Real Clear World argues that America may have won the war in Iraq, but Iran is trying very hard to steal the peace by pouring millions of dollars into the coffers of Iranian backed candidates in the forthcoming elections. David Ignatius says “Iran is conducting what U.S. officials say is a broad covert-action campaign to influence Iraq’s elections next month, pumping money and other assistance to its allies, notably Moqtada al=Sadr. The best way to counter this assault, American officials have decided, is by exposing it publicly. … The best check against these Iranian machinations, U.S. officials believe, is the simple patriotism of the Iraqi people. Opinion polls show that Iran is even more mistrusted by Iraqis than is America. Iranian meddling has backfired in the past, officials say, and they are hoping that will happen again when Iraqis go to the polls.”
This less-than-forceful response came as the US warned Syria that its growing alliance with Iran was “undermining Damascus’ position in the Middle East”. State Department spokesman P J Crowley told reporters that the Syrians should realize that “the country was increasingly getting isolated in the Arab world.” The Iranians might respond that the dagger was pointed the other way — at the US. Veteran journalist Michael Young writing in UAE’s The National argued that the clever measures employed by the Obama administration have so far failed. “Mrs Clinton has claimed to be a devotee of “smart power”, which combines “hard power”, a state’s ability to coerce, with “soft power”, its talent to persuade. Yet with Washington’s efforts to engage Iran having failed until now, was it smart for the secretary to take military action against Iran so completely off the table?”
It is so far off the table that Richard Cohen and Zbigniew Brzezinski are debating over the meaning of what it means to keep Israel from crossing Iraqi air space in a hypothetical strike against Iran. Brzezinski wrote in the Washington Post that
I hope that Richard Cohen’s characterization of my opposition to Israel’s use of U.S.-controlled airspace over Iraq as a policy of “we shoot our friends to defend our enemies” is a case of unintentional or exuberant distortion [op-ed column, Feb. 23]. What I have said repeatedly is that an Israeli attack on Iran through U.S.-controlled airspace would make the United States complicit, and the United States would then become the target of Iranian retaliation.
Brzezinski added that “an Iranian bomb would be a disaster, but an attack on Iran would be also a disaster” which is a very clever way of observing that the US is intellectually stuck. Insofar as Iran is concerned ‘Drive’ and ‘Reverse’ are inoperable, but ‘Park’ and ‘Neutral’ work just fine.
Even more “smart power” was in the offing as James Traub in Foreign Policy suggested that the Obama administration revive the Bush-era “Freedom Agenda” in a less threatening way in order to follow up on Obama’s pitch perfect appeal in Cairo the Sunni Middle East. That initiative suffered from the problem of being words without followup. Now the followup is coming. Hillary Clinton announced a program of “entrepreneurship, science and technology, and education” to open the eyes of the region’s closed societies, but taking care to avoid anything that might offend the region’s rulers. An even more forceful version of the “Freedom Agenda” may be in the works via the Millennium Challenge Corporation to shore up troubled democracies. Traub wrote “Obama knows better than to hector. He wants to inspire, not impose. That’s a fine thing, and a necessary correction to the bender of self-righteousness the United States has been on.”
Whether these “smart power” exercises will work against the dumb, but straightforward Iranian tactics of assassination and bribery is yet to be seen. But the administration is yet to unleash its ultimate weapon: UN sanctions. The Asia Times says that the administration is engaged in a long and determined campaign which has “so far produced three toothless UN sanctions”. But the President is no ordinary man, and the campaign continues. The Asia Times writes:
Since he entered office one year ago, Obama has methodically pursued a campaign to isolate Iran diplomatically. He gained a significant milestone last week with the negative report on Iran’s nuclear program by the new IAEA director-general. With expressions of support from the European Union, Russia, and the nations of the Middle East, Obama has announced that China is in his sights – the last domino that needs to fall in order to make a new round of Iran sanctions a reality. …
Leaving China for last may simply be an extension of Obama’s methodical but psychologically obtuse grind-it-out approach to coalition building. Or, as China fears, it may be a conscious decision to stigmatize China in the eyes of the EU and the Middle East as the last, selfish hold-out – the Iran sanctions partypooper. Perhaps it is a little of both.
Neither Syria nor Iran seem particularly intimidated. Perhaps they fail to grasp the subtlety of the game. The Washington Post reports that both countries have openly mocked the administration. Readers will recall that the ambassador to Syria was withheld in order to punish Damascus for its shennanigans in the region. The Washington Post reports that this symbolic punishment is now over perhaps because Washington feels Syria has been sufficiently chastened.
The presidents of Iran and Syria on Thursday ridiculed U.S. policy in the region and pledged to create a Middle East “without Zionists,” combining a slap at recent U.S. overtures and a threat to Israel with an endorsement of one of the region’s defining alliances.
The Obama administration is trying to build an international coalition behind economic sanctions aimed at curbing Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which the United States and others fear is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. The United States also recently announced that it will send an ambassador to Damascus after a five-year absence, part of an effort to weaken Syria’s relations with Iran and discourage the country’s support for militant groups antagonistic to Israel.
Michael Freund at the Jerusalem Post thinks despite all the “smart power” the neighborhood thugs are rapidly getting out of hand. He writes
Something is stirring in the Middle East. The winds of war are blowing, picking up speed with each passing day, and the threat to Israel is growing steadily more alarming.
All around us, trouble – major trouble – appears to be brewing, and it is time we open our eyes and confront the dangers that may lie ahead.
From Beirut and Damascus in the north to Teheran in the east, and back to Gaza in the south, the “arc of hate” surrounding the Jewish state is speaking openly and brazenly of conflict and destruction.
He shouldn’t fret so much. Wiser minds are on the job. Don’t worry. Be happy.