Michael Weiss

The foreign policy of redefinition

Words mean nothing until Barack Obama defines them

US Secretary of State John Kerry presents Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a pair of Idaho potatoes

How grimly amusing to watch the Israeli defense minister get caught in a trap of his own making by telling the truth. In an interview with Yedioth Aharonoth yesterday, Moshe Ya’alon called US Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic” and added that Oslo should simply award the unquiet American a Nobel Peace Prize already so that he “leaves us alone.”  For what it’s worth, I’ve heard many pro- and anti-Israel commentators and policymakers in Washington refer to Kerry as much worse than that over the years, but Ya’alon’s was apparently a Kinsley gaffe too far. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki defended her boss by replying that the Israeli was being “offensive and inappropriate” given all that the United States has done to satisfy Israel’s military needs, and given all that Kerry is currently doing to steward the country away from its own demographic and geopolitical demise. Not content with Ya’alon’s lame non-apology reaffirming “common objectives and interests” (a kiss-off if ever there was one), Foggy Bottom now wants Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he of the emollient bilateral word, to publicly chastise his own cabinet official.


Evidently there is no graver offense for an ally of the United States to commit in 2014 than to describe its top diplomat as Captain Ahab without the whale – an assessment shared by a growing roster of allies, as it happens. There is, by contrast, a much higher threshold for indignities coming from avowed enemies of the United States.


When Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced on Twitter that his mother had died on December 28, the same Kerry-run State Department, which has lately ironed out a much-scrutinized “interim” deal with Zarif over Iran’s nuclear program, expressed its “condolences to the respected family for its great loss.” Zarif chose to respond to this humane gesture on Monday, first by laying a wreath at the tomb of Imad Mughniyeh, the former Hezbollah commander who murdered the largest number of Americans prior to the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 (including 241 US troops and one CIA station chief), then by praising Iran and Lebanon’s dual commitment to “combati[ng] terrorism, which is the most dangerous phenomenon threatening regional stability” in a joint Beirut press conference with Lebanese Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati.


Mughniyeh’s flame hardly needs tending since Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are both guilty of ongoing terrorism in Syria, and the latter of arms-running to unstable Bahrain and Yemen. But perhaps because doing nothing is the new version of doing something, or because self-abasement is really peace through strength, Obama’s National Security Council only saw fit to respond to only the first of these twin insults by saying that the Mughniyeh tribute “sends the wrong message and will only exacerbate tensions in the region.” No one from the administration has yet to ask Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to publicly rebuke his foreign minister for being ungrateful given all that the United States has lately done for Iran. This includes, but is not limited to, acquiescence in the training and arming of Assad’s sectarian militias, which have been responsible for some of the most atrocious war crimes of the conflict; freeing up billions of its dollars in sanction-frozen cash; allowing Iran to assassinate Mohammed Chatah with impunity; allowing it to continue enriching uranium and constructing certain aspects of the weaponization components for a bomb which everybody apart from the Iranians still pretends Iran isn’t going to get. Indeed, the newish Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – a cherubic cleric who may have overseen the killing of dissidents but that was such a long time ago, in the 1990s, when we were all a bit wild and woolly – believes the deal struck between his regime and the P5+1 nations in Geneva last November represents a victory for the Islamic Republic and the “surrender” of the West.


“Surrender” is one of those nice words devoid of nuance or ambiguity, the kind that used to please George Orwell. It’s also meaningless to this White House. Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to Rouhani’s statement by saying: “It is not surprising to us... that the Iranians are describing the agreement in a certain way toward their domestic audience.” So this is just another milksop to “hardliners” in the Revolutionary Guards who want nothing more than to scupper any deal with the Great Satan. America, too, has its “hardliners,” as we’re constantly reminded by the administration’s happy surrogates in the media who do not bother to ask how, if a heralded “reformist” such as Rouhani can appease his hawks, Obama can’t be as generous to America’s own car bombers and airline hijackers, a squadron that now constitutes up nearly two-thirds of the US Senate?


According to The New York Times, a new piece of draft legislation that is mainly the work of Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would “aim to drive Iran’s oil exports down to zero” and would make any forthcoming agreement with Washington contingent on the following: “Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world.” The State Department still considers Iran to be the world’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism,” but even if it did not, putting a moratorium on killing Americans while negotiations proceed with the prospective killers about their quest for weapons of mass destruction ought to be a small “ask” for any commander-in-chief.


Or so you would think. The administration has responded to this bill by threatening to veto it and by calling the 59 senators who support it warmongers. “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so,” said Bernadette Meehan, admittedly a different person from the National Security Council spokesperson who accused Zarif of the lesser crime of sending a bad “message” and “exacerbating tensions.” If the president views a majority of nationally elected legislators as a greater threat to national security than Qassem Suleimani or Hassan Nasrallah, he should be up front with the American public and say so.


A former aide and trusted confidante of Kerry’s has already gone much further than that and announced that Iranian terrorism is really no big deal at all anymore. Edward Levine, who once worked for both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just told the Washington Free Beacon: “This language [of the Senate bill] would mean that, if, say, Hezbollah were to explode a bomb outside a US firm’s office in Beirut, the sanctions would go into effect… even if Iran’s nuclear activities and negotiations were completely in good faith.” I quite admire the use of the word “even” in that sentence. American enterprises in Lebanon can take heart that if their employees get incinerated, it’s to make the world a better place.


It hardly seems likely that Levine is going off-script from what has become a rapprochement-besotted foreign policy establishment, one immune to bad faith, cold water, or Iranian misbehavior. Exquisitely well-timed items now read like joint diplomatic statements between Washington and Tehran. “US and Iran Face Common Enemies in Mideast Strife,” declared a New York Times headline on January 6, citing recent US offers of military aid to the largely Iranian-controlled government in Baghdad for fighting a resurgent al-Qaeda in Anbar Province as a prime example of purportedly convergent national interests. We already knew that Ryan Crocker, who thinks the IRGC only turned anti-American after George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech and who wants the US to openly back Assad, was not too long ago offered Robert Ford’s job at the State Department. (He turned it down.) We also know that Obama officials have intimated a new “role” for Iran in the Middle East, from Syria to Afghanistan. Yet the revisionism of Iran’s prior role seems to be approaching the level of an international syndrome. “We face the same enemy, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Times quoted Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a “prominent Iranian reformist journalist,” before allowing him to remember Iran’s intelligence sharing with the United States about the Taliban (a favor the US government is now returning by sharing its own intelligence with Iran and Hezbollah about salafis in Lebanon and Syria).


Sensing such a change in stateside atmosphere, where all we have to fear is a bloodthirsty Congress, Iran is now positioning itself not as a state sponsor of terrorism, but instead an imminent partner in the war on terror. The only catch is that terror has to be Sunni in origin. Ancient history, it seems, is the 9/11 Commission Report, which found, inter alia, “[t]here is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers” and that “[a]fter 9/11, Iran and Hezbollah wished to conceal any past evidence of cooperation with Sunni terrorists associated with al-Qaeda.”


The Kremlin, too, has benefited from Obama’s the-deal-is-an-end-unto-itself monomania by stepping once again into its own favorite role of geopolitical dom to America’s safety-word-deprived sub. Vladimir Putin is trying to sell undisclosed Russian “equipment and goods” to Iran in exchange for 500,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil. As Reuters revealed on January 10, citing an Iranian official, this may happen whether or not the Geneva deal comes to fruition. “Russian purchases of 500,000 bpd of Iranian crude,” journalists Jonathan Saul and Parisa Hafezi wrote, “would lift Iran’s oil exports by 50 percent and provide a major boost to its struggling economy. With current oil prices near $100 a barrel, Iran would earn about an additional $1.5 billion a month.” That’s very interesting because the interim deal is meant to last six months and only free up around $7 billion of sanctioned money. If inked, this sideline arrangement would render either an additional or a supplemental $9 billion to Tehran during that same time period. Is this, then, disruptive of US designs or the global march to disarmament? Don’t be silly. On Monday, a grinning John Kerry handed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov two potatoes – why, not even BuzzFeed knows. The gift seems fitting given all the spuds Lavrov’s thrown at a receptive Kerry in the past year.


When that great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz tried to understand moral and intellectual ravages of the 20th century, he came up with a series of ironic couplets intended as the mantras of ideologues. “Let your words speak not through their meanings/But through them against whom they are used,” was but one example. Words from the regimes of Iran, Russia, and Syria mean nothing now because the executive branch is speaking on their behalf. The result is a colossal mission of redefinition. A skeptic is belligerent, a terrorist is a counterterrorist, and an enemy is a friend.


Messianic and obsessive is surely one way to describe this foreign policy.

Exchanging spuds. (AFP Photo/Pool/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

"Iran is now positioning itself not as a state sponsor of terrorism but instead an imminent partner in the war on terror. The only catch is that terror has to be Sunni in origin."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Verbose, dilatory, angry and disgruntled sore loser.

    January 15, 2014