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Belmont Club

Russia and Iran

December 6th, 2011 - 11:53 am

Two news developments stand out from among the many astounding developments of the last 24 hours. The first concerns the election in Russia. Vladmir Putin’s party showed a shocking weakness, despite using its usual tricks. This has convinced several analysts that politics in Russia has become a truly multipolar affair. “Pavel Salin, an analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessments, believes that the traditional campaign United Russia ran — in which it relied on the tried-and-true methods of media dominance, the support of regional elites, and the Kremlin’s command of so-called administrative resources to pressure opponents — exposed the ruling party as being out of step with changing times.”

Some have gone so far as to suggest the Putin era is ending. Russia, about to enter a period prolonged economic difficulty, has withdrawn the “mandate of heaven” from the formerly adored strongman. And there is nothing Putin can do to change it, except, as the Washington Post points out, through mischief.

Mr. Putin will now face the question of how to respond to the rebuff. One likely answer is bribery: Economic analysts expect government spending to soar before the March presidential vote. Meaningful steps to combat corruption might also appease many Russians. But Mr. Putin’s history suggests he will move in a more dangerous direction, stoking Russian nationalism and looking for enemies at home and abroad. The regime was already shifting in that direction before the parliamentary vote, with threats to target U.S. missile defense installations with nuclear weapons, or to withdraw from the START nuclear treaty negotiated by President Obama.

That would be just ducky, because the other major item burning through a pretty inflammatory set of headlines is Iran. Things are finally coming to a head.

The gloves are off. The Washington Post says that Iranian hit squads are forcing Western diplomats off the streets of Iraq.

A serious kidnapping threat to Westerners in Baghdad has forced American diplomats to drastically curtail their movements ahead of the complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq by the end of the month.

The growing threat illuminates concerns about the capacity of a stepped-up U.S. civilian effort to operate in Iraq once the military has gone, and in particular the risk that neighboring Iran will attempt to undermine American influence by using allied militias to abduct Western civilians.

The Iranians, some reports say, are now in possession of a stealth drone which, by accident or hostile action, has been lost over Iran. The rhetoric has been ramped up. Teheran warned Europe not to embargo its oil products. “Alarmed by the possibility of new Western penalties that could abruptly reduce or even halt its oil exports, Iran issued a warning on Monday that crude oil prices could more than double to $250 a barrel if such sanctions were given serious consideration.” A German lawmaker warned that if Iran were pushed too hard against the wall then war might ensue.

In Germany, Philipp Mißfelder, Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union spokesman for foreign policy issues in the German parliament, also said that military options with regard to Iran could not be excluded. First, however, sanctions should be tightened. “But I say very clearly that even those who want to put the focus on diplomatic efforts cannot entirely rule out a military option,” Mißfelder said….

German security operatives suspect Iran of planning strikes on U.S. military airports in Germany in the event of a U.S. attack on Iran. According to Posch, “Iran will attack a number of targets should it be attacked.” These would include sites not only in Germany but in Turkey and the Gulf region as well. “It would depend on what military bases the Americans were launching their attacks from,” he said.

Even Lebanon is feeling the heat, with Syria unleashing its Nazi Party (the same one which beat up Christopher Hitchens ) on dissidents in Beirut. “The crisis in Syria is crossing the border into Lebanon. Beirut has regularly witnessed bloody clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups since the Syrian Army withdrew from Lebanon in 2005. But with the Syrian revolution intensifying, pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon have dispatched their thugs, known as the “shabiha,’’ to keep an eye on Beirut’s main streets.” This very stretch has been photographed panoramically by yours truly. Whoever said there aren’t any Nazis left in the world should look exactly there — on the left.

As if marking their territory, the shabiha have recently planted their flags — black with a red star that many people believe resembles a swastika — as well as posters of Assad, all the way from the party’s headquarters on Makdissi Street to the Syrian Embassy, in the middle of Hamra, and up to the west end of the neighborhood’s main street. If you walk down that half-mile stretch you can spot groups of shabiha at most of the main corners.

Even HotAir says that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is on a war footing. The Germans sounded like they were expecting trouble. Maybe that was because the Obama administration had been stirring it up, covertly, trying in the usual way to dampen a real threat without running afoul of their peace lobby.  Doing while not doing at the same time. There have been rumors of over-the-fence operations operating in Iran from Iraq.  It is not hard to see how the Iranians might construe the Western pressure against Assad to be directed at itself.  If the spin doctors kept the press in the dark with its talking points, Iran did not get the message.

The question is what will happen if Iran forcibly calls the Administration’s bluff. And bluff is all that it might be, given the fact that it has been simultaneously diminishing American military resources at the same time it may have been secretly engaged in actions against Iran and possibly Syria.

The problem of speaking loudly while carrying a small stick came up in South Korea, where Seoul is forcibly pushing the Administration for the right to process enriched uranium, just like North Korea. “Over the past year, Washington and Seoul have held low-key but highly sensitive talks on whether South Korea should be allowed to do what the Americans have long tried to stop North Korea from doing: enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel.” The US will have none of it, insisting on its “Global Zero” policy.

“The United States opposes the spread of enrichment and reprocessing even to South Korea, because it wants to set an absolute standard to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation,” said William Tobey, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. “While Seoul does not pose such a threat, a hard-and-fast standard will be the strongest bulwark against weapons proliferation by other states.”

What this may accomplish, as an earlier post pointed out, is create a nuclear Global Many in place of a Global Zero, because Obama cannot simultaneously dismantle US military strength and prohibit allies from rearming. When the hegemon stops hegemoning, it is every man for himself. North Korea, meanwhile, continues building delivery systems just as if Barack Obama’s vision of a “world without nuclear weapons” didn’t exist.

New intelligence indicates that North Korea is moving ahead with building its first road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, an easily hidden weapon capable of hitting the United States, according to Obama administration officials. The intelligence was revealed in a classified Capitol Hill briefing last month. Its existence was made public in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta from five House Republicans.

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the administration’s campaign sales pitch of “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” was never more than a wish in place of a program. A Russia in crisis, a Europe in bankruptcy, a Middle East in flames and a President on the golf course. That might be a summary of how things got here in the first place.

One of the characteristics of a systematic policy failure is that it fails comprehensively. The mildew breaks through the wallpaper, the body odor burns through the deodorant.  Things that can’t work finally fall down. Like the Euro. It is probably fair to say that the President’s notions of “engagement” and “global zero”, while managing threats by the intensive use of deniable means, like extraordinary rendition, “leading from behind”, special forces and covert warfare, have been less than successful.

These were never solutions; at best they were “fixes” or patches aimed at creating the solution of stability.  About the only way out of a systematic policy failure is for the leadership to ‘fess up, admit they were wrong and change tack. But as Simon Black notes, being in politics “means you never have to say you’re sorry”. Politicians just double down. It’s all they know how to do.

Like any good scam artist, they’re appealing to the masses first; all over Europe, governments are sponsoring new marketing campaigns suggesting that it’s people’s patriotic duty to buy government debt.

In Spain, they’re actually issuing instruments called ‘Bonos Patrioticos,’ or ‘patriotic bonds’. Ad campaigns say that the bonds are “good for you, good for the future.”

In Ireland, they’ve issued “Prize Bonds” which carry a 0% interest rate; instead of receiving interest, bondholders are entered into a weekly lottery contest.  Naturally, lottery winnings are only possible as long as people keep buying the bonds… pretty much the definition of a Ponzi scheme!  …

In Italy, they’re rolling out the country’s sports celebrities to encourage everyone to buy Italian sovereign debt. …

Thing is, it’s not the millionaire sports stars, wealthy business leaders, or political elite who are buying these bonds… at least, not in anything beyond a token, symbolic amount. It’s the average guy on the street who really stands to get hurt when the government finally capitulates.

This is a truly despicable act and amounts to theft, plain and simple.

The United Kingdom, which is rapidly reaching this banana republic sovereign debt status itself … British Chancellor George Osborne plans to ‘highly encourage’ UK pension funds to mop up about 60% of the total amount. “We have got to make sure that British savings in things like pension funds are employed here and British taxpayers’ money is well used,” he said.

In other words, ‘we are going to make sure that British people buy our junk, one way or another.’

Why should it be any different in Washington? Perhaps the only contribution of Climate Science to political science is the phrase “hide the decline”, that is to say, never give a rube a break or there’s a sucker born every minute and you know there’s a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy or psst, wanna watch the oceans fall and the earth begin to heal?


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