Global leadership is based on two things – power and credibility. The United States remains the most powerful actor in the world. But last week, American credibility was shattered.
Secretary of State John Kerry spent the first part of last week lying to Israeli and Gulf Arab leaders and threatening the Israeli people. He lied to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Saudis about the content of the deal US and European negotiators had achieved with the Iranians.
Kerry told them that in exchange for Iran temporarily freezing its nuclear weapons development program, the US and its allies would free up no more than $5 billion in Iranian funds seized and frozen in foreign banks.
Kerry threatened the Israeli people with terrorism and murder – and so invited both – if Israel fails to accept his demands for territorial surrender to PLO terrorists that reject Israel’s right to exist.
Kerry’s threats were laced with bigoted innuendo.
He claimed that Israelis are too wealthy to understand their own interests. If you don’t wise up and do what I say, he intoned, the Europeans will take away your money while the Palestinians kill you. Oh, and aside from that, your presence in the historic heartland of Jewish civilization from Jerusalem to Alon Moreh is illegitimate.
It is hard to separate the rise in terrorist activity since Kerry’s remarks last week from his remarks.
What greater carte blanche for murder could the Palestinians have received than the legitimization of their crimes by the chief diplomat of Israel’s closest ally? Certainly, Kerry’s negotiating partner Catherine Ashton couldn’t have received a clearer signal to ratchet up her economic boycott of Jewish Israeli businesses than Kerry’s blackmail message, given just two days before the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Kerry’s threats were so obscene and unprecedented that Israeli officials broke with tradition and disagreed with him openly and directly, while he was still in the country. Normally supportive leftist commentators have begun reporting Kerry’s history of anti-Israel advocacy, including his 2009 letter of support for pro-Hamas activists organizing flotillas to Gaza in breach of international and American law.
As for Kerry’s lies to the US’s chief Middle Eastern allies, it was the British and the French who informed the Israelis and the Saudis that far from limiting sanctions relief to a few billion dollars in frozen funds, the draft agreement involved ending sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas sector, and on other industries.
In other words, the draft agreement exposed Washington’s willingness to effectively end economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran’s agreement to cosmetic concessions that will not slow down its nuclear weapons program.
Both the US’s position, and the fact that Kerry lied about that position to the US’s chief allies, ended what was left of American credibility in the Middle East. That credibility was already tattered by US fecklessness in Syria and support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
True, in the end, Kerry was unable to close the deal he rushed off to Geneva to sign last Friday.
Of course, it wasn’t Iran that rejected the American surrender. And it wasn’t America that scuttled the proposal. It was France. Unable to hide behind American power and recognizing its national interest in preventing Iran from emerging as a nuclear armed power in the Middle East, France vetoed a deal that paved the way a nuclear Iran.
Kerry’s failure to reach the hoped-for deal represented a huge blow to America, and a double victory for Iran. The simple fact that Washington was willing to sign the deal – and lie about it to its closest allies – caused the US to lose its credibility in the Middle East. Even without the deal, the US paid the price of appeasing Iran and surrendering leadership of the free world to France and Israel.
Just by getting the Americans to commit themselves to reducing sanctions while Iran continues its march to a nuclear weapon, Iran destroyed any remaining possibility of doing any serious non-military damage to Iran’s plans for nuclear weaponry. At the same time, the Americans boosted Iranian credibility, endorsed Iranian power, and belittled Israel and Saudi Arabia – Iran’s chief challengers in the Middle East. Thus, Iran ended Pax Americana in the Middle East, removing the greatest obstacle in its path to regional hegemony. And it did so without having to make the slightest concession to the Great Satan.
As Walter Russell Mead wrote last week, it was fear of losing Pax Americana that made all previous US administrations balk at reaching an accord with Iran. As he put it, “Past administrations have generally concluded that the price Iran wants for a different relationship with the United States is unsustainably high. Essentially, to get a deal with Iran we would have to sell out all of our other allies. That’s not only a moral problem. Throwing over old allies like that would reduce the confidence that America’s allies all over the world have in our support.”
The Obama administration just paid that unsustainably high price, and didn’t even get a different relationship with Iran.
Most analyses of what happened in Geneva last week have centered on what the failure of the talks means for the future of Obama’s foreign policy.
Certainly Obama, now universally reviled by America’s allies in the Middle East, will be diplomatically weakened. This diplomatic weakness may not make much difference to Obama’s foreign policy, because appeasement and retreat do not require diplomatic strength.
But the real story of what happened last week is far more significant than the future of Obama’s foreign policy. Last week it was America that lost credibility, not Obama. It was America that squandered the essential component of global leadership. And that is the watershed event of this young century.
States act in concert because of perceived shared interests. If Israel and Saudi Arabia combine to attack Iran’s nuclear installations it will be due to their shared interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. But that concerted action will not make them allies.
Alliances are based on the perceived longevity of the shared interests, and that perception is based on the credibility of international actors.
Until Obama became president, the consensus view of the US foreign policy establishment and of both major parties was that the US had a permanent interest in being the hegemonic power in the Middle East. US hegemony ensured three permanent US national security interests: preventing enemy regimes and terror groups from acquiring the means to cause catastrophic harm; ensuring the smooth flow of petroleum products through the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal; and demonstrating the credibility of American power by ensuring the security of US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. The third interest was an essential foundation of US deterrence of the Soviets during the Cold War, and of the Chinese over the past decade.
Regardless of who was in the White House, for the better part of 70 years, every US government has upheld these interests. This consistency built US credibility, which in turn enabled the US to throw its weight around.
Obama departed from this foreign policy consensus in an irrevocable manner last week. In so doing, he destroyed US credibility.
It doesn’t matter who succeeds Obama. If a conservative internationalist in the mold of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan is elected in 2016, Obama’s legacy will make it impossible for him to rebuild the US alliance structure. US allies will be willing to buy US military platforms – although not exclusively.
They will be willing to act in a concerted manner with the US on a temporary basis to advance specific goals.
But they will not be willing to make any longterm commitments based on US security guarantees.
They will not be willing to place their strategic eggs in the US basket.
Obama has taught the world that the same US that elected Truman and formed NATO, and elected George H.W. Bush and threw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, can elect a man who betrays US allies and US interests to advance a radical ideology predicated on a rejection of the morality of American power. Any US ally is now on notice that US promises – even if based on US interests – are not reliable. American commitments can expire the next time America elects a radical to the White House.
Americans uninterested in surrendering their role as global leader to the likes of Tehran’s ayatollahs, Russia’s KGB state and Mao’s successors, must take immediate steps mitigate the damage Obama is causing. Congress could step in to clip his radical wings.
If enough Democrats can be convinced to break ranks with Obama and the Democratic Party’s donors, Congress can pass veto-proof additional sanctions against Iran. These sanctions can only be credible with America’s spurned allies if they do not contain any presidential waiver that would empower Obama to ignore the law.
They can also take action to limit Obama’s ability to blackmail Israel, a step that is critical to the US’s ability to rebuild its international credibility.
For everyone from Anwar Sadat to South American democrats, for the past 45 years, America’s alliance with Israel was a central anchor of American strategic credibility. The sight of America standing with the Jewish state, in the face of a sea of Arab hatred, is what convinced doubters worldwide that America could be trusted.
America’s appalling betrayal of Jerusalem under Obama likewise is the straw that has broken the back of American strategic credibility from Taipei to Santiago. If Congress is interested in rectifying or limiting the damage, it could likewise remove the presidential waiver that enables Obama to continue to finance the PLO despite its involvement in terrorism and continued commitment to Israel’s destruction. Congress could also remove the presidential waiver from the law requiring the State Department to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Finally, Congress can update its anti-boycott laws to cover new anti-Israel boycotts and economic sanctions against the Jewish state and Jewish-owned Israeli companies.
These steps will not fully restore America’s credibility.
After all, the twice-elected president of the United States has dispatched his secretary of state to threaten and deceive US allies while surrendering to US foes. It is now an indisputable fact that the US government may use its power to undermine its own interests and friends worldwide.
What these congressional steps can do, however, is send a message to US allies and adversaries alike that Obama’s radical actions do not represent the wishes of the American people and will not go unanswered by their representatives in Congress.