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Belmont Club

Whistling Past the Graveyard

March 19th, 2014 - 11:19 pm

Michael Crowley at Time asks a rhetorical question: “Could the crisis in Crimea spoil Barack Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran?” He answers it himself: “No.” First, Crowley notes the Russians have threatened to do precisely that: strike back against the sanctions imposed on them by messing up the Iran talks:

On Wednesday, a senior Russian diplomat suggested as much. Emerging from talks with five other powers and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov seemed to warn that Moscow might grow less cooperative in the effort to halt Iran’s march towards a bomb.

“We wouldn’t like to use these [Iran nuclear] talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes” between Russia and the West, Ryabkov said, according to the Interfax news agency. “But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well.”

Then, Crowley concludes that the Russians are bluffing. They wouldn’t dare test Obama, for two reasons:

The good news for Obama is that Russia probably won’t derail an Iran deal. A nuclear Iran isn’t in Russia’s interest. Neither is a potential U.S. military action to prevent it if diplomacy fails. … Reason one is that a nuclear Iran would be bad for Russia as well as America. … Reason two is that the failure of diplomacy with Iran would likely lead to the thing Putin hates most: American-led military action.

The third reason Crowley adduces is that someone in the Obama administration told him that it wouldn’t be in Russia’s interest to link the Iran talks with the crisis in Ukraine:

For those reasons, a senior administration official speaking earlier this month discounted concerns that Russia might undermine the Iran nuclear talks: “When you look at an issue like Iran, we don’t believe that Russia has participated in the [international negotiation] process as some kind of favor to the United States or as some vehicle of improving relationships with us. I think it’s because Russia, like every other world power at the table, has an interest in nonproliferation and not seeing an escalation into conflict in the Persian Gulf.”

The administration would say that, wouldn’t they? What else could they say? That their diplomatic house of cards in Europe, the Middle East, and probably Asia has come tumbling down? Because it sure looks that way. And as for the happy talk, there comes a point in every disaster when despair takes the form of excessive optimism; when people act as if the rescuing cavalry were right over the hill, because if they weren’t then all would be lost.

Just now, the Syrians boasted that they’re not even going to consider Obama’s demand for Assad’s departure because they’ve got Moscow in their corner. The rebels have got Obama and Assad has got Putin, and they think that’s enough said:

The Syrian regime sees no point in further peace talks in Geneva if the opposition and its Western backers keep insisting that President Bashar al-Assad relinquish power, the deputy foreign minister said.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Faisal al Mekdad indicated his regime had the backing of longtime ally Russia in its stance on the Geneva talks. The stalled negotiations are one of the major Middle East initiatives now clouded by uncertainty as a standoff escalates between Russia and the U.S. over Moscow’s plan to annex Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The bitter fallout has raised doubts about the viability of recent U.S.-Russian diplomatic cooperation on Syria.

“The issue of [Assad] relinquishing power is now behind us and this is a flagrant interference in Syria’s internal affairs,” Mr. Mekdad said from his office at the Foreign Ministry in Damascus. “This is completely finished and we are not ready to discuss it at all, at all.”

The Syrian defiance could be no plainer. The question Mr. Crowley should ask the “senior administration official” is: why, if Russia is willing to scupper the talks with Syria, should Iran be so sacrosanct?

Russia didn’t mind testing Obama in Europe. Interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: “Prime Minister has warned that Russia will try to further provoke tensions in eastern and southern Ukraine after moving this week to annex the breakaway Crimean peninsula.”

Russia didn’t mind provoking Kiev into possible nuclear rearmament. The Wall Street Journal notes that Russia’s invasion is likely to push the Ukraine to nuke up. So why should they care if Iran gets the bomb?

This story goes back to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s nuclear arsenal was spread among the former Soviet republics that had become independent nations. Ukraine had some 1,800 nuclear weapons, including short-range tactical weapons, air-launched cruise missiles and bombers. Only Russia and the U.S. had more at the time, and Ukraine’s arsenal was both modern and highly survivable in the event of a first strike.

The U.S. was rightly concerned that these warheads could end up in the wrong hands, and the Clinton Administration made controlling them a foreign-policy priority. The result was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in which Ukraine agreed to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and return its nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for security “assurances” by Russia, the U.S. and United Kingdom. Those included promises to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty within its existing borders, as well as refraining from threatening or using force against Ukraine.

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have blasted Russia for its clear violation of the Budapest accord, but those U.S. and U.K. assurances have been exposed as meaningless. That lesson isn’t lost on Ukraine, but it also won’t be lost on the rest of the world.

Had Kiev kept its weapons rather than giving them up in return for parchment promises, would Vladimir Putin have been so quick to invade Crimea two weeks ago? It’s impossible to know, but it’s likely it would have at least given him more pause.

Ukraine’s fate is likely to make the world’s nuclear rogues, such as Iran and North Korea, even less likely to give up their nuclear facilities or weapons. As important, it is likely to make nonnuclear powers and even close U.S. allies wonder if they can still rely on America’s security guarantees.

The last phrase in the paragraph above can be understood as: “Close U.S. allies wonder if they can still rely on Obama’s security guarantees.”

Russia didn’t mind provoking NATO. The Washington Post writes that NATO is in shock:

President Vladi­mir Putin has ignored every gauntlet the United States and its European allies have laid down. The challenge now facing the Obama administration is whether any measures it is prepared to take can deter Russia from moving beyond Crimea into the rest of Ukraine.

Indeed, the very credibility of NATO has been called into question:

Some experts think the West’s image of invincibility and its ability to stand up for its friends may already have been damaged.

“You can’t say, ‘Don’t do something’ and then have no consequences for doing it,” said a former senior national security official in the Obama administration, who described the current international climate as a “horrible environment for miscalculation.”

Obama dispatched Vice President Biden this week to calm anxious allies in Eastern Europe, where Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Tuesday that the Ukrainian situation “is a challenge to the whole world. It is not just Poland, but all of Europe must speak in a strong voice.”

Rasmussen — who flew to Washington on Tuesday for a brief overnight visit that included dinner with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser — said that it was “now quite obvious that [NATO] can’t take stability for granted” in Europe.

Can anyone say why, having done all that, they should even mind linking Iran to the current crisis in Ukraine? Yet in the midst of this, the administration has the effrontery to claim that  they can discount “concerns that Russia might undermine the Iran nuclear talks.”

It’s like they are living on another planet.

Putin is acting in a very unstable way. Perhaps even in an insane way. Even the Europeans are running scared. And in the middle of this, where is Washington? The Syrians, who just a year ago were fighting for their lives, are confidently spitting in the president’s face. Despite all this, the administration is leaking to the press like it is business as usual. Just another news cycle, just another day at the office.

Today, Samantha Power called the Russians a well-deserved cuss name, and the Russian UN ambassador told her to shut up. The diplomatic niceties are fraying at the edges. But what the incident proves is that this time things might be different:

U.S. ambassador Samantha Power warned Russia that, two days after the Obama administration and other countries imposed sanctions on Russia, the U.S. and its allies “are prepared to take additional steps if Russian aggression or Russian provocations continue.”

She also compared Russia’s takeover of Crimea to theft. “A thief can steal property, but that does not confer the right of ownership on the thief,” she said.

The Russian ambassador shot back: “It is simply unacceptable to listen to these insults addressed to our country.”

He added, “If the delegation of the United States of America expects our cooperation in the security council on other issues, then Power must understand this quite clearly.” By then, Power had left the meeting to her deputy.

Churkin did not elaborate. The United States and Russia are the key players in efforts to establish peace talks in Syria, and also are involved in talks over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Time magazine is channeling the thoughts of the Obama administration. Cornered, in denial, and raving. The thought processes on display can only charitably be described as delusional. We need some sanity now that Putin is acting up, but Captain Queeg has taken the wheel. The Democratic Party leaders had better talk to him and steady him down, or the world ain’t seen nothing yet.

The litmus test of president Obama’s commitment is whether he is willing to reverse the tradeoffs he made to America’s strength in order to pursue his domestic redistributional agenda. The clearest signal he can give is taking every step to boost American and world oil and gas production and by so doing, eventually beggar Putin. To do this, he must take on powerful Democratic Party interest groups.

But if he’s unwilling to take on the Sierra Club, then no one will believe he is willing to take on Putin.


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