This is the last of my “catch up” postings. After this, I will try to make things more timely.
It appears that the tide is turning against Islamic State (IS). Even the editors of the Economist –whom I mostly respect, but whose views on America’s responsibility to right every wrong in the world clearly come from childhood readings of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The White Man’s Burden – acknowledge this in an article entitled “The caliphate cracks”. According to the article, the territory controlled by IS has fallen by about 25% from its peak. And the tide is being turned not through American boots on the ground, but by the people who are actually threatened by IS: its neighbours.
It is clear that America never had a dog in this hunt, since IS never represented any kind of threat to America’s vital interests, although it did occasionally harm individual Americans foolish enough to wander into its proximity. As others have pointed out, the correct response to IS was not a US military campaign, but rather a State Department travel advisory. This case also shows that, if the US ceases to underwrite their irresponsibility, then other nations more directly involved will actually take action. In other words, we are not always, as Madeleine Albright famously claimed, the “indispensable nation”. Which is good, because being indispensible was starting to get a little expensive.
Meanwhile, a friend has sent me an article entitled “What ISIS Really Wants” from The Atlantic. This article focusses on the theology that underlies IS, particularly following its declaration of a caliphate in the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq. It appears that, after a caliphate has been declared, some devout Muslims believe that they obliged to go there or suffer eternal damnation. The article claims that these people feel aggrieved that they are not allowed to emigrate to IS territory and that this has caused terrorism attempts in the West.
This leads me to conclude that the Western policy on IS emigration is fundamentally wrong and a violation of religious freedom. Instead of attempting to block them, aspiring emigrants should be met with free airplane tickets and brass bands. Just be sure to take away their passports as they leave.
Imagine if it were this easy to get rid of all of our religious fanatics, especially before the Republican primaries?
Bibi and Iran
I am pretty sure that many of you watched Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the combined houses of Congress. It was a great performance. Netanyahu came across as, to use the Yiddish phrase that seems most appropriate in the circumstances, a true mensch. I just hope that the Republican members of Congress realize that he isn’t our mensch.
It is impossible not to admire the Israelis. In building their country, they have accomplished a tremendous amount from quite literally stony ground. They have also, for the most part, exercised remarkable restraint in the face of barbarity and provocation by their opponents, who have shown time and again that they have no interest in the rules of civilized negotiation or (if the word “civilized” can be used in the context) conflict. Witness their deliberate siting of rocket launchers and other military targets in densely populated areas specifically to cause civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. In war, no party is ever completely blameless, but I have no doubt that the Israelis are more sinned against than sinning.
But it has to be remembered that Israeli’s interests and America’s interests, although often overlapping, are not the same. The area of settlements is an example of this. Settlements have no purpose except to pander to the political desires of right-wing religious parties that have been coalition partners in successive governments. The settlements actually increase the risk to Israeli citizens, since they thereby occupy very exposed positions, and they undermine the only feasible exit to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a two-state solution. The Obama administration has been right in calling Netanyahu’s government to task for its continued support of settlements. The Obama administration may very well be right again in resisting Netanyahu’s attempts to rouse Congress against the proposed Iran nuclear deal.
This deal is far from done and it may still fail in the negotiation of the details; in particular, it is disturbing that both sides appear to have walked away with interpretations of the framework that have important differences, although this may just be posturing. However, if a final deal follows the terms announced by Secretary of State Kerry and the US government, it certainly does not deserve to be declared DOA by certain Republican members of Congress. It does not deserve, for example, Senator Marco Rubio’s proposal to require Iran to declare that Israel has a right to exist, as if this would accomplish anything.
I have no sympathy for Iran, a country that deserves no trust and is, as far as I can tell, granted none by the proposed agreement. But Obama is right to focus on the alternatives. We can continue with the current sanctions, or try to tighten them further, in the hope of that an even better deal will be available in the future. Is it realistic, however, to believe that the world will follow us on this path when an apparently reasonable proposal from Iran is scuppered by apparently unreasonable political posturing from Republicans in Congress? Good luck with that. Or we have the military option, but the last thing that America or the world needs is another military adventure in the Middle East with completely unpredictable consequences.
The deal precludes no options for the future if Iran is found to be cheating or at the termination of the agreement. Sanctions, including their automatic “snapback” in the case of cheating, or military action remain possible. It should also be remembered that, even if Iran manages at some point in the future to create a few functioning bombs or warheads, they would find themselves with a small number of largely unproven, first-generation nuclear weapons and delivery systems in the face of massively superior arsenals and defensive systems from Israel and the United States. If they attempted to use their weapons against either Israel or a US “ally” such as Saudi Arabia, they know that they would suffer certain nuclear incineration. It is not pleasant to think about this, but this is precisely the calculation that kept an equally belligerent and duplicitous, but much more technologically and militarily advanced, Soviet Union in check during the Cold War.
So far, we have three declared Republican candidates for the presidency: Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul, and Senator Marco Rubio (who hasn’t officially declared yet, but who has announced to his leading donors). Question: What do all three of these candidates have in common? Answer: None of them is experienced enough to be President. The tendency to confuse presidential ambition with qualification appears to be yet another negative legacy of the Obama administration.
Like Obama, none of these Senators has yet served a full term in office. Like Obama, although not to the same degree (since this would have been almost impossible), their prior experience, in either the public or private sectors, is also on the thin side. Once upon a time, politicians with CVs this short would have never considered running for president. But Obama changed all of that when he, and American voters hungry for “change,” decided that on-the-job training was sufficient for the Leader of the Free World.
The interesting point is what this reflects about the mood of the American public. One of the reasons why experience no longer seems to count for much is the contempt the country has for politics. Unfortunately, as the Obama administration has shown, a “trainee” President is even more prone to the influence and buffeting of business as usual in Washington than someone who is experienced enough to know how to fight it.
There is a great Audemars Piguet watch advertisement that reads: “To break the rules, you must first master them.” We should bear this in mind when voting for Republican nominees.
When I saw the cover to this week’s Economist, I thought it was one of those joke books, like Fine English Cuisine or Italian War Heroes. The cover reads “What does Hillary stand for?” and when I opened the magazine, I fully expected to find blank pages or maybe just each page emblazoned with a photo of her. Imagine my surprise when I found words. After reading the article, though, I was not much the wiser. Other than a firm commitment to equal pay for equal work for women (which no one disputes and which is, in any case, the law of the land) and a self-proclaimed willingness to fight for the middle class (whatever that means), the sleuths at the Economist weren’t able to find much. Maybe they just should have stuck with the blank pages.
Roger Barris, London
I Wish That I Had Said That….
“Ed Sullivan will last as long as someone else has talent”, a quote from comedian Fred Allen about The Ed Sullivan Show, about which I am reminded whenever I see a clip of Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show