Opinion

The Great Debate

Learning the wrong lessons from Israel’s intervention in Syria

Israel’s recent attacks on military targets in Syria have made clear the widening regional dimensions of Syria’s civil war. They have also fueled debate about whether the United States should intervene. Look, some say, Israel acts when it sets red lines, and Syria’s air defenses are easy to breach. Israel’s involvement has energized those, like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who argue for U.S. military intervention in Syria. Unfortunately, the interventionists are drawing the wrong lessons from the Israeli actions.

The first misconception is that the Israeli strikes showed how Israel stands by its red lines in ways that bolster its credibility – a sharp contrast to the perceived equivocation of President Barack Obama’s stated red line that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer.”

Israel has stated that it views any transfer of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Hezbollah as unacceptable. So its targeting of missile arsenals believed to be capable of delivering such weapons appears to be making good on the threat. But while such Israeli action against Hezbollah within Syria is an escalation, it is not new. Israel targeted such missiles earlier in the year and has been targeting Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon for years. It also fought a costly war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 largely to degrade (unsuccessfully, it turns out) the group’s missile capabilities. Israel was thus not acting in Syria to maintain the credibility of its red lines, but acting on specific perceived threats to its national security.

If Israel always acted on the basis of maintaining its credibility — a murkier concept than many in Washington like to believe — it would likely already have launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has crossed countless “red lines” with no Israeli response. Some former Israeli military officials believe Iran has already crossed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most publicly declared nuclear red line — the one he famously drew at the United Nations last September. Israel has not acted because of concerns and debates among its security establishment about the ability of Israeli action to effectively neutralize Iran’s program. The lesson here is not that countries should act for the sake of maintaining credibility but that they should act when they believe it serves their interests and might make a difference.

A second potential mistaken lesson is that Israel has weighed in decisively on the side of the rebel forces and that U.S. intervention to oust the Assad regime would help Israel. The Israeli intervention was aimed at Hezbollah and its missile capabilities – not at helping the Syrian rebels, particularly given that many of the opposition fighters are Sunni Islamic extremists who may over time pose as serious a threat to Israel as the Assad regime.

Helping Iran safeguard its nuclear stockpile

Diplomats from six world powers  are due back in Kazakhstan on Friday for talks with Iran about its controversial nuclear program. From the hawkish “bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran” crowd to the “jaw-jaw-not-war-war” folks, there is no shortage of ideas about how to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Lost in the din is the prospect that the United Nations agency charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities could settle the most pressing issue – by helping Iran convert its enriched uranium gas stockpile to safer metal form. If only the world powers will encourage it to do its job.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) not only monitors member states’ nuclear programs to make sure they are in compliance with required safeguards obligations, but it also provides technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

Can diplomacy prevail with Iran?

New talks with Iran ended Wednesday with a surprising forward spin. More meetings are planned in the now decade-long American-led effort to ensure the Islamic Republic does not get nuclear weapons.

Iran must now accept or reject a proposal that offers some sanctions relief in return for Tehran’s reducing its stockpile of uranium enriched close to weapon-grade. This hopeful note – Tehran’s reaction was positive – comes as a showdown looms, because Iran continues to inch ever closer to being able to make a nuclear weapon.

In a diplomatic process where expectations are low, the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday and Wednesday were considered a success. The United States and its negotiating partners – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – got what they wanted. A senior U.S. official said Washington was “not expecting a breakthrough in Almaty.” It was enough, the official said, that the six major powers had the “opportunity to put a new and promising proposal on the table.”

How close is Iran to nuclear weapons?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed last week that new second-generation centrifuges, which Iran plans to start up at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, could cut by a third the time needed to create a nuclear bomb – underlining his deadline of this summer to take military action against Iran.

Netanyahu’s prediction, however, appears to be based on some unsubstantiated assumptions regarding Iranian intentions and capabilities. Yet it can provide ammunition to the hawks in Washington and Jerusalem, who could rush us into another needless and counterproductive war in the Middle East. Netanyahu’s assertions do not stand up to technical scrutiny.

Critically, he does not mention that Iran has been converting part of its 20-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride gaseous stockpile into metallic form, for use as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. This conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the “enrichable” gaseous stockpile used in centrifuges. It is not something that a nation hell-bent on weaponization would do.

The U.S. needs a completely different approach to Iran

As Washington and its great power partners prepare for more nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration and policy elites across the political spectrum talk as if America is basically in control of the situation. Sanctions, we are told, are inflicting ever-rising hardship on Iran’s economy. Either Tehran will surrender to U.S. demands that it stop enriching uranium or, at some point, the American military will destroy Iranian nuclear installations.

This is a dangerous delusion, grounded in persistent American illusions about Middle Eastern reality. Because of failed wars-cum-occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan; a war on terror that has turned Muslim societies ever more firmly against U.S. policy; and de facto support for open-ended Israeli occupation of Arab populations, America’s position in the region is in free fall. Increasingly mobilized publics will not tolerate continuation of such policies. If, in this climate, the United States launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, the blowback against American interests will be disastrous. Nonetheless, that is where our current strategy – negotiating on terms that could not possibly interest Iran while escalating covert operations, cyber-attacks, and economic warfare against it – leads.

For its own interests, Washington must take a fundamentally different approach. President Obama needs to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran as thoroughly as President Nixon realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. Simply “talking” to Iran will not accomplish this.

Assessing the resiliency of Hillary Clinton

As Hillary Rodham Clinton finished her last few weeks on the job, after a month of convalescence, how can we assess the secretary of state’s contributions?

The question is worth asking simply because of the job’s importance and its significance for U.S. national security. It is also relevant given Clinton’s unprecedented role in our national life over the last two decades.

She is probably the most politically powerful woman in U.S. history — at least in terms of positions held. She has come closer to being elected president than any other woman. She may well try again, and her record as secretary may be the best way to judge her candidacy for the highest job in the land. So how has she done?

Will this be the year that Israel goes to war with Iran?

Israel did not bomb Iran last year. Why should it happen this year?

Because it did not happen last year. The Iranians are proceeding apace with their nuclear program. The Americans are determined to stop them. Sanctions are biting, but the diplomatic process produced nothing visible in 2012. Knowledgeable observers believe there is no “zone of possible agreement.” Both the United States and Iran may believe that they have viable alternatives to a negotiated agreement.

While Israel has signaled that its “red line” (no nuclear weapons capability) won’t be reached before mid-2013, it seems likely it will be reached before the end of the year. President Barack Obama has refused to specify his red line, but he has made it amply clear that he prefers intensified sanctions and eventual military action to a nuclear Iran that needs to be contained and provides incentives for other countries to go nuclear. If and when he takes the decision for war, there is little doubt about a bipartisan majority in Congress supporting the effort.

Still, attitudes on the subject have shifted in the past year. Some have concluded that the consequences of war with Iran are so bad and uncertain that every attempt should be made to avoid it. Most have also concluded that Israel could do relatively little damage to the Iranian nuclear program. It might even be counter-productive, as the Iranians would redouble their efforts. The military responsibility lies with President Obama.

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.

Mideast’s WMD ‘red line’ gauntlet

“Red lines” are all the rage this year. Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two “red lines.” If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.

Washington’s red line, however, lays bare another issue: Should the executive branch have carte blanche to commit the country to military action? Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton Monday appeared to suggest so. She declared, in public remarks in Prague, that the Syrian government’s use of its chemical arsenal would be a “red line” for Washington to act.* Or is it time for Congress to make its own evaluation before the country again turns to the gun?

Let’s first recall how the red lines emerged (one literally) and why the line issued against Syria is now most concerning.

Why ‘peace’ was catchphrase in presidential debate

Foreign policy attempted to take center stage at the presidential debate Monday evening but failed resoundingly. For the candidates agreed to agree on a number of key issues — the timeline for ending America’s longest war, support for Israel, and the importance of diplomacy and sanctions in Iran. Nation-building at home trumped nation-building abroad, and small business won as many mentions from the nominees as the death of Osama bin Laden. It was no accident that the contenders talked about teachers more than Libya.

What both President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney made clear to a nation exhausted by one decade of two bloody wars: The era of big military interventions is over. Romney, who earlier in the campaign sounded poised to embrace a more activist foreign policy, embraced a loudly centrist worldview that eschewed saber-rattling in favor of promoting entrepreneurship and civil society.

“Peaceful” was the night’s catchphrase for Romney, who told the president, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” This key word is likely to resonate with the women voters his campaign now sees as both critical to victory and open to his more centrist message.

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