How US policy blunders hurt Israel
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on the eve of an official visit to Moscow, offered Israel’s good offices as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. RIA Novosti reports:
“Israel’s neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is the most reasonable position but neutrality does not mean inaction,” Lieberman said ahead of a meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. “We have good relations with both countries. Moscow and Kiev trust us.”
“This is a good basis for mediation efforts. We have repeatedly said that we were ready to deploy and these are not only statements,” he added. “It is precisely because we are from these countries that we can understand both parties.”
One has to appreciate Lieberman’s sense of humor, but there is a serious side to this. It has been obvious for a dozen years that Russian policy involves a trade-off between Ukraine and Iran. Russia, that is, would respond to Western efforts to bring Ukraine (and above all Crimea) into any of the Western alliances by subverting American interests elsewhere.
The Russian government stated as much last March 19, as reported by the Associated Press: “Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said, according to the Interfax news agency, that Russia didn’t want to use the Iranian nuclear talks to ‘raise the stakes,’ but may have to do so in response to the actions by the United States and the European Union.”
As I said, it’s obvious. I wrote in Asia Times in 2008:
Russia’s help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the “Orange” revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia’s assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia’s existential requirements in the near abroad.
Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev. Russia has more to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran than the United States, for an aggressive Muslim state on its borders could ruin its attempt to Russify Central Asia… If Washington chooses to demonize Russia, the likelihood is that Russia will become a spoiler with respect to American strategic interests in general, and use the Iranian problem to twist America’s tail.
Attempting to split Crimea from Russia was one of the stupidest things America has done, as a number of old Reagan Administration Cold Warriors have observed, for example, Norman A Bailey. Henry Kissinger has attempted to explain this to anyone who will listen, He told Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news site, last November 13:
Crimea is a special case. Ukraine was part of Russia for a long time. You can’t accept the principle that any country can just change the borders and take a province of another country. But if the West is honest with itself, it has to admit that there were mistakes on its side. The annexation of Crimea was not a move toward global conquest. It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia…
Putin spent tens of billions of dollars on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The theme of the Olympics was that Russia is a progressive state tied to the West through its culture and, therefore, it presumably wants to be part of it. So it doesn’t make any sense that a week after the close of the Olympics, Putin would take Crimea and start a war over Ukraine… We have to remember that Russia is an important part of the international system, and therefore useful in solving all sorts of other crises, for example in the agreement on nuclear proliferation with Iran or over Syria. This has to have preference over a tactical escalation in a specific case.
The problem is that the people willing to listen are German and British media; the former Secretary of State’s views have been shut out of American media. That is not surprising, for a broad bipartisan consensus wants to demonize Russia. As a matter of record, on every recent occasion in which a broad foreign policy consensus has formed, America has done something abominably stupid. In 2013, I wrote over at Tablet Magazine: “Errors by the party in power can get America into trouble; real catastrophes require consensus.” My title then was “Dumb and Dumber”, and the subject was the late and unlamented Arab Spring:
Rarely have both parties been as unanimous about a development overseas as they have in their shared enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring during the first months of 2011. Republicans vied with the Obama Administration in their zeal for the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak and in championing the subsequent NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both parties saw themselves as having been vindicated by events. The Obama Administration saw its actions as proof that soft power in pursuit of humanitarian goals offered a new paradigm for foreign-policy success. And the Republican establishment saw a vindication of the Bush freedom agenda.
If possible, the Ukraine affair is dumberer. Why is it that every time we Americans reach a national foreign policy consensus, we do the stupidest possible thing?
The answer, of course, lies in our own narcissism. We think it’s inevitable that everyone will act the way we do, and that some Hegelian Zeitgeist will unfold the Manifest Destiny of democracy throughout the rest of the world. In the Middle East, that got us a Sunni-Shi’a version of the Thirty Years War and an increasing count of failed states harboring dangerous terrorists. In Ukraine it got us a bloody nose, and a huge rise in Vladimir Putin’s popularity at home – even after the collapse of oil prices and ensuing shock to the Russian economy.
Putin has played his side of the chessboard with skill, keeping Ukraine in chaos and on the verge of bankruptcy. Putin doesn’t want to conquer Ukraine: he wants to create a running sore of permanent instability on the West’s eastern flank. That is precisely what I would do in his position, and what I predictedwould happen in February 2014: “[The] West [has] a limited number of choices. The first is to do nothing and watch the country spiral into chaos, with Russia as the eventual beneficiary. The second is to dig deep into its pockets and find US$20 billion or more to buy near-term popularity for a pro-Western government – an unlikely outcome. The third, and the most realistic, is to steer Ukraine towards a constitutional referendum including the option of partition.”
A year later, Ukraine is in economic freefall, its debt trading at 50 cents on the dollar, just a tad better than Venezuela’s. Germany is politely asking the Ukrainian government to start negotiations with creditors, which it has not done because it still has no economic program. Russia, in short, has done precisely what it set out to do.
Russia, meanwhile, has also made good on its threat to make life miserable for the United States in Iran. Putin must be frustrated to encounter an American administration so eager to reach an accommodation with Iran that it doesn’t appear to notice when its interests have been impaired. The Israelis notice, however.
Russia’s indication on January 20 that it might – after years of delay – sell its sophisticated S300 air defense system to Iran surely has Jerusalem’s undivided attention. That would be a serious setback to Israeli interests.
American commentators flip between consigning Russia to the dustbin of history and panicking over Russia’s prospective prowess in high-tech military gear. The truth is somewhere in between: Russia’s air defense systems are excellent. There are many versions of the S300, including antiquated versions a generation old, and then there is the new S400 (already promised to China) and the S500 (scheduled for delivery in 2017), capable of engaging multiple missile or aircraft targets at long ranges.
Israel has to maneuver with Russia because Washington – including many of Israel’s best friends and supporters – has done more to harm Israeli interests through sheer stupidity than its enemies have done through malice.
The bipartisan consensus to overthrow Hosni Mubarak and nurture a Muslim Brotherhood regime (backed by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham among other prominent Republicans) was an enormous strategic setback for Israel. Mubarak’s overthrow by the moderate Muslim (yes, there is such a thing ) General Fatah al-Sisi – with backing from the Saudis but not Washington – secured Israel’s southern flank.
Security cooperation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is well in place – again, no thanks to either side of the aisle in Washington. Both the Bush “Freedom Agenda” as well as Obama’s efforts to run his administration as if it were an NGO have declining relevance, and regional powers will manage as best they can.