similarly ignorant and biased was the AP’s presentation of Palestinian reactions. The problem is not reporting what the Palestinians said—they didn’t like it and this is legitimate to present—but the AP’s own editorial remarks.

In Karin Laub and Amy Teibel, “Disappointed Palestinians ask for help to save talks,” June 16 (as if anything any Israeli prime minister might have said could possibly have “pleased” them), the authors tell us that these leaders “stopped short of refusing to resume negotiations.”

This is simply inaccurate. In fact, they have refused to resume negotiations without a freeze in settlement construction, as has been repeatedly stated by them. Strangely, even the article admits this: “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he would not resume talks unless Israel honored previous pledges to halt construction.”

Why then make the first statement except to make the Palestinian leaders sound more moderate than they are? And the phrasing of the second is totally misleading, too. Israel said it would freeze construction if the Palestinians kept their commitments, which hasn’t happened. Notice AP never tells us about what Israel demands to meet its needs or what Palestinians do to break their previous commitments.

What is really outrageous is this statement by the authors:

“Laying out his Mideast policy Sunday, Netanyahu bent to U.S. pressure and softened decades of opposition to Palestinian statehood and sought renewed peace talks.”

Since Netanyahu accepted Palestinian statehood as a potential outcome of talks in 1996—13 years ago—this is part of the consistent AP misrepresentation of his positions.

Then there is this confusing and untrue statement:

“However, he removed from the negotiating agenda the fate of Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel's 1948 creation and said Israel would retain sovereignty over all of Jerusalem - -two issues previous Israeli governments had agreed to negotiate.”

On Jerusalem, Netanyahu restated what has almost always been Israel’s position. And what about the fate of the refugees? In fact, he and Israel have always said they should be resettled in Palestine. Can’t the AP even get that right?

Finally, how did the AP itself analyze the speech?

Badly. Steven Gutkin, “Analysis: Netanyahu's overture likely too little,” June 15, gives it away with the headline. Too little for what? Rather than tell us what Netanyahu said and why, even how this was a serious and generous offer, we are told at the outset: No, not enough; insufficient. We’re against him.

Gutkin tells us Netanyahu’s endorsement of Palestinian independence is “grudging…couched in layers of stifling conditions, does not necessarily signal the hawk-to-moderate transformation that hard-line Israeli leaders before him have undergone.”

Bad Netanyahu! Bad! Bad!

In fact, this article isn’t just bad. It’s stupid. For example:

“Netanyahu's major policy speech was as notable for what it did not say, as for what it did: No acceptance of previous peace strategies. No reference to any Muslim connection to the land. No talk of uprooting Jewish settlements to make room for a would-be Palestinian state.

And he pointedly avoided mentioning an Arab peace initiative that offers to trade normalized ties with the entire Arab world for a complete Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in 1967, a demand Israel rejects.”
Wow! Where to begin.

--It isn’t Netanyahu’s job to justify the other side’s claim, is it?

--Can the author be aware that while Israeli leaders have made statements about the Palestinians that are sympathetic, no Palestinian leader has ever reciprocated. It is unimaginable that any Palestinian leader refer to any Jewish connection to the land. Quite the opposite is taught in Palestinian schools, mosque sermons, and leaders’ statements. Yasir Arafat and others denied that there was even ever any Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Can Gutkin be serious?

--It isn’t Netanyahu’s job to offer even more unilateral concessions like removing Jewish settlements in a Palestinian state in his main policy speech.

--Once again, as so often happens, the Arab peace initiative is misrepresented, leaving out that little detail about taking a few million Palestinian Arab Muslims into Israel.

And so when the author states:

“Palestinians called Netanyahu's speech a nonstarter that will not serve as a basis for talks, and Arab leaders rejected it as disappointing and not conducive to peace.”

After reading such misrepresentation can anyone blame them?

But wait? Does the author ever actually get to what Netanyahu did say? Not too much and only by making it clear that each point is terrible. In an article supposedly about analyzing Netanyahu’s speech, the very clear strategy laid out in the speech is…never presented! Instead we hear what critics say more than what Netanyahu says:

“Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people , essentially giving up any right of return for Palestinian refugees, `scuttles the chances for peace,’ Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Monday.”

Here we see the AP school of falsification at work. The author can’t even present what Netanyahu said objectively before bashing it. Nor does he give any sense of why Netanyahu said it.


"It's also unclear if Netanyahu uttered the words `Palestinian state’ because he really believes in one, or because he is trying to get out of a tight spot with President Barack Obama…. It would certainly take a lot more than Netanyahu saying the words "Palestinian state," which one Israeli writer said were "uttered like a rotten tooth pulled from its socket without anesthesia."

This is truly disgusting. Netanyahu gave a clear explanation as to the context in which he accepted a Palestinian state. You know he's sincere because he explains what he will give and what he wants in exchange. Have you ever seen an AP story call a Palestinian or Arab leader insincere? And by the way, nobody in this story is quoted as supporting his position. Shouldn't at least one such quote be included to pretend this story is balanced?

Gutkin doesn’t tell us how what Netanyahu said is a logical policy: In exchange for its being unmilitarized, accepts Israel as a Jewish state (the media coverage never tells us that the Palestinian Authority defines Palestine as an Arab and Muslim state), full peace, and an agreement not to make military alliances with countries hostile to itself, Israel will recognize a Palestinian state.

There! That isn’t so hard to say, is it? But this article is typical: We can’t be told straight out what Israeli leaders say, statements can only be mentioned if shown to be evil and countered by Arab statements in the same sentence, only Israelis can be quoted who bash mainstream positions from the left.

What's especially disconcerting is that of the three ways the AP could report about Netanyahu in a biased manner, it chose the most extreme: Option C:

Option A: Report Netanyahu's speech fairly in one analytical article, then bash him in three others.

Option B: Report Netanyahu's speech fairly in the first half of the article, then bash him in the second half.

Option C: Bash him in each sentence and never really report what he said.

Finally, wire service reporters were always supposed to be even more objective than correspondents. They had a lot of newspaper clients who wire-service editors didn't want to offend them. So wire-service writing was supposed to be particularly bland and down the middle. This kind of thing coming from AP is far more upsetting, therefore, if it were from a newspaper's correspondent, not to mention the fact that it will appear in hundreds of newspapers and not just one.

At any rate, this isn't reporting. It’s propaganda. Can’t the AP even give us a straight report on what Netanyahu said?

No, it can’t.

Middle East Politics: The Ideal, The Real, and The Imaginary

By Barry Rubin

A reader asks: Do we really want to promoting the making of deals with "moderate dictators" or are we better urging them to turn their countries into liberal democracies?

This writer answers:

What we “really want” to do is not the issue here. Political reality is what is important.

Under normal and current conditions we—meaning North America and Europe--are better off making deals with relatively moderate dictators while supporting liberal forces to make them stronger so they can play a role some day. The same principle applies for Israel.

Today—except for Lebanon—there is no real liberal democratic alternative in the Arabic-speaking world regarding real political power. If you want to understand why this is true, read my book The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East. 

The main threats to the West, to Israel, and even to the Arabs themselves are radical Islamists (Iran’s regime, Hamas, Hizballah, Muslim Brotherhoods, al-Qaida) and their radical nationalist allies (Syria particularly).

Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and—most problematically given its pro-Tehran stance—Qatar are on the same side of this battle as we are--despite all their problems, shortcomings, and appeasement behavior--in this battle.

Let's take the worst-case eample on the above list, Saudi Arabia. Is the Saudi regime relatively moderate? Yes it is...compared to Iran and Syria.

And yes it is compared to what Saudi Arabia would look like if governed by the most likely alternative....Usama bin Ladin.

And yes it is when you keep in mind that the Saudis have played a very positive role in Lebanon by supporting March 14 against Hizballah. In addition, the original Arab plan for peace with Israel proposed by the Saudis--before the Syrians amended it to make it far worse--might actually have been a starting point for serious negotiation.

None of this is to underestimate the terrible things the Saudis do: antisemitic propaganda, an educational system that produces extreme Islamists, individuals funding terrorist groups, an extremely repressive version of Islam at home, an eagerness to appease Iran (especially if the Saudi regime doesn't trust the West to protect it).

All those points are real and should be very much kept in mind. But is Saudi Arabia's government preferable to a bin Ladin or Ahmadinejad type regime in power? Definitely yes. And is there any other alternative at present? Definitely no.

If you want to understand why the current dictatorships are holding onto power and will be removed only by radical Islamists in the foreseeable future, read my book The Tragedy of the Middle East.

Against the fascists, the US and UK had to ally with Stalin; against the Communists with many dictators. Those who are going to engage seriously in politics must deal with this reality.

At present, there is no serious prospect of turning these countries into liberal democracies, certainly not from the outside. Liberal forces are simply too weak. Democratic institutions don’t exist. Anti-democratic Islamists would win elections and never bother to hold them again. This situation has been clearly seen in the events of recent years.

When a democratic upsurge does come along, as currently can be seen in non-Arab Iran, it deserves support from Westerners and verbal encouragement from Western governments. There is certainly a huge difference between the Iranian demonstrators and the current regime. True, there is far less difference between the opposition candidates and the current rulers. But that margin is important.

Would a less extreme Islamist ruling Iran get better public relations’ advantages in the West while developing nuclear weapons? Sure. But so what. The West isn’t going to take on the current regime any way. Public relations are not going to affect Iran getting nuclear weapons at this point.

It would certainly be better to have a leadership less eager to engage in war, less likely to use nuclear weapons, and more cautious in its international behavior. Equally, it would be preferable to have a regime which had a wider gap between a radical ideology and a more pragmatic practice. Finally, it would be nicer to have a regime that had to devote more of its time and attention to improving its domestic living standards than to foreign adventures.

Unfortunately, such options are not very available in the Arabic-speaking world. They may be, today, in Iran.
But again that is Iran, not the Arabic-speaking world.

Is Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak or Jordan’s King Abdallah preferable to Islamist states ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood? Is Iraq’s current regime preferable to a radical Islamist state under Iranian patronage? Is Lebanon under the March 14 Sunni-Christian-Druze alliance preferable to Lebanon under Hizballah? Is the Palestinian Authority preferable to Hamas?

How many milliseconds did it take you to answer that list of questions?

Working with the dictatorships does not mean supporting them when they repress genuine liberal democrats. That’s where the line must be drawn. Yet why should the West help bring anti-Western Islamist groups to power that would create even worse dictatorships and set off bloody wars?

Nor does working with the dictatorships mean being naïve about them and their policies. Of course, the Palestinian Authority is going to incite violence against Israel—though it will also stop many of the resulting terrorists—but won’t make a lasting comprehensive peace with Israel. Certainly, Mubarak’s government will take American money and then order its media to preach anti-Americanism.

All of these points must be taken into account. We are talking about necessary cooperation for mutual survival, not nominations for sainthood, abandoning any criticism, or writing blank checks.

In contrast, the problem with much of Western strategy today is that while claiming to be realistic, it is dangerously romantic. It often seems more concerned in conciliating with the worst extremists than in preserving and strengthening the less dangerous and repressive—though admittedly corrupt and incompetent—incumbents.

Incidentally, this is precisely the conclusion reached by the overwhelming majority of genuine Arab liberals. They hate the existing governments and are all too aware of their flaws. But they prefer the current rulers to bringing into their own homes the nightmare of Islamist Iran, Taliban Afghanistan, or Hamas Gaza. Who can blame them for reaching this conclusion? They prefer staying in the frying pan to leaping into the fire.

In contrast, in the West, the prevalent current thinking often urges jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Of course, it is easier to advocate such a step for those whose feet won’t be the ones getting burnt.

There are good reasons why there are so many sayings about making a distinction between the horrible and the less objectionable though hardly ideal choice: The best is the enemy of the good. The lesser of two evils is preferable.

Politics is the art of the possible. Bad strategy is the vandalism of the dangerously ignorant.

The Novelist, The Violent Censors, and The President

By Barry Rubin

Here is all you need to know about the state of the Arabic-speaking world and the illusions of those who pander to these problems rather than help resolve them.

Naguib Mahfouz, the late Egyptian writer, is the greatest novelist the Arabic-speaking world produced. His Nobel Prize in Literature, the only one so far received by writers in that language, symbolizes that fact but is unnecessary to demonstrate his achievement.

Arguably, his best work is Children of the Alley but there’s a problem. Due to certain subtle aspects of the book, it has been deemed sacrilegious by Islamists and many clerics. Mahfouz, in his elder years, was wounded in a failed assassination attempt incited by Islamists, including high-ranking clerics at al-Azhar, the mosque-university.

And so Mahfouz, old and frail, knowing his own society, promised the clerics at al-Azhar, in response to their demand, that he would not allow Children of the Alley to be published in Egypt without their permission. In exchange, they agreed implicitly not to have him murdered. The deal continued to his death by natural causes in his nineties a few years ago.

So let’s sum up. The greatest writer in the Arab world is threatened with murder—and an attempt is made to Implement that threat—and then intimidated by the threat of death into silencing his own book by Islamic clerics including those of al-Azhar in the twenty-first century.

And then the president of the United States comes to Cairo and praises al-Azhar as a center of moderation and Islam as eternally tolerant:

"For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and...[represents along with Cairo university] the harmony between tradition and progress.... Places like Al-Azhar ...carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment."

There’s something out of phase here.

In the Arabic-speaking world, there are the extremist totalitarian forces—mostly but not exclusively Islamist--ranging from al-Qaida, through the regimes of Iran and Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhoods, Hamas and Hizballah.

There are the dictatorial forces in power, in pretty much every country and also the Palestinian Authority.

Far weaker are liberal pro-democratic forces, mostly scattered intellectuals, with a few movements, most important of which is the March 14 group in Lebanon which won the elections there.

If one looks for an intersection between Western decency and interests, the task is to battle the extremists, make necessary deals with the more moderate dictators, and help the liberals.

Praising the persecutors of Mahfouz, emphasizing the similarity between the would-be genocidal regime in Iran and an imperfect but far less aggressive opposition candidate, or rushing to empower by recognition clerical-fascist movements is not the proper road to take.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

U.S.-Israel Relations: Have Some Minimal Respect, President Obama

By Barry Rubin

I've written that U.S.-Israel relations have pulled back from the brink, if brink there was, but there's a detail of what's reportedly going on now that deserves to be highlighted and criticized.

The United States is pushing Israel to open up border crossings to the Gaza Strip for more goods to, in Washington's conception, facilitate reconstruction.

In theory, this is a humanitarian effort to help Gazans. At the same time, such a step deepens the enslavement of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to a Hamas regime, strengthens a terrorist organization which now, in effect, rules a mini-state of its own, and undermines any peace process.

The United States wants Israel, for example, to let in more cement in the expectation that this will be used for rebuilding. Israel is reluctant because it knows that a large portion of this cement will be used for building military bunkers which it one day will have to assault.

The United States wants Israel to let in more pipes in the expectation that this will be used for carrying water. Israel is reluctant because it knows that a large portion of this will be used for building rockets which will be fired to kill its own citizens.

But there's even more of a problem here.

First, the Obama administration likes to think of itself--accurately or not--as a hard-nosed realistic government. So it is valid to ask: What U.S. foreign policy objective does pressing Israel to make unilateral concessions to Hamas serve?

Is this going to make Muslims or Arabs or Palestinians like America more? Doubtful and even that can be questioned as an objective even if it were to be true. Will it make it easier for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to negotiate seriously? No. Does it undermine hardline and anti-American forces in the region? No.

So why is this being done?  Presumably, because it looks good, not because it does good.

Second, however, is my most serious point. It is reliably reported that the Obama administration told Israel that Washington rejects its linking the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit to the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip.

This is unacceptable and shameful. Shalit was seized in a cross-border attack into Israel. He has been imprisoned for months, probably tortured, and given no access to humanitarian visits. Israel's leverage to try to free him is limited. As far as anyone knows the United States has done nothing to help free him.

To argue that Israel must supply an organization which continues to attack it frequently, openly calls for its extinction, and holds one of its citizens hostage is disgusting. Let the United States use all of its leverage to try to get something from Hamas before demanding Israel give up any way of freeing Shalit.

Then, too, this detail is symbollic of the administration's policy in which most means of statecraft have been reduced to just two: the apology and the unilateral concession. It is questionable enough to demand a unilateral concession to a party--Iran, the Palestinian Authority, Syria--when there is at least some minimal hope of getting something in return.

But how to justify a unilateral concession when it is clear in advance beyond question that there will never be the smallest reciprocity or the most minimal diplomatic gain?

Oops! Nuclear Cat Leaps From Bag

By Barry Rubin

Iran's ambassador to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, after giving the usual regime line that his country seeks only nuclear energy--guess they don't have access to enough oil and natural gas--Ali Asghar Soltanieh continued:
"The whole Iranian nation are united... on (the) inalienable right of (having a) nuclear weapon."

Realizing his mistake, he changed that to, "benefitting from peaceful uses of nuclear energy."

Guess he's straightened out that little rumor about long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Obama Takes Reality a Bit Into Account

By Barry Rubin

I’ve said it before so I’ll say it again: it’s easy to overestimate the eagerness of the Obama administration for a confrontation with Israel. And it’s easy to underestimate the eagerness of the Obama administration for engagement with Iran.

Regarding the first issue, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech—which repeated the points he made to the U.S. president on his Washington visit—met two (readiness to accept a Palestinian state as part of a comprehensive agreement and readiness to start negotiations) of three (freeze on all construction on settlements) American demands.

There are rumors that talks are trying to resolve the third point through some compromise. Hysteria about impending direct U.S. bashing or betrayal of Israel is misplaced. While the administration might like to do things that would objectively endanger Israel’s interests, the Palestinian leadership plus Syria and Iran are too intransigent to go along with any such dealings. Nor is even this administration prepared to ignore an overwhelmingly pro-Israel sentiment from both Congress and the general public.

The best response is a combination of calmness and vigilance.

Regarding Iran, Obama made a very interesting statement which includes these lines:

"I think it's important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised."

"Either way we were going to be dealing with an Iranian that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood, and has been pursuing nuclear weapons.

"We have got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, and that would be true whoever came out on top in this election.”

This is a combination of worldly cynicism—not much difference between the candidates—with an eagerness for engagement. In effect, Obama is saying that the United States should disregard the battles within Iran because either way that country will have to be dealt with.

But how? The implication is that he still thinks it possible to use diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons’ drive and sponsorship of terrorism.

After all, Obama could draw the exact opposite conclusion: not much difference so the whole regime is extremist and not interested in compromise. He seems to be saying: We might as well negotiate with the worst since they're the ones who hate us most. Apparently, he still believes in the transformative power of saying out loud what the teleprompter tells him.

Obama might be better advised to be more supportive of the Iranian dissidents. Sure, as he says, the regime will try to use that against them but it will claim they are American agents any way and a statement of support would greatly encourage the opposition. Maybe the best thing right now is for the regime to accuse the opposition of being open toward friendship with America, and the opposition responding, "So what?"

He would also do better to press than caress an Islamist regime even he calls hostile troublemakers who may soon have nuclear weapons.

And after all, it's contradictory for Obama to have insisted that U.S. efforts on Iran had to wait until after the presidential election and then claim that the election would never have made any difference.

There's also a hint here of Obama's plan. Let them have the capability of making nuclear weapons when they want as long as they don't "weaponize" them. It's a strategy of wink, wink, nudge, nudge. The United States would say: sure go ahead with your program but don't actually make a bomb and test it.

If Obama were to succeed completely here--and one might also ask what he'd give away to get this deal--the region could feel 10 or 20 percent more secure. Unfortunately, it would also feel 80 or 90 percent less secure. The real value of such a bargain is that the United States and Europe could ignore the problem completely. Nuclear weapons? We don't see no nuclear weapons!

I'm tempted to say that Obama's philosophy isn't just that you can only make peace with enemies but...

You can only make peace with people who despise you so much they want to kick you in the groin, tear at you with their fingernails, spit in your face, and utterly annihilate you.

But at least there is reason to believe that Obama has now completed his introductory course on the Middle East, getting a sense of how hard it is to accomplish the goals he set by the methods he chose. Now he is ready for the intermediate class. Professors Mahmoud Abbas, Ali Khamenei, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are ready to begin the new semester.

Let’s hope for high grades and graduation before too much time has elapsed.