Inversely True to Its Word
Published on: November 13, 2013
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  • WigWag

    We’ve now had four presidential terms in a row chock full of foreign policy calamities. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that from the perspective of America’s relationship with the world that Bush and Obama have presided over failed presidencies.

    What I don’t understand is why things have so seriously gone off the rails. Is it just that Americans have done a poor job of selecting their leaders or are there structural issues that make executing foreign policy more complicated than ever. The Republicans screwed up and now the Democrats are screwing up. The neoconservatives got it all wrong; then the liberal internationalists got their chance to get everything wrong and now that Obama seems to have fallen in love with realism, that’s not working either. Why are things going so poorly?

    Pertaining specifically to the Middle East, even if there’s little else we can do, can’t we at least lend a helping hand to the Syrian Kurds (or can’t the Israelis)? I understand that the Syrian Kurds are sorta, kinda allied with Assad, but if anyone deserves some help, it’s them. The Sunni extremists hate them and after oppressing them for decades (and actually denying that they were Syrian citizens) Assad acquiesced to some autonomy for them only to get back at the Turks and to prevent them from joining the rebels. Is it hopeless that they will ever catch a break?

    On a happier subject; there are few gifts greater than having a granddaughter while you are still young enough to enjoy her. You are a lucky man.

    • I’m not sure how you’re counting administrations. Do you include the Bush 41 Administration? If so, I disagree. As to why so many mistakes have been made, well, two points. First, a lot of mistakes were made before that as well, going back at least all the way to the post-TR period. Second, I think the obvious reason for the more recent trouble is a combination of the end of the Cold War (the guardrails disappeared) and hubris. When you add to this historical ignorance born of our insular culture, the bias of Enlightenment Whiggery, the way our leaders are recruited these days and thus who gets recruited, the growing irresponsibility/incompetence of the media, and the mischief making of Congress and various special interests, I think you get a fairly good explanation.

      As for the Kurds, go back and read Ofra Bengio’s piece on this in the magazine; and she will make a return appearance soon. I also wrote a long post on this subject last summer on Via Meadia. I don’t think Syria’s Kurds are special, but the Kurds as a whole I do think make for an interesting US policy focus. Go back and read this stuff and you’ll see the logic of various ideas, and the difficulties and risks accompanying them. Whatever we do, or don’t do, there are lots of moving parts. The real problem for any initiative, however, is not the complexity of the region, but the wholly reactive nature of US policy in this Administration. It’s a White House-centric operation, and the White House doesn’t care about any of this stuff really.

      • Joe Schmitt


        Wigwag said “terms” not presidencies. I believe that he’s referring to the two Bush and two Obama terms.

        • WigWag

          Yes that’s what I meant.

  • Oren

    I say to your analysis “hear! hear!” (with a proper Queen’s English accent…).
    Just a couple comments –
    First – the sceptical views of Netanyahu, Yaalon and Liberman are shared by the majority of Israelis. I think you can characterize these views that – (a) the current Palestinian leadership is unable to deliver a compromise and (b) that the vast MAJORITY of Palestinians are not ready to give up the right of return and their aspirations to all the land from the river to the sea – that these views are not just mere opinions – but unfortunately undeniable objective truths. Otherwise – you make it seem like it is some machination by the Israeli government leaders to think so.
    Second – it’s “Vive la France” not viva la France…

    • I fixed the typo in vive.

      As to your assertions about what majorities of Palestinians or Israelis think, I wrote that these numbers do not matter right now, and I am skeptical of your assertions. A lot of people make such assertions, usually to bolster their own positions. But reliable empirical evidence for these assertions is notorious weak. Khalil Shikaki follows Palestinian opinion about as professionally as circumstances allow, and his data does not strongly affirm your views. As for Israeli opinion, easier to measure but still hard, it tends to shift a lot. Before the year 2000 Camp David debacle, Israeli views were more moderate. They shifted based on experience. But they could rapidly shift back based on other experiences. The point is that the views are co-determinative, and so the purpose of U.S. diplomacy should be patiently to work that dynamic in a positive direction. And that is actually, I believe, what most Israelis and most Palestinians want us to do. To simply say, as you seem to do, that “the sides are irreconcilable” and presume stasis is to create a self-denying prophecy and thus to feed the problem.

  • Oren

    As for Israelis – you don’t need polls – you have elections. Tzipi Livni who ran on the ticket of negotiating with the Palestinians got a paltry 6 seats in the 120 member Knesset. Israelis not only think it is insolvable right now – they don’t even think “the negotiations” and relationship with the Palestinians is the main issue for the elections.
    As for the Palestinians – certainly 99% of Hamas supporters do not accept Israel’s existence. And in the last elections ever held – in 2006 – they won a majority. Of the arguably other half of Palestinians – those who support the PA – I think it would be safe to say that a big chunk of them (I would say more than half – but lets for the sake of discussion say – one third or one quarter) also would not sign off on giving up on Jaffa or Ramla(let alone the Jerusalem temple mount). You can see it very clearly in Palestinian textbooks issued by the PA – where the answer to a question like “Name a Palestinian city on the shores of the Mediterranean” has the correct answer designated as “Haifa”.
    So will it change in the future ? Who is to say – I don’t have a crystal ball. Right now it is moot.

    • The most recent Israeli election turned on many issues, not just the peace process, so-called. On the Arab side, the most recalcitrant Palestinians tend to be those with refugee status and who conceive of their homes being west of the Green Line. Hence Gaza. West Bankers are different. But again, I caution against sweeping statements supported by little to no data. Not all causal assumptions are created equal; things often turn out to be more complex than they seem when it comes to socially constructed attitudes.

  • Nathan

    I think you might be underselling the chemical weapons agreement on Syria in one important respect, Adam. So far as I’m aware, the agreement has at least stopped the chemical weapons from being used. That doesn’t meaningfully help the people on the ground, it doesn’t stop the civil war and it doesn’t stop all the negative add-on effects the war is having in the region. It does, however, stop the perception that was building throughout the year that use of chemical weapons was becoming acceptable.

    If no agreement had been reached & no Western attack had occurred anyway, I expect that Assad would still be using the chemical weapons on his people right now. That’s bad in terms of normalizing the technology and we would be likely to see it spread. The preservation of the international norm against chemical weapons use is worth something.

    I’ve said for a while that I don’t particularly care if Assad’s chemical weapons are actually destroyed so long as he stopped using them. I assumed all along that we wouldn’t get the whole bundle. To the extent that the farce of a disarmament program stops Assad from using the weapons, that’s still positive.

    It is cold comfort to all those who are impacted by the Syrian mess in more important ways, to be sure. I agree with your toothpick/tree analogy. The whole thing is a mess and I don’t see it getting better. Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and to a lesser extent Turkey & Jordan are burning…probably I missed some other involved countries.

    I don’t see how the relevant alternative to the disarmament farce would have improved the situation, though. Since we weren’t going to attack (US Congress had a say because Obama gave it to them) the only relevant alternative I can think of was to do nothing in the face of chemical weapons normalization.

    The tree is burning, but the toothpick is kind of OK.

    • This comment reminds me of old saying Jesse Helms used to use: “She don’t sweat much for a fat lady.” Sure, the CW deal, if it’s ever actually implemented, is better than nothing, and maybe nothing is the only other outcome the Administration was prepared to pursue. My only point is that this is a pathetic outcome and on balance one very damaging to American power and reputation in the region–especially given the way the accompanying process looked; it is not something to dress up and take out on a Saturday night, so to speak.

      The fact that the Syrian regime isn’t killing its people with chemicals, I suspect, means nothing to the many thousands who have since been killed in old-fashioned ways, and close to nothing to their surviving family and friends. Nor will this deal, if it is implemented, again, have much deterrent value in the future against desperate authoritarian leaders, anymore than the Iraq War and regime change there deterred Assad. I honestly do think that most of the preening about this deal is partisan-inspired bullshit, and I am not buying it.

      • Nathan

        Agreed. The agreement we reached was better than nothing, but not worthy of anything remotely related to an accomplishment.

  • Eric

    Thanks Adam for an engrossing picture of where things are at in the Middle East. I agree with all that you wrote, but there are a few things not covered which do have a big effect or may have a big effect.

    A big roadblock to a Palestinian-Israeli deal is personal security. We saw this in the negotiations between Abbas and Olmert when Olmert offered 97% of the green line West Bank plus 3% from the Negev. Abbas could not say yes since he would have been assassinated shortly thereafter. He could not say no since the EU and US would penalise the PA by reducing funding, whereupon the PA could not pay salaries and Abbas would be overthrown. So he did the only thing he could do, which was to leave the meeting ‘for consultations’ and not come back. And I think Arafat was riding a similar tiger when he too walked away from a deal.

    Short of giving Abbas a Praetorian Guard of Gurkhas, or something, this situation will not change unless some external event breaks the impass.

    Regarding Iran, the Saudis and Pakistanis are important to what happens next. It was leaked to the BBC last week that the Saudis can get nuclear weapons from Pakistan at short notice. If true (and who knows, it might be) it would telegraph to the Iranians that they could have to deal with sanctions plus Sunni nuclear neighbours to the south and the east. Whether that will have any impact on the Iranian position is hard to tell, but it has more serious implications to Iran than US waffling does.

    In Syria the situation is murky. Again a joker is the Syrian Kurds who have ‘declared autonomy’ this week. That is a real red line for Turkey and Iran. What will be the result? Who knows? But there must be an increasing chance of military action by one or the other to suppress this breakout attempt.

    • Well, the vulnerability of Palestinian moderates goes without saying. It is subsumed under my point that the Palestinians are not able to make a deal these days, even if they are willing.

      As for a Saudi bomb via Pakistan, this is old news. Note below:

      From the July/August 2012 issue: The Pak-Saudi Nuke, and How to Stop It, by Christopher Clary & Mara E. Karlin.

      – See more at:

      If you subscribe to and read The American Interest, you won’t be surprised by old news posing as something else.

  • WigWag

    David Ignatius has a column in the Washington Post today about all of this that is only marginally coherent.

    He does advance one provocative theory. He says,

    “Here we return to the question posed by my Lebanese friends around the dinner table — about who would fill the power vacuum in the region. My sense is that Israel and Saudi Arabia would love to scuttle an American rapprochement with an Iran they regard as a deadly adversary. But if Obama presses ahead, Netanyahu is bidding to replace the United States as military protector of the status quo, including the security of the Gulf Arabs.

    Strategically, this de-facto Israeli alliance with the Saudis is an extraordinary opportunity for Israel. And for Fabius, there’s a chance to position the French as the West’s prime weapons supplier to the Saudis, gaining France hundreds of billions of dollars in the post-American era in the Gulf. For opportunistic reasons, no wonder Israel and France want to detonate the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.”

    I wonder whether the de facto alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arabs and France is really plausible and whether Netanyahu’s blistering attacks on Obama and Kerry might be designed to woo the Saudis.

    If any of this is true, it brings two other things to mind; what if any role is there for Russia in all of this? Netanyahu is traveling to Russia next week after wining and dining Hollande in Jerusalem this week. Is Russia now in a position of having to pick between the Iranians and a Saudi/Israeli/French alliance? If so, what are the implications of all this for Russia’s position vis a vis Syria?

    Second, I can’t help but believe that Obama’s weakness will give the United States even less leverage than it already has over the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. With the allies of Hamas (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Turkey and Qatar) all cut down to size what would an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement, tacit or otherwise, mean for the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian aspirations in general?

    Could we be witnessing in the Middle East a moment reminiscent of the collapse of the British Empire?

    Or maybe that’s too melodramatic.

    • It’s too vast a comment to comment on here. Suffice it to say that just about everyone has concluded that the US is drifting away from relevance in the region. We have suffered a strategic defeat there over the past 2 presidencies, and the current crowd is operating foreign policy generally as one big duck-and-cover drill. It would be one thing if Obama had only a clot of months left in office, but we’re talking about three whole years. So other actors can’t just suck it up and wait–that’s too long. So we’re seeing a lot of jockeying and testing and sub rosa discussions. I think the tough French role in the Iran negotiations may have owed more to quiet Saudi initiatives than to anything else, just to cite one example.

      Is this subject melodramatic? Maybe aspects of it are, depending on the attitude of the viewer; but it may be a real bonafied tragedy before all is said and done.

  • WigWag

    “I think the tough French role in the Iran negotiations may have owed more to quiet Saudi initiatives than to anything else, just to cite one example.” (Adam Garfinkle)

    Right; that makes sense. I’ve been surprised at the unrelenting nature of Netanyahu’s verbal attacks on Obama and Kerry, or, at least their strategy for negotiating with Iran. Netanyahu may not always be wise, but he is highly intelligent; much more intelligent than Kerry, I suspect.

    Surely, Netanyahu is not venting; he must think that criticizing the Obama Administration so publically, even at the risk of alienating Democratic allies in the Senate is worth the risk.

    What occurs to me is the possibility that Israel and Saudi Arabia have each taken on an assignment that they are uniquely suited for. Vociferous attacks on the Obama Administration emanating from Saudi Arabia would be useless; Americans dislike the Saudis. Israel, on the other hand, has substanital support in the United States (still) and, if he opposes a deal with Iran, there are probably alot of Americans who think that Netanyahu is at least as trustworthy on the subject as the Obama/Kerry team is. Cleary most Republicans in Congress believe that.

    Israel, on the other hand has very little to offer to France, but Saudi Arabia has alot to offer. The French economy is in a shambles; tens of billions of Euros of Saudi defense expeditures could be just what the doctor ordered for the French economy.

    Moreover, the French have never accepted their decline as gracefully as the British have; kissing up to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies may be the perfect way for France to stay relevant.

    It seems to me that the Israeli criticism of Obama and the Saudi-France lovefest evident by France’s hard line in Geneva, may be the first example of Saudi-Israeli semi-alliance in the Middle East.

    What I don’t know is whether there is enough “there, there” for this alliance to have any legs.

    • What you speculate about is logical, but, alas, there is no evidence that I am aware of. Lots of things are logical that turn out not to be true. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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