Belmont Club

The Letter To The King

The Washington Post says that Presidential national security adviser Tom Donilon is handcarrying a letter to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to attempt to smooth over the rift which began when the Obama administration supported the removal of Hosni Mubarak. The letter follows a visit by Defense Secretary Gates some days earlier.

While the administration sees democratic potential in the Arab spring, the Saudis are feeling an ominous chill from all points of the compass — Bahrain to the east, Yemen to the south, Egypt to the west and Iraq to the north. They have also seen signs of internal unrest, with minor Shiite demonstrations in the eastern part of the kingdom in recent weeks.

Saudi leaders were furious last month when the administration criticized their deployment of troops to Bahrain …  U.S. calls for political dialogue were interpreted as a naive response to what the Saudis see as a clear case of interference by Iran’s Shiite theocracy. … While the administration shares the Saudi concern about Iranian expansionism, it also believes that the Saudis have developed a dangerous fixation on Iran’s role.

But the Washington Post also senses danger. In an opinion piece signed by the Editorial Board it asked the President to support the Iranian opposition this time. The nuclear crisis and the “Arab Spring”, it said, formed the most serious foreign policy challenge of the administration.

Many experts believe the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East will be the most important foreign policy test of Barack Obama’s presidency. … The reports from Iran are particularly disturbing because its Islamic regime has been a short-term beneficiary of the revolution in Egypt and unrest in the Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain. Deposed Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was a determined enemy of Iran, and Bahrain’s crackdown on popular protests threatens to touch off the Shiite uprising, there and in eastern Saudi Arabia, that Iran has long wished for. As important, the region’s turmoil has pushed up oil prices, making it easier for Iran to endure the economic sanctions painstakingly orchestrated by the Obama administration. …

Several months ago, administration officials were speaking confidently of an Iran that, pinched by sanctions and hamstrung by problems in its nuclear work, seemed ready to begin talks. Now the talks are off, the economic pressure is easing and the nuclear work once again could be gaining momentum. Yet the administration seems to have no clear alternative to its long-standing strategy of waiting for the regime to negotiate.

The better course, which we among others have urged since the opposition Green Movement was born nearly two years ago, is to bet on a renewed popular uprising in Iran. President Obama recently made a gesture in that direction with a video address to Iranians that denounced government repression and said young Iranians had the “power to forge a country that is responsive to your aspirations.” But there is much more the administration could do, such as finding ways to support Iranian unions and student movements, stepping up broadcasting and accelerating funding for technology that can undermine Internet censorship. Passivity is a dangerous option; while the world watches the Middle East, Iran’s drive for a bomb relentlessly continues.

It seems to say, ‘Mr. President, you’ve missed every bus. Don’t miss the last one.’  Will he miss it? Part of the answer is probably contained in Donilon’s letter to King Abdullah.  But the other part of the answer is being delivered by the market. The rising price of oil is continuing to stir up unrest all through the Middle East.  The “high gas prices” which the Washington Post cited as Teheran’s safety net is sinking the Iranian man on the street.

Iran’s parliament has warned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that resentment is building over sharp increases in the price of natural gas, which has risen at least 10-fold on average in recent weeks, and that public protests could follow. …

“I will not pay. I cannot pay,” said Hossein Solati, who lives with his wife and three children on the outskirts of south Tehran. “This is beyond my means.” In addition to steeper costs for home-heating and cooking gas, Solati said, the price of fuel for his truck has also soared since the start of the year.

The high oil prices may mean that the bus has already left; that having refused to lead President Obama must now follow wherever the vagaries of fortune take him. The “Arab Spring” was always driven in large part by economic issues, not simply a taste suddenly acquired on Facebook to be free.  That economic crisis is getting worse in the three countries which began the Spring. The Financial Times reports half a million refugees have now fled Libya, many winding up in Tunisia and Egypt.  Between three and four thousand per day are heading for the borders on either side of Libya.

Italy, which has only received the small number of 25,000 is trying to get its EU partners to take the Libyans in as European residents. The rest of Europe has told Italy that it is their problem and that refugees must on no account be allowed to settle in other EU countries.

Austria’s interior minister Maria Fekter said Vienna would investigate how it can stop migrants from crossing its borders.

“We will look into what extent we will recognise visas issued by Italians, especially whether we allow in people who cannot feed themselves,” she said. “This would be a feeding ground for crime which I cannot allow.”

Like the flooding on the Titanic, the wave of catastrophe from Libya is flowing over the watertight doors of the SS Middle East into adjacent spaces. European “hawks” have implored the US to resume its heavy air strikes in Libya. What they lack in claw, they have in screech.

Paris and London are criticizing the Alliance for not doing enough to stop attacks on civilians by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. They are including Washington in their criticism, suggesting that the US should consider returning its air power to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, a United Nations-sanctioned action.

The Obama administration’s response, coming through the Pentagon and State Department, is to express overall satisfaction with NATO’s Libya performance and to play down the need for additional air forces – specifically American forces – to reinforce the mission.

Andrew Malcolm at the Los Angeles Times makes savage fun of the President’s response. He’s going to give a speech and fight things with words, just like he sent a letter to King Abdullah.

If President Obama is in political trouble, just wait a minute. He’ll give a speech. He thinks speech-making is his best skill and clearly prefers campaigning over presidenting at a desk.

Oh, look! Obama’s giving another speech this afternoon. … Nine days after the first Tomahawks blew something up in Tripoli, a besieged … Obama finally talked about how it was suddenly in America’s interest to end the 42-year reign of a notorious bad guy. Obama said he was worried that Kadafi would kill innocent civilians, although worse threats to civilians go on every day in countless lands without U.S. military intervention.

This includes Syria, where scores have died to government bullets in recent weeks and Obama only sent out his press secretary Jay Carney to strike fear into the heart of President Bashar al-Assad by issuing two stern warnings.

Last week when the United States government faced an historic shutdown, Capt. Quixote was off in Philadelphia talking of windmills before speaking at a … gala in New York …

Obama doesn’t realize how many millions of Americans consider themselves vulnerable today, even with jobs and a home for now. In Philadelphia when one man dared to ask about the rising price of gas for his commute, the president suggested he trade-in for a new car. This from the green president who took a 17-vehicle motorcade of limos and SUVs to admire clean cars last month. Not even one symbolic electric job. …

The media reports. The people listen. They nod. And very few point out that, wait a minute, the guy talking is the one who can make that happen. So, why isn’t he doing instead of talking all the time?

Why doesn’t the President do something? Because maybe he can’t. Or maybe he won’t. Or maybe he’ll do it after he figures out his next bracket pick. And maybe King Abdullah is going to look at the letter carried by Donilon and wonder, what exactly is this worth? Then it may come to him that Obama has dealt himself out of the job the Presidents have filled so long. That he, Abdullah was better off cutting his own deals. Sooner or later he may. This is how regional security arrangements end; how things fall apart.

The correct metaphor for the Obama administration may not be the RMS Titanic, but that of a mythical city which has lived in safety for too long on the might of its name; a city so high, beautiful and vast that the brigands dared even not even dream they could assail it. But it had been many years since the city had shown its anger. And now the brooding suspicion grows among the brigands that the old heroes are gone and a jester rules in the palace. How does the old story go?

the six equestrian statues that were there guarding Merimna still … were not like other statues, they were so cunningly wrought of many-coloured marbles that none might be quite sure until very close that they were not living men. …

Now beyond the Cyresians the suspicion grew that Merimna’s heroes were dead, and a plan was devised that a man should go by night and come close to the figures upon the ramparts and see whether they were Welleran, Soorenard, Mommolek, Rollory, Akanax, and young Iraine. …

And next they came to the great … statue … At last he touched Welleran’s foot, and the armor on it seemed hard and stiff. Then as Welleran moved not and spake not, Seejar climbed up at last and touched his hand, the terrible hand of Welleran, and it was marble. Then Seejar laughed aloud, and he and Sajar-Ho sped down the empty pathway and found Rollory, and he was marble too. Then they climbed down over the ramparts and went back across the plain, walking contemptuously past the figure of Fear, and heard the guard returning round the ramparts for the third time, singing of Welleran; and Seejar said: ‘Ay, you may sing of Welleran, but Welleran is dead and a doom is on your city.’ …

Now into Paradise no sorrow may ever come, but may only beat like rain against its crystal walls … and they fretted a little in their starry home … But when the six warriors saw their city again, so little changed after so many years, they looked towards her with a longing that was nearer to tears than any that their souls had known before, crying to her:

‘Many women have we loved, Merimna, but only one city. …

‘Behold now the battlements, the old battlements. Do men defend them still as we defended them? …

‘Thou art in great danger, Merimna, because thou art so beautiful. Must thou perish tonight because we no more defend thee, because we cry out and none hear us, as the bruised lilies cry out and none have known their voices?

Thus spake those strong-voiced, battle-ordering captains, calling to their dear city, and their voices came no louder than the whispers of little bats that drift across the twilight in the evening. Then the purple guard came near, going round the ramparts for the first time in the night, and the old warriors called to them, ‘Merimna is in danger! Already her enemies gather in the darkness.’ But their voices were never heard because they were only wandering ghosts. And the guard went by and passed unheeding away, still singing of Welleran.


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