Obama's Mideast Horror Show

By Barry Rubin

The stories of the US engagement with Syria and the sanctions issue regarding Iran's nuclear program are fascinating. Each day there's some new development showing how the Obama administration is acting like a deer standing in the middle of a busy highway admiring the pretty headlights of the automobiles.

It's like watching the monster sneak up behind someone. Even though you know he won't turn around, you can't help but watch in fascinated horror and yell: "Look out!" But he pays no attention.

Briefly, the Syrian government keeps punching the US in the face as Washington ignores it.

On March 1, a new record was set. The place: State Department daily press conference; the star, spokesman Philip J. Crowley. A reporter asks how the administration views the fact that the moment a US delegation left after urging Syrian President Bashar Assad to move away from Iran and stop supporting Hizbullah, Syria's dictator invited Iran's dictator along with Hizbullah's leader to visit.

In other words, the exact opposite of what the US requested. Is the government annoyed? Does it want to express some anger or issue a threat?

Let's listen. Crowley: "Well, I would point it in a slightly different direction... We want to see Syria play a more constructive role in the region. We also want - to the extent that it has the ability to talk to Iran directly - we want to make sure that Syria's communicating to Iran its concerns about its role in the region and the direction, the nature of its nuclear ambitions..."

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In other words, I'm going to ignore the fact that the first thing that Assad did after Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns's visit was a love fest with Iran and Hizbullah. But even more amazing, what Crowley said is that the US government thinks Syria, Iran's partner and ally, may be upset that Iran is being aggressive and expansionist. And it actually expects the Syrians to urge Iran not to build nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, as theadministration congratulates itself on explaining to Syria that it should reduce support for Hizbullah, IDF military intelligence releases an assessment that Syria is giving Hizbullah more and better arms than ever before.

Meanwhile, on the Iran front, it is now March and still - six months after the first administration deadline and three months after the second deadline - no major sanctions on Iran. Remarkably, even former Democratic presidential candidate and head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry has taken a stronger stance than theadministration.

He supports the congressional call for tough sanctions to block Iran's energy industry which easily passed both houses. "I believe that the most biting and important sanctions would be those on the energy side." But the Obamaadministration wants far more limited sanctions focused on a small group in the regime elite.

Yet sanctions are getting further away rather than closer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at this by pulling back from her early prediction of sanctions by April, now saying it might be "some time in the next several months." At the same time, we have endless evidence that the claim the Russians (and Chinese and others) are coming to support sanctions is nonsense. Just before meeting with Clinton to discuss the issue, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva explained, "Peace in the world does not mean isolating someone." (Quick, invite him to explain this to the anti-Israel forces in Europe and elsewhere.)

But it's outright amusing to see the efforts to spin the Russian and Chinese position. In this regard, the prize for this week should be won by an AP dispatch whose headline read: "Russia moves closer to Iran sanctions over nukes." And what is the basis for this claim that there has just been "the strongest sign to date that the Kremlin was prepared to drop traditional opposition to such penalties if Teheran remain obstinate?" This statement from President Dmitry Medvedev: "We believe that [engagement with Iran is] not over yet, that we can still reach an agreement. But if we don't succeed, Russia is ready - along with our partners... to consider the question of adopting sanctions."

Get it? When Russia decides that talking with Iran won't work, at that point - how long from now would that be? - it will "consider" sanctions. Actually, he said the same thing last August, a statement trumpeted in September by The New York Times as proving Obama's policy was working.

There is more clarity with the Chinese, though the pretense is also made that they might do something. But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang put it this way: "We believe there is still room for diplomatic efforts and the parties concerned should intensify those efforts." At most, the optimists suggest, in the words of this Reuters dispatch: "China will resist any proposed sanctions that threaten flows of oil and Chinese investments, but most believe it will accept a more narrowly cast resolution that has more symbolic than practical impact." Yes, that's the kind of thing that already existed four years ago. Some progress.

Is it too much to ask policy-makers to pay attention to what's going on occasionally?

So let's leave it to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to sum up how things seem to Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizbullah and many others. The Americans, he said, "not only have failed to gain any power, but also are forced to leave the region. They are leaving their reputation, image and power behind in order to escape... The [American] government has no influence [to stop] the expansion of Iran-Syria ties, Syria-Turkey ties and Iran-Turkey ties - God willing, Iraq too will join the circle."

I think this suggests that the radicals think that the US is weak, in retreat, and that the future belongs to them. In other words, US President Barack Obama's policy isn't moderating the radicals, it's making them more aggressive and confident.

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