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Obama’s ‘Hawkish’ Foreign Policy? If Only It Were So.

A New Republic blogger last week pronounced the president’s foreign policy record “hawkish.” This is especially odd, given Barack Obama’s ongoing attempt at persuading himself and the world that he had altered the model of international relations so that it now worked by talk and suasion. This is probably how his enthusiasts—and young enthusiasts, especially—still experience him. Illusions die hard. But even Obama can no longer be wholly persuaded by this, his own fantasy. Still, as Fouad Ajami put it in The Wall Street Journal on the same day as TNR issued one of its own’s silly judgment:

For months, the administration pursued the mirage of a United Nations Security Council condemnation of Damascus, when there was no chance that Russia or China would go for it. The administration persisted even though a similar effort last October ended in failure. There was no need to court the Russians. We granted them the pride of being treated as a great power, and they played it for all it was worth at home and abroad. The time wasted on the courtship of Russia should have been put to use ‘scoping’ the ways the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad could be brought down.
We have been there before: waiting in the face of rampant terror, exaggerating the power of regimes engaged in mass murder when deterrent power would have put an end to their barbarism. In the Obama world, the tendency to wait has become official policy. It is either boots on the ground or head in the sand. Where drones and Navy SEALS can’t do the trick, we leave the world untended.

And how do the finicky “progressives” rate drones and targeted assassinations as our prime instruments of war? I know what I think: They put into harm’s way fewer and fewer Americans, which is a very good thing. And more terrorists and what are romantically termed “guerillas” in harm’s way, also a very good thing. But the human rights watchers will certainly complain that the U.S. and other western countries have an intrinsic technological advantage with these modes of warfare. Non-traditional modes of warfare, which have had a certain emotional moral quality attached to them, “guerilla war,” for example, lose their advantages with the new military paradigm.

In any case, there are—what with the military’s desertion of Iraq and the impending withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan which candidate Obama described as worthy and workable—almost literally no U.S. boots anywhere. Oh, yes, there are armed American men and women in Yemen, and they are fighting Al Qaeda which the president had already diagnosed as near death. Alas, God did not hear Obama’s words.

Of course, it is not the president’s sagacity that is in judgment. It is his honesty, his honesty to himself, surely, but also his honesty to us. Ajami published in the last issue of TNR an essay about a novel first published in Beirut four years ago, titled In Praise of Hatred and written by Khaled Khalifa. It is about today’s bloodletting, yesterday’s sectarian political program, eternal loathing. And, to be sure, Syria’s ace-in-the-hole, its proximity to Israel, that it was the confrontation state. These insights laid out in a novel were not secrets. They were common knowledge. But Obama somehow believed that he could talk these truths out of their secure place in the world. So—can you imagine?—Russia would betray its last client in the region. Did Hillary Clinton really believe that she and Susan Rice would or could out-talk Moscow from casting a veto in the Security Council? Or persuade Beijing to quietly abstain when its only firm principle of foreign policy is to keep such international authority as there is in the world from intervening against the brutal exercise of power anywhere? No one truly credited this fable—though the press wondered or said it wondered how it would all turn out. This was the fable Obama’s two chefs had cooked up. After the fact, they feigned anger, a feigning especially common to the former first lady. But she knew she was faking it all along.

Caroline Glick, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, recognized the president’s words as an ongoing “rhetorical storm.” This characterization certainly did apply to his Syria policy, which allowed the gentle Dr. Assad to kill five, six, seven thousand people, by now probably more and since the Arab League has stopped counting very probably many more. Commentators have not adequately examined what’s animating the League’s rhetorical frenzy. It’s the fact that the victims of Assad’s butchery are primarily Sunni. The League itself is made up almost entirely of Sunni regimes, Iraq now excepted and Bahrain, Sunni royalty ruling over an insurgent massive Shia majority of 70 percent. You get why that particular insurrection is so volatile. Shia victory would bring a 33-island Iranian satellite archipelago into a sea of Sunnis. Sunni or no Sunni, the League is a political fraud or, to be polite, an empty shell. If only the press covered Arab politics the way it does Israeli politics the reader would know how empty and how bloated the alliance’s doings are. It can do nothing and does nothing except rant. A symptomatic act is that it sent in to rant its former secretary-general Amr Moussa who is running for president of Egypt, good luck to him. He was also foreign minister in Cairo where he tried continuously to sabotage the peace treaty with Israel. He is called a moderate. While you wait for the Arab League to do something in Syria you might read Neil MacFarquhar—read him every day!—to confirm that there is a bloodbath.

Every faction in Syria’s exceptionally sanguinary politics counts Israel as enemy. Yet the security of the Jewish state is not especially at stake in today’s bloody civil war, although it was during the time of Obama’s high infatuation with Assad. Washington’s quid pro quo for Damascus was the Golan Heights which would have lifted the dictator in every Arab’s estimation: in his own country, for sure, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Iran, across the wide swath of the region clamoring for revenge against the West. You may have noticed nonetheless that the Golan is hardly an issue in this bloodletting, the local Druze probably blessing the day that the Zionists extended their rule to what would have by now been a drenched battlefield. If this very uncivil war continues much longer don’t be surprised when Syrian refugees arrive for protection and succor in Israel. Turkey has already professed readiness for rescue, and anything Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposes finds favor with Obama who seems never able to admit to a misjudgment in character, not even after the prime minister’s orchestrated hysteria over the aid flotilla, “aid,” my foot. In any event, Kurds beware! Erdogan has Ottomanistic fantasies.

Now, Ms. Glick, with whom I sometimes (but not so often) disagree, is more interested in Iran than in Syria. Who isn’t? And it is with Tehran that Obama has architected the greatest foreign policy disaster of his administration. She says it clearly: “Since Obama was elected the U.S. has devoted most of its energies not to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but to pressuring Israel not to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” Maybe this is a bit exaggerated. But not much. Let me step back a minute. I have just returned from three weeks in Israel and I saw my share of important people and also highly informed but less important people. Nobody is itching to bomb Iran ... but many know that it may have to come to that. On the other hand, Dennis Ross, who should have been running Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians (instead of that fool, George Mitchell, anointed by Hillary), has put the kibosh on Israeli strikes against Iran. Not that he could actually stop them. But there is, at least for the long immediate moment, an understanding—a tentative understanding—that sanctions may be working. We’ll see what we will see ... up to a point.

But if this conjecture—no, it’s more than a conjecture—is accurate it confirms (and not just inferentially) Glick’s assessment. For the dominant dynamic of the past two years was that America would restrain Israel’s defensive offense which was essentially pressing for more and more sanctions. The background orchestration of this dynamic was that Israel was going bonkers in its demands. Yet, the fact is that talking was going nowhere and sanctions were going nowhere, as well. Now, we don’t know precisely what is happening in Dr. Sivana’s laboratory and we can’t assume that Captain Obama will in the end outfox him. But, finally, Iran seems to be hurting ... maybe its people hurting so much that they and the world would have been better off had Israel actually struck strategically and let it all rest for a while. No, I am not playing dice with the universe. My writing might not even influence you.

So the fact is that it was the president who was playing dice with the universe. For almost two years, he persuaded the Iranians of nothing. Two years lost in the struggle to get Iran to forgo nuclear weapons. However and at last, we do know today that some Iranian businesses are wounded. What the real consequences of this wounding will be is still unknown. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu conceded in mid-January to The Australian that new sanctions were having some effect. But hold your enthusiasm. It has taken us a very long time to interfere with the ordinary practices of Tehran banks. As I write on Wednesday afternoon, for example, the Society for Worldwide Interbanking Financial Transactions, better known as SWIFT and owned by major central banks, is still refusing to cut Iran off the gravy train. Or the milk line, if you will. The European Union is threatening to force SWIFT’s hand. One EU official assured, “Yes, it’s a done deal ... should be confirmed by late February, early March.” We’ll see. But we will not know til summer how much oil Iran will be able to sell into the markets. Iran, however, has not let on that it is intimidated or even, for that matter, a bit scared. And maybe it isn’t.

The media watch Israel very carefully. No, that’s not exactly right: They scrutinize Israel. But I also don’t mean that they scrutinize Israel scrupulously. On the other hand, they certainly don’t watch its enemies nearly as vigilantly as they do the Jewish state and Jews and Zionists. We were alerted to the fact long ago in an unaccountably confessional admission by Thomas Friedman in his long-ago book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, that his colleagues didn’t always tell readers the real truth about the Arab world because they were afraid for their lives.

Still, I was stunned when I saw no place else but in The Jerusalem Post a story about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s strategic counselor, Alireza Forghani, having written an essay on “the legal and religious justification for the annihilation of Israel and the Jewish people.” According to the Post story:

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's strategist provided the legal and religious justification for the annihilation of Israel and the Jewish people, in a document published on conservative Farsi website Alef. Reports of the document began to circulate the internet this week.
The document, written by strategy specialist Alireza Forghani, outlined the reasons why, "In the name of Allah, Iran must attack Israel by 2014.
Claiming to only represent the personal opinion of its author, and not the Iranian government, the doctrine was published on a website believed to have close ties with the Ayatollah.
Forghani called the Jewish state a "cancerous tumor for the Middle East" and reminded his readers that "All our troubles are due to Israel!
"Every Muslim is obliged to equip himself against Israel," he urged, reasoning that if the Muslim world does not attack Israel in the near future, "the opportunity could be lost and it may not be possible to stop them."

(You can read the rest of the story at The Jerusalem Post.)

Forghani is not a nobody. He was governor of Kish Province, aside from being a tactician and strategist for the Supreme Leader. His incendiary essay has been analyzed by the intellectually reliable think tank MEMRI in its “Inquiry and Analysis 793,” published on February 7. Read it all; it’s a hair-raising experience. Some newspapers in Europe published accounts of the incendiary document. The New York Times, “the paper of record,” did not mention it. But if you’d read the Times in those days, the Holocaust also hadn’t happened.

Maybe the Times was expressing its regret for neglecting to inform its readers about Forghani. In any event, a story by Rick Gladstone in Wednesday’s Times reported that Iran was about to announce new progress in uranium enrichment.

Don’t get me wrong. Israel may have abjured striking Iran for now. But not for too long.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.