Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We Do Not Live in Normal Times: A Small Case Study of Incompetence and Ideological Insanity

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By Barry Rubin

Although these two stories—the first regarding Turkey and Brazil’s relationship with Iran; the second (covered in another article), anti-Israel hysteria in the United Kingdom—are totally different, they reflect the two parts of our current crisis.

These are the ideological and policy derailment of Western governments, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the collapse of the fail-safe systems for key public institutions, especially academia and media. To understand the crisis in both sectors—the greatest perhaps since the end of World War Two—these two halves of the puzzle must be assembled.

The first story relates to a detail in the recent engineering by Turkey and Brazil of a deal with Iran to try to slow or even stop the effort to put sanctions on Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program. This plan is basically a retread of something that failed more than six months ago. Iran would send out a portion of its potential material for making bombs but keep the rest. It was an obvious trick and quickly rejected as such by the United States and other leading powers.

A friend, however, was deeply puzzled by one detail of this situation. It was widely reported that the Turkish and Brazilian governments consulted with the United States prior to making this farcical arrangement with Tehran and got a green light to go ahead. How, my friend asked, could the U.S. government give the okay to actions that would clearly destroy one of its main policies?

Another element in the story is the defection of two historically reliable allies of the United States to the other side. There’s no sense concealing the fact that Turkey and Brazil are friendlier to Iranian interests than to American ones. And this is with the allegedly internationally beloved Barack Obama in the White House!

But the mistake and defection only seem inexplicable because of a failure to face two facts.

First, Turkey is now in the hands of an Islamist-oriented regime, a fact that still seems to be a secret in official Washington. Iran and Syria regard Turkey as their ally, not America’s, yet the Obama Administration continues to praise and coddle the government in Ankara, despite its unprecedented repression and step-by-step attempt to dismantle Turkish democracy

Brazil has a president who is as close to a Communist as one can get nowadays. Along with the leaders of Venezuela and Bolivia, he is no friend of the United States, again despite the administration’s praise, lack of criticism, and blindness toward these regimes.

The United States and the Western democracies have enemies in this world and they will not be charmed away, won over by appeasement, bought off with material betterment, or made to disappear if they are ignored.

This leads to the other aspect: the incompetence and ideological errors of the Obama Administration. It did not gain popularity for President George W. Bush to say that “you are with us or you are against us.” Yet there are times that a president must say that or at least something closer to that than what’s being said at present.

The U.S. government is proudly and deliberately refusing to show leadership, having swung too far on the pendulum toward a doctrinaire multilateralism, a UN worship. It has proudly and deliberately set out to show that it is not tough in foreign policy.

What Obama should have done is to tell the Turkish and Brazilian governments: We believe Iran is heading toward nuclear weapons and we feel it is the highest priority to stop it. We need your support and since you are allies for whom we have done a great deal we expect it. Your votes are needed for sanctions on the UN Security Council and, of course, if we don’t get them then we will have to think about other aspects of our relationship.

Even many in Brazil were horrified by what their country had done, and worried--being behind the times, perhaps--at how the United States might retaliate. This is leverage that could have been used on this issue. The same applies to Turkey, where the opposition is openly bitter at a U.S. policy they believe goes too far in favoring the incumbent government, and thus helping it stay in power. Yet while some reported that this may damage U.S. relations with these countries, I'll bet the Obama Administration does nothing at all.

Governments need to use both carrots and sticks in diplomacy, but the Obama Administration has countries which are hostile or unhelpful on an all-carrot diet. Given this, a lot of countries aren't going to stick with the United States, at least to the same extent as they formerly did.

Instead, in order not to offend and to keep Obama popular--which sometimes seems the main goal of contemporary U.S. policy--it said something like: sure, go ahead, we aren’t going to tell you what to do.

Thus, a major mess results. And it is typical of a whole variety of big problems and growing threats due to mistakes in U.S. policy.

Countries are spinning out of the American orbit due both to internal changes (which must be recognized and acted upon by U.S. policy) and by the conviction that the United States is weak and too friendly to its enemies to safeguard the interests of its friends. For example, this issue is being openly acknowledged by people in Saudi Arabia, fearful that the United States is going to leave them to Iran's "mercy," in practice no matter what the administration's rhetoric claims.

Enemies are being emboldened and are making gains by the same considerations.

Until America's leaders--these or, more likely the next ones--see this, the danger and crisis will deepen.

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; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); 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.

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