Dealing with the Deal
Published on: November 25, 2013
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  • WigWag

    “In a year’s time, with the mid-term elections behind him, President Obama could turn ferocious about one of the few foreign policy/national security portfolios he seems to care about—nonproliferation—if he thinks he has become the entrée rather than one of the diner guests at the negotiating table.” (Adam Garfinkle)

    Right; but the problem is that Obama already thinks he’s been the entrée; but it’s not the Iranians who he thinks have been picking his bones clean, it’s the Israelis.

    No one can foretell the future, but my prediction is that once the mid term elections are over, that’s exactly what Obama is going to do; he’s going to turn ferocious on the non-proliferation issue.

    Everyone has been focused on Iran, but my guess is that from the very beginning of his presidency, Obama has had two nations in his sights; he doesn’t want a nuclear Iran and he doesn’t want a nuclear Israel. Obama’s long game has always been to use the threat of an Iranian bomb as leverage to achieve his real goal; a nuclear free Middle East.

    What’s Obama’s motivation?

    Most importantly, he genuinely cares about nuclear proliferation and the risk of nuclear arms. All lame brained progressives stuck in a 1960s time warp do. Obama has adopted the ideology of his many advisors, informal and otherwise, who have been associated with Joe Cirincione and the Ploughshares Fund. One of the most notable of these is Chuck Hagel who served on the Ploughshares Board for years. Another is George Soros who has donated many millions of dollars to the organization.

    Second, while Obama may not hate Israel, he hates Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister has already introduced a rogue psychological twist into the President’s decisions. Obama wants Netanyahu and his country cut down to size. He sees heaping world opprobrium on Israel’s nuclear program as the best way to do it.

    Finally, Obama agrees with a large number of foreign policy gurus in the United States that there is something unseemly about Israel being able to defend itself by itself from all threats. Israel is the client state, these gurus insist, not the other way around. Israel should meekly retreat under the American nuclear umbrella like Canada, Japan, Australia and much of Europe have.

    Obama is just waiting to spring the trap of a nuclear ready Iran to push for total nuclear disarmament in the Middle East, especially Israel.

    The President knows perfectly well that the threat of an Iranian bomb will motivate the Saudis and Turks to seek a nuclear arsenal of their own; my guess is that he’s banking on it. It wouldn’t even surprise me if the leaks about the Saudi-Pakistan bomb deal emanate from the Obama Administration.

    Just about a year from now, when the rubber is about to hit the road with Iran, watch for rumors about the efforts of the Saudis and Turks to go nuclear to really heat up.

    The next thing to look for is Obama, riding in on his white horse, to suggest the grandest of grand bargains; a nuclear free Middle East. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will agree to forgo nuclear arsenals if Israel agrees to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

    And to make things even more uncomfortable for the Israelis, watch for Obama and Kerry to introduce the modified American Plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians at just about the same time.

    I hope that the Israelis are ready for this, because its coming. If Obama can leave office with his health care plan intact, a nuclear free Middle East and an Israel that’s despondent and dependent, he will leave office a happy man.

    Will Obama be able to pull it off?

    It’s too soon to tell. If Republicans keep the House and win the Senate it would help. It would also help if the rollout of the Affordable Care Act continues to be the healthcare equivalent of Hurricane Katrina.

    If Obama’s popularity ratings are hovering in the low 40s by November 2014, I suspect that Israel will have less to worry about. If his ratings are higher than that; watch out. Obama will be ready to go nuclear.

    On his own terms.

    • Yes, we’ve heard this before from you, and as before this is paranoid-conspiratorial Higher Disney Fiction, to use Paul Fussell’s phrase. As before, there is no evidence for it, and as before it ignores the essential impossibility, politically or otherwise–which everyone in this business for a day-job understands, even the President–of persuading any Israeli government to give up its nuclear deterrent in the absence of solid, long-lived, road-tested contractual peace with all its neighbors.

      • WigWag

        What “everyone in this business for a day job” thinks isn’t particularly compelling. There are a lot of people in your business who think a lot of dumb things. As for the President, he may understand that he can’t convince the Israelis to give up their nuclear deterrent but it doesn’t mean he won’t enjoy trying to embarass them into it even if only to scratch a rogue psychological itch.

        Thanks for the Paul Fussell quote though. He was something of an intellectual hero of mine; especially his “Great War and Modern Memory.” I was saddened when he died last year. Would you mind telling me which of his books that quote is from?

        • The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations, p. 223. He was talking about the Time-Life version of WWII, I think.

    • Peter

      “Obama is just waiting to spring the trap of a nuclear ready Iran to push for total nuclear disarmament in the Middle East, especially Israel.”

      Is Obama capable of thinking that far ahead?

      If so, you could be on to something.

  • Philip

    Regarding Netanyahu, perhaps he actually does intend to launch a military strike in the near future (or at least he believes it necessary to give such an impression). If so, he needs to be on record as having loudly warned everyone why this agreement is a poor one. Alternately (if we believe that the Israeli military option was never realistic), perhaps he believes that all is already lost, and wants history to record that he did all that he could to sway the world, kicking and screaming to the end.

    • All that could be, yes; but it still doesn’t excuse the emotional indulgence, which has a potential to create real harm for Israel.

  • Anthony

    Adam Garfinkle, you’re in D.C. area and I trust State Department and West Wing operatives peruse your essays. If so, you could not have provided better outside insight than: but for the United States to achieve the aims as time passes, or to minimize diplomacy-produced liabilities if things to come to that, it must remain exquisitely attuned to the complexities of context. Here’s hoping policy process adapts.

  • Anonymous

    Do you think its possible that Saudi and AQ could come to an understanding over this deal? It seems that the US is basically done trying to stem Iranian hegemony in the region and is only focused on the nuclear issue. So the Saudi’s are gonna need foot soldiers to go toe to toe with the IRGC and assorted proxies and AQ are the only Sunni’s fighting the Shia axis. The deal would something like AQ fights in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon and keeps whatever it can carve out while staying out of the Gulf. Saudi supply’s the money and the guns. They won’t trust AQ not to eventually turn on em but they need fighters against Iran in the short term since we aren’t getting into the regional balance of power game, and Israeli forces would be to distracting for the rank and file of Sunni united front.

    • Maybe; anything is possible–but I doubt it for a host of reasons. The KSA leadership is extremely risk averse, and it is afraid above all these days of opposition to its Islamist right, so to speak. This has been the case since November 1979, when native radicals took over some very sensitive religious sites and the regime had to call upon French special forces to save the day. Note that it has supported Egypt’s generals against the Ikhwan, despite the fact that Wahhabi thinking is closer to the Brotherhood’s than it is to Al-Azhar’s. Note too that in Syria the Saudis have, insofar as they are able, tried to funnel help to the FSA, not the Islamists (as the Qataris and even the Turks, reportedly, have done). So there is a seeming contradiction between Saudi religious characteristics and the realpolitik way the regime handles its security. Besides, jihadis are coming to Syria from all over without Saudi encouragement or help, and al-Qaeda is so decentralized now that it’s to imagine how the KSA regime could effectively muster them and, afterwards, direct them in any particular way. Maybe in the future, if the regime is a lot more desperate than it is now, something like this might be possible. Not now or soon, however, it seems to me.

  • Brian

    Dr. Garfinkle, I don’t have any technical know-how on this subject, so maybe you can tell me why the Iranians were trying to build a heavy water nuclear reactor- which is used for plutonium based bombs- in Arak? What would be the advantage of starting a whole new process when they already had significant amounts of uranium enriched to 20%, and why was this such a sticking point in the negotiations?

    • Good questions. The reason Arak was a sticking point in the negotiations is that the most or maybe the only cost-effective reason for building such a plant is to create weapons grade fissile material, so most people, myself included, believe that this construction belies Iran’s constant refrain that it does not seek nuclear weapons. But there are other imaginable reasons for building it: wanting ultimately to control the entire nuclear fuel cycle so as not to have to depend on outsiders, and wanting an alternative means of producing weapons-reads material in case the enrichment path proves more expensive or otherwise problematic. That’s what the DPRK did, or tried to do–and maybe the Iranians are taking advice or a cue from Pyongyang. Maybe they got a package deal. Building Arak above ground, in the open more or less, suggests perhaps some non-WMD purpose. But it’s not clear, and I suspect it’s not entirely clear to the intel communities who know a lot more of the technical details than I do. But, as I say, good questions.

      • Brian

        Thank you. My take on this is that the Iranians are pushing for sanctions relief and a general rapprochement with the West, and that to get the West around the negotiating table, they realize that they need to push this program further, without forcing things to come to a head. If this is the big idea, then enriching uranium further towards the 90% level might heighten tensions beyond what would help them in negotiations, and so they needed to start a different program to make themselves look serious.

        Of course, my theory doesn’t jive perfectly with a lot of Iran’s past behavior, but it’s hard to get a clear read because so much of their behavior seems contradictory (which is illustrated perfectly by an above-ground plant that could only be used for weapons-grade material).

  • Oren

    What does Obama want? I believe at this stage in his career – Obama cares most about his legacy. Being young, he is also likely to live long enough to witness in person history’s judgment of his presidency.
    Netanyahu keeps saying “Chamberlain” and “appeasement” – both before and after the deal was struck. The one thing Obama does not want to end up being – is history’s second Chamberlain. Netanyahu’s strategy is to keep pushing Obama into a corner where the president has to constantly make sure that he would not end up being the 21st century’s twin of Neville.
    If Israel would have kept mum, or said “good job Mr. President” – it is more likely that in subsequent negotiations the American’s would try less – because – “hey, even the Israelis say its OK”. But by constantly warning of Iranian duplicity – Israel is forcing America to leave no stone un-turned in its quest to stop Iran – lest it appear the fool which was warned before making the mistake and did it anyway.

    • It is a false dichotomy to describe Netanyahu’s options as keeping mum or saying “good job.” He could have expressed his views privately, and not just to the US government, and he could have simultaneously kept his public remarks less emotional and vitriolic. That is what the Saudis have done, and no one mistakes their message. The second-order effects of Netanyahu’s choices are not modest, not least for how they affect cleavages among American Jews. He is forcing divisions to become wider, and for no good reason I can think of.

      • John Burke

        You’re probably right that Bibi is just ticked off — emotional, as you put it — but it may also be that he thinks only a very public, tough stance will get much traction in the US, even with the staunchest pro-Israel audiences. After all, if Israel kept its dismay private and its public statements were pablum about hope but concern, etc., wouldn’t that leave US critics of the agreement looking a tad too beligerent amidst Obama and Kerry’s peacemongering? To be specific, would Chuck Schumer step out front as a friend of Israel knocking the deal if Bibi were not bashing it?

        • Actually, I think non-Israel/non-Jewish associated critics, and there are plenty, would be more powerful in their views if they were not associated wit such shrillness. Indeed, I think there would be more critics ready to criticize were the atmosphere less gaseous.

  • John Burke

    I must say that I have no clue as to whether this will turn out to be a good deal or not. But I will say that, taking it together with Obama’s switcheroo on Syria, his going quiet on Egypt and some reports about what administration insiders think (eg, the story that McDonough believes the Syria civil war works to America’s interests by pitting Iranian proxies against Sunni jihadists), I think Obama is prepared to concede an Iranian sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in the hope of normalizing the US-Iran relationship, positioning Iran as a bulwark against al Qaeda-style jihadis, perhaps getting Iranian help in Afghanistan, and eliminating the specter of a third Middle East war. He is likely to believe, rightly or wrongly, that Israel can take care if itself and in any case cannot be the lynchpin of US strategy, as he sees it.

    All of this may be pie in the sky, and if Iran winds up building the bomb and resuming its America-bashing, he’ll look stupid. But one thing you can say about Obama is that he thinks big. Misguided, perhaps, but big.

    • Well, I am skeptical that the President is thinking like this, but it’s not out of the question that others in the NSC and elsewhere may be. And it’s not on the surface an outlandish notion, assuming the possibility that U.S.-Iranian relations could one day be normalized sufficiently to justify the strategy. Ah, but that’s the problem. I’d prefer to see evidence of that possibility before launching such a crockery-busting policy innovation. But it’s true that Israel cannot be and never has been the lynchpin of a U.S. regional strategy, and it’s true that we owe the Saudis and most of their Sunni compatriots less than nothing. But back to the point: Is Obama thinking “big” about strategy? I just don’t see any evidence that he himself thinks big about anything except partisan politics. Not that he can’t; he just isn’t all that interested, seems to me.

      • John Burke

        I suppose you’re right about Obama’s lack of serious interest in or consideration of these issues, but what I mean by his “thinking big” is that he has appeared since 2008 to want some sort of rapprochement with Iran, along with a broader settlement in the Middle East that would enable a US withdrawal (eg, the Cairo speech, pressure on Israel, total withdrawal from Iraq, support for the MB in Egypt, etc.). This is not to say that there is any strategic coherence to any of this (much less than it’s smart), but I’ll bet Obama thinks he is pursuing some sort of historic recasting of American foreign relations.

        • Well, no, I don’t see it that way. I don’t think Obama has initiated anything; I think he reacts to issues he can’t avoid when his NSA insists he make a decision. When it came to ending the Iraq deployment, that was studied and political, and key to winning a second term. But it was isolated from everything else. Afghanistan he screwed up, or rather let the generals and his other advisers screw up for him; I doubt he ever had an original idea about the place. He has followed common (wrong) wisdom in thinking that an Israel-Palestine agreement was both relatively easy and would have vast positive ramifications in the region, and neither proposition was or is true. No creativity or big thinking there. I don’t think it’s true that he or the administration ever supported the MB in Egypt. Rather, it became impossible to support Mubarak because his own military colleagues wanted him and his son Gamal gone, and we vaguely supported a democratic process assuming or hoping the MB would be pliant and accommodating to that–besides which there was then (and still is) no other viable alternative to the military. This turned out to be wrong, but a lot of people–even some supposed experts–thought the MB would behave. Does all this add up to big thinking? I just don’t see it that way, and no, I don’t think the President thinks he is pursuing an historic recasting of American foreign policy. He may posture like that when fawners elicit it, but he’s not stupid and about non-political matters he’s not vain. Nor does he think God is talking to him, like so many of his predecessors did. So I just have a different view on this.

          • John Burke

            I take your points but I’m not sure this Administration’s policies are quite so ad hoc, although they certainly are confused. As your colleague, Walter Mead, puts it in his new essay about “the end of the end of history:”

            “Troubled by the costs and the risks associated with two unsatisfactory foreign wars and longing to redirect resources from the defense budget to domestic priorities, a significant number of foreign policy analysts inside and outside the current administration have developed a theory of benign realism. This theory holds that the United States can safely withdraw from virtually all European and all but a handful of Middle Eastern issues and that as an ‘offshore balancer’ the United States will be able to safeguard its essential interests at low cost.

            “This view, which seems to guide both the administration and some of the neo-isolationist thinking on the right, assumes that a reasonably benign post-American balance of power is latent in the structure of international life and will emerge if we will just get out of the way. Such a view is not very historical: Britain was an offshore balancer in Europe in the 18th century and was involved in almost continuous wars with France from 1689 to 1815. What is missing from the ‘peaceful withdrawal’ scenarios is an understanding that there are hostile and, from our point of view, destructive powers in the world who will actively seize on any leverage we give them and will seek to use their new power and resources to remake the world in ways we find fundamentally objectionable and unsafe.”

            This is, of course, a view consistent with (though different from) the critique of America’s role in the world from the Left for the past 40 years. It’s a view with which Obama, Kerry and others in the Administration are likely comfortable.

          • I don’t disagree with the general description, but the issue we were discussing is how responsible the President is for all this–and I think he’s a selective and reluctant consumer of ideas about these subjects, not an initiator of them. I also think that matters in a pinch; a consumer is less likely both to know what he’s doing as commander-in-chief and to be insistent on given courses of action in the face of sudden arguments to the contrary among his confidantes.

      • John Burke

        N.B. — Might this not be another step in the quest for a rapprochement with Iran based on US recognition of, or tacit acquiescence in, Iranian influence across the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon crescent?

      • John Burke

        Then there is this:

        Note that State did not deny that there have been efforts to try to arrange an Obama visit to Iran but only that “[t]he president is not making any plans to go to Iran.”

        Can Obama be longing for a Nixon opening to China moment for himself? I don’t know but I’ll bet he’d love to have it as a part of his “legacy.”

        • Probably; I’m sure some staffers tried to sell him on that analogy. I’ve heard it many times. The analogy is nonsense.

  • WigWag

    Netanyahu is a man of large appetite but I wouldn’t be so sure that his “shrill” criticism of the Geneva agreement is little more than an emotional outburst.

    Yes, there is reason to believe that Netanyahu cant exercise much self control. He’s been married three times and has admitted to more than one extra marital affair, usually after being caught red handed. He began an affair while his first wife was pregnant and divorced her shortly thereafter. Dignity and self control are simply not Netanyahu’s best attributes. In this, he’s like many political leaders around the world. A man as prone to emotional roller coaster rides as Netanyahu could just be venting his spleen about Geneva.

    But there are countervailing factors. First, Netanyahu is extremely smart. He attended MIT where he graduated near the top of his class at the Sloan School. People as smart as Netanyahu usually know exactly what they are doing and why.

    After graduating from MIT, Netanyahu worked for Boston Consulting Group. BCG hires only the best of the best and positions with the firm are extremely hard to get. Why do companies hire firms like McKenzie and BCG? Mostly it’s for strategic planning services. BGC consultants are strategic thinkers par excellence. This suggests to me that Netanyahu’s outbursts, far from being little more than the venting of his considerable spleen, are done deliberately and with an objective in mind. Just because the nature of his objectives may not be apparent to us, doesn’t mean that they are not there.

    Finally, Netanyahu is very courageous and a passionate patriot. While his brother who died at Entebbe is a figure of national acclaim, Bibi served with considerable distinction and valor. He put his life on the line for his unit more than once and he was seriously wounded in battle, taking a bullet through the shoulder.

    If Netanyahu is going to exercise self-control against what may be all his natural inclinations, my guess is that he would do it out of intense loyalty to his true love; Israel. This doesn’t mean that Netanyahu’s strategy is smart or effective, but it does suggest that he has a strategy.

    What might that strategy be? All we can do is speculate. I wouldn’t sell Bibi short though; he lived in the United States for years; he worked for a consulting firm many American kids would kill to work for and he is personally acquainted with many important government figures. He understands American politics as well as most American politicians do.

    My guess is that Netanyahu is preening for the Saudis. It was suggested in the Washington Post last week that the current situation in the Middle East offers a once in a life time opportunity for Israel to ingratiate itself to the Saudis and Gulf Arabs. The column suggested that the possibilities this offered to Israel were unprecedented.

    My speculation is that Netanyahu is trying to show the Sunni Arabs that he can do their kvetching about the United States more loudly and effectively than they can themselves. Perhaps behind the scenes Netanyahu is trying to convince them that they would have better luck looking to Israel for protection from Iran than to the United Stares, Russia and China.

    The Saudi King is reported to be really angry. My guess is that he can only be enjoying Netanyahu’s antics.

    Is Netanyahu crazy?

    Perhaps or maybe he’s crazy as a fox.

    • Start your own blog, as I have said before, or learn to be more succinct, please. No more free-riding here.

  • Fat_Man

    I think Netanyahu is perfectly correct in criticizing Obama. It is the only way that he can communicate with Congress to get them to pressure Obama to get a worthwhile deal. Left to his own devices, Obama would hand the keys to the store to Iran and go play golf. The man makes Neville Chamberlain look like Otto von Bismarck. Obama has already given Iraq and Syria to Iran, and is scheduled to hand Afghanistan to the mullahs next year.

    Israel’s only chance of slowing Obama down on giving Iran nukes is to get Congress to stop him. I have seen recent indications that Congress may step up to do it., and, I say bully for them.

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