Focal Points Blog

Exactly Why Did Ehud Barak Postpone a Joint U.S.-Israeli Military Exercise?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Yahoo News’s Laura Rozen has reported an important story: tips from anonymous US sources, as well as information leaked to Israel Radio, suggest that it was Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who actually postponed a US-Israeli missile defense exercise, which would have seen 5,000 US personnel and advanced American missile defense systems deployed to Israel.

Multiple analysts have suggested that the postponement demonstrates the Israeli government’s contempt for Obama and an ongoing effort to back the president into a corner in an election year over Iran. Two theories stand out.

The first view is that the postponement is supposed to send Obama a message that he had better be more assertive against Iran if he wants Israel to stand down. The hawkish, pro-Netanyahu Israeli site DEBKAfile reports that the cancellation was approved at the top by Bibi himself and that critical statements made by hardliners in the government around this time were made to call the President out over his “flagging resolve”:

It was perceived as a mark of Israel’s disapproval for the administration’s apparent hesitancy in going through with the only tough sanctions with any chance of working against Iran’s nuclear weapon program: penalizing its central bank and blocking payments for its petroleum exports.

This was the first time Israel had ever postponed a joint military exercise; it generated a seismic moment in relations between the US and Israel at a time when Iran has never been so close to producing a nuclear weapon.

This week, Netanyahu further orchestrated a series of uncharacteristically critical statements by senior ministers: Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon called the Obama administration “hesitant” (Jan. 15), after which Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged the Americans to “move from words to deeds” (Jan 16).

Given DEBKAfile’s right-wing bent, it is safe to say that the aforementioned narrative is how the warhawks in the Israeli government wish their actions to be perceived in the US.

The second theory is that the postponement of the exercise stems from decisions by the IDF on how and when it will attack Iran. Ehud Barak told Israel Army Radio that there are no immediate plans for Israel to attack Iran, seemingly distancing himself from his earlier statements that Israel’s bombing window would close by the end 2012 (Israeli intelligence reported that, like the U.S. intelligence community, it cannot discern Iran’s nuclear intentions). Rozen suggests one possible Israeli rationale for such maneuvering:

The United States did not seek the delay–and American sources privately voiced concern that the Israeli request for a postponement of the exercise could be read as a potential warning sign that Israel is leaving its options open to conduct a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the spring. Thus, the concern went, it may not want 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Israel in April and May, as had been scheduled for the exercise.

This is a sensible course of action (if you believe, as Ehud Barak does, that Israel has only a year-long window to act in). But Haaretz’s Amos Harel suggests a different military calculus– the delay is not a way of getting the US out of Israel’s way, but of forcing Washington’s hand if an attack materializes this year:

. . . [by] putting off the joint exercises until the second half of the year actually fits into a scenario that has Israel attacking Iran in that time framework. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said on a number of recent occasions, including in a November interview to CNN, that the window during which an effective strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is possible will close in about one year. A massive U.S. military presence in Israel, especially advanced antimissile air defenses, would be very useful in protecting Israel in the event of an Iranian counterattack.

Harel’s thinking makes sense too. This is more or less how NATO worked during the Cold War: the USSR was deterred from attacking NATO military formations in West Germany because an attack on any NATO member would have been treated as an attack on all of them. The Warsaw Pact copied this deterrence mechanism on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Such binding agreements forced all parties to either limit their autonomy in the name of the alliance, or give up their multinational security umbrella and go it alone. The Israeli logic would work the same way: force Iran to soak up losses inflicted by the IAF without responding, or risk the US military mission’s wrath.

But would the White House be cooperating with Tel Aviv — as it would in the event of any attack on a NATO member — or be taken by surprise by Israeli preemption? I imagine the former is the most likely option, as the U.S. would still have some advance warning of Israeli mobilization. In any event, Obama would not disengage these troops and ships to try and avoid being associated with Israel’s actions. Amos Harel puts it best: Washington “is asking Israel’s boat not to enter the path charted by its aircraft carrier.” But if and when the chips are down, the President will not cut and run, prior warning or not.

There are all kinds of contingencies that might escalate the conflict. Iran’s own military calculus, for instance. What would the Gulf states, who are most vulnerable to Iran’s armed forces, think of the timing and placement of American forces in Israel? It would be challenging to manage diplomacy and military coordination with the Gulf states against Iran in such an event, even though we’d be attacking a non-Arab country that the GCC governments fear. They fear Iran, but they also fear public opinion in their own countries (and Iranian retaliation). How would Islamist organizations sympathetic to Iran such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah react to an Israeli strike? Would events spiral out of control on the border with Gaza, Syria or Lebanon? It’s easy to suggest that Iran and its proxies would temper their actions because of “redlines,” but no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Barak has seemingly stepped back from his countdown to infinite crisis this week. But as Marsha Cohen writes at LobeLog, “the Obama administration is now trapped in a lose-lose situation, with Israeli politicians doing everything possible to sabotage Obama’s re-election bid while undercutting any movement he might be tempted to make to ease tensions with Iran.”

Nick Clegg’s Pro-Israeli Pronouncements Pale Beside Washington’s

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made quite a claim on Monday. Hosting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in London, Clegg declared that “there is no stronger supporter of Israel than myself.” Well, I’ve got news for you, Nick: there’s some very stiff competition for the title of Israel’s strongest supporter, and you’re not even a contender.

For one thing, Nick Clegg has actually had the temerity to criticize Israel on occasion, which immediately disqualifies him. For instance, at Monday’s press conference with Abbas, he stated that “I condemn the continued illegal [Israeli] settlement activity [in the Palestinian Territories] in the strongest possible terms.” He has also spoken out in the past against the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, describing that territory as “one of the most… wretched stretches of land on the planet.”

Let’s compare Clegg’s remarks with what Newt Gingrich has had to say about Israel and the Palestinians. The Republican presidential candidate isn’t exactly mealy-mouthed when it comes to giving his views on the Middle East, as exemplified by his now famous statement that “we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs.” (In fact, they are both Palestinian and Arab, but let’s put that to one side).

More of Gingrich’s uncompromising views on Israel can be found on his campaign website, where he accuses the Obama administration of “actively and materially harming Israel.” The White House has, he asserts, “unacceptably interfered in internal Israeli politics on a range of issues (from settlement construction to domestic legislation), challenging Israeli sovereignty in the process.”

It would be understandable if President Obama was somewhat resentful of this characterization of his policies towards Israel. After all, his administration has been very generous when it comes to dishing out aid to Israel, and has requested from Congress the not insubstantial sum of $3.075 billion for Israel for fiscal year 2012. And while administration officials have indeed claimed to oppose Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories, this stance was severely compromised in February 2011 when US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice vetoed a Security Council Resolution that condemned the settlements as “illegal”. Every other member of the Security Council voted in favour of this resolution.

Now, I’m not saying I agree with the President’s policies towards Israel. I’m just pointing out that Gingrich’s assertion that the Obama administration is “actively and materially harming Israel” is untenable.

It’s pretty clear then that Clegg is some way behind not only Gingrich, but also the US President, in the pro-Israel stakes. And Clegg is certainly no match for Gingrich’s fellow Republican presidential hopefuls (except for Ron Paul, of course), who share the former Speaker’s penchant for issuing statements that are eerily reminiscent of Israel’s ruling Likud Party.

Consider the attitude of the two Ricks to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It begins and ends here: both Perry and Santorum firmly reject the notion that the West Bank is occupied, viewing it as Israeli land. It follows that Israel has the right to build all the settlements it wants. For instance, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in December, Perry stated that “I consider the Israeli settlements to be legal.” When Blitzer observed that the US State Department deems the West Bank to be occupied, Perry replied “I think our State Department from time to time gets it wrong.”

Rick Santorum likewise supports Israel’s right to construct settlements in the West Bank. He has declared that “This [the West Bank] is Israeli land and therefore… they have the right to build things based upon their ownership of that land.” Santorum also espouses Gingrich’s view that “there is no Palestinian.”

As noted above, these Republicans sound at times like spokesmen for Likud. Last May Israeli Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu received a rousing reception when he spoke before the US Congress. He declared that “You have to understand this: In Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.” As we have seen, Perry and Santorum hold exactly the same view.

In the same speech Netanyahu underscored that “Israel will not return to the indefensible borders of 1967.” Taking his cue from “Bibi,” Santorum has excoriated Obama for having “deliberately put Israel in a vulnerable position by publicly stating that he supports Israel going back to the borders of Israel prior to when they were attacked [in 1967].” Israel actually attacked Egypt in June 1967, but we needn’t get into that.

Again, this characterization of Obama’s policy is distorted. The President’s position, which he outlined while speaking at the State Department last May, is that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” This would be an intolerable compromise in the eyes of Santorum and Perry, though, as they consider the whole of the West Bank to be Israeli land.

So Nick Clegg has a very long way to go before he can join the likes of Gingrich, Perry and Santorum among the ranks of Israel’s most fervent foreign supporters. To be part of that club, you must do the following: misrepresent the US president’s policies, declare that there is no such thing as a Palestinian, support settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and assert that the West Bank rightfully belongs to Israel. Oh, and any criticism of Israel is unacceptable.

I’m guessing that Nick Clegg, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, doesn’t want to be a member of that particular team.

Michael Walker has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Israel and U.S. Militaries Increasingly Joined at the Hip

Fifth FleetThe United States and Israel have been quietly building up their military cooperation. During a visit to Israel last December, General Frank Gorenc announced that thousands of U.S. troops would be deployed to Israel for an exercise that has been code named “Austere Challenge 12.” Additionally, Israel plans on moving a significant number of its troops to a U.S. European Command Headquarters base in Germany.

These moves come as tensions with Iran have escalated in response to the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist last week, the third attack of its kind since 2010. Relations between the United States and Iran began to sour most recently after Iran captured a fallen American drone and refused to return it to the United States. Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said as early as last November that Israel will not “take any option off the table,” echoing similar statements from the Obama administration. The Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s most elite military branch, has indicated that it will move ships into the Strait of Hormuz in February to conduct training exercises and has already performed some exercises in the strait earlier this month. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, currently based in Bahrain, already has a presence in the area and is in a position to call for additional support from other U.S. ships on anti-piracy missions around the horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Britain has announced that it will be sending one of its largest destroyers, HMS Daring, to the strait as well. Together these combined naval forces leave the Iranian navy “significantly outgunned,” according to the Military Times.

Although General Gorenc emphasized to the Jerusalem Post that Austere Challenge 12 is part of a larger U.S. troop deployment, little information is currently available as to how long the Defense Department intends on having U.S. troops stationed in Israel, though Al Jazeera notes that many American servicemen are expected to stay till the end of 2012. The Israeli Air Force is considering setting up a base for an Iron dome counter rocket system near Haifa where it will protect oil refineries in Northern Israel.

As of January 5,, an Israeli website providing political and security analysis, stated that around 9,000 U.S. soldiers were already on the ground Israel. Austere Challenge 12 will test two separate types of missile defense systems: the land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system alongside the naval-operated Aegis system. These systems include both relatively short- range defensive ballistic missile systems such as the Arrow, which Israel produced specifically to defend itself from Iranian attacks, and other systems such as a drone that could be used for a counter-attack or even a pre-emptive attack. This is slated to be the largest missile exercise to date in both U.S. and Israeli history with the long term objective of “establishing joint task forces in the event of a large-scale conflict in the Middle East” in which case this may be the beginning of a long-lasting U.S. military presence in Israel.

Israel isn’t the only U.S. partner in the region beefing up its military capacity. Last month the United States agreed to sell Saudi Arabia $30 billion worth of F15 fighter jets. This followed shortly after the November 2011 sale of nearly 5,000 bunker-busting bombs to the United Arab Emirates. These would prove especially threatening to the UAE’s Persian neighbor as Iran’s alleged illegal nuclear processing plants are located underground well within the range of these munitions.

In a recent development, however, Israel and the United States jointly agreed to postpone Austere Challenge 12 from this April to sometime in the latter half 2012. According to Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesperson, “The thinking was it was not the right timing now to conduct such an exercise.”

Heath Mitchell is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

How Does Netanyahu Think He Can Get Away With Bombing Iran?

Leaders of states are less often voted out of office for initiating a war gone wrong than for exhibiting good sense and drawing the brakes on the war-fever express when called for. Or that’s the assumption on which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no doubt operating. But if, as influential Yediot columnist Nahum Barnea has written, “all his life he’s dreamed of being Churchill,” Netanyahu either forgets that Winston Churchill wasn’t re-elected prime minister in 1945 or envisions himself, if out of office, retaining the same influence that Churchill did.

As for other personal consequences, Netanyahu is no doubt aware that the attacks Churchill called for on Germany, such as the “area” bombing that resulted in atrocities like Dresden and Hamburg, never resulted in him standing in the docket at Nuremberg. In present times, he may further be emboldened by the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq. Except for a few scattered charges by courts overseas (though they seem to be gaining momentum), George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have yet to be tried for war crimes. Not only do they remain free men, they’re still accorded respect in many quarters.

No matter what happens after an attack on Iran, Netanyahu knows that he will still be accorded the same respect in the same quarters, at least in the United States.

“October Surprise” by Israel Could Sink Obama’s Re-election Chances

Zbigniew Brzezinski

Zbigniew Brzezinski

Edward Luce, Washington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times, waited to the next to the last paragraph of his description of lunch with his friend, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to drop a bombshell. As they finished off their lasagna and taglierini, and after he recorded that the former U.S. National Security adviser is worried about China and President Obama, the subject of the next presidential election came up.

During the interview at Washington’s Teatro Goldoni restaurant, Brzezinski admitted to having voted for Republicans a couple of times (one being George H.W. Bush). “A good election is one that would shape out in an intelligent victory by Obama,” he said, adding that, however, “There is no sign of that from the other side.” “Which means Obama will win,” asked Luce. Well, not at all, says Brzezinski. “My fear is that two or three weeks before the election something will happen – an October surprise. If Iran were struck by Israelis during October, the negative effects would not be felt until late November and December. The first effect would be, ‘Ah, how wonderful. Let’s get behind the Israelis.’ Then all bets would be off.”

Now, Brzezinski is no peacenik, and most of his policies are not something any progressive could support. The bloody mess in Afghanistan is largely his fault. But when you read his writings or hear him speak you come away confident that he is, for the most part, sane and sensible. His comment about Iran should have made the front pages of the big newspapers – and gone viral on the blogs.

Nobody I know who pays attention to such things imagines that the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu would launch a strike against Iran without at least the tacit okay from Washington. If Brzezinski thinks it might, that’s scary news.

However, on January 14, the Wall Street Journal reported “U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.” According to the paper, the alarm grew to the point last week that President Obama got Netanyahu on the telephone and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was dispatched this week to Tel Aviv.

“U.S. officials briefed on the military’s planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm,” said the Journal.

The article’s authors, Adam Entous, Juliane Barnes and Jay Solomon, went on to suggest obliquely –and I think unlikely –that the reason the U.S. is uncertain about Israeli intention is a spy problem. “Some American intelligence officials complain that Israel represents a blind spot in U.S. intelligence, which devotes little resources to Israel,” they wrote. “Some officials have long argued that, given the potential for Israel to drag the U.S. into potentially explosive situations, the U.S. should devote more resources to divining Israel’s true intentions.”

Now that’s really scary.

Over at Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn takes up the questions, “Will Israel attack? Is Obama, coerced by domestic politics in an election year, being dragged into war by the Israel lobby? Will he lunch the bombers? Is the strategy to force Iran into a corner, methodically demolishing its economy by embargoes and sanctions so that in the end a desperate Iran strikes back?”

“As with sanctions and covert military onslaughts on Iraq in the run up to 2003, the first point to underline is that the US is waging war on Iran,” writes Cockburn. “But well aware of the US public’s aversion to yet another war in the Middle East, the onslaught is an undeclared one.”

Still, that’s not the same as a military attack – and its inevitable catastrophic consequences. But Cockburn makes a good – and frightening – observation when he cites former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey saying to him, “Note also that this is one of those rare but dangerous moments in history when Big Oil and the Israelis are pushing the White House in the same direction. The last such moment was quickly followed by Dubya’s invasion of Iraq.”

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

“Dagan Could Not Have Set Foot in Washington Again”

On January 14 Haaretz reported: “The senior Israeli government official said that if there were any truth to the claims … Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad at the time of the alleged operation, would have been declared a persona non grata in the U.S. and that ‘Dagan’s foot would not have walked again in Washington’.”

To what report about which operation is the official reacting? That revealed by the former co-director of Conflicts Forum and author of Talking to Terrorists (Basic Books, 2010) in an already much-discussed article in Foreign Policy titled False Flag.

Buried deep in the archives of America’s intelligence services are a series of memos, written during the last years of President George W. Bush’s administration, that describe how Israeli Mossad officers. … posed as CIA officers in recruiting Jundallah operatives.

Brazen, right?

“It’s amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with,” [an] intelligence officer said. “Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn’t give a damn what we thought.”

Here’s what happened when

… information about the false-flag operation was reported up the U.S. intelligence chain of command. … to the White House, according to the currently serving U.S. intelligence officer. The officer said that Bush “went absolutely ballistic” when briefed on its contents.

Bear in mind that it took a lot to make the Israel-friendly ex-president angry at Israel. But exactly what were the nature of the “threats posed by foreign intelligence services”? Perry explains.

“The report sparked White House concerns that Israel’s program was putting Americans at risk,” [an] intelligence officer told me. “There’s no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we’re not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians.”

Another former intelligence officer told Perry:

…”After all, it’s hard to engage with a foreign government if they’re convinced you’re killing their people. Once you start doing that, they feel they can do the same.” … It also … invited attacks in kind on U.S. personnel. … But the United States did nothing — a result that the officer attributed to “political and bureaucratic inertia.”

Not only that, but, as former government officials Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett write at Race for Iran:

Perry’s sources say that, since the United States learned about this Israeli false flag operation, neither the Bush Administration nor the Obama Administration has done anything to convey its displeasure to Israel. … That the Obama Administration is now trying to distance itself from some aspects of. … America’s dangerous dance with Jundallah and, more broadly, anti-Iranian covert action. … by fobbing it off on Israel (to be sure, anything but an innocent party), does not extricate it from its past decisions or current actions. … Washington’s handling of Jundallah’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization remains highly suspicious. Mark’s sources, as well as our own contacts, in the U.S. government, indicate that U.S. intelligence has had sufficient information on Jundallah to warrant its designation as a foreign terrorist organization for years. … Washington only designated Jundallah in November 2010, months after Iran had captured and executed its leader.

Meanwhile, at Empty Wheel, Marcy Wheeler reminds us that flags wave in different directions, according to which way the political winds blow.

Israelis and Americans have long hidden behind each other when working with Iranians, going back at least to the Iran-Contra ops that Dick Cheney had a fondness for. Hiding behind Israelis lets American officials pretend we’re not doing the taboo things we’re doing. Hiding behind Americans lets Iranian partners working with Israelis pretend they aren’t working with the Zionist enemy. That false flag business works in many different directions, after all.

At +972 Mag, Dimi Reider asked Mark Perry himself about the Haaretz piece: “A ‘senior Israeli official’ called your report ‘complete nonsense.’ … Haaretz writer Amir Oren also described you as a ‘declared supporter of the Arab cause.’ Your response?”

I would not expect the Israeli government to confirm my report. … Then too, people should realize that this is not the first false flag operation that Israel has conducted. … My understanding is that a journalist in Israel has supposed that … I am “a known supporter of the Arab cause.” … And what exactly is the Arab “cause?” To be friends with the US? To build stable and democratic societies? To educate their children and be at peace with their neighbors. If that is the “cause” then yes, I am for it.

At Moon of Alabama, Bernhard had a question about the timing of the report.

Why is this whitewash of the CIA coming out right now, just two days after the assassination of another Iranian engineer? Why is there no mention at all of … the U.S. military Joint Special Operations Command forces who are, according to Sy Hersh, operating in Iran? What is their relation to the Israelis?

As did Reider at +972: “Quite a few readers have questioned the coincidence of the story running just days after yet another assassination of an Iranian scientist. Is it a coincidence?”

I know there is a great deal of skepticism about the timing of the story. … And in truth, I did not decide to actually publish the story until the Friday before its appearance. … I thought two weeks ago that, after eighteen months of work, the story was in jeopardy of being released by another publication.

Perry notes that “as with all alliances”

… there is a commitment on the part of the administration to make certain that … a common purpose outweighs all disagreements. Frankly, if the Pollard incident didn’t end the U.S.-Israel relationship, then this won’t.

That’s also true of an Israeli air attack on the U.S.S. Liberty in the early days of the 1967 Arab-Israel war that left 34 American seamen dead (apparently because the ship had intercepted transmissions revealing that Israel’s claims that its air assault on three Arab nations was in retaliation for an attack by Egypt was untrue). We’ll give Perry the last word at +972.

My personal view is, and my advice to Israel, is — if you want to be welcome in America, don’t try to pull this kind of crap.

Supporting Assad Shreds Iran’s Credibility With Radical Islam

Despite being the director of research at the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and head of its Iran Security Initiative, Patrick Clawson, as I posted Saturday, urges the West to go slow in a recent WINEP Policy Note, An Iranian Nuclear Breakout Is Not Inevitable. He argues that, for various reasons, Iran is operating at a disadvantage to the United States these days. Among them:

… Iran’s closest—arguably, its only—regional ally is in deep trouble. The problems of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad fit poorly with Iranian leaders’ “resistance narrative,” according to which radical Islam is the wave of history and is supported by the region’s peoples, while the United States and its allies—Israel and the moderate Arab states—are on the wane and lack popular support. Iran’s support in the “Arab street,” so prized by the regime, has slipped badly as Tehran is seen as backing a brutal dictator, while the wave of history is with popular protests against authoritarians.

Iran’s not the only one that’s on the proverbial “wrong side of history.” Hezbollah also continues to support Assad. On Saturday (Jan. 14) its Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah called on the Syrian opposition to “relinquish its weapons and to accept to engage in dialogue” with the Assad regime.

Nothing becomes a self-styled resistance movement, the founders of which were inspired by the Islamic Revolution of Iran, less than supporting a tyrannical regime — and a comparatively secular one at that.

Is Latvia an Example to Other States in Economic Crisis?

Latvian bank run.

Latvian bank run.

Latvia is the model economy that can teach the world how to survive the financial crisis. That, at least, is the opinion of renowned economics columnist Robert Samuelson, who published a Washington Post article praising the Latvian economy. In “What We Can Learn from Latvia’s Economic Recovery,” he argued that Latvia, which suffered an economic collapse in 2008-2009, turned around because Latvian authorities implemented “tax increases, layoffs, salary cuts and other spending reductions.” It also cut its budget by 16 percent of GDP, fired 29 percent of government workers, and reduced wages for the rest by 26 percent.

Latvian banks must maintain stability and public interest in order to avoid disrupting the Latvian economy. The KrÄjbanka and Swedbank crises call into question Samuelson’s previous arguments that the IMF’s fiscal austerity packages saved the Latvian economy. Despite positive improvements to unemployment statistics quoted by Samuelson, these banking crises suggest that Latvia is no model for other countries to follow.

Recent economic news out of Latvia seems to contradict Samuelson’s rosy assessment. On the weekend of December 9-11, 2011 Swedbank clients in Latvia withdrew nearly $30 million, or seven times more than usual, due to a false rumor spread via text message and social media. Swedbank boasted of $2.9 billion in deposits in Latvia and $82 billion internationally showing that the run was not a significant threat for the bank. Less than a month before, the Latvian government nationalized KrÄjbanka, a subsidiary of the Lithuanian Snoras bank, when the Lithuanian bank’s two owners stood accused of embezzlement. These recent crises exemplify the lack of faith Latvians have in their banking system.

But it’s not just the current Latvian banking news that undercuts Samuelson’s arguments. According to Jason Bush writing in Der Spiegel, “Latvia is suffering because it followed orthodox economic advice, liberalizing its financial sector and opening the economy to outside capital and investment.” When Bush asked lending institutions how this happened, Erik Berglof of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development told him, “The model wasn’t the mistake. The mistake was the lack of architecture to support the model.” Berglof was speaking more specifically about the lack of credit monitoring, which had resulted in the bubble economy. Only three years previous, Parex, then the second-largest bank in Latvia, had also been nationalized. Latvia had to take $2.35 billion in aid from the IMF to bail out Parex.

These banking crises, as well as a long history of financial problems dating back to the Soviet period, have undercut consumer confidence in the Latvian banking system. The Parex banking crisis should have taught Latvian and international authorities to increase transparency, monitoring, and evaluation of the Latvian banking sector.

However, the KrÄjbanka and Swedbank crises illustrated that austerity packages and job cuts have not solved the lack of consumer confidence in the Latvian banking system or financial officials. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Gustav Sandstrom, “a poll from Latvian research institute SKDS last month [showed] that only 14% of the population trust what top-level officials say about issues relating to financial stability.”

Latvian banks must maintain stability and public interest in order to avoid disrupting the Latvian economy. The KrÄjbanka and Swedbank crises call into question Samuelson’s previous arguments that the IMF’s fiscal austerity packages saved the Latvian economy. Despite positive improvements to unemployment statistics quoted by Samuelson, these banking crises suggest that Latvia is no model for other countries to follow.

Julia A. Heath is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Will the Right Listen to Its Go-Slow Guy on Iran?

I’m as guilty as the next progressive of thinking that if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, progressives are from earth and conservatives are from Pluto. In fact, I confess to wondering if they are, indeed, humans. But, it was just 50 years ago, during the Eisenhower years, when only its fringes were obsessed with giving corporations free reign to maraud across the land and with crushing programs like Social Security.

Occasionally, a conservative, though he may still strike progressives as hawkish, swims upstream against other conservatives. But the last place you think you’d find one engaging in such behavior is at WINEP. According to IPS Special Project Right Web:

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) is one of a handful of influential U.S. policy institutions—sometimes referred to as the “Israel Lobby”—whose central aim is to push an Israel-centric Middle East agenda. Many of WINEP’s current and former scholars have been closely associated with neoconservatism.

Patrick Clawson (also profiled at Right Web) is the director of research at WINEP and head of its Iran Security Initiative. A quote machine for the mainstream media, he also recently authored a WINEP Policy Note: An Iranian Nuclear Breakout Is Not Inevitable. The title should clue you in that, were he not ensconced at a top right-wing think tank, he’d be in danger of being drummed out of their corps. For Clawson is no Iran hawk. In his carefully considered and well-written paper he, according to the WINEP blurb, “argues that we have time, both tactically and strategically, to prevent a breakout.”

Clawson writes, “Perhaps the most progress will come from encouraging geopolitical developments. Whereas a few years ago Iran’s star appeared to be rising and that of the United States fading, today that is much less the case.” As you can see, like conservatives, as well as realists, he’s married to the concept of a zero sum game. That said, cognizant that few Focal Points readers would read a lengthy paper by a conservative, however moderate, we’ll present some excerpts. We’ll begin with his introductory remarks.

… Iran’s closest—arguably, its only—regional ally [Syria] is in deep trouble. … Iran’s support in the “Arab street,” so prized by the regime, has slipped badly as Tehran is seen as backing a brutal dictator, while the wave of history is with popular protests against authoritarians. [This] encouraging geopolitical scene creates a better environment for the steps that Western governments can take to turn up the heat on Iran’s nuclear program. Those steps can be grouped in four large baskets: sanctions, diplomacy, soft power, and harder measures. [Emphasis added.]

Beginning with sanctions …

The more impact the sanctions have on Iran’s economy and its nuclear program, the stronger the argument that Iran’s nuclear program has incurred a heavy cost for little advantage. After twenty years, Iran is still not nuclear capable, much less in possession of a nuclear weapon, and it has paid quite a price in its relations with both Europe and the United States. In addition, the nuclear impasse has brought increased attention to Iran’s other policies, such as its support for terrorism and its human rights abuses.

What’s more:

… over and above any impact the sanctions have on Iran, those sanctions may be useful for forestalling imitation of Iran’s approach by other countries. … Many states might find the acquisition of nuclear weapons attractive if no cost were associated with the process.

Next, diplomacy. Clawson writes: “The prospects for resolution of the problems with Iran by diplomacy are poor.” Why?

If nothing else, Iran’s fractious internal politics will undermine the ability of any politician in Tehran to win broad acceptance among his peers for a deal with the international community, no matter the content of the deal.

But, diplomacy, Clawson explains, like sanctions, is for the benefit of other states, as well.

… reaching an agreement with Tehran is only one reason—and by no means the most important objective—for U.S. diplomatic initiatives aimed at the Islamic Republic. … If, for example, U.S. actions regarding Iran can reinforce European and other allies’ conviction that Washington is a responsible international actor, such an impact would be more important than any impact of diplomacy on Tehran.

In other words …

The primary objective of U.S. diplomacy toward Iran should be to persuade governments and peoples around the world that the West is being reasonable and Iran’s regime is the impediment to resolving the nuclear impasse, thus advancing U.S. interests globally.

Again, as a conservative, he’s more concerned with what benefits the United States than regional security in the Middle East, except as it affects the United States. Now, soft power.

Vigorous condemnation of Iranian human rights abuses serves multiple U.S. interests: pressuring Tehran more forcefully, promoting international understanding of Iran’s ruling regime, lending moral support to Iranian democrats. … The experience of recent decades shows that civil resistance movements can succeed against brutal dictatorships [but] the role of outsiders is modest [such as facilitating communication by, say] breaking through the “electronic curtain” that has closed off Iran. … The U.S. government can learn much from the successful U.S. experience with public broadcasting through outlets such as National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. What works best is independent government-supported organizations, not government sources like VOA.

As for harder measures

Too much of the discussion of harder measures potentially aimed at the Iranian nuclear program assumes a black-or-white scenario: a massive air campaign or nothing at all. In fact, harder measures come in a wide spectrum of grays. For some years, the dark gray covert action of spurring defections and engaging in sabotage, cyber warfare, and targeted killings has been used to slow Iran’s nuclear program. … And more can be done, such as the enactment of more assertive military exercises and military cooperation.

As Clawson said in the New York Times on Thursday (January 12), “I often get asked when Israel might attack Iran. … I say, ‘Two years ago.’ ” Meanwhile, about Israel he writes:

To reduce the risk of Israeli action that is premature from a U.S. perspective, the United States needs to speak frankly with Israel about what it requires to be confident that it can act against Iran’s nuclear program if compelled to do so. Presumably, Israeli needs will include accurate and detailed intelligence, means to defeat Iranian defenses, and the capabilities to inflict devastating damage on the Iranian program. By providing Israel with more robust capabilities in all those domains, the United States can affect the Israeli debate about whether to strike Iran’s nuclear program.

Clawson seems to be saying that Israel, if supplied with even more conventional weapons and greater intelligence, might then feel secure in waiting until a later date — when or if the smoke from Iran’s nuclear gun became truly unmistakeable — to mount an attack. One can’t help but wonder, though, if the ability of Israel to cause internal havoc in Iran at the present time suggests its intelligence might be more comprehensive than that of the United States. The point is: Clawson counsels patience.

For now, some time remains. … Postponing the nuclear program may look like only a delay, but a delay could be a victory because the Islamic Republic may not last forever. … Khamenei … is preoccupied by the threat of Western cultural invasion and the possibility of a “soft overthrow.” His regime looks a lot like the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev: it no longer rules on the basis of an idea and, therefore, is becoming increasingly hollow and corroded. [Emphasis added.']

Clawson reiterates:

Using a vigorous combination of sanctions, diplomacy, soft power, and harder measures offers good prospects that Iran can be deflected from its current nuclear path.

But Clawson is not necessarily optimistic. At Yahoo’s The Envoy, Laura Rozen writes that Clawson told her

… he didn’t think prospects for a deal look promising. “I think it’s heading towards confrontation,” Clawson said. “The whole point from the beginning is if we put pressure on the regime, the Iranians will crack at some point. [Right now the] Iranians are screaming and yelling and upset and threatening,” … So why isn’t that a sign that the U.S. strategy is failing?

“It’s a lot better to have a fight” that Iran provokes, Clawson replied, before adding: “Better to enter World War II after Pearl Harbor, and World War I after the sinking of the Lusitania.”

Note that’s not his own viewpoint but, as was pointed out to me, what Clawson imagines is that of the Obama administrations. Meanwhile, one can only hope that his paper is read widely by conservatives and that they take it under advisement.

My Day With a Real Thrill Kill Cult: the MEK

Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of MEK front group the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of MEK front group the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

During a recent rally in front of the White House, hundreds of members and supporters of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) advocated for the MEK’s removal from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. The MEK (which also goes by other names, such as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran) is a group of militants and activist front groups, composed largely of Iranian exiles, operating since the 1960s. Their flag-drenched rally featured guest speakers, a “die-in,” and many fliers and pictures, all to promote the group’s overall message: the MEK are freedom fighters and representatives of the aspirations of the Iranian people; their members at Camp Ashraf in Iraq are in mortal danger if the Iraqi government tries to relocate them; and the organization should be removed from the terrorist list. They were not counting on a two-man counter-leafleting team to arrive with a stack of fact sheets delivering a distinctly different message: the MEK is a personality cult with a long history of violence directed at Iranians, Americans, and Iraqi Kurds and Shi’a; they will shift their loyalties as it suits their delusional goal of taking power in Tehran; American neoconservatives (and others) have spoken openly of using the MEK as proxies for a war with Iran’s present government; and, as a result of the above factors, the MEK has no legitimacy within Iran, even among those who despise the current regime.

The MEK supporters who saw these fact sheets reacted with varying levels of outrage. I was accused of being in the pay of the Iranian government (and if not the regime in Tehran, then it surely had to be someone), and, somewhat paradoxically, I was also accused of spreading “Rush Limbaugh propaganda.” I suppose this was because the MEK is often said to be ideologically “Islamo-Marxist,” a label composed of two elements that find considerable disfavor among Limbaugh and his cohorts, even if he and his ilk are not usually averse to war with Iran. In any case, it made little sense. Shortly thereafter, in calmer but seemingly endless conversations with MEK supporters, I heard a repeated list of red herrings having to do with the malevolence of the Iranian regime and the plight of the MEK members at Camp Ashraf, who are apparently in many cases relatives and friends of those demonstrating in Washington. I assured my interlocutors that I shared their disdain for the regime in Tehran, and I did not want any misfortune to befall the residents of Camp Ashraf. They barely addressed the organization’s rap sheet, and they seemed to completely miss the most obvious point: if the MEK is removed from the terrorist list, and is subsequently supported (officially or otherwise) by Americans and Israelis in a war with Iran’s government, then the Iranians would ensure Camp Ashraf’s rapid and bloody destruction.

Surely enough, in recent weeks the United Nations and the Obama administration have moved ahead with a plan similar to the course of action I tried to promote to the MEK members/supporters in front of the White House: under UN supervision, the 3,200 residents of Camp Ashraf will be moved to Camp Liberty, a recently vacated American base in Baghdad. From there, they will be processed and resettled. Some members with little “political baggage” are apparently willing to return to Iran; others will build new lives in their adopted country of Iraq; and others will be resettled elsewhere in the world. The MEK’s Paris-based leadership seems to be reluctantly cooperating, as is the Iraqi government, though the situation is still very tense and unsettled.

All of this is probably a pragmatic move on the Obama administration’s part. If the MEK members are first moved away from the border with Iran, and then out of the country entirely, that lowers the possibility of an incident on the border exploding into uncontrollable violence. On top of that, the Iraqi government seemed determined to close Camp Ashraf by any means necessary by the end of 2011, thus presenting the administration with a fait accompli: Obama could not allow Republicans (and others) to blame his administration for the humanitarian catastrophe if a group of so-called “Iranian freedom fighters” were massacred by the new Iraqi government, acting without the oversight of American troops. It would matter not that the withdrawal date was decided upon by the Bush administration, as Obama’s opponents would doubtlessly condemn him for fecklessly abandoning a group of rebels who oppose the enemy du jour.

Proponents of the invasion of Iraq often referred to the oppression of Iraq’s Kurds (and, less often, Shi’a) as an example of why Saddam Hussein should be deposed by force. Now, some of the same people, and their ideological brethren, extol the virtues of an organization with a leader (Maryam Rajavi) who is on record as instructing her followers to “Take the Kurds under your tanks” during the MEK’s period of fighting alongside Saddam Hussein. Even if the MEK is entirely removed from Iraq, they will likely continue their aggressive and well-funded lobbying in the US and Europe for the time being. If their behavior and demeanor at their demonstrations is anything to go by, they are thoroughly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, delusional enough to believe they can one day hold power in Iran, and unlikely to care about any collateral damage they create.

(My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult is an industrial rock band from Chicago. — Ed.)

Scott Charney is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.

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