Free Markets, Free People

Middle East

Obama’s Middle East policy is a disaster

Do you remember the promises?  When Obama took over, the Middle East would come to love the US again.  As Obama, famously declared in his 2009 Cairo speech, his election meant a “new beginning” with the Muslim world.

The truth, however, is much uglier:

President Obama’s first journey to Israel as president comes amid earth-shattering change in Middle East, much of it for the worse. The Arab Spring, which once raised hopes of freedom and dignity, has diverged onto the dark path of Islamist authoritarian rule. In Syria, tens of thousands of people have died in a bitter civil war that might have recently seen its first use of chemical weapons. And Iran continues its march toward nuclear weapons capability, heedless of international condemnation. Obama’s effort to seek peace between Palestinians and Israelis is in tatters.

And Libya?  One word: “Benghazi”.

How about the much anticipated and promised love fest that would occur after that mean old George W Bush was retired and The One waved his mighty hand and blessed his own Middle East policy?  Yeah, it hasn’t quite worked out that way:

According to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, confidence in Obama in Muslim countries dropped from 33% to 24% in his first term. Approval of Obama’s policies declined even further, from 34% to 15%. And support for the United States in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan is lower today than it was in 2008 in the closing year of George W. Bush’s administration.

Israel, our closest and most important ally in the area isn’t much enamored with Obama:

Of all the strained relationships in the Middle East, the partnership with Israel is the most important and potentially the most easily repaired. Obama is not popular in the country. A poll released last week showed he had a scant 10% approval rating in Israel, with an additional 32% saying they respect but don’t like him.

And, if the tactic of stiffing Israel had the intent of winning popularity among Palestinians, that too hasn’t worked:

If Israelis don’t like Obama, Palestinians are even less favorable.Washington’s perceived failure to take a harder line with Israel over the final status of Jerusalem, and U.S. opposition to President Mahmoud Abbas’ successful campaign for higher Palestinian status in the United Nations, have engendered a deep sense of frustration. Passions spilled over in Bethlehem this week, when young Palestinians defaced a billboard with Obama’s image and burned pictures of him in the streets. Obama’s symbolic nods to Israel’s history are likely to raise Palestinian ire even further.

In fact, none of the administration’s policy initiatives have had any positive impact, or, for the most part, any impact at all (despite a fawning media telling us how wonderful a SecState Hillary Clinton was, this is her legacy too).

So, what will Obama do today in Israel?  What he usually does.  Make a speech:

The hope that Obama will say the right things in Thursday’s speech at Jerusalem’s convention center is negated by doubts he will follow through. The president has to assure Israelis and Palestinians that he is still engaged if the peace process has any chance of moving forward. In part, this means convincing them that he still matters.

Key point emphasized.  If you’ve watched Obama even casually over the past years, you can’t help but have noticed that he’s very strong on “talking the talk”, but hardly ever “walks the walk”.  He doesn’t know how.

And there’s absolutely no reason this particular issue will see him even attempt it now.  Oh, he’ll say the “right things”. That’s what he does. His problem is he never then does the “right things”.  Rhetoric is his action.  It’s for the history books, not as a guide to leadership.  He’s not a leader.

But you know that.  And the results of that lack of leadership are evident for all to see in the Middle East.

~McQ

China ignores sanctions to trade with Iran

For years I’ve heard people say that China isn’t an expansionist military threat on the par of, say, the old Soviet Union.  And for the most part, I believe that.  I do believe they’re a regional expansionist military threat and I also believe they’re building their military with unprecedented spending to fulfill that role.  That’s fairly obvious in their dealings with other Asian countries within the China sea area.

But are they an international threat to peace?

In some ways, absolutely.  For instance, their relationship with Iran threatens to make the unstable Middle East even more unstable.  And they’re blatantly disregarding UN sanction and breaking promises to the US about weaponry they are exporting:

China is continuing to provide advanced missiles and other conventional arms to Iran and may be doing so in violation of U.N. sanctions against the Tehran regime, according to a draft report by the congressional U.S.-China Commission.

“China continues to provide Iran with what could be considered advanced conventional weapons,” the report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission says.

According to the report, which will be made public Nov. 16, China sold $312 million worth of arms to Iran, second only to Russia, after Congress passed the Iran Freedom Support Act in 2006 that allows the U.S. government to sanction foreign companies that provide advanced arms to Iran.

So, essentially China is calling the US bluff and ignoring the UN.  And it is actively trading with a self- declared enemy of the US (and a country which has killed Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan). 

Speaking of the US, China has even gone further:

Most of the weapons transfers involved sales of Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles, including C-802 missiles that China promised the United States in 1997 would not be exported to Iran.

China also built an entire missile plant in Iran last year to produce the Nasr-1 anti-ship cruise missile.

While the article goes on to say that technically the sale isn’t a violation of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act of 2006 because the payload and range are below the specified minimums, what it doesn’t say is the value of the advanced technology such a sale brings a country like Iran.  Obviously what they learn from the C-802 will be incorporated in their own types of missiles.

The report in which these findings were contained makes a valid conclusion based on them:

The report concludes: “Despite Beijing’s stated claim to be acting as a responsible major power, China continues to place its national interests ahead of regional stability by providing economic and diplomatic support to countries that undermine international security.”

Of course China waves it all away.  I mean, what are we going to do about it?

Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong denied China violated U.N. sanctions.

“When it comes to the issue of nonproliferation, China has been strictly adhering to the relevant U.N. resolutions and faithfully carries out its international obligations while strictly implementing its relevant domestic policies and regulations in the field.”

He said the commission “should cast off its Cold War mentality, respect the facts and stop making unwarranted allegations against China.”

Of course what sales like the ones China has been making to Iran do indeed undermine international security, or, at least Middle East regional security.  Iran now brags about missiles it has that can hit its avowed enemy, Israel, and most of the world believes they’re pursuing nuclear weapons.  These sorts of sales only aggravate that situation.

Israel has to take them seriously and has:

Israel’s test launch of a ballistic missile at Palmachim Air Force Base on Wednesday, in an apparent show of military strength, has ensured the threat of Iran’s nuclear capabilities remains firmly on the public agenda.

International sources quoted in the Israeli media said the test appeared to have been conducted with a ”surface-to-surface” missile known as the Jericho 3, which has a range of between 3000 and 7000 kilometres and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Of course Israel has never publically admitted it has nuclear weapons (but most believe they do) and until this launch never publicly admitted it had a missile with this range.  It was indeed a show of force to make it clear to the Iranians that they had best mind their p’s and q’s.  But it certainly indicates in increase in tensions and a decrease in stability in a region already dangerously unstable.

So we have China ignoring or circumventing international sanctions to trade critical weaponry with a rogue nation with military and regional aspirations and essentially telling the rest of the world to bug off.

The question is “why?”

Is it because it perceives weakness in the US?   Europe?  The UN?   All three?  China has weathered the recession in relatively good shape.  It’s economy is still doing well.  It has been the recipient of a wealth transfer through trade that has enabled it to spend much more freely on its military and it seems to be recognizing a growing vacuum in the world power balance as the US is perceived to be withdrawing some from its position of dominance.

Is China just interested in a regional role, or does Iran signal that China hopes to expand into much more of an international power player?  China watchers who’ve been claiming that it is only regional power which interests the country may have to recalibrate their thinking.   It seems, at least to me, that China sees a much broader role for itself (and its self-interest) in the world and may be beginning to make moves internationally to fulfill that role. 

Of course time will tell, but Iran (and some of its activities in Africa and the China sea)  seems to be a good indicator of a larger desired international role for China  than that which was previously assumed for the country.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Israel’s bottom line

If President Obama is actually serious about an Israeli/Palestinian accord, he better review the speech Benjamin Netanyahu gave before a joint session of Congress today.

He said that to reach a deal, Palestinians must agree to live with a Jewish state that would include areas in the suburbs of Jerusalem and around Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem, he said, “will never be divided,” and Israel’s army would remain along the Jordan River.

While some land where Israelis have settled would lie outside its final borders, he said, the borders would not be identical to those of 1967 and before, which he once again called indefensible. Palestinian refugees and their descendants, he said, would have to find their homes outside these borders, limiting their right of return to old homelands — long a sticking point.

That’s the Israeli bottom line and it isn’t going to change much even if Netanyahu is no longer the Prime Minister.  This is it – this is what that state, after years of fighting for its life, has determined is the minimum conditions it must insist on for its self-defense.  Essentially, these particular positions aren’t negotiable.

Obama claims his policy and position isn’t new.  Obviously the Israelis disagree.  There, laid out for everyone to see is Israel’s position.  In the meantime, I’d also add, were I Netanyahu, that until Hamas and the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence against Israel, that Israel has no interest in any process.  That’s such a basic requirement I’m surprised it has to repeated endlessly.

Netanyahu says he is willing to make painful concessions on behalf of Israel – including some settlements in occupied lands.  But he’s not willing to concede any of the above – and it it time for this administration to get a clue if it is serious about the peace process.  I simply don’t think it is, and the new conditions laid out by Obama are a way of putting the onus and blame on Israel for being “intransigent” in the face of decades of Palestinian intransigence.  This is Obama’s way of saying “not my fault that the peace process I so highly touted fell apart”.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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Observations: The QandO Podcast for 22 May 11

In this podcast, Bruce and Dale discuss the president’s middle east speech, Obamacare waivers, and fiscal policy.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

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Welcome to reality–Obama admin prepares for possibility of new Islamist Regimes in Middle East

Apparently the moon pony contingent is slowly fading from prominence in Washington DC and the administration is preparing for what now seems most probable  outcome in the Middle East – the new “post-revolt” regimes may be distinctly “Islamist”.   Note the word – not “Islamic”.  Most of them are that already.  The term used in the Scott Wilson Washington Post column is “Islamist”.  And Williams says:

The Obama administration is preparing for the prospect that Islamist governments will take hold in North Africa and the Middle East, acknowledging that the popular revolutions there will bring a more religious cast to the region’s politics.

However, apparently they want to diminish any concern by pretending that such an outcome isn’t really that significant:

The administration is already taking steps to distinguish between various movements in the region that promote Islamic law in government. An internal assessment, ordered by the White House last month, identified large ideological differences between such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Qaeda that will guide the U.S. approach to the region.

"We shouldn’t be afraid of Islam in the politics of these countries," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal policy deliberations. "It’s the behavior of political parties and governments that we will judge them on, not their relationship with Islam."

That speaks to a basic misunderstanding of the role of Islam “in the politics of these countries”.   Unlike Western countries, there is no “separation of church and state” in an Islamic country.   Islam is about politics, governing, the law, you name it.  It is as much a political system as it is a religion.  And that’s why assurances such as those the White House is putting forth here are just not accurate.   The “behavior of political parties and governments” are going to be fundamentally grounded in … Islam.

That takes us to the term “Islamist” which most have used to distinguish the broader religion of Islam to those who have hijacked it and made their version an aggressive theocratic and expansionist version of the religion.  Islamist included the Taliban and Al Qaeda as well as other murderous and anti-Western groups throughout the Middle East.

However, WaPo wants to assure you that it’s just not as bad as you think:

Islamist governments span a range of ideologies and ambitions, from the primitive brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, a movement with Islamist roots that heads a largely secular political system.

Unmentioned, of course, is Turkey’s new belligerence and aggressiveness toward Israel and its seeming turning away from the West and apparent desire to be a, if not the, power broker in the Middle East.  The “largely secular political system” in Turkey is much less so than it was a decade ago when that party took power and it is likely to be even less so as it retains it.

But, you say, what’s made the administration suddenly take off its rose colored glasses and begin assessing anew the probable outcome of these revolts? 

None of the revolutions over the past several weeks has been overtly Islamist, but there are signs that the uprisings could give way to more religious forces. An influential Yemeni cleric called this week for the U.S.-backed administration of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be replaced with Islamist rule, and in Egypt, an Islamist theoretician has a leading role in drafting constitutional changes after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power last month.

A number of other Islamist parties are deciding now how big a role to play in protests or post-revolution reforms.

David Warren made the point that no “Walesas or Havels” have emerged in these countries to steer the revolutions down the path of democracy.  And that’s true.  But the Islamist equivalents are emerging – and attempting to subvert the revolutions to their own ends.  And, as Warren points out, they have an advantage:

As we should surely have observed by now, whether or not the Islamists command Arab "hearts and minds," they are not only the best organized force, but the most ruthless. They are also in possession of the simplest, most plausible, most easily communicated "vision."

They don’t have to do much selling of their vision, they have the institutions and traditions of Islam to turn too and it just isn’t a very big leap from “Islamic” to “Islamist”.  Democracy and freedom, on the other hand, have no such institutions, traditions or leaders to turn too.  So when figuring probability, it is clear which scenario enjoys the most probable outcome.

Having been forced to accept the obvious, don’t expect the administration to give up all its moon ponies.  There will still be plenty of rationalization which ignores the fundamental differences between what “secular” in the West means, and what it means to Islam.   You can expect to see “Islamism” and “Islamist” defined down:

Paul Pillar, a longtime CIA analyst who now teaches at Georgetown University, said, "Most of the people in the intelligence community would see things on this topic very similarly to the president – that is, political Islam as a very diverse series of ideologies, all of which use a similar vocabulary, but all quite different."

Yeah, “Death to Israel” doesn’t mean the same thing in Egypt that is does in Gaza.  And Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban don’t necessarily represent what an “Islamist” regime would look like, do they?   And don’t forget, as they continue to try to throw Turkey around as an example of “not so bad” – Turkey has been slowly changing from a true secular democracy to an Islamist state.  And the change has not been a good one for the interests of the US.

The White House has an internal study that it is studying and is still believing that there are good Islamists and bad Islamists:

The report draws sharp distinctions between the ambitions of the two groups, suggesting that the Brotherhood’s mix of Islam and nationalism make it a far different organization than al-Qaeda, which sees national boundaries as obstacles to restoring the Islamic caliphate.  

The study also concludes that the Brotherhood criticizes the United States largely for what it perceives as America’s hypocritical stance toward democracy – promoting it rhetorically but supporting leaders such as Mubarak.

"If our policy can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, we won’t be able to adapt to this change," the senior administration official said. "We’re also not going to allow ourselves to be driven by fear."

Really?  Have you been watching the timidity with which this President has faced the change in the Middle East and N. Africa?  This sudden equivocation about “Islamists” is a statement of fear.  A firm stand against the Islamist movement taking over any of these countries vs. standing up for secular democratic movements in those lands is evidence of fear.  The equivocation about the word and the accommodation the administration seems ready to make with some “Islamists” says all that needs to be said. 

There’s a reason “Islam” and “Islamist” are defined in a particular way.  What the administration is trying to do is blur those lines substantially in order to make what was and has been unacceptable to the US suddenly acceptable (at least to the degree to which “Islamists” appear “secular” to these rocket-scientists). 

We have been at war with “Islamists” for a couple of decades.   Is this redefinition of “Islamist” the first sign of our capitulation?

~McQ

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Gas prices, economics and politics

Gallup tells us that economic confidence has slumped sharply in the past two week due mainly to the spike in gas prices driven by the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Funny how that works, no?  Gas prices go up, economic confidence goes down.  And the rest of that goes “economic confidence goes down, incumbents suffer”.

So you’d think smart politicians would want to ensure that they’ve done everything they could to ensure gasoline prices remain as low as possible.

You’d think.   But that’s not exactly what has happened here, is it?  We’re now in the 10th month of a drilling moratorium imposed by this administration, so there’s really no immediate or impending increases in production domestically that could help ease this, is there?

Says Gallup:

The slump in confidence is likely tied to gas prices, which have risen sharply amid growing political instability in the Middle East, most notably in Libya. The U.S. Department of Energy reported an increase in gas prices from an average $3.14 per gallon nationwide during the week ending Feb. 14 to $3.38 this past week. In addition, news media focus on the challenges governments are having in passing budgets may also affect Americans’ perceptions of the economy.

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index comprises two measures — one assessing consumers’ views of current economic conditions and another measuring their perceptions of whether the economy is getting better or worse. Both components are more negative than they were two weeks ago, but most of the change has come from increasingly pessimistic expectations about the economy’s direction.

The pessimism is being driven by the understanding that we haven’t the means to effect the problem nor have we done anything in the interim to improve our ability to effect the problem.  In other words, we’re more at the mercy of foreign oil now than we were when this administration took office.

Secretary Salazar has been on a vendetta against oil, using the unusual but certainly horrific accident on the Deep Horizon platform, to effectively shut down a critical portion of the domestic oil industry.  It has cost thousands of jobs and billions of dollars (not only to the industry but to the government in the form of royalties and taxes).   Rigs which were scheduled to be deployed in the Gulf before the moratorium are now deploying elsewhere.  It costs millions for companies when oil drilling rigs sit idle.  So they’re off to do what – exploit foreign oil fields.  And they most likely won’t be back in Gulf waters anytime soon.

The point, of course, is the entire energy situation in the US is being badly mishandled by the incumbent administration.  And while they sit and fiddle, we become less and less able to effect world pricing for oil because our capability has been hamstrung by a government and bureaucracy that is basically antagonistic to fossil fuels.

That’s a risk, especially in these economic times.  If the economy is still in this sort of shape, pessimism still holds the majority in consumer confidence and gas prices hang around the $3.50 range, even some of the so-called front runners in the GOP at this point might be able to squeak out a win.  And it would most likely, as Charlie Cook predicts anyway, mean a tough election for Congressional Democrats in both houses.

Gasoline isn’t going to go down anytime soon as the unrest continues to roil the ME and N Africa.  And if something happens in Saudi Arabia, all bets are off.  But it is interesting to see how quickly the price of one commodity – albeit a critical commodity – can turn sunshine to gloom with the public.  It is something to watch going forward.

~McQ

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Kristof reflects the left’s naiveté on democracy in Middle East and Africa

Nicholas Kristof manages to roll up all the naiveté of the left into one article in which he explains why he thinks those who don’t think democracy will be the final outcome of the unrest we’re seeing in North Africa and the Middle East are selling the people there short.  He’s pretty sure all those who’ve said that democracy  most likely won’t be the product have got it wrong.  Because he’s looked into the eyes of those who’ve protested the authoritarian governments there and, well, let him tell you:

I don’t think so. Moreover, this line of thinking seems to me insulting to the unfree world. In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks, I’ve been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?

Well, sir, because they haven’t any tradition of democracy nor do they have any democratic institutions ready to ensure the outcome of the turmoil is democracy … that’s how.

There have been thousands … millions even … of “lionhearted men and women” who’ve braved tear gas or bullets in the name of freedom, only to end up suffering under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.  Take the way back machine to Hungary in 1956 for instance, when a scenario much like this played out there ultimately to be crushed brutally by oppressive communism.

It certainly isn’t for the lack of wanting to see something like democracy flourish in the Middle East and North Africa.  Heck, that would be wonderful.  But it is an appreciation for history and an analysis of that history that ends up pointing out that probability – because of conditions beyond the protesters control – doesn’t bode well for a democratic outcome.

Kristof’s premise is many in the West think Arabs, Chinese, etc. are “unfit for democracy”.   Not at all. In fact, he misses the point completely.

It has nothing to do with the fitness or unfitness of any people.  I’m of the opinion that all people yearn for freedom and, if introduced into a democratic system, would flourish (and millions have, emigrating to free countries).

It isn’t their fitness or unfitness that’s in question, it’s the fitness or unfitness of the culture in the country or region in which they live.  Does it indeed support the principles of freedom and liberty, does it allow equal access for all, does it indeed allow all to participate equally and finally, does it contrive to protect the rights of the individual over the power of the state?

Look at the present regimes in the area and history of the countries in the area and you tell me.  For the most part the cultures in many of them don’t support the principles that underlie a democratic society.  That’s obviously not to say that can’t change, but the question is what is the likelihood, given the specific country’s culture and history, that it will change?

That is where the examination has to take place – not in the hopes and aspirations of a relatively few “lionhearted” people who yearn and fight for such freedom.  Is there a chance?  There’s always a chance.  Is it likely?  Well, history says no.  I’d like as much as anyone to see history proven wrong in the case of all of these countries.  But like Egypt, where the real power behind the throne – the military – is still in charge of the government they’ve essentially run for 50 years, it appears unlikely that the essential pillars of a democratic society will be allowed to be erected and strengthened.  It just goes against human nature and the dominant political culture that still holds power in that country. 

Do I hope democracy is the product of these protests and revolutions.  Yes.  Do I expect it?  No.  And the reasons given are why.  What the US should be preparing for is the probable outcome while working to encourage the hoped for outcome.  Unfortunately, I don’t see it doing either.

~McQ

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