Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Modest Effort

If a cigar is just a cigar, a handshake is just a handshake.  There probably is too much importance attached to the failure of President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and President Obama to shake hands at the United Nations yesterday.   Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with the Iranian Foreign Minister on Thursday, and a face-off (don't you just love sports references?) between Obama and Rohani may yet come about.

Clearly, however, there are hawks who oppose a meeting. On Sunday, The Hill's Julian Pecquet quoted Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, as characterizing it a "terrible idea" because "Rouhani is the master of disguise. He knows how to do the charm offensive on the U.S. and is charming the snakes coming out of the basket with his sweet tune of reconciliation and love of the Jews. And it's working. I miss [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad; he was so 'what you see is what you get.'"

Another member of the panel, Representative Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), with reference to Burma (which the President visited last year), stated

They've already consumed the carrots, and we really haven't seen any real benefit.   I think there's sometimes a temptation by administrations to think that something positive is happening somewhere else in the world and to try to take credit for it. I think that's sort of what we've seen in Burma, and that may be what we see happening in Iran.

Even a few Democrats are wary, with subcommittee member Brad Sherman of California terming meetings with the President of the United States "a tremendous gift that should not be given away for a wink and a promise."  He added "We can't stop somebody from walking by us in a hallway. But a sit-down meeting in New York should not be given away for free."

Yes, because it is an honor and a privilege even to be in the Big Apple, where "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" (lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by La Cosa Nostra).

And, of course, beligerence would be incomplete without the senior Senator from Arizona, who maintained "I think there's many other ways to start negotiations. This is a country that's sending in Revolutionary Guards and planeloads of weapons into Syria.

Sending "planeloads of weapons into Syria" is not a good thing, though the Senator did not indicate how Rouhani is responsible for a policy which preceded his election and would proceed with or without his approval.  The Senator's distaste for the Iranian regime, moreover, is curious given

During the confirmation hearings for fellow Vietnam veteran and current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Senator McCain once again displayed his bullheadedness as he demanded that Hagel voice his support for the 2007 Iraq surge. When Hagel insinuated that the surge may not have been necessary but suggested that we defer the final judgment to history, McCain grew irate and definitively proclaimed, "History has already made the judgment about the surge, sir. And you're on the wrong side of it”"

The U.S.A.'s military action in Iraq brought not only 4,000 American, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, deaths.  The surge of which Senator McCain is so proud resulted in a regime in Baghdad which is markedly pro-Tehran.   "History has already made the judgement about the surge, sir. And you're on the wrong side of it," he has been saying, with no one willing to challenge him. But if the John McCain so hostile to the Iranian regime is to be believed, the one beneficial result of the surge- elections in Iraq- was counter-productive to interests.

McCain is right to be wary of dealing with the Iranian regime, but Barack Obama is nothing if not careful and deliberate, as demonstrated in his eventual decision to send missiles into Syria, which was followed by his decision to seek congressional approval, only to accept the third and best option of negotiations.

Any failure to pursue talks with Rouhani, who was viewed during the election campaign as the most moderate candidate and who has done nothing to dispel the notion, ought to viewed in the context of a nation willing to give power to radical, Islamist elements such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  It also should be seen as similar to the approach of the Netanyahu government in Israel.  Ten months ago, on the heels of a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, Mitchell Plitnick wrote

most Israelis are disappointed with the cease fire. The damage done to Israel, including loss of life and injuries, is comparable to Operation Cast Lead four years ago, while Hamas has made even more gains. When the smoke clears, Israelis may feel that Bibi was unable to muster the courage to launch the ground attack that Olmert did, and which most Israelis wanted.

Israel’s losses outweigh its gains. Yes, there will be at least a period of quiet, and Hamas will have some rebuilding to do. These are the claimed objectives, and they were met. But at what cost? Does Israel really want to destroy the quisling Palestinian Authority in favor of an independent Hamas government? There may be reason for the Israeli government to do this, in the hopes of convincing the world that there is no Palestinian partner. However, armed resistance will return in a big way. Israel gave Hamas a lot more legitimacy, and made at least one clear concession. They also opened the door to ending their siege of the Gaza Strip, which I might see as a very positive development. But it’s hard to believe that is seen as a positive in Israel.

While it is an old canard on both sides of this conflict that the other side “only understands the language of force,” Israel has sent a powerful message to the Palestinians that it holds true for them. While Bibi has stubbornly refused any gestures that might allow Mahmoud Abbas to return to negotiations and has built settlements at a breakneck pace, Hamas has won concessions from them with force of arms. What lesson would anyone take from that?

A wise nation does not strengthen and embolden its mortal enemy, particularly when a more reasonable, perhaps even amenable, negotiating partner is at hand.  And when the two forces are in competition with each other, as with Fatah and Hamas, and Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, the risks are even greater.

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