Interesting Times: The terror bubble

Smart power can still bring the mullahs down.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
"We are determined to channel the currents of change toward a world free of violent extremism, nuclear weapons, global warming, poverty and abuses of human rights and, above all, a world in which more people in more places can live up to their God-given potential." US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, July 15 "...the world of terrorists and other violent extremists - of insurgents and IEDs - is with us for the long haul... Iran's going to have the capability to deliver nuclear weapons to the people in their region a lot sooner than they're going to have the capability to deliver them to us." - US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, July 16 The Obama administration is torn between the audacity of hope and the morass of realism. One moment the rhetoric soars, the next it tugs rudely down to earth. In truth, every American government aims for that sweet spot between idealism and pragmatism, regardless of the way its rhetoric leans. President Barack Obama's determination to be ABB (anybody but Bush) has swung the pendulum back toward an approach most reminiscent of that of Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush was a "big stick" president; Obama, like Carter, seems more inclined to speak loudly, or softly, and carry a small stick. It doesn't have to be this way. It's possible to be ABB without becoming Carter, whose failure in foreign policy led to his electoral defeat. The Obama team has even articulated how this can be done. "We need a new mind-set about how America will use its power to safeguard our nation [and] expand shared prosperity," Clinton said last week. The key, she said, was to use "smart power," which she defined previously as using "the full range of tools at our disposal - diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural - picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation." Smart power sounds great, but where is it? Where has Obama used the slightest bit of muscle of any kind? In Cairo, he said some things that Arabs are not used to hearing, such as that it's wrong to "shoot rockets at sleeping children or to blow up old women on a bus" and that is "not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered." More gently, but still breaking new ground, he said that the Arab-Israeli conflict "should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems." In addition, Obama increased US troop presence in Afghanistan and dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Lebanon just before the election there, sending a message that may have helped prevent a Hizbullah victory. In the main, however, Obama's idea of "smart power" seems to consist of expecting less of friends and foes alike. Or as Clinton put it more positively, "We've also begun to adopt a more flexible and pragmatic posture with our partners... we will not tell our partners to take it or leave it, nor will we insist that they're either with us or against us. In today's world, that's global malpractice." THE IRONY, of course, is that the one US partner that has not seemed to enjoy such deferential treatment is Israel. It is simply unthinkable that the Obama administration would get into such a public fight with any "partner" as it has with Israel over settlements, down to the level of calling in the Israeli ambassador to protest the building of a hotel in the eastern part of Jerusalem. This may be an example of "smart power" in means, but it is "dumb power" in effect. It takes a lot to turn off a columnist like Yoel Marcus of Ha'aretz, who could not be more opposed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or more inclined toward the new American president. Yet Marcus writes bitterly that Obama "has spoken about us, but not to us." While Israeli prime ministers - especially Netanyahu - are often blamed for any rift with the US, Obama has taken positions so far outside the Israeli consensus that even the opposition has refused to take his side. Obama's use of dumb power has had a circle-the-wagons effect here, while gutting the potential effect of any tough talk toward the Arab side. The Arab states know they need to do nothing so long as the pressure is on Israel to deliver. The smart power way would be to take the exact opposite approach: start by concentrating public pressure on the Arab states to move toward Israel. Arab normalization would create much more pressure on the Israeli government to reciprocate than what the US is doing now. The dire need for smart power, however, lies in the Iranian arena. Clinton sees a world "free of violent extremism" and nuclear weapons; Gates one in which terror is not only with us for the "long haul," but where Iran is "going to have" nuclear weapons, spurring a regional nuclear arms race. It is in Teheran, not in Jerusalem or Ramallah, where the choice between the two futures described by Clinton and Gates will be determined. MOST PEOPLE would bet on Gates's prediction. Yet the world Clinton describes should not be dismissed as a utopian goal for the indefinite future, but one toward which great strides can and must be made right now. What needs to be understood is that the constellation of threats that face the world now - primarily the nexus of terrorism and nuclear weapons - is no less of a bubble than the one whose collapse just left the global economy in shambles. Speculative bubbles look solid and endless when you are in them and then disintegrate in the blink of an eye. The world of terror is such a self-reinforcing yet fragile edifice. The Green Revolution in Iran shows just how fundamentally weak the terrormasters, as Michael Ledeen aptly calls them, are. This week's call by former president Mohammad Khatami for a referendum "suggests a renewed confidence within the opposition movement," says The New York Times. The same newspaper, formerly a bastion of support for dialogue with Iran, now hopes that the G-8 nations "mean it" when they threaten tough sanctions in September if Iran doesn't back down. The mullahs' crackdown, while perhaps superficially succeeding, has set off a wave of internal and external pressure that is just beginning to gather force. Next week, Gates will arrive here, reportedly to warn against preemptive military action against Iran. The response from Jerusalem should be clear: Better to stop the Iranian regime with your smart power, but the alternative is not a nuclear Iran but Israeli military action. The further message should be that now is not the time to grasp the mullahs' bloodied hand and relegitimize their regime, but to refuse to recognize the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-led government while offering to embrace any new government that abandons the road of oppression, nukes and terror.