Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tom Fina's Letter From Washington, 27 March

Another of Mr. Fina's excellent monthly analyses of the state of affairs in the White House, Congress and, in this case, Middle East policy.

To Democrats Abroad
27 March 2015
by Tom Fina, Executive Director Emeritus

Middle East policy has replaced the King v Burwell attack on Obamacare as the 400 pound gorilla on the national political stage. 

Republicans offer fratricide and budget theater, reflexive Obama hate and its presidential race to the right. Democrats are anguished at Hillary’s delayed announcement and frustration that their candidate will be too conservative. That is small potatoes compared to the Middle East conflagration.

Obama is attempting a new course to stabilize the Middle East after decades of failure. He sees rapprochement with Iran as the key to constructive change. In early March, Netanyahu and the Republican Party allied to sabotage that attempt. Their alliance supercharged Netanyahu’s demagogic election success. And that has made them best friends with privileges. 

Tom Friedman’s March 25 column in the NYT is a brilliant analysis of the stakes in a US-Iran rapprochement. His central conclusion that  “...managing the decline of the Arab State system is not a problem we should own. We’ve amply proved that we don’t know how.” He would judge a deal with Iran not only for its effect upon Israel but for our wider strategic interest in minimizing our involvement in the conflict.

For half a century we have allied with the Arab state autocracies. But, since the 2011 Arab Spring, these regimes have crumbled. The resulting conflict between Sunni and Shia, among the Arab states and with Iran, together with the endless conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, have both made the Middle East chaotic and development of a coherent strategy to deal with it, almost impossible.

The two great authoritarian players are Iran and Saudi Arabia. One has been our enemy since the revolutionary Shia theocrats overthrew our ally, the Shah, in 1979. The other has been our ally since FDR’s embrace of the Sunni Saudi dynasty in1943. He hoped to get a foothold in the Muslim Middle East, to help create a Zionist state and to assure access to its oil. He could not dream that its Wahabi authoritarian, religious puritanism spawned throughout  the Arab world would lead to today’s bloody extremism.

My sense is that Obama has concluded that the successive wars in which we have engaged since the end of WWII  have hurt more than helped the United States. Vietnam poisoned confidence in our federal government. Iraq destabilized the entire Middle East.  Disentangling from Iraq and Afghanistan without leaving them in greater bloody turmoil than before we intervened, is an almost hopeless task.
Obama wants a  reset in our bankrupt relations with Iran as he has wanted one with Russia and Cuba. The Russian reset has flamed out. Cuba looks promising but no sure thing.

The goal of a reset with Iran would be to mid-wife a general accommodation between it and Saudi Arabia. That is the only hope of restoring lasting peace to the Middle East. Our armed intervention has been futile. The diplomatic task would be convince both that a negotiated bargain over spheres of influence is more productive than their continuing proxy wars.

Our reaching a deal with Iran after decades of mutual distrust and active hostility would be an immense task. Iran’s hard-line religious revolutionaries and military establishment have absolutely no interest in an outcome that would open the world to Iran. It was the powerful message of freedom of expression joined to economic prosperity shown to Soviet citizens by the thriving democracy of Western Europe that did so much to undermine the Soviet regime. Both the Iranian hardliners working against and those in the West working for detente know the threat to the regime that detente would bring.

Our long simmering anger at the detention of our embassy personnel by the revolutionaries and our repeated efforts to weaken the Iranian theocracy have become reflexive. Our support for Saddam Hussein’s 1980-1988 bloody war with Iran and the sabotage in 2010 of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges are hard precedents for us to put aside and for Iran to forget.  

But, it is the more difficult because of the political power of the conservative Israeli lobby in the United States (AIPAC) which is now little more than an arm of  conservative Israeli governments. When Netanyahu turned to the Republican Party to help him in his election campaign by claiming that he opposed a deal with Iran because it posed an existential threat to Israel, he found a ready partner. More than ever convinced that overwhelming military action gets better results than negotiation, the present day Republican Party is also motivated by a Pavolvian opposition to any Obama policy.

Strangely missing from our passionate public debate about Obama’s negotiations to contain Iran’s development of nuclear weapons was any word about Israel’s unquestioned present nuclear retaliatory capability. With some 200 deliverable nuclear warheads, it is hard to imagine an existential threat from any enemy risking a nuclear attack on Israel.

Whether the Iranian factions seriously wanting a deal with the US and its five negotiating partners can overcome the opposition of their hardliners is unpredictable. But, ironically, Netanyahu may have weakened political opposition here to a deal. His election demagoguery and his last minute reversal of his previously claimed support for a two state solution, taken with his racist exploitation of conservative Israeli fears of Israel’s Arab citizens, has ended our unquestioning bi-partisan political support.  Senate Republicans lost Democratic allies with their “open letter” encouraging  Iran’s hard liners to block a deal.

As in the case of the younger generation of Cubans in the US who welcome a reset of relations with Cuba, the Jewish electorate in the United States, which overwhelmingly votes Democratic, is also turning away from the intransigence of its elders. David Remnick, in the New Yorker’s lead article (30 March),  summed up a devastating case against Netanyahu: “And so now, as he forms an unabashedly right-wing and religious government, he stands in opposition not only to the founding aspirations of his nation but also to those Israelis - Jews and Arabs - who stand for tolerance, equality, democratic ideas and a just, secure peace.”

Obama reiterated his support for a two state solution to Netanyahu after the election.   Since Netanyahu had renounced  the two state solution and had continued settlement expansion, “...we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region”.  Our unquestioning support for Israel, but not for a two state solution, has ended.

In the final analysis, the most powerful case for reaching a nuclear deal with Iran is that, absent its agreement to stop development of a nuclear arsenal, Iran will resume the operation now suspended by negotiation.  And, the widening conflict among the Arab states will rage on.

That would leave only the hawk’s solution: bomb its nuclear facilities. Former Republican Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton,  made the case in the NYT.  (26 March)  The only way to stop Iran, he argued, is for Israel or the US to bomb the facilities. That, he claimed “... could set back its program by three to five years.” 

Although the marriage of the new Republican Party and Benjamin Netanyahu now seems consummated, our Democratic leaders and legislators, as well as our voters, should not be their bridesmaids.  Democrats need to face up to the choice of risks and benefits between a negotiated lid on Iran’s nuclear weapons development and giving Iran’s hard liners a green light to go for the nuclear and ours a green light for bombs away.

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