Topsy turvy foreign policy stirs deep concerns

Robert A. Cohn

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

With all of the national media focused so intently on the glitches in the roll out of Heathcare.gov, the website for the Affordable Care Act, some serious foreign policy issues have gone disturbingly unnoticed. Consider:

•  A few scant weeks ago, when it was proved that the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had indeed used deadly sarin gas to kill 1,400 innocent civilians, including 400 children, the United States seemed poised to launch Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s chemical weapons sites. After Secretary of State John Kerry had given speeches comparing Assad to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, President Barack Obama suddenly referred the matter to Congress for an authorization vote, even though it would face almost certain defeat.

• Kerry, in a meeting of foreign ministers in Geneva, made an off-hand comment to a question as to whether Assad could avoid a military response, by stating the only way out for him was if he agreed to destroy all of his chemical weapons facilities and stockpiles. Suddenly, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin threw his ally Assad a life preserver by offering to back the plan for Assad to agree to a monitored removal of his chemical weapons factories and stockpiles.  While the avoidance of a military conflict involving U.S. and allied troops is generally a preferable option, can we really trust Putin and the Russians who have been supplying Assad with long-range missiles and other heavy weapons? Russia and its ally China have abused their veto threat at the United Nations Security Council for two and a half years to block any and all meaningful resolutions to curtail Assad’s ruthless attacks on his own people.  Can we really sleep better at night knowing that Assad has managed to stay in power and that the decision-making on how to respond to his brutality has been turned over to his chief sponsor, Russia?

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•  Related to the Syrian conflict is the crucial support Assad is receiving from both the regime in Iran, which has sent in Republican Guard troops to assist in the fighting the various opposition groups, and the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah, which has also been heavily involved in the conflict.  Last Friday, the New York Times reported that the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, told a group of his followers at his stronghold in southern Beirut that his forces would remain there “as long as necessary.”  Are we supposed to overlook the fact that Hezbollah engaged in a major military conflict with Israel in 2007 in which it fired thousands of rockets and missiles into northern Israel?  Meanwhile, since the military option was not exercised, Assad’s forces have been emboldened, and according to Human Rights Watch have used incendiary weapons, which like chemical weapons are barred by international conventions.  Is this another “inconvenient truth” we are supposed to ignore as the slaughter continues unabated and Assad’s forces have gained the upper hand in key regions of the war-ravaged country?

• Related to all of the above are the negotiations with the “new” government in Iran that are taking place in Geneva between representatives of the government of Iran, whose new president Hassan Rouhani has been described as “moderate” and the “P5 + 1 nations—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the U.S., Great Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany. 

Talks in Iran and the six world powers on Nov. 9 were widely expected to produce a “deal” under which Iran would agree to “reduce” its enrichment of uranium in exchange for an easing of the “crippling” economic sanctions that the U.S. and its allies have imposed.  The U.S. had largely ignored the constant warnings from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that such a deal would be a mistake of “historic” proportions. Kerry joined the other foreign ministers in Geneva for what was expected to be a signing ceremony, but French Foreign Minister Laruent Fabius surprised his colleagues by denouncing the proposed draft as a “sucker’s deal.” 

Who could ever have predicted that France of all nations would show the backbone to stand up to the possibility that Iran might gain the capacity to develop weapons-grade enriched uranium through the stalling tactic of endless talks and deeply flawed agreements?  Those who have closely followed events in the Middle East in recent months should not be totally surprised.  French President Francois Hollande had offered to support an American military response in Syria even after the British Prime Minister David Cameron folded his cards after the British Parliament rejected the proposal—the first such refusal by a British government to support its long time “special relationship” ally in over 120 years.

Hollande had made it clear, according to a column in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, that he was displeased with the deal with Syria because it “legitimized Assad and put a nail in the coffin of any conceivable resolution of a devastating conflict.”

Cohen makes it clear that the Socialist President Francois Hollande’s resolute stance on Iran follows that of “successive French Presidents—from Jacque Chirac through Nicolas Sarkozy (who have had) a consistent view:  The Islamic Republic of Iran wants a bomb; only a tough approach will stop it.”  Hence the actions by the French Foreign Minister Fabius which prevented a weak deal from being signed on Nov. 9.

Now the P5 +1 powers are gathering for a second round in Geneva at the very time that Nethanyahu has given Hollande a “hero’s welcome” in Israel.

In a New York Times report Sunday, Hollande offered his assurances to Israel that he will “keep the pressure on Iran.”  While emphasizing that negotiations were always preferable to military force, Hollande made it clear that France would not accept a bad deal that would leave Israel and the West with the possibility that Iran could use its current “charm offensive” as a pretext for buying enough time to develop weapons grade uranium.

At a red-carpet welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Netanyahu thanked Hollande for his “resolute stance” on both Syria and Iran. Hollande assured Israel that France “will not tolerate nuclear proliferation.”  He vowed to keep the pressure on Iran until it was clear that it has given up its quest for nuclear weapons, and declared in Hebrew, “I will always remain a friend of Israel.”

Politics and war indeed make strange bedfellows.  But at a time when Israel seems more isolated than ever on the world diplomatic stage, it is refreshing that one of the historic allies of both Israel and the U.S, France, has offered such crucial support.