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By Barry Rubin
The U.S. Congress is back as a factor in U.S. foreign policy. Partly because the Obama Administration has pushed it too far to do unpopular things; partly because members are no longer in awe of the president’s alleged invincibility and much-declined popularity. Many Democratic members see their whole careers flashing before their eyes. And, of course, there’s the administration’s decision to pick a quarrel with Israel.
For the first time since Barack Obama took power, we’re seeing a bit of a congressional revolt even from his own side of the aisle. The two issues are Israel and Iran.
On Israel, 76 senators—including 38 of 59 Democrats—signed a flattering but critical letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging reconciliation with Israel. Another 333 House members signed up, including leading Democrats. The letters blamed the Palestinian leadership—and rightly so—for the lack of serious negotiations.
They noted that “it is the very strength of our relationship [with Israel] that has made Arab-Israeli peace agreements possible, both because it convinced those who desired Israel’s destruction to abandon any such hope and because it gave successive Israeli governments the confidence to take calculated risks for peace.
On Iran, a whopping 363 members of the House of Representatives urged Obama to put “crippling” sanctions on Iran, taking “tough and decisive measures,” and urging him to make sure Tehran doesn’t get nuclear weapons.
Thus, Congress is challenging Obama’s policy on four levels:
1. It’s not tough enough
2. The proposed sanctions are too toothless (and on this one, see below)
3. Sanctions have taken too long.
4. Instead of waiting for the UN, the U.S. government should show leadership and act on its own along with willing allies.
Moreover, even while the House passed a sanctions measure by a huge majority in December and a similar bill went through the Senate in January, to my knowledge the administration has never taken any position on the proposal.
And now things are about to get worse.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted that the U.S. government is ready to water down the sanctions even further in order to get a UN Security Council resolution supporting additional action against Iran. The rationale for this is to say that this consensus can then be used as a basis for additional sanctions by countries acting on their own, what Gates called, “a new legal platform." He explained, "What is important about the U.N. resolution is less the specific content of the resolution than the isolation of Iran by the rest of the world."
The Los Angeles Times thought this, at least partly an excuse for failure to be able to get more:
“Gates' comments were the clearest sign yet that the administration, facing continuing resistance from other countries to the harshest of the proposed measures, is lowering its sights. U.S. and allied officials have given up on prospects for a ban on petroleum shipments to or from Iran, and some allies have questioned other potential measures.”
It could be pointed out that the second Bush administration also settled for lightweight UN resolutions, but it was far more determined to follow up with a tough strategy. Equally, Russia and China can be wreckers in violating stronger sanctions, but they are not so likely to respect weaker ones either. The bottom line is that not only can Iran get off easily but the signal conveyed undermines the hopes for future containment possibilities.
Incidentally, there have been definite successes for behind-the-scenes U.S. diplomacy in discouraging specific companies or banks from dealing with Iran, even companies from dealing with Iranian oil. For such efforts and achievements the administration deserves credit. But what this proves is how effective a really strong push could be to cut off Iran's gasoline imports and business dealings generally.Moreover, I think this situation largely reveals a fundamental flaw in the Obama worldview: what should be important is a tough and effective strategy based on strong U.S. leadership which is going to intimidate Iran at least to some extent. Instead, we get the priority on consensus, to avoid any sign of the dreaded “unilateralism” or masterful American leadership which horrifies Obama regarding past U.S. policy. This approach is likely to continue after a UN resolution. Far from unleashing an aggressive U.S. strategy against Iran, the follow-up is more likely to be an anti-climax.
Consequently, Obama may succeed in passing muster as legalistic while being hailed by the poodle brigade in the media. But it will fail at the ostensible goal of the entire exercise: stopping Iran now or making Tehran act more cautiously in future.
A parallel situation is now going on regarding Syria’s providing of advanced Scuds to Lebanon. The U.S. State Department reaction was a joke: we are going to study this! Compare that to the French response. We must update our thinking. For years we spoke of the timid and unreliable Europeans. Now, in many respects, France (along with Germany and the United Kingdom) is bolder and braver than Obama’s American policy.
Here is the uncertain and passive response from the U.S. State Department briefing, remember we are in the midst of the administration's rush to engage Syria, pushing the return of the U.S. ambassador to Damascus despite congressional--there's Congress getting it right again--opposition:
"We are concerned about it. And if such an action has been taken– and we continue to analyze this issue–it would represent a failure by the parties in the region to honor UN Security Council Resolution 1701. And clearly, it potentially puts Lebanon at significant risk. We have been concerned enough that in recent weeks, during one of our regular meetings with the Syrian ambassador here in Washington, that we’ve raised the issue with the Syrian Government and continue to study the issue. But obviously, it’s something of great concern to us."
Why is it that I doubt we are ever going to see any action against Syria taken on the basis of that "concern." Remember that if the White House or State Department says anything critical of Syria, they'll be asked some tough questions about why the United States is courting that dictatorship and expecting it to become more moderate.
Compare this reaction to the French Foreign Ministry's reaction which, mincing no words, called the Scud transfer “alarming” and pointed out that such activity was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which “imposes an embargo on the export of arms to Lebanon, except those authorized by the Government of Lebanon or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)."
And this is the key! What good is it to get a new UN Security Council resolution if the U.S. government won’t even enforce the previous ones!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.