Just three weeks ago, Washington’s hawks, particularly of the pro-Israel neo-conservative variety, were flying high, suddenly filled with hope.
President Barack Obama, having trapped himself with his own “red-line” rhetoric, appeared on the verge of ordering air strikes designed not only to deter Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from re-using his chemical weapons, but also, at their urging, to degrade his military machine in a way that could shift the tide of battle toward the rebels in the two-year-old civil war that Obama had desperately tried to stay out of.
It was win-win all the way. In addition to landing a heavy body blow against Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, they whispered to themselves that such an attack might also sabotage prospects for serious negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear programme with its moderate and dangerously appealing new president, Hassan Rouhani.
In any event, a strike would serve as a valuable precedent for similar – if even more ambitious – action against Iran’s nuclear facilities some time in the next year, as well restore U.S. military credibility in a region from which U.S. power was seen to be dangerously in retreat.
Today, with those promising attacks suspended indefinitely, the same hawks are down in the dumps, not to say downright desperate. Some are even comparing the chain of events over the past two weeks to the West’s “appeasement” policies that contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
“…[S]yria is merely Act One. Next week Act Two opens at the United Nations,” wrote Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, co-founder of The Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) and the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), Friday.
“There, we’ll see a charm offensive worthy of Richard III by the new Iranian president and veteran deceiver of the West, Hassan Rouhani. In response the Obama administration will move on from punting in Syria to appeasing Iran.
“Smaller retreats lead to larger ones. The West’s failure to resist Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 – and his troops’ use of poison gas – was merely a foretaste of the failure to resist Hitler when he took the Rhineland in March 1936,” he warned, evoking Winston’s Churchill’s denunciation in the British Parliament of London’s appeasement policies in the run-up to the World War Two.
Ironically, it was the British Parliament that appears to have set off the extraordinary chain of events that brought the hawks to their current depths of despond. Its vote against participating in any military action against Syria persuaded Obama to yield to a rising bipartisan tide in Congress demanding that he seek its formal authorisation before launching strikes.
The administration mounted an intense lobbying effort, enlisting key Republican hawks, notably Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham (who demanded stronger military action and enhanced military aid for the rebels as the price for their backing), as well as the powerful American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel groups in the cause, but popular support for an attack was not forthcoming.
Worse, because of the August recess, most lawmakers were in their home districts among their constituents, rather than in the “Beltway Bubble” where elite opinion and the “talking heads” who dominate the airwaves tilted generally in favour of military action. And while the Congressional leadership of both parties supported the authorisation, they said members were free to vote their conscience.
As Congress reconvened, it became clear that the White House would be lucky to win in the Senate but had no chance of prevailing in the House. Despite the efforts of McCain and Graham, who had long been treated by the mainstream media as the party’s chief spokesmen on foreign policy issues, Republican support for the authorisation virtually collapsed. Both Obama and the hawks faced certain defeat.
It was at that moment that Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most influential foreign backer, threw Obama a lifeline.
By offering a deal whereby Damascus agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and place its chemical arms under international control, he permitted Obama to suspend both Congressional and military action pending implementation of the plan, the operational details of which are now being worked out.
If the White House was relieved, the hawks were furious.
“What could be worse for America’s standing in the world than a Congress refusing to support a President’s proposal for military action against a rogue regime that used WMD [weapons of mass destruction]?” asked the Wall Street Journal’s neo-conservative editorial page. “Here’s one idea: A U.S. President letting that rogue be rescued from military punishment by the country that has protected the rogue all along.”
“The Iranians will take it as a signal that they can similarly trap Mr. Obama in a diplomatic morass that claims to have stopped their nuclear program,” it went on, a point ceaselessly echoed since by other hawks, including McCain and Graham.
But several polls have shown overwhelming public support for the deal – as high as 80 percent, even as majorities also voice scepticism that the agreement will be effective. The findings are widely seen as an expression of the country’s deep war-weariness and opposition to any new Middle East military adventures in the absence of any clear and imminent threat.
Indeed, the events of the past few weeks suggest that the public has lost confidence in the war hawks and their military solutions. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, a prominent foreign-affairs commentator, noted this week that McCain is becoming “a kind of Republican version of Jesse Jackson” whose proposals “have no political support at home”.
While the Syria crisis unfolded, of course, a bigger threat to neo-conservatives has been developing in Tehran, where Rouhani appears to have consolidated his authority over foreign policy and carried out a highly sophisticated public-relations campaign.
This has ranged from the release of political prisoners to tweets wishing Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah, to an interview with a U.S. television network and an op-ed in Friday’s Post, all aimed at conveying the impression that he is someone the West “can do business” with (as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev after their first meeting in 1984) in the run-up to his appearance at the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week.
That both Tehran and Obama disclosed this week that they have exchanged letters and speculation that the two leaders may actually meet – even if it’s only momentarily in a U.N. corridor — Tuesday when each addresses the General Assembly have only increased the hawks’ anxiety that a 21st version of “Munich” (shorthand for the 1938 accord that permitted Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia) is at hand.
Taking their cue from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned Thursday that “the Iranians are spinning in the media so that the centrifuges can keep on spinning,” several pro-Israel groups here, including AIPAC and FPI, demanded Friday that Washington increase pressure against Tehran on all fronts and ignore growing calls to take a more conciliatory approach.
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.
Inter Press Service