The rhetorical drumbeat from rightward portions of the commentariat, to the effect that Russia's moves in Ukraine should be attributed to a supposed pusillanimous “retreat” of American power and to adversaries responding by becoming more aggressive, shows no signs of abating. It continues even though, as Robert Golan-Vilella nicely explains and I have noted, the historical evidence simply does not show that the world works that way and that other governments make foreign policy decisions that way. The impetus for the drumbeat includes broader habits of exceptionalist thinking about American power and the more specific political objective of disparaging Barack Obama by blaming him for just about everything going wrong in the world. The theme regarding the latter objective is that Obama is weak and unassertive—this notion being basically a continuation of the mythical “apology tour” that Mitt Romney used to talk about.
Seventeen years ago Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article titled “Sanctioning Madness”. The crux of his argument was:
With a few exceptions, the growing use of economic sanctions to promote foreign policy objectives is deplorable. This is not simply because sanctions are expensive, although they are. Nor is it strictly a matter of whether sanctions "work"; the answer to that question invariably depends on how demanding a task is set for a particular sanction. Rather, the problem with economic sanctions is that they frequently contribute little to American foreign policy goals while being costly and even counterproductive.
Haass was not saying to give up sanctions entirely. But they should not be the go-to tool, reached for habitually and unthinkingly, to address any foreign policy problem under the sun.
The American sanctions habit has not lessened at all during the intervening years, especially on Capitol Hill. Now Congress is getting out its sanctions pen yet again to see what it can do to Russia in response to the Crimean crisis. This may be an even clearer indication of the sanctions addiction than the recent unsuccessful effort to impose more sanctions on Iran, given that the latter move was more of a calculated attempt to sabotage an ongoing negotiation.
Benjamin Netanyahu's tiresome vilification of Iran has taken on the characteristics of a rote obsession that diverges farther and farther from truth, reality, and his own ostensible objective. It is as if—in pursuing his real objective of keeping Iran ostracized, preventing any U.S. agreements with it, and keeping the specter of an Iranian threat permanently overshadowing everything else he'd rather not talk about—he has been reduced to a ritual, repetitive chant of “Iran bad, very bad” and does not care whether or not reflection on what he is saying shows it to make any sense.
Outside of the anti-Americanism that is heard so widely and often, it is hard to think of any other leader or government so dedicated to heaping calumnies unceasingly on another nation, at least one not currently waging war on the heaper's country. Maybe some American Cold Warriors fixated on the Evil Empire came close. Attacks on Iran occupied most of the first half of Netanyahu's speech Tuesday to AIPAC. Haaretz accompanied a transcript of the speech with one of those graphics depicting the frequency with which particular words have been used. For the entire speech Iran was mentioned far more than any word other than Israel.
Maybe the relentlessness of this latest iteration of the chant reflects Netanyahu's frustration over his recent failure to get the U.S. Congress to sabotage the nuclear negotiations with Iran by slapping on new, deal-breaking sanctions. Perhaps he also felt a need to amp up the attacks to bring attention back to the Iranian specter from the crisis in Ukraine.
The Crimean crisis has energized those who wallow in a conventional wisdom that, as Fareed Zakaria noted last week, had already become a familiar theme on the opinion pages. This is the theme that the United States is in retreat, that it is insufficiently assertive, and that this lack of assertiveness is having awful consequences around the world. The crisis is tailor-made to encourage such wallowing, involving as it does a use of armed forces by the successor to the old Cold War adversary. So no time has been wasted by those who complain that soft U.S. policies have brought things in Ukraine to this juncture and who cry for more U.S. assertiveness in response, including saber-rattling with U.S. armed forces.
A sometimes fascinating sideshow to political upheaval has been the sudden opening to public view of material evidence of how those who had been powerful and privileged, but are now fallen, had lived. There was, for example, the shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. Now there is the opulent estate of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, with its classic car collection, golf course, private zoo, and all the rest. Much of our fascination is basically the same as the titillation afforded by glimpses into the lives of our own rich and famous, of whom any compromise of personal privacy is accomplished not by rebellious mobs crashing through gates but only by paparazzi with long-range lenses.
Potentially more substantive revelations, which sometimes accompany the exposure of lavish lifestyles and sometimes don't, come from gate-crashing political action that provides access to troves of documents. One of the best-known instances in modern times, which had nothing to do with lavish living, was the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Officials at the embassy did their best to destroy documents as their compound was about to be overrun but were only partly successful. Some documents were seized intact. Others had been put through a shredder but were compromised anyway when Iranians laboriously pieced together the strips of paper. The Iranians published many of both types.
A familiar conventional wisdom about how the last two U.S. administrations have approached democratization abroad has come up repeatedly in connection with crises in several foreign countries. George W. Bush is seen as the president who tried to promote democracy actively and proactively, even using military force in the effort, while Barack Obama is described as favoring a more diffident, lead-from-behind approach that defers to the initiative of the people to be democratized. There certainly have been significant differences in the approaches of the two presidents regarding political change abroad, and supporters of each approach voice well-rehearsed arguments in Peter Baker's review in the New York Times of current policy debate about the turmoil in Ukraine. Former Bush administration official Paula Dobriansky accuses the Obama administration of “disinterest in democracy promotion and an unwillingness to lead,” while deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes says, “These democratic movements will be more sustainable if they are seen as not an extension of America or any other country, but coming from within these societies.”
The White House played things about right in the face of the expected and usual snit by China regarding a meeting with the Dalai Lama: to proceed with the meeting—although not in the Oval Office—and to disregard Beijing's complaining. The complaint has no merit, no matter how much China whinges about interference in internal affairs. The Dalai Lama renounced a political role for himself a few years ago, he travels and speaks now as only a spiritual leader, and neither he nor President Obama favors anything like a secession of Tibet. If the conversation between the two leaders stirred up Chinese complaints, so much the better for getting increased attention to the cause of religious and cultural freedom.
So much the better also for distinguishing between what should and should not be respected regarding the sensitivities of foreign governments. There is a tendency, in assessing a relationship such as the one between the United States and China, to speak in terms of whether the overall relationship is, or should be, warm, cool, or whatever, while delving less into the merits of individual issues that affect the temperature. More attention ought to be paid to whether particular positions are or are not reasonable, even if it is just a matter of the other government griping about this or griping about that.
Since the wise setting aside of a negotiation-undermining bill that would have imposed still more sanctions on Iran, some members of Congress have been feeling itchy as a result of not getting their regular fix of votes that they can portray as support for Israel. Their unease is perhaps a testimony to the continued strength of the lobby that pushes for such votes, despite its recent setbacks on the sanctions bill and a couple of other issues. So some members of the House of Representatives have sent a letter to their chamber's leadership asking that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu be invited to address a joint session of Congress when he is in Washington next month to speak to AIPAC's annual mass meeting. “Doing so,” they say in the letter, “would send a clear message of U.S. support to Israel.”
Actually, the support involved would not be to Israel but instead to a particular Israeli government. In any event, one noteworthy attribute of the letter is the partisan make-up of the signatories: 79 Republicans and 17 Democrats. It is another indication of the increasing association of the lobby with only one side of the aisle, which cannot be very reassuring to the lobby. Possibly once the composition of the signatory list started to become clear some Republicans refrained from signing on to avoid making the partisan split appear even more lopsided.
As negotiations begin this week to reach a final agreement on restricting the Iranian nuclear program, some of the prognoses being offered sound like the deliberate lowering of expectations one commonly hears before U.S. presidential primary elections. President Obama already offered odds of 50-50 for success in the talks. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pre-empted all potential competition in a game of lowering expectations by stating on Monday, “the nuclear negotiations will lead nowhere.” Can't get much lower than that.
Given that vigorous opposition to reaching any agreement with Iran persists on the U.S. side (or more accurately, the Israeli side), even though that opposition suffered a temporary defeat with the sidelining of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, expect to hear in the weeks ahead much commentary about any sour notes that are struck in the negotiations or in anything that takes place alongside the negotiations. The negative commentary will be coming not from people who, like the ayatollah, are trying to shield themselves from political ramifications of failure that may stem from reasons outside their control. Rather, it will come from people who want the negotiations to fail and will enthusiastically highlight anything that could be used as an argument to abandon the talks.
If the American people's representatives in the U.S. Congress are looking for more productive ways to spend their time, one subject on which they could do useful work is reform of the legal basis for the use of force in the name of counterterrorism. The conceptual and legal foundation for lethal U.S. counterterrorist operations has had serious problems for some time. The problems extend at least through the past two presidential administrations, but in some respects are even older. Fuzziness remains to this day about exactly to what extent the Clinton administration authorized the use of lethal force in any encounter with Osama bin Laden. In brief, what is still lacking is a consistent and logical set of rules about how and when lethal force can be used against suspected terrorists—rules that set clear limits while also matching up any permitted use of force with those cases where such use would be necessary and effective.