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."

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