Thursday, October 30, 2008

Was Bush wrong about everything? A response.

Mr. Tobin,

As an unapologetic critic of Bush Administration policy in the Middle East, and particularly as it impacts Israel, I thank you for your effort to present the facts as even-handed as possible. Having lived in Israel for several years, beginning in 1960, and with a daughter and many friends living there, I know that my opinion is, among Israelis, the minority view. And doubly so in the eyes of Americans living in Israel.

I agree with your analysis in general, and with many details. I long considered the decision to invade Iraq irrational because ideological or emotion-based, strategically naïve. Were the administration aware, how could they fail to take into account that Iraq served as counter to Iranian ambitions. It is my understanding that not just the CIA (see the Tennant memoir), but Israeli and Saudi intelligence all warned that Iran rather than Iraq was the greater regional threat. You write that Iran would have pursued nuclear arms with or without the Iraqi enemy, and you may be correct. But even were that the case, an Iran distracted by what she perceived a significant enemy to the west would still be distracted, less of a threat to the wider region, to the oil producers, to the oil shipping lanes. Syria, for instance, with her own long border with Iraq, might well have been more cautious in her adventures since 2003, more restrained in her enthusiasm to serve her Iranian sponsor's hegemonic ambitions.

Iran has grown immeasurably in stature as a result of the invasion, and not just regarding her nuclear program. Thanks to the presence of the US invader Iran, like al-Quaida, has had an enemy against whom to hone her skills and confidence. Iran became sponsor, supplier and trainer of the Iraqi insurgents fighting the US military. Her enhanced stature in confronting US forces serves to embolden and encourage her confrontation with “western imperialism” region-wide, including her support for Hezbollah and Hamas. And what message does her success in challenging the US and Israel send to the Sunni oil producers across the Gulf?

Where once there existed a Sunni Iraq threatening Shiite Iran today, thanks to Bush, Iran shares he long border with the new Iraqi “democracy” led by a far weaker co-religionist Shiite-ruled regime.

And the threat to the Sunni oil producers, oil production and transport continues. Earlier this week Iran’s naval commander announced in a news conference the presence of a new base at the very mouth of the Straits of Hormuz, that relatively narrow shipping passage out of the Persian Gulf. And then, as if in concert, shortly after the news conference President Bush announced that the United States is opening an interest section in Teheran! Is the administration asleep at the wheel, or is Bush repaying the Islamic Republic for some undisclosed quid pro quo; perhaps pay-back for reigning in the Sadrist insurgency which allowed Bush to claim the Surge a “success”?

And a final note on this disaster of a presidency: a recent international opinion poll surveyed, among other countries, the Sunni oil producers and Israel as to how they viewed Bush. The Saudis and all other Arab states rated him in the single digits; Israel rated him very positively. At the very least, in Arab eyes this was a clear vote of no-confidence not only for Bush, but of their confidence in the credibility of the US to protect them against the Iranian threat. Ironically this may turn our to be the exception to the harm Bush has done Israel over the past eight years, for who but Israel can the Gulf states turn to should the situation with Iran deteriorate?

Regarding early and continuing Bush support for Abbas, I couldn't agree with you more. The architect of compromise with Israel at Oslo, having succeeded Arafat, was in a position to close the deal with Israel but chose instead compromise with Hamas. Clearly hoping to avoid open civil war, seeking to engage the Islamists in the electoral process, Abbas set the stage instead for Fateh’s Bush-sponsored electoral loss, the division of the Territories between the Islamists and the "secularists," and the continuing threat of civil war!

And a final word on what you describe as the "apocalyptic" Iranian nuclear threat. Quite true that Israel has received and can expect little backing from Europe or the US in confronting Iran. But ironically the main threat is likely not so much to Israel as to those who would hang Israel out to dry. To date and for the foreseeable future the "nuclear threat" likely involves a relatively primitive device and a delivery system to match. Should Iran actually achieve nuclear capability, the device would likely be most useful for suitcase rather than missile delivery. In other words Iran’s near-time nuclear device would be more suited as a weapon for terrorists than for state military use. And since Israel is as far ahead of the west in the area of counter-terrorism as it is ahead of Iran in weapons and delivery systems, the real threat of an Iranian bomb is precisely those countries preferring trade over sanctions, denial over confrontation, the United States and the European Union!

Friday, October 10, 2008

But is he (McCain) good for Israel?

Over the years Israel has tended to favor Republican over Democrat presidents. This is not the place to analyze this phenomenon and I raise it only as backdrop to the present question: which, if either of the two candidates for US president, is more likely to benefit Israel over the next four to eight years? Each was clearly addressing Jewish voters in proclaiming, when addressing the nuclear Iran issue, that he would never allow another Holocaust. But rhetoric aside how assess, not sincerity, since Israel serves an important function in American policy in the Middle East, but how each might be expected to exercise the levers of power available to the president should a crisis, such as dealing with a more critical Iranian threat, arise?

McCain makes issue of the relative newness of Obama to national politics, and certainly this means also that the Democrat has a relatively smaller record by which to be judged (as did John F. Kennedy in 1960). One factor worth noting is that if President Clinton, judged by his eight years effort to broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and having focused almost exclusively on that effort during his final months in office; if this qualifies Clinton as a “friend” of Israel then Obama’s choice of almost the entire Clinton team of Middle East advisors suggests that Obama also may be intending a more active administration policy in the Levant than has Bush over the past eight years.

As McCain himself points out, his own record goes back two decades and more, a record generally considered favorable to Israel. But his decisions in support of eight years of Bush Middle East policy opens questions of his judgment, and this issue will occupy the remainder of this article.

George W. Bush’s overall performance as president has left him highly unpopular to the general voting public, so much so that McCain is forced to frequently make a point of distancing himself from the Republican president. Except on the issue of Iraq. McCain proudly points to his support of the war, first by promoting the decision in the run-up to the invasion, and today as defender of that decision. As events stand five years into the war Iraq’s social, political and military infrastructures are in far worse condition than under the dictatorship, have never recovered from the effects of the invasion. Countless Iraqis and more than 4,000 US military personnel have so far paid for the war with their lives. The monetary cost to the American taxpayer is estimated at more than $10b per month, more than $600b since the invasion. And five years into the war, despite the positive rhetoric of politician supporters, five years after a jubilant war-time President Bush stood on the deck of that carrier in the Persian Gulf and declared victory, America’s generals responsible for the war's conduct are far more gloomy in their assessments.

The original rationale for war, weapons of mass destruction (wmd), Iraqi complicity in the World Trade Center outrage, have both long since been discredited. The only remaining justification was to remove and bring to justice the tyrant of Baghdad. But whatever the rationale, by decapitating the Iraqi regime Bush-Cheney-McCain introduced a power vacuum into the already unstable Gulf region, an event they should have been able to anticipate; a power vacuum into which Iran, previously constrained by the threat of her only credible enemy, Sadam Hussein’s Iraq, nimbly stepped. Taking advantage of a US military distracted by fighting two wars, Iran seized the opportunity to clandestinely providing the Shiite insurgents with IED’S (improvised explosive devices) and other weapons and training, then openly supporting the Iraqi insurgency being waged against US troops in Iraq. Ahmadinejad, the Iranian mouse that roared, brazenly called Bush’s bluff of preemptive military action should Iran not end its nuclear program. In the end, as Ahmadinejad expected, Bush demurred, the strike never took place, and Iran’s nuclear program continues today unchecked.

What was and should have been anticipated by Bush and those supporting the decision to invade, was the impact of even the implicit threat posed by an aggressive and radical Islamist regime across the gulf from the Arab oil producers. What should have been anticipated before deciding to go to war was the risk an unbound Iran would pose both to the production and the transport of oil to an energy dependent world. What should have been obvious to Bush and his policy supporters planning that war was how freeing Iran from the threat of its only credible regional enemy would impact the overall security of the region, the security of oil and resulting price inflation, and the impact of skyrocketing oil prices on the world economy. Was the invasion of Iraq and the resulting consequences the reason for the current crisis engulfing the world today? Probably not by itself. But it certainly set the economic and psychological stage for the disaster following the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.

At the very least the failure to anticipate these outcomes points to a dangerous lack of foresight, an absence of strategic awareness on the part of the Bush Administration and its supporters. If Bush is known to place dogma over data, to pride himself in following instinct over the advice of policy experts (including the CIA), how judge John McCain in his rush to support the Iraq invasion; how does his participation in this tragic policy-making debacle reflect on his much vaunted strategic military and diplomatic judgment?

I believe the above a fair representation of administration decision making, of the impact of agenda-driven elected decision makers on the United States and the world. Republicans, and particularly the current president have, and continue to enjoy, widespread popularity in Israel. But how warranted is that approval, that popularity? Can anyone say that Israel is better off today than she was eight years ago; is she likely to be better off eight years hence should another Republican administration under a President McCain succeed Bush in the White House?
Hanging the dictator of Baghdad may have served justice as a human rights issue, but from a national and world interest, as an example of "strategic" planning it can only be judged an unmitigated disaster. Israel (and the Gulf oil dependencies previously protected by a credible US defense umbrella) now has a new and serious military threat to deal with from a radical, missionary and hegemonic Iran, an Iran possibly going nuclear. The much-vaunted US defense shield of the oil fields and the region which Bush inherited from previous administrations back to Eisenhower is today, thanks to an overextended US military fighting two failing wars, in tatters. Which leaves to Israel the burden not only of immediate self-defense against Iran and her proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, but inheritor also of responsibility for what had before Bush been an American defense shield covering Israel and the oil producers. It is now on Israel’s shoulders to take protect those previous US dependencies, the Saudis and other Gulf states now facing the Iranian threat under the loud of an uncertain US protector.

But why does it fall to Israel to assume the role of protector of her formal enemies to the south? Because the Saudi coast of the Persian Gulf is Israel’s front line in any future war with Iran. It is a strategic imperative for Israel to deny that beachhead to Ahmadinejad. Nor does the risk to Israel bequeathed by the confused and misdirected Bush policy end here. Should Israel find it necessary in defense of her national interests, should the United States continue to distance itself from the threat posed by a nuclear Iran on her strategic interests, should it fall to Israel to deal with the Iranian threat unilaterally then blame for the tragic consequences resulting from that action, the economic fallout from the increased threat to the world's oil supplies will not fall on the country and president that created the problem, but on the state of the Jews and, since the reflexive reaction of the west to social stress is to blame the Jews, "world Jewry" can anticipate yet another cycle of traditional antisemitism.

Whatever their similarities or differences in social philosophy and international politics may in the end turn out to be, at the very least a President Obama offers a change of political party. And after eight disastrous Republican years in the White House, any change is better than four more years!