The problem isn’t a lack of "resolve." It's a lack of good outcomes and basic moral consistency.
by Musa al-Gharbi -- Foreign Policy In Focus
To hear politicians and beltway pundits tell it, credibility in international relations boils down to this: Do others believe that the United States is willing and able to follow through on its word?
Actually, this is a sloppy and often pernicious way to think, leading policymakers to senselessly commit themselves to failing policies (like enforcing a “red line,” for instance) for the sake of “maintaining credibility” — and actually undermining it in the process.
Credibility is not about resolve. Strategic credibility is actually about assuring partners that things will work out well for them if they throw their lot in with you. This perception plays a pivotal role in determining whether others will support or resist U.S. interests abroad.
The primary way agents establish themselves as credible is by making good decisions, which means forming and executing policies that generate positive outcomes for the relevant stakeholders. The stronger an agent’s track record, the more likely others will be willing to get behind them — that is, the more credibility they will have. Incidentally, this is the secret to ISIS’ success: Regardless of how distasteful many find their methods and ideology, they have established themselves as one of the most effective forces at seizing territory from the governments of Iraq and Syria, making tangible progress in restoring a caliphate, and resisting the prevailing international order.
America, on the other hand, has a serious credibility problem in the Middle East. The results of U.S. interventions in the region have been consistently catastrophic: Whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, or Syria, direct U.S. involvement is usually followed by an erosion of state governance, the empowerment of exploitative sub-state and non-state actors, and a dramatic rise in violence, civil tension, and unrest.
American indirect involvement, meanwhile, tends to empower corrupt, oppressive, and undemocratic forces — such as in Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. In terms of achieving positive outcomes, America simply has absolutely no credibility in the Middle East.
However, character is also important: Moral credibility means a nation’s intentions and motivations are more likely to be trusted.
Strategic and moral credibility are interrelated: Consistently generating good outcomes goes a long way toward bolstering one’s reputation. Even if the methods for achieving an objective seem questionable, they tend to be justified retrospectively if things turn out all right. In the interim, people are much more willing to extend the benefit of doubt to those with a strong track record of success. Conversely, moral credibility can help make up for occasional bad outcomes — an agent is afforded slack when things go awry if it’s perceived as being genuinely well-intentioned.
However, when there are glaring inconsistencies between a government’s declared aspirations (say, promotion of democracy and human rights) and their means of realization (imposing Western socio-economic models at the expense of indigenous self-determination) — especially when paired with a general failure to realize stated objectives (producing chaos rather than order, be it liberal or otherwise) — these generate suspicion about its real intentions and motives.
Hypocrisy Undermines “Resolve”
Part of what contributes to America’s cycle of diplomatic and military failures in the Middle East is an underlying distrust of the United States among most Arabs, which inspires widespread ambivalence or resistance to U.S. efforts in the region. The source of this deficit has nothing to do with U.S. follow-through or resolve, as foreign policy hawks love to allege. One can be consistent with regards to backing up threats, etc. while still being a hypocrite in the moral sphere.
Indeed, this is precisely the problem America faces.
After decades of supporting the region’s dictators with arms and money, Washington has now formed a coalition with both the surviving local autocrats and the Middle East’s former imperial powers to “bring democracy” to Syria and (once more) to Iraq. Is it any surprise the “Arab street” is mistrustful?
It further fuels skepticism when America attempts to fight ISIS — a group largely empowered by previous U.S. support for other non-state actors in Iraq, Libya, and Syria — by training and arming new, ineffective, and unpopular proxy militias. Moreover, these new groups are often aligned with, and trained in, Saudi Arabia — the power most responsible for proliferating the ideology embraced by the so-called “Islamic State.” It seems disingenuous when the U.S. condemns Russia for funding non-state actors in Ukraine, or Pakistan for doing so in Afghanistan, or Iran in Lebanon — even as America expands its own support of insurgents in Syria.
The Arab public is outraged when U.S. policymakers decry human rights violations elsewhere while continuing to support Israel and shield it from international accountability for its occupation of the West Bank or its wars on Gaza. And it doesn’t help at all when the Obama administration, among other failings, declines to prosecute clear and grievous infractions like torture by its own intelligence agencies, while calling for regime change in other countries for the same sorts of infractions.
When American representatives lecture others about upholding the very international rules and norms the U.S. government systematically and unapologetically violates through its drone strikes and mass surveillance, enhanced interrogation, and extraordinary rendition programs, others will not take American rhetoric or ideals seriously.
These glaring contradictions imbue the entire ethical project with a cynical hue — undermining not just American credibility, but the general value of moral discourse on the world stage more generally. This breakdown, in turn, disrupts consensus building and cooperation, threatening the long-term viability of the rules-based international order Americans sacrificed so much in years past to establish and preserve.
Changing the Dynamic
But there is good news: The United States can simultaneously bolster its moral and strategic credibility by adopting a more sensible foreign policy. The first step will be to adopt more modest aspirations and pragmatic strategies in order to avoid making problems worse. Within this narrower framework, the United States should strive to adopt the same policies it promotes for others.
If Washington wants to stem the growth and proliferation of non-state actors, for example, the U.S. should stop funding them as well — and should pressure its allies to follow suit. Instead, Washington can provide material and logistical support to the relevant state actorsto help these governments first contain the spread of ungoverned zones and then gradually reclaim control over lost territories. (Of course, this support should be contingent on a basic respect for human rights.)
Rather than orchestrating another destabilizing regime-change in Syria, furthermore, the United States should aspire towards gradual, viable, and meaningful reform of the state — which will require an inclusive diplomatic approach regarding the Baathist government and its foreign patrons, as well as a piecemeal agenda for rehabilitating the state and its institutions. In the short term, this means prioritizing peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and reconstruction in support of a negotiated settlement rather than trying to force polarizing elections in the wake of a violent uprising.
But perhaps most significantly, if America wants to promote democracy in the Middle East, it should start by rethinking the levels and types of aid afforded to Israel and the region’s autocrats absent substantial political reform.
All of these measures would undermine extremist groups, both materially and ideologically, by enhancing Arabs’ self-determination while advancing international law and order. As a result, this approach could generate much better results with significantly less investment and blowback. Perhaps more importantly, these policies would help rebuild America’s credibility by building a better world — in the Mideast and beyond.
Musa al-Gharbi is a social epistemologist affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). Readers can connect to his work and social media via his website: www.fiatsophia.org
Republicans Overreach: Part Deux
by Jim Lobe
Of course, the story of the day on the Iran front is the publication of what its authors titled, “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” It was signed by 47 Republican senators led by freshman Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who, as reported by LobeLog, received nearly $1 million in advertising support from Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) in the closing days of last November’s campaign. The basic thrust of the letter is to warn the recipients that, once President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017, any deal that he and his P5+1 partners may have reached with Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program could be revoked “with the stroke of a pen.”
There are already lots of arguments breaking out over whether the basis of the analysis contained in the letter was an accurate statement of U.S. law. One prominent Harvard law professor who also served as a top Justice Department official under George W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith, called at least one of the letter’s assertions about the ratification process “embarrassing.” (Especially embarrassing not only because Cotton graduated from Harvard Law School, but also because Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who earned a M.A. and PhD in international law at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver—Condoleezza Rice’s alma mater--felt compelled to correct his understanding of Washington’s international legal obligations.)
There is also a dispute over whether the letter constitutes a violation of the Logan Act, which provides:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
(For those who might claim that the letter is protected by the First Amendment, it’s interesting to note that, when he was serving in the U.S. Army after law school in 2006, Cotton wrote another “open letter” published by the far-right website Power Line calling for the prosecution and imprisonment of three New York Times reporters for allegedly violating the Espionage Act by disclosing how the government was tracking terrorist financing.)
I’ll leave the legal analysis to the specialists, but the political implications of this truly remarkable effort to undermine the duly elected president of the United States and sabotage an international negotiation in which our closest NATO allies are also deeply invested need to be digested and understood. This is a clarifying moment and one which Obama himself made abundantly clear Monday afternoon when he noted,
I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members for Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition.
Want To Succeed in Establishment Policy Circles?
Just Be Aggressively and Consistently Wrong Over and Over and Over
by Tom Engelhard
In our era in Washington, whole careers have been built on grotesque mistakes. In fact, when it comes to our various conflicts, God save you if you’re right; no one will ever want to hear from you again. If you’re wrong, however... well, take the invasion of Iraq. Given the Islamic State, that creature of the American occupation, can anyone seriously believe that the invasion that blew a hole in the heart of the Middle East doesn’t qualify as one of the genuine disasters of our time, if not of any time? In the mad occupation that followed, Saddam Hussein’s well-trained army and officer corps were ushered into the chaos of post-invasion unemployment and, of course, insurgency. Meanwhile, at a cost of $25 billion, a whole new military was trained that, years later, summarily collapsed when faced with insurgents led by some of those formerly out-of-work officers.
But the crew who pushed it all on Washington has never stopped yakking (or being listened to). They’ve been called back at every anniversary of the invasion to offer their wisdom in the New York Times and elsewhere, while those who counseled against such an invasion have been nowhere in sight. Some of the planners of the invasion and occupation are now advisers to Jeb Bush as he heads into the 2016 election campaign, while the policy wonks who went off to war with the generals (taking regular VIP tours of America’s battle zones) couldn’t be better thought of in Washington today.
Take Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. When it comes to American war, you can count on one thing: he’s a ray of sunshine on any gloomy day. It hardly matters what year you’re talking about -- 2003, 2007, 2009, 2013, Iraq or Afghanistan -- and “our odds of success” are invariably “rather good” (if the U.S. military just pursues the path O’Hanlon advocates). Things always seem to be trending in the right direction; there’s invariably “progress,” always carefully qualified; Washington’s troops remain forever steadfast; chances are good that... you fill it in: the invasion will be successful, the occupation a smash, the surge a triumph of an unconventional sort, the latest Afghan election a positive step forward in a tough world. And here’s the amazing thing: year after year, op-ed after op-ed, he never seems to end up on the right side of anything, which seems to work like a charm in Washington.
In recent years, he’s made himself into an op-ed tag team with his former Princeton classmate David Petraeus. He began plugging General Petraeus as a “superb commander” back when and, despite the former CIA director’s recent misdemeanor plea deal for “providing his highly classified journals to a mistress,” he’s still touting him as a “national hero.” (“To my mind, what he did in Iraq was probably the greatest complex accomplishment by any American general since Washington in the Revolutionary War.”)
Since 2013, on op-ed pages nationwide, he and Petraeus have been promoting the idea that these aren’t the years of America’s decline, but of its rise to greater glory as the leader of a new North American Century (a line that Republicans are passionately running with for campaign 2016). If this came from anyone else, perhaps it would be a debatable position, but not with the O’Hanlon guarantee attached to it. Let’s just say it: if he thinks America is ascending, there’s only one possibility: it’s going down.
So many words and what are the odds that none of them would work out? Still, you might think that O’Hanlon is small potatoes in our large world. If so, think again. As Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, makes clear in “Rationalizing Lunacy,” O’Hanlon is part of a roiling mass of “policy intellectuals” who have given this country a distinctly hard time.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (with an introduction by Glenn Greenwald). Previous books include Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (co-authored with Nick Turse), The United States of Fear, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.
The Risks of Mishandling the Tikrit Offensive
Pushing ISIL out of Tikrit may deal a blow to ISIL but mistreating residents would make the military victory tenuous.
by Sharif Nashashib
With advances already being made, it is a matter of time before the large-scale offensive to dislodge the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from the city of Tikrit succeeds. Despite ISIL reinforcements arriving from other areas, they are up against some 20,000 fighters with Iraqi air support and leadership from experienced Iranian commanders. ISIL is also spread thin by simultaneous offensives against it elsewhere in Iraq and in Syria.
However, victory cannot be seen from a purely military perspective. Given past conduct and recent statements, there is a real risk of sectarian reprisals against the local population - a risk recognised by governments and human rights organisations worldwide, which have warned against such acts.
Atrocities have taken place in other areas captured from ISIL, because Iraqi forces and allied Shia militias have viewed residents as supportive or sympathetic to the jihadist group. The risk of a repeat in Tikrit has been heightened by Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi's highly irresponsible statement: "There is no neutrality in the battle against ISIL. If someone is being neutral with ISIL, then he is one of them."
This may be interpreted by fighters entering Tikrit as permission to target anyone who is not seen actively taking up arms against the group. Abbadi's statement implies the possibility of collective punishment, and ignores the fact that a major factor in the reluctance of those under ISIL rule to rise up is fear of the consequences. This fear is justified given ISIL's brutality against Sunni tribes that have turned against it.
Militiamen have explicitly vowed revenge for the killing of Shia forces when ISIL overran Tikrit in June with the help of local Sunni tribes. The temptation for vengeance may be heightened by the significance of the city as the home of Saddam Hussein, who ruthlessly oppressed Iraq's Shia Muslims.
If there are sectarian reprisals, it will bolster the ranks of ISIL, which has attempted to portray itself as a defender of Sunnis and a resistor of Shia aggression. Reprisals will also dissuade Sunni communities from turning on ISIL. They are already deeply suspicious of the Iraqi state due to unfulfilled promises of opportunity and integration following their uprising against al-Qaeda years earlier.
Tikrit residents have already expressed fears that Shia militiamen will treat them no better than ISIL - hardly an incentive to take sides. The problem is, in Abbadi's view this is taking sides.
There are serious concerns about the sectarian nature of the anti-ISIL offensive in Tikrit. Most of the fighters are Shia militiamen, the banner of Shia Islam's revered Imam Hussein flutters over armoured vehicles, and the operation is overseen by Iranian commanders (Iraqi Sunnis strongly oppose Iranian influence in their country).
"The campaign is clearly presented to the Shia fighters as a defence of their sect," Reuters reported.
Human Rights Watch this month highlighted "numerous atrocities" and "repeated abuses" against Sunni civilians "by pro-government militias and security forces" after capturing areas from ISIL. Al Jazeera has interviewed eyewitnesses to such atrocities, including Kurdish fighters also battling ISIL, who said militias were often Iranian-led.
Such abuses have continued despite a call last year by Iraq's leading Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for those fighting ISIL to respect civilians and their property. This adds to the sense that the militias are behaving as a law unto themselves.
The government, which is heavily reliant on them, has done nothing to reign them in. The army itself has indiscriminately bombed civilian areas, committed abuses, and watched as militias do the same. The government does not even acknowledge that there is a problem, with the interior ministry denying any pattern of sectarian killings.
As such, "the Iraqi authorities have effectively granted [militias] free rein to go on the rampage against Sunnis," and are "sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart," said Amnesty International.
The international community has not just turned a blind eye, but has exacerbated the problem by supporting Baghdad without assurances that it would rein in the militias. It is likely that they receive some of the massive flow of arms to Baghdad from allied governments.
Antithesis of inclusivity
The US-led coalition campaign against ISIL was largely dependent on the Iraqi government being more inclusive than it was under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This stipulation was explicitly stated by US President Barack Obama. Using and supporting sectarian militias, which was taking place long before ISIL's lightning gains in Iraq last summer, are the antithesis of inclusivity.
Furthermore, while Sunni tribal leaders have complained of a lack of support and understanding from the government, Abbadi appointed a member of the Badr Organisation - which fields one of the largest Shia militias - as interior minister, in charge of security and police. The human rights minister is also a Badr affiliate.
If handled correctly, pushing ISIL out of Tikrit would be a significant blow to the group. However, mistreating residents would make the military victory tenuous and hinder the overall fight against ISIL, whose expansion owes considerably to Sunni grievances that are still prevalent.
This serves as a reminder, not that one should be necessary, that truly tackling the scourge of ISIL requires more than military might. It requires inclusivity and respect for human rights. Otherwise, ISIL will either make a comeback, or will be eclipsed further down the line by another jihadist successor.
Sharif Nashashibi is a London-based journalist, analyst on Arab affairs, and co-founder and chairman of Arab Media Watch.
Official Washington’s Delusions on Delusions
Official Washington operates in its own bubble of self-delusion in which the stars of U.S. politics, policy and media don’t realize how the rest of the world sees their sociopathic behavior. This craziness is now reaching a crisis point on Iran and Russia.
by Robert Parry
The chasm between reality and the U.S. political/media elite continues to widen with Official Washington’s actions toward Iran and Russia making “the world’s sole remaining superpower” look either like a Banana Republic (on Iran) or an Orwellian Dystopia (regarding Russia).
On Iran and the international negotiations to rein in its nuclear program, the American people witnessed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu striding into the U.S. Congress – like some imperial consul – to deliver a faux State of the Union address that undermined the sitting U.S. president. Then, 47 Republican senators furthered Netanyahu’s intent to denigrate President Barack Obama by sending an open letter to Iranian leaders designed to prevent a deal.
Yes, I know many Republicans and their overwhelmingly white “base” don’t consider the African-American Obama the legitimate President despite his two election victories. But never in American history has a major political party as brazenly challenged the constitutional authority of a sitting president to conduct foreign policy.
The letter to the Iranian leaders warned that once Obama is out of office in 2017, “the next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” In other words, the Republicans were telling Iran’s leaders that whatever they plan to sign with Obama and five other world leaders isn’t worth the paper that it’s written on.
This stunning congressional intervention into U.S. diplomacy was signed not just by a few backbenchers but by the Senate’s Republican leadership and several prospective GOP presidential candidates, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who had been viewed by some on the Left as well as the Right as a person who would not toe the Israeli line on Middle East issues.
This double whammy of Netanyahu’s extreme rhetoric on Iran and the Republicans extraordinary subversion of the Iranian nuclear talks left people around the world wondering whether the U.S. government had completely lost its bearings. Meanwhile, the U.S. news media continued veering off into its own Bermuda Triangle.
What is particularly striking about this current moment is how the madness that permeates the U.S. government equally pervades the mainstream U.S. media, which is now incapable of covering major international events except through the lens of State Department propaganda, a situation that has reached extreme levels in the reporting on the Ukraine crisis.
The only filter that the MSM can place on the events in Ukraine is one endlessly vilifying Russian President Vladimir Putin. Though this technique of personalizing foreign policy disputes has become standard operating procedure for the U.S. press corps – think of Daniel Ortega, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Viktor Yanukovych, etc. – the U.S. media’s “group think” on Russia may even surpass those earlier examples.
Plus, nothing from the Ukraine crisis can ever be blamed on the U.S. government, even though Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland helped orchestrate the violent coup that overthrew Ukraine’s elected government in February 2014 and threw the nation of 54 million people into a bloody civil war.
Everything must be blamed on Putin and any alternative analysis, recognizing another side to the story, must be dismissed as “Russian propaganda.” [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Still Pretends No Coup in Ukraine.“]
On Monday, the Washington Post delivered what could become a textbook case of journalistic self-delusion – noting that the Russian people have developed an intensely negative view of the United States but only because the Russian media portrays the U.S. government in a hostile way.
The Post article by Michael Birnbaum blamed the collapse of U.S. popularity on “furious rhetoric [that] has been pumped across Russian airwaves … a passionate, conspiracy-laden fascination with the methods that Washington is supposedly using to foment unrest in Ukraine and Russia.”
Citing recent polling, the article noted that more than 80 percent of the Russian people hold negative views of the United States. But that couldn’t be because of American behavior! No, it’s impossible that anyone looking at the U.S. today could possibly find anything to criticize! It had to be Putin’s fault, spreading spurious criticism of the U.S. via Russian media. Or as the Post put it:
“Fed by the powerful antagonism on Russian federal television channels, the main source of news for more than 90 percent of Russians, ordinary people started to feel more and more disillusioned [about the U.S.]. The anger seems different from the fast-receding jolts of the past, observers say, having spread faster and wider.”
The article quoted Lev Gudkov, director of the polling firm Levada Center, explaining: “This anti-Western propaganda radically changed the atmosphere in the society. … It has become militarist.”
Another voice cited by the Post was Maria Lipman, described as “an independent Moscow-based political analyst,” saying: “What the government knew was that it was very easy to cultivate anti-Western sentiments, and it was easy to consolidate Russian society around this propaganda.”
In other words, it wasn’t what the U.S. government has done around the world that has provoked this antipathy – from the endless boasting about America’s “indispensable” and “exceptional” qualities to its destructive behavior, including spreading bloody havoc via “regime change” schemes in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere.
And, it’s not that the U.S. government looks clownish when the majority party in Congress expresses doubts about global warming and other scientific judgments. Nor is it the continued examples of racism and the police shootings of unarmed blacks. Nor the global spying by the National Security Agency. Nor the national self-degradation when members of Congress behave like trained seals jumping up and down to applaud Israel’s Netanyahu.
No, the only reason that the Russian people look askance at the United States is that they are being deceived by the lying “propaganda” dictated by the evil Vladimir Putin. By contrast, the American people always get the straight story from their mainstream U.S. news media, the gold standard for the world!
Official Washington and the mainstream U.S. media have taken on the characteristics of a male stalker who can’t understand why his female target finds him repulsive. It must be because someone is poisoning her mind with negative comments about his sterling personality. We now live in a system of delusions built upon delusions.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat. His two previous books are Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'.
Iran Letter Shows GOP Senators Just 'Itching for War'
Potential presidential candidate says attempt to undermine ongoing nuclear negotiations was an 'unspeakable' breach
by Jon Queally
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has blasted 47 Republicans in the U.S. Senate for sending a letter this week to Iranian leaders and said the incident goes to show that some of his colleagues are simply "itching for war" when it comes to Iran.
The open letter (pdf) in question—sent on Monday and addressed to the "Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran"—warned that its signatories would "consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement" that could be jettisoned following the next congressional and presidential elections in 2016. Despite the rhetoric of the letter, there is no evidence showing Iran has an active nuclear weapons program and the nation's leadership has repeatedly stated that it has no current ambitions for such a program.
Widely regarded as an unorthodox attempt to sabotage ongoing diplomatic efforts regarding Iran's research and uranium enrichment program for its civilian nuclear program, Sanders was among those publicly criticizing the nature and content of the letter and the nearly fifty senators, including the top Republican leadership and presidential hopefuls, who signed it.
"[M]y Republican friends seem to be itching for that war," Sanders told reporters on Tuesday following an event in Washington, DC. "When you sabotage the effort to reach a peace agreement by the leader of the United States of America — the man who is charged with dealing with foreign policy — that, to me, is really unspeakable."
Making reference to the disastrous and costly wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he added, "Apparently, some of my Republican colleagues do not believe that two wars are enough... I think that is a very, very tragic position to hold."
Sanders has made it clear he is considering running for president in 2016 as a possible progressive challenger to Hillary, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Four potential 2016 GOP hopefuls — Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — all signed the letter.
The White House and several congressional Republicans and Democrats have criticized the letter as an attempt to politicize the issue and purposefully derail the president’s foreign policy goals.
Asked whether he would urge his Democratic colleagues to continue to support the president on a potential deal if negotiators fail to agree by the March 24 deadline, Sanders said: "The devil is in the details. We’ll have to see what happens. But I think what the American people want, what I certainly want, is to do everything that we can to reach a peaceful agreement with Iran."
Sen. Sanders also appeared on MSNBC on Tuesday evening to discuss his thoughts on the matter further:
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a luncheon at the National Press Club on Monday, March 9, 2015 in Washington. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is considering running for the 2016 Democratic nomination as a liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton, focusing on income inequality and climate change. (Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)
The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.[Emphasis added.]
And let’s please remember that Kristol was up there in the same section of the House gallery last Tuesday as were Sara Netanyahu, Bibi’s spouse, Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel, and, of course, multi-billionaire casino magnate and staunch Bibi-backer, Sheldon Adelson, who spent at least $150 million for Republican candidates in the 2012 election cycle. Given ECI’s support for Cotton in the 2014 Senate race, it’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu and his Republican ambassador here, Ron Dermer, would not have approved of this latest initiative to sabotage prospects for an Iran deal.
So let’s be clear: all the commentary and Israeli spin in the Times and elsewhere suggesting that Bibi’s speech had subtly signaled an openness to an agreement with Iran that settles for less than the total dismantling of its nuclear program, including its enrichment capabilities, is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. For Netanyahu, Kristol, and Adelson, no deal is better than any deal because, as Suzanne Maloney argued last week, an agreement between Washington and Tehran could begin a process of rapprochement. And anyone—like Sen. Bob Corker (who, to his credit, did not sign the Cotton letter) or Robert Menendez—who says otherwise is either lying or deluding themselves. Cotton’s letter—and the fact that he spearheaded this effort—makes that abundantly clear.
Hopefully, wavering Democrats, including the ten or so who are listed as cosponsors of the Corker bill, now understand that. Certainly, the Democratic leadership is holding up Cotton’s initiative as evidence of bad faith. Calling the letter “juvenile,” Minority Leader Harry Reid accused the Republicans of “undermining our commander in chief while empowering the Ayatollahs.” He also rightly noted that the letter constituted a “hard slap in the face of not only United States but also our allies”—a point that, in my opinion, has not received nearly enough attention. (I’m sure the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany greatly appreciated the Republican warning that their own efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement to Iran’s nuclear program have been a waste of time because the president of the United States can’t really negotiate an agreement with them on behalf of his country.)
The Democrats’ number two, Sen. Dick Durbin, warned that Republicans “should think twice about whether their political stunt is worth the threat of another war in the Middle East,” while the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, was quite direct in her assessment of the letter
I am appalled at the latest step of 47 Republicans to blow up a major effort by our country and the world powers to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear program.
This is a highly inappropriate and unprecedented incursion into the president’s prerogative to conduct foreign affairs and is not befitting this chamber. This letter only serves one purpose—to destroy an ongoing negotiation to reach a diplomatic agreement in its closing days.
All of this should result in a major reality check by Democrats and the dwindling number of relatively reasonable Republicans who remain in Congress. Indeed, seven Republicans apparently decided against adding their names to the letter: Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Indiana Sen. Dan Coats (which surprises me because he’s been very hawkish on Iran), Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, and the two Tennessee senators, Lamar Alexander and Corker. Perhaps this will prompt Corker to reassess the problematic provisions that he and Menendez (who will now be preoccupied with defending himself against anticipated federal corruption charges) have included in the legislation they crafted to ensure Congressional review of any comprehensive deal with Iran. In any event, this really brazen and exclusively partisan effort to undermine presidential authority will almost certainly solidify Democratic support for a veto, if one is needed, of any legislation designed to sabotage the negotiation.
This episode is also likely to create even deeper divisions within the Israel lobby, particularly between mainstream groups like the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which are finding it ever more difficult to retain their bipartisan image and who were, apparently as a result, kept in the dark about House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Bibi about which they were clearly unhappy. Cotton’s initiative was an exclusively Republican affair, which, like Boehner’s invite, puts these groups in a very difficult position. This marks an intensification of the tensions generated by AIPAC’s decision a year ago to suspend its lobbying for the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill after it ran into a brick wall of Democratic opposition in the Senate. That decision drew scorn from Kristol’s ECI, Adelson’s Republican Jewish Coalition, and the far-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which receives substantial support from Adelson. As Kristol himself wrote at the the time:
It would be nice if there were universal bipartisan support for acting now to stop a nuclear Iran. But there apparently is not. And it would be terrible if history’s judgment on the pro-Israel community was that it made a fetish of bipartisanship — and got a nuclear Iran. [Emphasis added.]
As this latest maneuver shows, this coalition of right-wing groups, clearly backed by Netanyahu and Dermer and fuelled by the largess of Adelson and other RJC billionaires, has essentially taken over the Republican Party’s leadership, at least as it pertains to U.S. policy in the Middle East. (Even Rand Paul signed the letter.) As a result, they have become by far the most aggressive force in “pro-Israel” activity in Washington DC, leaving to AIPAC, the ADL, and the AJC the increasingly difficult task of reassuring increasingly alienated Democrats that supporting an Israel headed by the likes of Bibi Netanyahu is somehow consistent with their values and the national interest. This also means that long-faithful Congressional champions of AIPAC who pride themselves on working “across the aisle”—notably Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Menendez—have themselves playing second or third fiddle to upstart and ultra-partisan extremists like Cotton and Ted Cruz.
As a result of changes in election laws, we don’t know which specific donors provided ECI with that $960,000 that was then passed along to a pro-Cotton ad campaign in the closing days of the election last November, but the choice of ECI—and the obviously tight relationship between ECI and the RJC—as the conduit suggests that it came from people who think very highly of Bibi Netanyahu. We do know, however, the identity of one important source of direct financing for Cotton’s campaign. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website, the second biggest donor to his campaign was Elliott Management, a hedge fund headed by Paul Singer about whom we devoted a blog post, “The Jewish Billionaire Behind a New Christian Anti-Iran Group,” just last week. While the Club for Growth provided more than half a million dollars to Cotton’s campaign, Elliott supplied $143,100—about 50% more than the Senate Conservatives Fund and four times as much as Koch Industries. As we noted in last week’s post, Singer sits on the RJC board and has contributed to such hard-line neoconservative organizations as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and the American Enterprise Institute—all of which, consistent with Netanyahu, have denounced negotiations—let alone any deal with Iran.
Jim Lobe has served as Washington DC correspondent and chief of the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service (IPS), an international news agency specializing in coverage of issues and events of interest to developing countries, from 1980 to 1985, and again from 1989 to the present. He also runs the influential LobeLog website.