What’s Foreign about Success?

When President Clinton’s team left office, they warned the incoming Bush Administration that some military response had to be mounted against Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the Cole bombing. The Bush security team, dominated by Cold War hawks, dismissed the warning as a Clinton albatross, and set off to renegotiate the arms treaties with Russia to allow construction of a nuclear missile shield.

The rest, of course, is history. Osama bin Laden, encouraged by U.S. flaccidity to believe that one last strike in the heart of America would cause us to curl up in a fetal position, set about planning the 9/11 attacks.

In the Middle East, we face a similar situation with Israel, still living in the memory of the Holocaust, and even after 60 years unable to build a lasting peace with its neighbors. They turn to America again and again for financial and military aid, but do not heed our requests to negotiate a lasting peace. Instead, as recent perusal of the Jerusalem Times reveals, they rewrite the history of Israel to present themselves as victims rather than armed aggressors.

I agree that the state of Israel should survive, but the conditions of that survival have to reflect the realities of the politics of the Middle East. That means, if we are going to pursue conflict against those that seek to destroy it, we must establish impeccable moral credentials. That means talking to the leaders of Israel’s enemies, and giving them the opportunity to participate in the success that comes with liberal economics. It means eroding the “American + Israel = Axis of Evil” rationale for suppressing Iranian dissent. Simply beating Iran down because Netenyahu says so is going to inflame the entire region against American involvement, bring terror back to us at home, and – given the asymmetrical practical realities in the region – ultimately result in Israel’s destruction.

So, people of Israel, you need to elect a different leader. And Republicans in Congress – you need to stop playing politics with Israeli lives.

The situation in Russia has similar characteristics. Arguably, Vladimir Putin is criminally psychotic, having recently awarded medals of honor to two members of the personal hit squad that has assassinated those attempting to document the costs to Soviet society of Putin’s psychosis (Metsov being the most recent). But the very fact that Putin caters to these men is a revelation of weakness. Where once he was heralded as the guarantor of economic stability in Russia, recent military adventurism (in Georgia as well as the Ukraine) has caused the West to unite in economic sanctions against Russia, and stimulated weaker neighbors to seek NATO membership. The oligarchy recognizes this, and so Putin is left with only one tool for managing opposition: murder.

The Soviet Union experienced such a reign of terror under Stalin, and one of the causes of Russia’s declining global influence in the ’70’s and ’80’s was the creation of a Politburo that ensured no one man would ever again wield that kind of power. Russians have experience with this kind of tyranny, and while it may take time, the oligarchy will not allow Putin to purge them as Stalin purged his foes. Putin’s adventurism is the death knell for his regime.

That President Obama defers to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel in this matter should be considered a blessing to us at home. It allows us to focus on the worsening situation in Syria and Iraq that is fanning sectarian tension and generating powerful sympathy for Iran among Iraqi Shias. That Merkel counsels against providing advanced lethal assistance to Ukraine reflects her nation’s experience in winning the Cold War. It was economic power that brought Germany back together, and it is economic power that will eventually hold sway in the Ukraine.

So, again, Senate Republicans, try to be good neighbors. Stop playing politics with the lives of our allies.

Bibi, Stay Home

I wrote previously about the balance of powers problem in the federal government. As Congress continues to refuse to act on the pressing issues confronting the nation, President Obama has chosen to take executive action under existing laws to mitigate the developing crises in competitiveness (education), immigration and global climate change. The Republican-held Congress continues to complain.

While I believe that the House of Representatives under Boehner “dost protesteth too much” – after all, they have the opportunity to pass legislation – it seems more and more obvious that they pursue an agenda driven by narrow political calculation. I see the shadow of Karl Rove still lurking in the background. Rove was the campaign adviser that filtered for political impact all Cabinet decisions in W’s first term. He or his ilk appear to be doing the same for the Congress.

This began with the “poison pill” terms in the first-term budget negotiations that preserved high-income tax breaks. It continues with leaving Obama to wrestle with the nation’s intractable problems, and crying “foul” on separation of powers whenever a Republican constituent has an ox gored. And it proceeds now with a clear trespass on the President’s foreign policy remit with the invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, to speak before the Congress.

Netanyahu is involved in his own political shenanigans at home. Prior to his election as prime minister, Israel was the target of frequent suicide bombing attacks. The terrorist attacks were the asymmetrical Palestinian response to ongoing Israeli settlement of the occupied territories. The stupidity of the strategy was evidenced in Netanyahu’s election in 2000, as the Israeli public eventually accepted his long-established “greater Israel” policy as the only way to restore internal security. However, years of secure living and the growing problem of domestic intimidation by Orthodox Jews is causing the Israeli public to broaden their concerns, and think fundamentally about justice. Raising the specter of Iranian attack preserves the political psychology that brought Netanyahu into office.

Israel has benefited from the action of both US presidents to serve in the 21st century. The removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq ended a bounty program that paid $30,000 to the families of suicide bombers. US-led global sanctions against Iran have also prevented an end to Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region. John Kerry has already made clear that the U.S. was motivated to a great extent by concerns for Israeli security, and Netanyahu’s panicked protests against diplomatic reconciliation between the US and Iran seems untrusting.

What other issues could be driving Netanyahu’s move? Obama has embarrassed him on at least one occasion in memory – letting comments regarding Netanyahu’s honesty slip out to the press during an open-mike chat with the French President. The rise of a respectable Palestinian counter-part in Mahoud Abbas has allowed the US to apply pressure against Israel to bring concessions to the negotiating table. (The lack of such concessions continues to place Abbas in danger from Palestinian extremists, making him dependent upon Israeli security, and thus undermining his authority.)

But the pro-Israel vote in America includes the historically Democratic Jews, and as we saw in 2000, that vote is enough to swing key states. So Netanyahu and Boehner have common cause in this engagement: embarrass Demcratic Foreign Policy to improve Republican chances for the 2016 presidential elections, and reinforce the ability of Israel to be the tail that wags America’s Middle Eastern policy.

Given this complicated political calculus, Netanyahu would be best advised to stay home, pursuing his agenda in coordination with the Administration’s Foreign Policy team. If this issue becomes a Republican talking point, placing the Jewish vote as a token to trade in the 2016 presidential election is going to reduce its strength over the long run. This is reflected in the decision by Democratic Representatives of Jewish heritage to boycott his speech. Once the Jewish vote is divided, there is less and less reason for any presidential candidate to cater to the concerns of Israel, while currently they get the best of both worlds: respected collaborators for Democratic presidents, and a justification for Republican hawkishness.