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The Rosett Report

Talking While Ukraine ‘Teeters on the Brink’

April 14th, 2014 - 2:01 am

At least it appears the U.S. administration has few illusions left about Russia’s further designs on Ukraine, from which Vladimir Putin last month swiped Crimea. On Sunday, as Russia pressed ahead with a similar script in eastern Ukraine, the State Department put out a cascade of statements detailing Russia’s campaign of causing bloody trouble in order to justify intervention.

The State Department’s diplomatic blog carried a report that in Ukraine this weekend “Coordinated, well-armed Russian-backed militants attacked government buildings in a professional operation in six cities in eastern regions. Many of the attackers were carrying Russian-origin weapons and outfitted in bulletproof vests and camouflage uniforms with insignia removed.” The State Department press office released a fact sheet titled “Russian Fiction the Sequel: 10 More False Claims,” refuting Russia’s “false and dangerous narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine.”

A State Department media note warned that the methods of the armed takeovers of government buildings in half a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine, apparently planned in advance, “strongly suggest that in eastern Ukraine Russia is now using the same tactics that it used in Crimea in order to foment separatism, undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and exercise control over its neighbors in contravention of international law.”

All of which might be effective if Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had a deep and abiding respect for “international law.” Or if the U.S. still had a credible policy of supporting and potentially enforcing such concepts with military muscle — which is the language Putin speaks.

But U.S. credibility is becoming a relic of a bygone era — fading like the “red line” in Syria, shrinking like U.S. military resources, dwindling like the U.S. nuclear arsenal and worth about as much as the promises to stand (with the international community) against a Russian grab for Crimea. The U.S. default is to talk…and talk… and talk… relying on words, backed by more words; hoping for the grand diplomatic solution (Iran, Syria, the Palestinians, and now Ukraine) as the words carry ever less weight. In February, as Russia threatened Ukraine’s Crimea, President Obama declared that “The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” In March, as Russia was in the process of annexing Crimea, Obama said that “the United States has mobilized the international community in support of Ukraine to isolate Russia for its actions” and noted that “We saw this international unity… when Russia stood alone in the Security Council defending its actions in Crimea.”

Evidently, the Kremlin has decided that its armed provocateurs backed by 40,000 troops on the eastern border of Ukraine will trump any amount of isolation at the UN Security Council. This was excruciatingly clear at an emergency meeting of the Security Council Sunday evening. It was the Security Council’s 10th meeting this year on Ukraine, and there was no sign that it was any more successful at corralling Russia than the previous nine. Not that this should be a surprise, given that Russia holds one of the Permanent Five veto-wielding seats — meaning that an actual resolution, whatever that might be worth, is out of the question.

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Iran—It’s Not Just About the Nukes

April 11th, 2014 - 12:53 am

Under the headline “U.S. needs to plan for the day after an Iran deal,” Thursday’s Washington Post carried an op-ed by former Gen. David Petraeus and former Senate staffer Vance Serchuck, in which they made some vital points about what might lie beyond the Iran nuclear talks. Most important: Even if the U.S. and its negotiating cohorts reach the desired nuclear deal with Iran, the threat from Iran does not by any stretch end there. Petraeus and Serchuk argue that the result could make Iran, in some ways, even more dangerous.

Why? Well, under the Joint Plan of Action that frames the nuclear bargaining sessions in Vienna, the aim is to reach a “comprehensive agreement” that would stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Iran, in turn, would enjoy among other things the lifting of the large web of nuclear-related sanctions that have been constraining its economy.

But, as Petraeus and Serchuk point out, “lifting sanctions would also lead to the economic empowerment of a government that is the leading state sponsor of terrorism.” And once the U.S. and its partners go down that road, they say, the likeliest result would be to “strengthen Tehran’s ability to project malign influence in its near-abroad, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Arabian peninsula and the Palestinian territories.”

As they further argue: “Rather than marking the end of our long struggle with Iran, therefore, a successful nuclear deal could result in the United States and our partners in the Middle East facing a better-resourced, and, in some respects, more dangerous adversary.”

They prescribe a number of steps that should be taken to try to mitigate these risks, including “a clear plan for immediate reimposition of crippling sanctions in the event of inadequate Iranian implementation of an agreement.”

Please allow me to rephrase that last item more bluntly. The further danger is that Iran might reap the benefits for its terror networks and malign reach — but also cheat on a deal and get nuclear weapons anyway. To my mind, if these nuclear talks keep rolling forward — as the Obama administration seems desperately eager for them to do — that mix of enhanced terror reach, plus nuclear weapons, seems the likeliest result. Perhaps that explains the chronic grin on the face of Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

On Thursday the United Nations General Assembly weighed in on Russia’s seizure of Crimea, inspiring headlines to the effect that Russia is becoming a pariah at the UN. For instance, the New York Times reported: “Vote by U.N. General Assembly Isolates Russia.”

If only it were that straightforward. But if you look at the actual resolution, and the vote, it’s more like the UN General Assembly has sort-of-maybe-somewhat semi-isolated Russia. The point being that, unfortunately, the UN is no place to go for any solution to Russia’s territorial grabs.

The UN body that should really be objecting to Russia’s seizure of Ukraine is the UN Security Council. But with Russia holding one of the Permanent Five veto-wielding seats, the Security Council is even more impotent than usual. So Ukraine had to take its case to the General Assembly, where the resolutions can carry a certain heft as a reflection of general opinion, but have no binding force.

So it was that the General Assembly took up a resolution on the “Territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Clearly the spirit behind this resolution is outraged protest over Russia’s heavily armed grab of Crimea from Ukraine. The actual language, however, is so demure that Russia is mentioned exactly once, and then only by way of a reference to Russia’s 1997 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation with Ukraine. There is no mention of Russian troops, or that the March 16 secessionist referendum in Crimea — leading to Russian annexation — was held at Russian gunpoint. The resolution calls on “all States” to “desist and refrain” from any attempt to carve off pieces of Ukraine. (It seems safe to assume that Canada, Belgium and the Marshall Islands will take heed). The resolution further calls on “all States, international organizations and specialized agencies” to reject the March 16 referendum in Crimea.

The vote on this resolution was 100 in favor, 11 against. That is certainly a sweeping majority of yeas versus nays. And if the UN had no more than 111 member states, it would be an emphatic majority opposed to Russia carving up Ukraine. Russia would indeed be isolated in this crowd.

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In response to U.S. and European Union sanctions on a number of Russian officials, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, has threatened that Russia might change its stance on the Iran nuclear talks. That could put an end to the official unity with which the permanent five Security Council members — the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany (dubbed the P5+1) — have been holding talks in Vienna with Iran, over Iran’s nuclear program.

And if the P5+1 start quarreling among themselves, while bargaining with Iran, that might sabotage the Iran nuclear talks.

This is playing in the press as something to be alarmed about. Actually, if Russia does go ahead and cause trouble at the Iran nuclear talks, Moscow might quite unintentionally be doing the West a great favor. I’ve been in Vienna for the first two rounds of these talks, Feb. 18-20 and March 18-19, and there’s no sign that this diplomatic process is going to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Rather, Iran is making some temporary and reversible concessions, while continuing to enrich uranium, and refusing to give up its ballistic missile program or abandon construction of a heavy-water de facto plutonium-factory reactor near Arak. Reuters reports that Iran is continuing its illicit activities for procuring items for its missile and nuclear programs.

Meanwhile, as part of the diplomatic interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action, Iran is enjoying some relief from sanctions, and Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been jetting around the world declaring his country has an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium, and soliciting help for Iran with nuclear technology. Whatever “isolation” had been imposed on Iran’s diplomats (and there has been precious little of that, if any), Zarif when he comes to Vienna for the nuclear talks is treated as a special guest of the Austrian government, which has been picking up the tab for Zarif to bunk down in a former Viennese palace, now a gorgeously restored, lavishly appointed hotel. For more on both the amenities and the follies of these nuclear talks, see my Wall Street Journal op-ed on “Waltzing With Iran in the Nuclear Ballroom.”

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On Wednesday First Lady Michelle Obama heads to China, reportedly on a mission to charm the Chinese government. She will be traveling without the president, but with her two daughters and her mother.

As Reuters describes it:

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama is expected to steer clear of controversial issues such as human rights when she visits China this week but her trip could help advance a top item on her husband’s foreign policy agenda: deepening Washington’s ties with Beijing.

The article goes on to cite someone who worked as an aide to former First Lady Laura Bush, praising the prospects of this ethics-lite excursion, noting that it will be good optics, and play well in China, to have Michelle Obama meet with China’s first lady, drop by schools, take the kids to visit the Terra Cotta warriors, and so forth. The message is that by declining to rock the boat, Michelle will be honoring her motto of “do no harm.”

While the intentions here may be good, this is a terrible misreading of China, of international politics and of America’s vital place in the world. China is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, and its government holds sway over more than 1.3 billion people — more than one-sixth of humanity. For just one of the latest cases in the news, see the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on “Death in Chinese Custody,” about a human rights advocate, Cao Shunli, who last September tried to fly to a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. She never made it out of the Beijing airport. She was arrested, she was denied medical treatment as her health failed, and she died in custody. For more information on the system that killed her, reports are so legion that it’s hard to know where to begin — but one place would be the State Department’s latest country report on human rights practices in China, which talks about the coercion, repression, censorship, enforced disappearances, torture, coerced confessions, discrimination and more.

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Truth, Lies and Iranian Weapons Shipments

March 8th, 2014 - 11:23 pm

For Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, it had to be an awkward moment. There he is, the “moderate” face of Iran, fluent in English, educated in the U.S., jetting around the world telling everyone that Iran will never give up its nuclear facilities — but don’t worry because Iran’s nuclear program is “nothing but peaceful.”

And then the Israelis go and fracture Zarif’s “nothing but peaceful” narrative by interdicting yet another of those big illicit Iranian weapons shipments. On March 5, Israeli commandos board a freighter in the Red Sea, which is heading for Port Sudan after taking on cargo at ports including Iran’s Bandar Abbas.

Onboard they find crates of Syrian-made M-302 rockets, hidden by bags of made-in-Iran cement. They release statements and videos, showing the rockets and explaining that they had been tracking this shipment for months — as the rockets were flown from Damascus to Tehran, transported to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and loaded onto the freighter, a Panama-flagged ship called the Klos C. The Israelis say these rockets were meant to be smuggled overland from Sudan across Sinai and into Gaza, where they would have provided Palestinian terrorists with a game-changing range covering almost all of Israel.

That doesn’t sound peaceful at all. Even worse for Zarif, it comes just as AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is wrapping up its annual meeting in Washington — where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just given a speech warning about the dangerous, aggressive agenda of Iran (read Bridget Johnson’s report here). It illustrates the point.

So, what does Zarif do? He does what any adept and loyal servant of  a despotic, predatory and terror-sponsoring regime would do. He sets a propaganda backfire. He sends out a snide message over Twitter, in which he implies that the weapons seizure is fiction, saying: “An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza. Captured just in time for the annual AIPAC anti Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.”

This is agitprop so raw that it’s worthy of North Korea. But it has the intended effect. The BBC jumps right on it, with an article headlined, “Iran’s Zarif says Israel lying about Gaza rocket ship.”  In Beirut, The Daily Star hangs a story on it. Agence France-Presse trumpets it: “Iran says Israel fabricated Gaza claim” — adding yet more statements from Zarif that the story of a weapons shipment “is a lie.”

The real issue here is that Zarif, erstwhile moderate, is telling a bald lie in order to deflect attention from a real Iranian shipment of deadly weapons  – as well as distract from such matters as whether he knew anything about this smuggling operation (having met with Syria’s President Assad and others in Damascus while this weapons smuggling operation was underway). Or is he a foreign minister and nuclear negotiator who is so out of touch with the realities of his own regime that he believes his own propaganda?

Zarif’s glib inversion of truth and lies ought to give great pause to the U.S. and its European bargaining partners, who are haggling with Zarif over Iran’s nuclear program. For more on that, on Zarif’s fascinating itinerary these past few months, and on the weapons-carrying ship itself (which is quite real), here’s my column on “The Amazing Coincidences of Javad Zarif.”

A few more items on this weapons seizure. First, about the timing. It was the Iranians who dispatched that illicit cargo of weaponry on a timetable that put it square in Israel’s sights just as the AIPAC meeting was wrapping up in Washington. Presumably the Iranians did not expect to get caught. Hard luck.

Second, it was not only Israel which had that Iranian weapons shipment in its sights.The U.S. was also tracking those Syrian-made Iranian-smuggled rockets, working with the Israelis. In a talk with the press on the evening of March 5, after the news broke about the Israeli intercept of the Klos C, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: “The United States and Israel have had routine communications about this issue through intelligence and military channels, as well as through our national security advisors…. Throughout this time, our intelligence and military activities were closely coordinated with our Israeli counterparts who ultimately chose to take the lead in interdicting the shipment of illicit arms.”

A reporter then asked the real question — the big question — about Zarif and his Tehran bosses: “How can you continue to have nuclear negotiations with them when it looks like they’re actively continuing to sponsor terrorism against Israel?”

Unfortunately, it seems the Obama administration finds that no obstacle to trying to cut a nuclear deal with an Iranian regime whose chief negotiator is either grossly mendacious or utterly delusional (take your pick).

Read the relevant excerpt from the press exchange with Carney on the next page.

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If You Like Crimea, You Can Keep Crimea

March 1st, 2014 - 12:25 am

Garry Kasparov sums it up, in a tweet posted by PJM’s Bryan Preston: “Dictators like Putin don’t ask why use power. They ask why not.”

That’s the bottom line for understanding what is happening as gunmen take over the airports and set up check points in Crimea. Reportedly these are well-armed soldiers without military insignia, but there’s little doubt that they are there in service of the Kremlin. This is an ethnic-Russian-majority region of Ukraine, a place long primed for trouble. In 1783, Catherine the Great wrested Crimea from the Turks. In 1954, during the Soviet era, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic gave Crimea as a Potemkin fraternal gift to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the borders suddenly mattered, and newly liberated Ukraine was in possession of Crimea, complete with the seaside resort of Yalta, the regional capital of Simferopol, and the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Twenty years ago, while working for the Wall Street Journal in Moscow, I made a trip to Crimea to look in on a volatile power play then going on there. A local politician loyal to Kiev had pushed through legislation creating the post of a Crimean presidency — hoping that if he ran for the post and won, he would acquire enough autonomy to somehow balance the conflicting pulls of Moscow and Kiev. He lost, to a pro-Russian candidate, Yuri Meshkov. Part of the local color in Simferopol during that election was Meshkov’s campaign base, the clubhouse for the local Society of Afghanistan Veterans — where pro-Russian veterans in  combat fatigues sat around drinking imported American beer. The scene then was a powder keg. But it did not go off. Russia was weak, and in the early years of what was then presumed to be the New World Order, America, victor of the Cold War, was a highly credible force. Perhaps it also made a difference that not so long before, in 1991, the U.S. had led a coalition to war in order to beat back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of  Kuwait.

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Not a single North Korean athlete qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. That was no obstacle, however, to North Korea’s titular head of state and president of its “parliament,” Kim Yong Nam, leading a delegation of North Korean officials to the Olympics. According to North Korea’s state mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, they were seen off at the Pyongyang airport on Feb. 5 by  ”a suite” of fellow North Korean officials, as well as the Russian ambassador to North Korea.

Once in Russia, Kim Yong Nam and his suite appear to have fashioned their own athletics-free Olympic program of sorts, stopping en route in Vladivostok to meet with the local governor, and in Moscow to meet with various officials, including the chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament), Putin ally Valentina Ivanovna Matvienko.

But those were just the qualifying heats. Then it was on to the main event in Sochi, where Kim Yong Nam and his team went for the gold — with Kim starring in North Korea’s domestic TV broadcast of the opening ceremony, and meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (who sent his “sincere regard” to North Korea’s young tyrant Kim Jong Un), as well as with China’s President Xi Jinping, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the presidents of Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Armenia. For photos, and further details, North Korea Leadership Watch has an excellent rundown.

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In Praise and Memory of Barry Rubin

February 5th, 2014 - 9:21 pm

When Barry Rubin passed away on Feb. 3, the best tributes came from those who had known him well. PJ Media’s Dave Swindle wrote one of them, and has been compiling some of the others, including Roger Simon’s moving account of Barry Rubin: Conscience of the White City.

I did not know Barry well. I met him in person only once, a few years ago, for a chat in Washington over a cup of tea. But for more than 10 years I was in touch with him, by email, occasionally by phone, and by way of reading his clear and prolific writing on the ways of tyranny and power, particularly in the Middle East. I am feeling the loss of him so keenly that I would like to add a few words.

Barry was not only smart, and wise in the ways of politics and power. He was also gracious; generous with his knowledge, and his time. Back around 2003, I began reading Barry’s online bulletins on the Middle East. They made so much sense that I wrote to him, with questions about some of the more baffling complexities on which U.S. policy seemed endlessly to run aground. Barry replied. He always replied. He always made sense. From time to time, over the years — usually when I was trying to puzzle out something while on a deadline — we also spoke by phone. He always made time, he always returned a message or a call, he always brought clarity to the picture.

How he found time for such things, I don’t know. He wrote so prolifically — and his writing was so packed with information and insights — that I cannot begin to claim I was able to keep up with it all. Together with his wife, Judith Colp Rubin, Barry published a political biography of Yasir Arafat, in 2003, which was an invaluable resource — explaining in depth and detail how Arafat, “the man who did more than anyone else to champion and advance the Palestinian cause, also inflicted years of unnecessary suffering on his people, delaying any beneficial redress of their grievances or solutions to their problems.” Another of his books, The Truth About Syria, published in 2007, is crammed with insights into the Assad regime’s longtime belief  that “the only way to navigate around the country’s limitations has been to export unrest to the rest of the region, whether through terrorism, military action, occupation, or the spread of radical ideologies.” (As Dave Swindle reports, Barry recently decided to offer 13 of his books, free, online, The Truth About Syria among them. You can find them here.)

And, as readers of PJ Media know, while Barry worked on subjects that were deadly serious, he had a lively sense of humor. Amid the insights into tyrants and terrorists and the madhouse of  Middle East diplomacy, he savored the comic side of life. In 2011, he turned a ghastly encounter with international air travel into an entertaining tale of “Escape from the Planet of the Airlines” — in which he chronicled the logistics of trying to fly from Washington to Israel with his wife, son, four suitcases, a guitar and three cats.

When Barry told PJ Media readers in 2012 that he had been diagnosed with cancer, I sent him a note. He must have been flooded with messages at that point, and he was embarking on a mortal struggle. But, as always, he sent back a kind and gracious reply. Publicly, he went on writing, indefatigably sharing his insights, offering up truths about the mortal struggles of the Middle East. His passing is a great loss.

You remember Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy? She’s the one who just can’t stop smiling at Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Here they are in Geneva together last October, beaming at each other as they prepare for Iran nuclear talks (from which Tehran’s rulers emerged celebrating the surrender to Iran of world powers and claiming they had an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium).

This week a friend sends news of Ashton’s latest performance. It seems that on Monday Her Ladyship issued a statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which she managed to make no mention whatsoever of the Jews. As the Jerusalem Post reports, in an editorial headlined “Ashton’s Lapse,”  Ashton referred to the Jews who died — six million of them murdered by the Nazis quite specifically because they were Jews — as “victims” and “fellow citizens.” But not as Jews. The Jerusalem Post calls this a “mind-boggling omission,” quite likely pleasing to the likes of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but a watering-down of history.

Quite right. Here’s Ashton’s statement, all 121 words of it — a tribute to generic victims of yesteryear, sanitized of any reference that might offend anti-Semites by reminding the world of the mass atrocities committed in the name of their particular brand of bigotry. It’s hard to know whether Ashton did this deliberately, or is simply such an inept and banal functionary that by sheer accident she ends up sounding like a sly anti-Semite. Either way, is this really the face the EU wishes to present to the world? How horrifying.