Middle East

Pardon Me, Obama Administration, But Isn’t Your Policy on Fire?

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Barry Rubin

05 March 2010


The story of the U.S. engagement with Syria and the sanctions issue regarding Iran’s nuclear program are fascinating. Each day there’s someobama90_150 new development showing how the Obama Administration is acting like a deer standing in the middle of a busy highway admiring the pretty automobile headlights.
Or to put it a different way, it is like watching the monster sneak up behind someone. Even though you know he’s not going to turn around, you can’t help but watch in fascinated horror and yelling out: “Look out!” But he pays no attention.
So I’m not just writing about these two issues in isolation but as very appropriate symbols of everything wrong with Western perceptions of the Middle East (and everywhere else) and the debates over foreign policy (and everything else) nowadays.

On Syria, for the most recent episodes of the story see here andhere but, briefly, the Syrian government keeps punching the United States in the face as Washington ignores it.
But now, on March 1, a new record is set. The place: State Department daily press conference; the main character, departmental spokesman Philip J. Crowley. A reporter wants to know how the administration views the fact that the moment the U.S. delegation left after urging Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to move away from Iran and stop supporting Hizballah, Syria’s dictator invited in Iran’s dictator along with Hizballah’s leader and Damascus moved closer to Iran and Hizballah.
In other words, the exact opposite of what the United States requested. Is the government annoyed, does it want to express some anger or threat?
Let’s listen:
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I would point it in a slightly different direction. It came several days after an important visit to Damascus by Under Secretary Bill Burns….We want to see Syria play a more constructive role in the region. We also want – to the extent that it has the ability to talk to Iran directly, we want to make sure that Syria’s communicating to Iran its concerns about its role in the region and the direction, the nature of its nuclear ambitions….”
In other words, I’m going to ignore the fact that the first thing that Asad did after Burns’ visit was a love fest with Iran and Hizballah. But even more amazing, what Crowley said is that the U.S. government thinks Syria, Iran’s partner and ally, is upset that Iran is being aggressive and expansionist. And it actually expects the Syrians to urge Iran not to build nuclear weapons!
One Lebanese observer called this approach, “Living in an alternate universe.”
Meanwhile, as the administration congratulates itself on explaining to Syria that it should reduce support for Hizballah, Israeli military intelligence releases an assessment that Syria is giving Hizballah more and better arms than ever before.
Oh wait! Now it’s March 3 so time for someting new. The ófficial Syrian press agency reports that Syria’s government opposed an Arab League proposal to support indirect Palestinian Authority-Israel negotiations. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem asserted that Syria is “no way part” of the consensus supporting the plan.
But guess what? First, Senator John Kerry opened a meeting of his Senate Foreign Relations Committee by erroneously praising Syria as supporting the plan, giving this as an example of Damascus’s  moderation. The New York Times quoted from the Syrian report, making it sound like Moallem is praising the United States, but left out the paragraphs attacking the U.S.-backed plan! And the State Department circulated the Times article as proof of its success in winning over Syria when in fact Syrian behavior proved the exact opposite!
Oh, and that’s not all! Not only did Syria oppose the plan but itattacked the Arab states that supported the U.S. effort and blasted the Palestinian Authority for not following the path of resistance, that is urged it to carry out terrorist violence against Israel.
Hey, that’s not all either. Syria also issued a statement accusing Israel of “framing” it by dropping uranium particles from the air to make it seem that Syria had been building a nuclear reactor for making nuclear weapons. Not exactly evidence of rational moderation I’d say.
Meanwhile, on the Iran front, it is now March 2010 and still—six months after the first administration deadline and three months after the second deadline—there are no additional sanctions on Iran yet. In fact, the process has barely started.
Even former Democratic presidential candidate and head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry has taken astronger stance than the administration.
He supports the congressional call for tough sanctions to block Iran’s energy industry which easily passed both houses. “I believe that the most biting and important sanctions would be those on the energy side.” But the Obama administration wants far more limited sanctions focused on a small group in the regime elite.
Hillary_Clinton_90_150Yet sanctions are getting further away rather than closer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at this by pulling back from her early prediction of sanctions by April, now saying it might be “some time in the next several months.”
At the same time, we have endless evidence that the claim the Russians (and Chinese and others) are coming, to support sanctions, is nonsense. Just before meeting with Clinton to discuss the issue, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (or Lula for short) explained, “Peace in the world does not mean isolating someone.” (Quick, invite him to explain this to the anti-Israel forces in Europe and elsewhere).
But it’s outright amusing to see the efforts to spin the Russian and Chinese position. In this regard, the prize for this week should be won by an AP dispatch. The headline is: “Russia moves closer to Iran sanctions over nukes.”
And what is the basis for this claim that there has just been “the strongest sign to date that the Kremlin was prepared to drop traditional opposition to such penalties if Tehran remain obstinate?” This statement from President Dmitry Medvedev:
“We believe that [engagement with Iran is] not over yet, that we can still reach an agreement,” he said. “But if we don’t succeed, Russia is ready — along with our partners…to consider the question of adopting sanctions.”
Get it? When Russia decides that talking with Iran won’t work, then at that point—how long from now would that be?—it will “consider” sanctions. Actually, he said the same thing last August, a statement trumpeted in September by the New York Times as proving Obama’s policy was working.
There is more clarity with the Chinese, sort of, though the pretense is also made that they might do something. But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang put it this way: “We believe there is still room for diplomatic efforts and the parties concerned should intensify those efforts.” At most, the optimists suggest, in the words of this Reuters dispatch:
“China will resist any proposed sanctions that threaten flows of oil and Chinese investments, but most believe it will accept a more narrowly cast resolution that has more symbolic than practical impact.”
Yes, that’s the kind of thing that already existed four years ago. Some progress.
Is it too much to ask policymakers to pay attention to what’s going on occasionally?
So let’s leave it to Ahmadinejad to sum up how things seem to Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and lots of Arabs both pro- and anti-American:
The Americans, Ahmadinejad said, “not only have failed to gain any power, but also are forced to leave the region. They are leaving their reputation, image, and power behind in order to escape.…The [American] government has no influence [to stop].…the expansion of Iran-Syria ties, Syria-Turkey ties, and Iran-Turkey ties–God willing, Iraq too will join the circle….”
In other words, Obama Administration policy isn’t making the radicals more moderate but rather–by feeding their arrogance and belief in American weakness–making them more aggressive.

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.

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