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People are aware—at least those people who don’t get all their news from certain sources—that the Obama Administration is messing up a lot on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. What is often missed, however, are the little things that have big consequences. Because even if these go without attention in the United States, people in the Middle East are paying very close attention.
So here’s a wonderful example of what happens due to two seemingly small errors, shown during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance on the Charlie Rose interview show.
“The Iranians not only worry us because of their nuclear program, they worry us because of their support for terrorism, their support for the military wing of Hezbollah, their support for Hamas, their interference in the internal affairs of their neighbors, trying to destabilize gulf countries and other countries throughout the greater region.”
This was in the context of a relatively tough statement, right? But note two things: a tiny detail in the paragraph above and later on in this article (patience, please, it will be worth it) the explanation of U.S. policy she made immediately after.
Can you find the error? Ok, I’ll tell you: the words “military wing of Hezbollah.” This is a gimmick used by Hizballah [my transliteration] and Hamas, too, to fool people in the West. It is used by advocates of engagement with these radical Islamist terrorist groups in places like Britain.
Sure, they say, there is a military wing and a political wing. The latter is moderate or becoming so and thus you can negotiate with them separately. This is rubbish. There is no such differentiation except for normal administrative purposes. The same leadership and doctrine runs both.
So one could interpret this slip—and I do believe it was a slip—as a change in U.S. policy toward Hizballah. Don’t think so? Well, it happened.
The public manifestation of this came from Sami Moubayed, who may have the distinction of being the smartest of the Syrian intellectuals who serve as a flak for the regime. In an article, he wrote:
“Clinton’s statement on the Charlie Rose show came only 24 hours after Sa’ad Hariri had formed a cabinet of national unity [in Lebanon], which includes two members of Hezbollah. “Clinton was seemingly offering a life jacket to Hariri by saying that while the US frowns on the military wing of Hezbollah that engages in war, the political branch is acceptable.
“Never since the US declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1999 has a senior U.S. official made such a groundbreaking statement about Hezbollah.
“The US has obviously realized that no breakthrough is possible in Lebanon unless Hezbollah is represented in the Cabinet. Some call it pragmatism; others say that it was a difficult reality that Washington has had to digest.”
In other words, this shows that the Syrian regime is using the statement to reinforce Hizballah’s power, and thus its own and that of Iran. Even the Americans are ready to accept Hizballah in government (or sell you out) is the message given to the moderate March 14 forces, which would rather eat snakes and scorpions than have a coalition with that group.
But what choice do they have? The West didn’t help them; the United States is engaging with Lebanon’s would-be hegemons, Iran and Syria. There’s nothing to do but give up. In the end they gave Hizballah control of 12 cabinet positions, more than they’d planned to turn over.
What the Syrians and their Lebanese allies are saying is sort of the equivalent, so to speak, of what Japanese soldiers yelled at Americans across the trenches in World War Two:
“GI Joe! Give up! You can’t win! Hillary is with us! Surrender and we’ll give you a nice bed, a hot meal, and a ticket out of this war.”
When you make friends with dictators, you sell out their victims, thus strengthening the dictators. So now Hizballah and Syria are trying to leverage this into putting into the government platform a statement that the regime supports “resistance,” that is, Hizballah keeps its guns in order to fight Israel whenever it pleases.
But that’s not all. Here’s Clinton’s analysis of U.S. policy toward Iran:
“Iran has given us many reasons to worry about their motivation and their action, but I think what President Obama has tried to do since becoming president, is to create a dynamic where, look, we don’t have to trust or love each other to understand that it is in our interest to try to stabilize the world. It is not in Iran’s interest to have a nuclear arms race in the Gulf where they would be less secure than they are today. It is not in Iran’s interest or the Iranian peoples’ interest, to be subjected to very onerous sanctions, so the president has reached and has really gone the extra mile to try to engage with the Iranians. If they cannot overcome their mistrust and their internal political dynamic, then we have to do what we think is in our best interests.”
Let’s consider her argument. It is in Iran’s interest to have nuclear arms when others don’t have them, believing that there won’t be a “nuclear arms race in the Gulf” since it’s doubtful the Saudis will obtain them and certain that Iraq and the smaller states won’t. So she’s wrong there.
It is in Iran’s interest to deal with constantly postponed and watered-down sanctions, which Russia and China will circumvent, to get nuclear weapons. So she’s wrong there also.
And by being so weak it is the Obama Administration itself that signals Iran that she’s wrong and that it is a correct rational calculation to disregard American threats, play for time, and do whatever it damn well pleases.
The interviewer then says to her: “They’ll have to deal with the consequences.”
And Clinton replies: “Well, yes, of course. I mean, that’s the way the world works.”
But is that the way the world works with Obama’s policy? No. Indeed, the interviewer then states:
“Is there anything that we can do to say to them, `We understand your fear. We understand your paranoia. We ask you what…can we do to convince you that nuclear weapons are not in your interest?’”
And, of course and correctly, Clinton replies: that’s what we’ve been doing.
But here’s what the interviewer does not ask her, I made this up:
“Is there anything that we can do to say to them, `We are going to increase your fear. We are going to play on your paranoia. We are going to make life really miserable for you with constant verbal attacks, applying very big sanctions right away, help the opposition subvert you, and have credible power to make you tremble that we might attack in order to convince you that nuclear weapons are not in your interest?”
See the difference? This, to quote Clinton, is “the way the world works.” Yet we only hear about carrots, never very much about sticks.
And then Clinton says something that might be an effective technique on a school playground but not in international diplomacy:
“If this were a confident leadership, they would accept the Tehran research reactor deal. They would not be worried about it. This is not a confident leadership because of the pressures that are coming from within Iran as well as from outside.”
Say what? If they are confident they’d give up but if they are really scared then they’ll defy the world? She has it backward: It is because they are so confident that they can say to America, if you don’t like it go… [You can fill in the blank since this is a family-oriented G-rated blog].
But do you see what’s wrong with this formulation of Clinton’s? If the reason Iran is so aggressive because it is really scared and insecure, the way to succeed is to comfort, soothe, and make the regime feel that America loves it and wishes it well.
But if the reason Iran is so aggressive is because it is really confident (drunk on ideology and assessing that its enemies are cowards) then what is required to succeed is to scare, pressure, and punish it.
And on the failure to understand that distinction, Obama’s foreign policy is going down big-time.
PS: Bacin in August, the Obama Administration issued a statement saying it had not changed its policy on Hizballah after John Brennan, the president’s terrorism advisor (see here and here) strongly implied that Hizballah had a peaceful political wing.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.