Belmont Club

Final Destination

The death by burning of Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh at the hands of ISIS takes place amid the widening conflict between Sunni and the Shi’ite interests in the Middle East. On the one hand, as Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent of the Daily Beast point out,  Tehran has made it impossible for the Obama administration to take a ‘clean shot’ at ISIS by promoting ethnic cleansing the Sunni in areas they influence,  thus letting the Islamic state cast itself as the “protector” of the Sunnis in that situation.  Unlike the Bush administration, which actually spent the majority of its military effort in the last days of the Iraq war fighting Tehran’s militias, president Obama has decided to try and become Iran’s friend rather than fighting it.  David Rothkop of Foreign Policy writes:

It is quite possible that, by the time Obama leaves office, no other country on Earth will have gained quite so much as Iran. … Iran would gain stature. Iran would have a better seat in the councils of nations. Iran would gain economic benefits. And Iran’s enemies would be furious.

If the president thinks a brief drop-by in Saudi Arabia is going to somehow offset the House of Saud’s fury at an Iran deal, he’s not paying attention. …

Iran is the one country in the Middle East that seems to be racking up material gains as a result of the unrest that has beset the region. The Houthi coup in Yemen has brought an Iranian-backed Shiite group to power — at least, in a large part of that country. Baghdad is now more directly dependent on Tehran than ever before; Iran is providing a substantial number of the ground troops fighting the Islamic State and protecting Shiite Iraq from the terrorist fighters. Even in Syria, Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad has been receiving a steady stream of signals that Washington is increasingly willing to let him remain in place. Meanwhile, Hezbollah remains strong in Lebanon and has carved out gains in southern Syria.

But the policy of withdrawal, when combined with the dismantling of American capability in the region, has made the president  excessively dependent on the goodwill of his interlocutors.  Like a man who has ditched his own car in order to hitchhike on the Highway to Peace, it has to go where the drivers prefer. The administration cannot even openly protect its “moderate rebels” in Syria from Assad — who is backed by Iran for fear of falling off its diplomatic high wire.  Josh Rogin at Bloomberg writes:

The long-awaited Syrian train-and-equip program that President Barack Obama sold to Congress as the way to keep American boots off the ground in Syria is finally about to start training its first troops. … But here’s the problem: The administration hasn’t figured out what to do if and when those troops are attacked by Bashar al-Assad’s air force, after they get back into Syria. One Obama administration official described that prospect to me as the “Achilles’ Heel” of the whole program, calling the deployment the administration’s last and best chance to make the Syria component of its anti-IS strategy work. …

The Pentagon has prepared a memo that sets out a few basic options. The U.S. could use its formidable air assets to cover these rebels, but that would mean engaging militarily against the Assad regime, an act with big political diplomatic, and legal implications. Alternatively, the U.S. could provide its new rebel army with anti-aircraft weapons, such as MANPADs, so it can defend itself. But the risks of proliferation of those weapons to extremists would be dire.

It’s a sad day when you can’t protect your own proteges for fear offending your own allies, and may finish up with neither proteges nor allies. But what’s a guy to do? The president’s reaction to the Jordanian pilot’s hideous death reflects this paralyzing dilemma. He denounced the execution of the pilot in the same tone of voice that one might use to encourage parents to have their kids vaccinated. “Should in fact this video be authentic, it’s just one more indication of the viciousness and barbarity of this organization. And I think we will redouble the vigilance and determination on the part of global coalition to make sure that they are degraded and ultimately defeated.”

Who is “we” Kemo Sabe?  That is the first and biggest unanswered question of Obama’s foreign policy.  The president’s constant reference to shifting coalitions and alliances is an indirect confession that no one is in charge.

But the expanding conflicts in the region, like the flames which engulfed the unfortunate Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh,  can overpower the exquisite even-handedness of our academic firefighter, who is dousing a four alarm fire with a trowelful of sand here and a squirt of water there, oblivious to the copious quantities of gasoline that Saudi Arabia and Tehran are pouring on the flames. The results of this uneven contest have  been discouraging. Obama who began his term of office promising Grand Bargains has only produced a Grand Guignol of beheadings and cremations that beggars description.

Obama’s vision for peace is theoretically appealing and it is easy to see how well-meaning liberals can like it. For if only “reconciliation” between Sunni and Shia populations could be effected then ISIS could be weakened. This is actually what Obama is trying to achieve through Iran.

“Quite frankly, we need to see in Iraq political outreach that addresses the fact that some 20 million Sunnis are disenfranchised with their government,” Lieutenant General William Mayville told a hearing on global threats facing the United States.

Mayville, director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, told lawmakers he endorsed the current steady, deliberate pace of efforts to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria because it gave the Iraqi government time to act politically, a step he said was necessary to resolve the crisis.

Yes it would also be nice if the Sunni and Shi’ite militias would buy each other a Coke.  Too bad it’s unlikely to happen. Nor is it likely to occur with  two warring sides busily promoting ethnic cleansing like it was going out of style. The administration thinks the answer to this problem is more outreach; specifically to win Iran over to Washington’s side to change this calculus.  But this outreach is not without its dangers.

Tony Badran of the Business Insider argues that the administration’s haste to empower Iran  to acquire a ‘constructive partner’ in the Middle East may accidentally spark a war between Tehran and Israel. Hezbollah, Tehran’s foreign legion, has attacked an IDF patrol along the Israel’s northern border, an act which threatens to open a new front in the conflict-raddled Middle East.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah finally delivered his long-postponed speech on Friday, after his group claimed responsibility for the attack against an Israeli patrol in the Shebaa area two days earlier.

Once again, Nasrallah brought Lebanon to the brink of disaster.

While the country escaped ruin this time, Iran and Hezbollah’s determination to activate the Golan front — the essential takeaway from Nasrallah’s speech — makes a major conflagration all but inevitable.

Israel cannot accept a new front with Hezbollah’s preferred rules of engagement in the Golan, which means that its measured response this time is unlikely to be tenable down the road.

Nasrallah probably delayed his speech until the Ayatollahs told him what to say, for the wires in the Hezbollah chiefs jaw are pulled in Tehran. The unintended consequence of  building up Iran while refusing to decisively confront the Sunni extremists must be to spread conflict across the region. And the fires spread the president is likely to mumble something about “costs”.

Recently Fareed Zakaria interviewed president Obama to ask him what he was doing to stop Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine.  The president’s answer was illuminating.  Russia would pay the “costs” if it didn’t stop chopping up its neighbors.  That will show Putin. Seth Mandel at Commentary says that Obama’s cost theory is likely to bankrupt international relations.

Which is why the “cost” theory Obama’s so fond of should worry those opposed to a nuclear Iran, among other conflicts. Obama is not generally a fan of sanctions; on both Russia and Iran, he’s been an obstacle to meaningful sanctions. But when he does begrudgingly sign sanctions legislation he’s unable to prevent, he likes to think his work is done.

That’s the point of Obama’s protestation that “we can exact higher and higher costs.” Russia will still get to do what it wants and take what it wants, but Obama hopes it will cost them some cash. What’s alarming about this (as opposed to just insulting, which it is to the Ukrainians) is that if it were applied to Iran, it would mean Obama sees sanctions and penalties as an end in themselves, not as a tactic to help obtain a specific outcome.
That would mean an Iranian nuke (or the Iranians being beyond the point of no return) and Obama would sit there smirking about it on CNN talking about all the costs Iran has accumulated in order to get that bomb. He would admonish Iran that they may have achieved nuclear capability, but great nations aren’t measured by their power and prestige, they’re measured by whether Barack Obama thinks they’ve made prudent financial investments.

But Mandel is unkind. Obama espouses the “cost” and persuasion theory not he believes it any longer — even he must have his doubts by now — but because he has to. He has bought the ticket. And now the world must take the ride.  At this late stage the question still remains: who is “we” Kemo Sabe and where is this policy bus going? And in the meantime, please remember the poor Jordanian pilot with hashtags and flowers and hope for the best.


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