Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research and is co-author with Jed Babbin of The BDS War Against Israel.
The Iran Deal is a Turning Point
Among scholars, World War I was a turning point in modern history. The war elicited a Communist Party ruling a nation, the war was the seedbed for the rise of Nazism, and the war led to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Clearly, the postwar global map was altered. History was bisected into pre- and post-World War I.
Alas, we are in another turning point in this new century. Roughly a hundred years from World War I, the P5+1 deal has bisected 21st century history into pre- and post-Iran negotiations. The world, as we have known it, has been interred, replaced by a series of monumental changes.
Pre-Iran deal will seem halcyonic compared to what awaits us. Just as pre-World War I was considered an age of innocence, pre-Iran deal will be thought of as the era of denial. The globe will not be same again as the tectonic changes come into focus.
First, Iran will be regarded as a "strong horse" in the Middle East. Not only does Iran have sufficient capability for a bomb at a time of its choosing, the lifting of sanctions will energize its economy and expand its regional aspirations.
Second, the state system that the Sykes and Picot Agreement helped to create a century ago no longer exists, creating a Middle East map that is unrecognizable. A power vacuum emerging from the U.S. regional withdrawal has opened a Pandora's box as Islamic extremists, subjugated ethnic groups, and warlords compete for the contested space in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
Third, new alliances have emerged with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Turkey joining Israel in opposition to Shia expansion through Iranian military activity. The U.S. rapprochement with Iran has alarmed the Sunni states and Israel, leading to a belief that American military strength to counteract hostile regional forces is no longer an option, in fact, cannot even be summoned.
Fourth, Russia under Vladimir Putin's leadership has inserted its military into a dominant role in the eastern Mediterranean with the U.S. retreat. Taking the lead in the war against the Islamic State, Russia has developed a "coordination cell" in Iraq that includes the Iraqi army and the Iranian Quds. Hence, Russia is the presumptive "stabilizing" influence in the region with motives that are not benign.
For Mr. Putin any form of chaos that results in high oil prices is desirable. Therefore, it is plausible that the real prize is not the Russian footprint in Syria, but an influence over the Saudi Arabian oil fields. Moreover, Russian military presence in Syria influences Israeli ability to retaliate when Hezbollah and Hamas engage in missile attacks. Israel understands its hostile neighbors, but it does not want to go to war with Russia - if that can be avoided.
If Iran is the emerging strong horse in the Middle East, Russia is its jockey. The cooperation between the two states does not bode well for Sunni states. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently met with Mr. Putin, pointing out - one can only assume - that Israel is obliged to defend itself, but in so doing it does not want to encounter Russian forces on the other side of the military divide.
As Mr. Putin sees it, the "humiliation" the Soviet Union faced in 1989 with the dismemberment of its empire must be restored. His chessboard moves in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, his challenges to NATO, his humiliation of the United States and his intrusion with military force into Syria are efforts to restore the "near abroad," the empire he saw dismembered. Moreover, he can accomplish his goals with the U.S. enfeebled by a president who can only engage in wishful thinking and doesn't possess a scintilla of strategic awareness. This is the Russian moment, a point both Mr. Putin and Middle East leaders recognize.
Mr. Putin presents himself to the U.N. as the man who can save the Middle East from entropy. Perhaps he can, but at a price that may be unacceptable. The face he is wearing at the moment belies real intentions.
I am reminded of a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter:
No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.
So far, Mr. Putin has pulled it off. The question, of course, is when will the mask of President Obama be removed.
Why Government Has Grown
Former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, once said "all politics is local." It was a simple statement that in time became axiomatic. One politician after another echoed the refrain. In fact, I cannot recall any public refutations.
For a while logic suggested that this assertion is correct. In my judgment, however, that time has passed; if anything politics has become national.
The relationship between the government and the individual is complicated in large part because of mediating institutions - the private agencies of family, schools, churches, and associations. These institutions in the aggregate are individually served to moderate a heavy and intrusive hand of federal authority. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about America in the 1840s, described these institutions as part of the national character and national resiliency.
The difficulty with this characterization is that these moderating structures are in disarray. Each is failing at its role, eroding the barrier between government and the individual.
Family status is confused by the high rate of divorce, illegitimacy and polyamory. The bonds that held family together are challenged by progressive notions of sexual union. What a family is, how it is defined, is subject to a variety of interpretations; one thing is clear - the family as a unit, together through a bond, is rapidly disappearing.
Empirical evidence is mounting that the schools do not do their jobs. Students graduate from high school unprepared for a job or higher education. Most significantly, the principles on which American civilization is based are not transmitted. Young people may love the freedom America allows, but they know very little about "first principles" or why our form of liberty must be defended. Unanchored to traditional belief, these citizens are subject to propaganda and the incremental loss of liberty.
Churches were once religious centers urging a belief in God. Some still perform this role. But many are social and political centers promoting social justice, narrowly construed as political lobbying. Sermons often deal with national issues rather than biblical propositions. The result is that churches have lost their legitimacy as moral arbiters. They may represent some segment of the population, but cannot claim the role of transcendent interpreters of faith or morals.
Associations were once the bulwark of civil authority and pride. They did good deeds; they were the backbone of towns; they represented civic duty and a desire to help those in need. Now, however, their numbers are dwindling. Those in attendance tend to be gray around the temples. Downtown associations are becoming uptown clubs.
Facing conditions of the kind described here, it is hardly surprising that the influence of the federal government is growing. Citizens are adrift searching for meaning in lives that cannot find comfort in traditional institutions.
The nanny state organized by President Obama and his advisors is a national outgrowth of mediating institutions in trouble. If there is a way out of this morass, it is through restoration. Rebuilding schools as learning centers; families as units of cohesion; churches as moral centers; and associations as the backbone of civic authority. It can be done, but it does mean weaning the citizenry from the teat of national assistance. After decades of feeding at the public trough, citizens have habits of mind which have been inscribed. As I see it, the time has come to un-inscribe them. And it is suitable to do so as soon as possible.
Russian Attacks on U.S. Backed Rebels
For several successive days Russian planes have targeted Syrian rebel troops backed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Even the recalcitrant Obama administration had to admit this is an intentional campaign to degrade U.S. efforts at deposing President Assad. According to official reports the Obama administration is "angry."
Clearly Obama doesn't want to get sucked into a proxy war in Syria, but at the same time he cannot (should not?) abandon CIA-backed rebels who have put their lives on the line to oppose Assad's army.
There is little doubt in any quarter that Russian attacks on U.S. allies are a direct challenge to Obama's policy of partial intervention.
Russian officials contend the air campaign in Syria is designed to fight ISIS and other terrorists. However, targeting tells a different story. There is also a report that a Russian aircraft destroyed a U.S. surveillance drone.
A Rebel spokesman in Syria argues that Russian planes struck an Ezzeh gathering (a CIA-backed group) in Hama province catching the fighters off guard. Seventeen more strikes followed over a three-day campaign injuring 25 rebel fighters. Obama administration officials considered asking Russian forces to avoid certain areas in Syria, but came to the conclusion that the Russians could use this information to even more directly target U.S. allies. Clearly the U.S. is not only on the defensive, it does not have a strategy to protect its allies.
When several rebel forces gained a foothold in northern Syria, Assad lost confidence in his ability to protect coastal areas including Latakia province. That condition was most likely the catalyst for Russian advancement in the area and the desire to build a major military facility there.
Weakening moderate rebel forces is central to Russian ambitions. Putin is attempting to put Obama in the position of having to accept Assad, despite all Obama's claims about deposition. Should that happen, the U.S. will have lost face with its former Middle East allies; Russia will have demonstrated its hegemony in the region; Assad will have been "rewarded" for killing 250,000 of his own people, and using poison gas, and American alliances will be called into question around the globe.
Rebel forces are understandably disheartened. They were trained by the CIA and offered American support. Now they have been left to dangle. When asked about future support, several officers said, "There is nothing specific."
Here too is another graphic sign of American weakness. Without deploying a force of our own in the region - which President Obama justifiably wants to avoid - there could still be a demand for "safe areas" and "no fly zones" which U.S. aircraft could defend. It is morally unconscionable to train rebel troops we place in the battlefield, only to see them exposed to Russian air strikes.
Russia's goal is clear: Protect President Assad. Assertions about the war on terror are a pretense. According to reports, there has been one bombing mission directed at ISIS and al Nusra, the Syrian al Qaeda operation; all of the others are directed at rebel troops.
The stakes in this conflict go well beyond Syria. They involve the geography in the Middle East, Russian influence in the Ukraine, and even the waves of immigrants floating to European shores. A "What me worry?" president either doesn't fathom the consequences of inaction or it is part of his scheme for withdrawal and retreat.
Israel Defending Itself
Recent reports have indicated that hundreds of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops entered Syria in early September. Moreover, the accord on intelligence among Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria suggests Russian troops will be assisting the Iranians in the war against ISIS. That may not be all.
Israeli officials are appropriately concerned that Russian troops will be operating in the Golan Heights along with Hezbollah and Assad-led Syrian forces. Israel is faced with the additional challenge of the expanded Russian presence in Syria, especially in the Latakia region, where in the past IDF forces destroyed arms convoys intended for Hezbollah.
When Israeli forces returned fire on two Syrian positions near Quneitra, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded: "We respect Israel's interests related to the Syrian civil war but we are concerned about its attacks on Syria." Clearly this statement is mutually contradictory; if you are concerned about Israel's interests then it must be protected by defensive military action. Nonetheless, this response stands as a warning signal. Certain attacks may be justified so long as they do not jeopardize the position and security of Syria's President Bashar al Assad.
In a recent trip to Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that Israel
. . . will maintain its position of noninvolvement in the Syrian civil war, but I would not allow Hezbollah and other terrorist groups to amass advanced weapons systems, nor would I tolerate attacks against the Golan Heights.
This statement was obviously an effort to establish rules of engagement with Russian forces, rules that would be violated if Russia equips Hezbollah with sophisticated missiles. There is little doubt that the presence of Russian forces introduces a new and somewhat constraining variable in Israeli strategic thinking.
It is also instructive that Iran has agreed to purchase $21 billion worth of aircraft and satellite equipment from Russia, one of the largest military transactions in Russian history and a transaction made possible through the lifting of sanctions.
What this means is that Israel is not only surrounded by Muslim neighbors with evil intent, but Russia directly or indirectly, could be in an adversarial position as well. From the defensive position Israel is in, there aren't easy answers. In the past the support of the United States served as a counter-weight to the hostile intent of Israel's Arab neighbors. However, the Iran deal militates against active U.S. assistance. For the Obama team, Israel is a distraction standing in the way of a regional plan that includes U.S. withdrawal and Iranian hegemony.
Russia's enlarged military footprint in Syria has not even led to a whimper from President Obama, a silence that sends a clear and uncluttered message to Israel. As a consequence, Israel is on its own, unmoored from ties to the United States. This complicates military action, but it does not forestall what may be necessary.
Israelis realize what Evelyn Waugh once noted, that
. . . barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity.
Israel has experienced those atrocities with knifings on the street, often from unexpected quarters. Now it is alone on a globe that seemingly does not care about the Jewish state. The questions that remain are: Can Israel defend itself and can it maintain the morale necessary to defeat its apparent and possible enemies? These are "big" questions.
Blindness in the Rationalist Tradition
President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have conceded that some portion of the money released to Iran through the lifting of sanctions will result in "bad behavior," a euphemism for terrorism. The supposition of the president's team is that despite the bad behavior, Iran, unconstrained by sanctions, will in time join the community of responsible nations. In other words our concessions will yield a positive response from the Supreme Leader Khamenei and his acolytes.
What is in evidence in these negotiations is the implicit Western belief in rationalism, a stance that suggests our enemies, with the appropriate incentives, will act just as we would. "Trust but verify" is the qualifier President Reagan used in his negotiations with the Soviets. President Obama, on the other hand, has resorted to trust and have faith in rational expectations. What happens when the adversary is irrational remains unclear. A theological belief system and acceptance of taqiyya (a religious lie to promote the interests of Islam) challenge assumptions of rationality.
Nonetheless, rationalists persist. At a recent meeting a discussion took place on ways to combat ISIS's influence in the Middle East. The intelligent and well-meaning host argued that a campaign designed to show the unspeakable and monstrous crimes of ISIS combatants might discourage many from joining this poisonous group. Here was the rationalist worldview on display - clear, hopeful, and seemingly sensible. Yet the one point rationalists cannot seem to comprehend is that rationalism doesn't defeat irrationalism. At some point, even if it isn't in his nature, and even if there is recalcitrance to embrace this position, the rationalist must be as ruthless as his enemy.
The only way to defeat the dragon is to deliver enough heat to counter his fire. President Lincoln had to send a message to Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan: destroy the enemy. General Patton wasn't loved by General Eisenhower or President FDR, but he could be as ruthless in war as the Nazi forces. Victory against relentless enemies doesn't occur because of films and conferences, it occurs because of sacrifice and bloodshed. That is the axiom of war.
For those who want to avoid war at all costs, there is talk, negotiation, and concession. But this is merely a delaying tactic until that moment when the enemy feels sufficient strength or recognizes weakness in his opponent to attack. History speaks volumes on this point.
Yet the same mistake will be made in the West as was made in the past because we are constrained by an unwillingness to recognize evil. For us, there is always a rationalization, a belief that there must be a reason for "bad behavior." When the attack on 9/11 occurred there were rationalists publishing articles about American misdeeds in the Middle East and a host of explanations each having some scintilla of evidence behind it. But it would not be said that this attack was an act of evil and, in order to correct it, we must stamp out that evil using every means available to us.
As a consequence we negotiate, hoping that enemies who say "death to America" don't really mean it. President Obama rationalizes by saying "that's politics." Too bad no one from the press asks if his political statements should be put under the same lens.
Goethe's Mephistopheles tells Faust "I am the spirit that denies! And justly so, for all that time creates, He does well who annihilates!" Alas, we deny those who wish to annihilate. We assume that we are immune. That history - this time - will not repeat itself, that the beast who wants to destroy will betray his instincts and act as we would like. Unfortunately the enemy of the West isn't only found in the deserts of the Middle East or the steppes of Russia, but within ourselves and a rationalist view that is unwilling to recognize evil. *