The Region: No longer tough enough?

For years we spoke of the timid and unreliable Europeans. Now, in many respects, they are bolder and braver than the US.

April 19, 2010 05:13
4 minute read.

BARRY RUBIN. (photo credit: courtesy)


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The US Congress is back as a factor in US foreign policy. Partly because the Obama administration has pushed it too far to do unpopular things, partly because members are no longer in awe of the president’s alleged invincibility and popularity. Many Democratic members see their whole careers flashing before their eyes. And, of course, there’s the administration’s decision to pick a fight with Israel.

For the first time since Barack Obama took office, we’re seeing a bit of a congressional revolt even from his own side of the aisle. The two issues are Israel and Iran.

On Israel, 76 senators – including 38 of 59 Democrats – signed a flattering but critical letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging reconciliation with Israel. Another 333 House members signed up, including leading Democrats. The letters blamed the Palestinian leadership – and rightly so – for the lack of serious negotiations.

They noted that “it is the very strength of our relationship [with Israel] that has made Arab-Israeli peace agreements possible, both because it convinced those who desired Israel’s destruction to abandon any such hope and because it gave successive Israeli governments the confidence to take calculated risks for peace.”

On Iran, a whopping 363 members of the House of Representatives urged Obama to put “crippling” sanctions on Iran, taking “tough and decisive measures,” and urging him to make sure Teheran doesn’t get nuclear weapons.

Thus, Congress is challenging Obama’s policy on four levels:

1. It’s not tough enough.

2. The proposed sanctions are too toothless (and on this one, see below).

3. Sanctions have taken too long.

4. Instead of waiting for the UN, the US government should show leadership and act on its own along with willing allies.

Moreover, even while the House passed a sanctions measure by a huge majority in December and a similar bill went through the Senate in January, to my knowledge the administration has never taken any position on the proposal.

And now things are about to get worse.

SECRETARY OF Defense Robert Gates admitted that the US government is ready to water down the sanctions even further to get a UN Security Council resolution supporting additional action against Iran. The rationale for this is to say that this consensus can then be used as a basis for additional sanctions by countries acting on their own, what Gates called, “a new legal platform.” He explained, “What is important about the UN resolution is less the specific content of the resolution than the isolation of Iran by the rest of the world.”

The Los Angeles Times thought this was , at least partly, an excuse for the failure to get more: “Gates’s comments were the clearest sign yet that the administration, facing continuing resistance from other countries to the harshest of the proposed measures, is lowering its sights. US and allied officials have given up on prospects for a ban on petroleum shipments to or from Iran, and some allies have questioned other potential measures.”

It could be pointed out that the second Bush administration also settled for lightweight UN resolutions, but it was far more determined to follow up with a tough strategy. Equally, Russia and China can violate stronger sanctions, but they are not likely to respect weaker ones either. The bottom line is that not only can Iran get off easily, but the signal conveyed undermines the hopes for future containment possibilities.

Moreover, I think this situation largely reveals a fundamental flaw in the Obama worldview: What should be important is a tough and effective strategy based on strong US leadership which is going to intimidate Iran at least to some extent. Instead, we get the priority on consensus, to avoid any sign of the dreaded “unilateralism” or masterful American leadership which horrifies Obama regarding past US policy. This approach is likely to continue after a UN resolution. Far from unleashing an aggressive US strategy against Iran, the follow-up is more likely to be anticlimactic.

Consequently, Obama’s policy may succeed in passing muster as legalistic while being hailed by the poodle brigade in the media. But it will fail at the ostensible goal of the entire exercise: stopping Iran now or making Teheran act more cautiously in future.

A PARALLEL situation is now going on regarding Syria’s providing of advanced Scuds to Lebanon. The US State Department’s reaction was a joke: We are going to study this! Compare that to the French response: We must update our thinking. For years we spoke of the timid and unreliable Europeans. Now, in many respects, France (along with Germany and the United Kingdom) is bolder and braver than Obama’s policy.

Mincing no words, the French Foreign Ministry called the Scud transfer “alarming” and pointed out that such activity was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which “imposes an embargo on the export of arms to Lebanon, except those authorized by the government of Lebanon or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.”

And this is the key. What good is it to get a new UN Security Council resolution if the US government won’t even enforce the previous ones?

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies.
His personal blog can be read at

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