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Putin enters the Obama-Netanyahu conversation

by Shmuel Rosner

March 5, 2014 | 10:47 am

Clockwise, from left: Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters/Alexei Nikolskiy/RIA Novosti/Kremlin), U.S. President Barack Obama (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)

For many observers of the meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu on March 3, the comparison was almost irresistible. Here is the Israeli prime minister attempting not to cave under American pressure on the peace process front, and here’s a democratic American president getting ready to apply pressure, yet who suddenly finds himself tied to events much greater than the Israeli-Palestinian track. Members of the Netanyahu team could not resist jokingly making the comparison — not that there’s any true comparison — between Netanyahu’s appearance with Obama this week and his appearance with former President Bill Clinton on Dec.13, 1998. 

You will not find the full transcript of that long-forgotten press conference on Israel’s Foreign Ministry Web site. The transcript was elegantly edited, with embarrassing questions removed. The first of those: “Mr. President, what is your reaction to the decision of the Judiciary Committee of the House yesterday? Do you intend to resign, as did President Nixon?” Clinton, you see, was getting ready to pressure Netanyahu, but the Monica Lewinsky affair had made a mockery of any such effort. No wonder, then, that for many years — in fact, up until today — commentators in the Arab world believed that the whole Lewinsky affair was no more than “a deep-rooted conspiracy hatched by a powerful Zionist lobby,” as one Iranian commentator put it. 

More than 15 years after the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting, the first question asked at the March 3 press conference — an event at which Obama and Netanyahu spoke about the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program — began with: “The initial punishments that the U.S. is threatening against Russia for their advances into Ukraine don’t seem to be having much of an effect.” Once again, the world conspires to interfere with an American effort to corner Netanyahu. Yet this time, it is a conspiracy on a much larger scale, involving the powerful ruler of Russia, the occupation of Crimea, the dethroning of a Ukrainian government, threats of financial sanctions and talk about the return of a Cold War. Those Zionists’ power for disrupting American plans never ceases to amaze an observer (and, note, the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC just ended its annual policy conference — can this be a coincidence?).

The Obama administration’s attempt at having a sensible foreign policy had proven shaky in the last couple of weeks. Surely, it provided Netanyahu with some short-term relief, by drawing attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But such relief would be a fool’s comfort. America looked weaker this week, and the weaker it becomes, the longer the headache is for Israel — a country that relies on the deterrent effect of American support as a main tenent of its national security strategy. 

Just hours before the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, and before Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at AIPAC, Sen. John McCain appeared before the delegates, giving voice to what many within the Israeli establishment would also like to say — but not for attribution — about recent events. “Why do we care?” McCain asked the AIPAC activists, “Because this is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.” If Russian President Vladimir Putin can use force against a neighbor without much interruption, what message does it send to the rest of the world? “Do you believe, in light of the events of the last five years, that the Iranian mullahs think we’re serious?” McCain asked, then answered: “I don’t think so.” 

Obviously, Obama begs to differ: “I know the Iranians take us seriously,” the president told Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg in the much talked-about interview, in which he also warned Netanyahu against stonewalling on the peace process. “We have a high degree of confidence that when they look at 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region that are engaged in constant training exercises under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past, that they should take my statements seriously. And the American people should as well, and the Israelis should as well, and the Saudis should as well.”

Clearly, the Russians don’t take Obama very seriously.  

In “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton,” authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes retell the famous story about the “Reset” faux-pas of the first Obama term. “During a classic photo-op moment,” Clinton “reached into a yellow box” to hand a gift to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The gift was supposed to represent the adopted policy of “reset” of the relations in which Obama believed. Clinton revealed an “oversize button with the words ‘reset’ and ‘peregruzka’ on it.” We worked hard “to get the right Russian word. Think we got it?” Clinton inquired. “You got it wrong,” Lavrov replied. He pointed out that peregruzka, as it was written on the button, actually means “overcharge.” Clinton, the book chronicles, “let out one of her trademark laughs.” Her response to Lavrov reads today almost like prophecy: “Well, we won’t let you do that to us, I promise.”

Promises, promises. The Russians seem to easily overcharge and get away with it. In Syria, they overcharged the administration for getting President Bashar Assad to remove chemical weapons from the country. Their price: Assad stays in power, disregarding American preferences for Assad to lose his position. In Iran, they delayed the imposition of severe sanctions for many months. In the Ukraine they prove, again, that they are much more willing to put their forces and money where their mouth is than the reluctantly distant Obama administration. The “reset” was indeed a reset, but not the one Obama intended: It was the Russians resetting their approach to the United States, and becoming bolder, blunter and more ready to take action without much regard for American warnings.  

“There are really two paths that Russia can take at this point,” Obama said at the Netenyahu meeting. Maybe so. But, time and again, the administration has failed to accurately predict the paths that other countries are about to take. The Daily Beast reported on Feb. 27, “the best assessment from the U.S. intelligence community … was that Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine.” Of course, intelligence forces and administrations often fail to predict the actions of leaders and countries, yet with the Obama administration, the failure seems conceptual: This is an administration that tends to believe that all countries think alike, that all see the world similarly and have common interests they all agree upon. It is an administration that tends to think other administrations interpret events and make calculations in ways similar to the United States — when, in fact, they often don’t. The Russians might take a path different from Obama’s expectations, because the Russians prioritize their interests in ways incomprehensible to this administration. They might value controlling Ukraine more than they value the financial benefits associated with cooperation with the United States and Europe.

The same goes for other nations and other interests. So while Obama might hope for a world in which all countries see the value of a nuclear-free environment (in the military sense), such hope would be a bad foundation for policy. Not all countries are convinced, and in fact some believe the opposite, based, among other things, on actions — or inactions — of the Obama administration.

Case in point: Libya, where a regime decided to abandon its nuclear ambitions — and paid a heavy price for it a couple of years later. Case in point: Ukraine, a country that decided not to keep a nuclear arsenal on its territory (it was shipped to Russia after the U.S.S.R. collapsed), on the assumption that shaky assurances from Western countries could guarantee its independence — and is now paying a heavy price for it. The so called “Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances,” signed by the United States, Britain, Russia and Ukraine, promised that no country would threaten or use force against the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Obama is the kind of president who believes in the power of memorandums to shape a better world — but other countries might look at Ukraine and think differently. The current crisis is the sort of world development that makes leaders from countries such as Iran, North Korea and, presumably, Israel set aside any thoughts of giving up on nuclear ambitions indefinitely.  

Obviously, the crisis is not yet over, and as all players scramble to devise a policy to sustain themselves through the coming weeks, it would be premature to declare winners and losers. Again, Syria offers a sober lesson for the type of result one might expect. 

Last year, the Obama administration was struggling to come up with a solution to a deteriorating situation in Syria. Its biggest problem was created almost by error. The president, believing he could make a threat that seems serious but has little practical meaning, set the bar for American intervention in Syria very high — only the use of chemical weapons would mark the cross of a “red line” that would leave Washington no choice. Again, a misreading of other leaders’ true interests and their possible calculations was at the core of this threat. Obama couldn’t conceive that Assad might attempt something as outrageous as the use of chemical weapons. Assad thought differently. He crossed the red line, cornering Obama into having to do something or be humiliated by a despot of a small and weak country.

The Obama administration had other plans for the second Obama term, as National Security Adviser Susan Rice explained to The New York Times some time ago. In his second term, The Times reported back in October, the president was going to follow a modest policy in the Middle East. He would not allow the region to dominate his foreign policy. Intentions aside, Syria was becoming an issue for the president’s image. He drew the line — by doing nothing, he looks weak. So threats were made, and Congress was asked to concur — which it didn’t. Obama looked bad, until Putin intervened and offered a solution: The chemicals go, Assad stays. The Obama administration quickly bought the idea and presented it as victory. A threat and some diplomacy resulted in dismantling the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons. 

So what seemed in early September like a defeat was presented in late September as a victory. But does it still look like victory today? Many observers would not tag it as such: “It was one of the most embarrassing and emasculating episodes in the history of U.S. foreign policy,” Marc Thiessen of the Washington Post wrote earlier this week. Of course, Thiessen is a conservative writer, suspicious of and opposing all things Obama. Yet similar assessments have appeared in columns by liberal columnists as well. “The administration’s Syrian equivocations,” Roger Cohen wrote this week in The New York Times, “underwrote Putin’s assertiveness and sense of impunity.” The failure-turned-victory is again a failure. The consequences of a crisis of such magnitude — and, to be sure, the Ukraine crisis is larger than the Syrian crisis — don’t instantly reveal themselves to the public.

Sure enough, this means that Obama can still come out on top in Ukraine. Yet if he does not, this crisis can’t be contained to only impact U.S.-Russia relations — its consequences will be much broader. In the Middle East, there will be a further emboldening of Iran, and the further disillusionment of Israel and Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia over America’s power to shape future developments. This will no doubt complicate Kerry’s efforts at making peace. And it will push Israelis even further — and this isn’t necessarily a positive development — toward an “I-told-you-so” mentality.

But, in fact, they did tell us. As surveys clearly evidenced, Israelis were quick to grasp that the Obama administration did not actually win in Syria. They also were quick to question the ability of the United States to get results as it diplomatically engages Iran. They were insistent upon giving the administration mediocre marks for world leadership. They were suspicious of Obama’s worldview even as the rest of the world was giving him a Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing. They realized that the Obama administration doesn’t see the world the way they do — and they would be wise to understand that in this case, getting it right is not a reason for celebration.

For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

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