The fake U.S.-Israel crisis: Obama's flawed response to an ally's gaffe

The word is that the decision to hammer Bibi Netanyahu on Friday for Israel’s settlements screwup last week came directly from President Obama. 

He was apparently very upset at the seeming contempt the Israelis showed for the vice president and by extension for the president himself and his administration. In addition, Obama, like many of his top aides, felt that the Israeli action was undermining U.S. standing at a critical time in American efforts to both advance the "peace process" and to weave together tough, effective international sanctions on Iran.

Here's the problem: This is one of those diplomatic flareups that may trigger fire drills in the governments and polemic fireworks from pundits but which, upon analysis, is really much less than meets the eye. It's actually a fake crisis. 

First, of all, on the face of it the Israeli action seems genuinely to have been much more of a screwup than a calculated affront. And if someone was trying to undercut the U.S.-Israel relationship, it seems certain they represented a fringe group and not the Netanyahu government. Subsequent statements of defiance by Netanyahu regarding building within Jerusalem were more in response to U.S. efforts to make additional political hay out of the dustup than they were related to the initial misstep.

Second, there is no real "or else" backing up U.S. demands for a reversal, an inquiry and the offering of a meaningful olive branch to the Palestinians. Obama, with few foreign-policy accomplishments to point to thus far in his young presidency, needs the peace process at least as much if not more than Netanyahu does. Time and leverage are, for the near term at least, on Netanyahu's side ... which is one reason why the U.S. government is opportunistically trying to use this crisis as a pretext to gain concessions out of the Israelis in advance of talks with the Palestinians. 

Further, the United States can't really turn its back on Israel and embrace the Palestinian side any more closely than it has because there is really no there there. And were the United States to ally itself more closely to the Palestinian position (as I believe some at high levels wish they could), the administration knows they would inevitably find the Palestinian authorities made gaffes of the magnitude of this most recent Israeli blunder on an uncomfortably frequent basis -- thanks to the fact that the Palestinian government is more defined by rifts than by meaningful accomplishments.

Finally, most importantly, the U.S. argument that the Israelis need to be seen to be more quietly cooperative with U.S. efforts or Obama won't be able to effectively stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program is undercut by the fact that the United States won't, in the end, actually stop the Iranian nuclear program. We just don't have the domestic will or the international support to do so. Just as each successive deadline for Iranian compliance with international cease and desist requirements has evaporated so too will the illusions that the U.S. can engineer anything like effective sanctions against the Iranians in an effort to penalize them for their noncompliance. 

Containment is rapidly replacing engagement as the false hope on which the U.S.-Iranian relationship will be built. (Engagement was dependent on the other side wanting to engage back. Containment is dependent on the government or some other rational actor exercising effective control over all nuclear warheads. Neither precondition will, I'm afraid, prove to have been sufficiently certain to warrant betting our vital interests on it.)  In any event, when the Iranians do ultimately go nuclear, the United States will want and need a strong relationship with Israel more not less. 

This has created the current, almost bizarre, set of circumstances. Everyone, including the Israelis, agree Netanyahu's government made a big-league error last week. (In a way, it's a real breakthrough: finally something that everyone on all sides of the Israeli-Arab divide can agree on.) But the reaction of the United States, regardless of all the robust language and diplomatic dressing down of top Israeli officials, is indicative of weakness not of strength. 

The bigger message that will be unintentionally have been delivered to the world at the end of all this is that the United States is willing to get fierce with its friend Israel over a perceived insult but that we are likely to remain ineffective in the face of self-declared Iranian enemies' efforts to destabilize the entire Middle East with nuclear weapons. This is not only a problem for the president because the outcome is so dangerous. It's also that "tough on your friends, weak with your enemies" is neither a common trait among great leaders nor is it a particularly good campaign bumper sticker.


David Rothkopf

The rise and fall of the czars

If U.S. health care reform passes the Congress and is signed into law anytime soon, the bickering and hullabaloo over the process by which the bill was hammered out will be as relevant as Einstein's mother's morning sickness in light of her son's reimagining of the universe.  

Ok, perhaps that overstates it. But the inside-the-beltway food fight of the past few months will likely fade quickly from memory as Americans start to "own" the provisions of the bill. (If not, all of Washington is going to soon have to see what provisions the new law will make for people with cable news-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.)

And if it passes -- which, flawed as it is would be a landmark and long overdue revision to America's social contract -- White House health care czar Nancy DeParle's reputation would be made because she would be seen as a key player in advancing a long-elusive goal of progressives from coast to coast. Whatever missteps the White House may have made along the way, she will be among those redeemed by finally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (Of course, if the bill fritters out at the last minute, her career prospects will follow a different trajectory.)

This fact raises in turn another question. Just how are the rest of President Obama's Romanov dynasty full of 30-odd czars doing?

The answer is hard to tell judging from the newspapers. This is true in part because newspapers have devoted most of their coverage recently to Eric Massa's permanent tainting of the once wholesome sport of snorkeling. It's also true because there were so many darned czars created that it's hard to keep track of them all. But mostly it's true because the president's decision to appoint so many "czars" was a classic rookie mistake that has not really worked out very well for anyone.

Certainly, it did not work out well for the czars who came and went like "Green Jobs Czar" Van Jones who was Glenn-Becked into oblivion or "Car Czar" Steve Rattner who is now trying to work a deal to avoid further legal headaches associated with his allegedly unsavory practices in winning business from the New York State pension fund back in his hedge fund days.

But most of the czars who were originally appointed are still in place. It's just that in most cases the only people who know it are their families or the bureaucrats they scuffle with every day. You see one of the big problems with the whole idea of "czars" is that on the day after their investiture each of them discovered that the government is full of other people who thought they had the same responsibilities.  

Just ask AfPak Czar Richard Holbrooke who has been largely overshadowed by the military's big man in the region, General Stanley McChrystal, and the State Department's other man in Kabul, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Some of this may be, according to reports, Holbrooke's own doing, due to rough patches in his relationships with the Afghans, the Pakistanis and some of his colleagues in Washington. (It was probably a miscalculation to try to apply strong-arm tactics with Hamid Karzai that were reminiscent of his very successful tough-guy confrontations with Slobodan Milosevic years ago. The problem being that whereas Milosevic was a bad guy who was going down, an enemy being defeated, Karzai was a bad guy who was our alleged ally, one who strongly believed we needed him more than he needed us.) Holbrooke has also, according to White House sources, not been a great favorite of Obama's. This is particularly bad in an administration in which seeking the favor of the president has taken on an importance that is in fact, much more reminiscent of the historical czars than is the role being played by anyone with this now devalued moniker.

This is a key point. Not only have the czars seen their role diluted by bureaucratic competition but they were never really given the authority their informal titles implied. This is a classic failure of government and business managers everywhere -- giving people responsibility for an issue without truly giving them the authority to manage or lead it.  

Does anyone for a moment think George Mitchell is really in charge of America's role in the Mideast Peace Process? Does anyone even really know what Mitchell is doing? In the State Department there is constant buzz that Mitchell is an inscrutable "black box"... and that people like Under Secretary Bill Burns, people in the regional bureau and, of course, Secretary Clinton can and should be playing a more central role in shaping strategy than Mitchell. Mitchell's team hasn't helped his standing with the White House much by going around taking shots at White House Middle East expert Dennis Ross in private meetings with Middle Eastern governments.  Which has led the White House ... both within the NSC and the Vice President's office to get more involved, etc. The point is ... there are lots of players and Mitchell is no more a czar than was Ingrid Berman playing Anastasia

Paul Volcker was a "czar" with responsibility for advising the president on financial reform. But for most of his term he has been ignored, being rolled out periodically for photo ops to show him as a validating grey head. His Volcker Rule gained traction when it was clear many other reforms were faltering.  But the reality is Volcker, like the others is more a prop than a czar.  It's not that he or they are unwilling to work or even that they don't have a huge amount to contribute. (I suspect we'd all be better off if AfPak were really quarterbacked by Holbrooke or financial reform were led by Volcker. These guys are among the very best the Dems have and the way they are being treated is like turning Albert Pujols or Kobe Bryant into reserves, playing them off the bench.)

I suspect Holbrooke at the moment has to be wondering whether he actually had more influence ... or a higher profile ... as a private citizen who deservedly was seen as a Democratic Secretary of State in waiting. Volcker, I am told, knew what to expect and took on the job because he knew it would periodically afford him influence, that sooner or later he would be needed or heeded.  

"Green Czar" Carol Browner must feel the same way. Not only have her priorities faltered but she has been overtaken in traction by other members of the "Green Cabinet" and compromised by the fumbling on the Hill. On international matters, the State Department's climate negotiator had the clear lead although his efforts have encountered stiff headwinds, on other issues Science Czar John Holdren has won more traction, on others Steven Chu's team at Energy have. And while all this would be denied by the players in question if asked about it in public, you have to ask yourself why the experienced and respected Browner, in the middle of an issue the president has set as one of his priorities, would be on everyone's short list to be among those making an early departure from the administration?

Other czars have simply faced the bandwidth problem ... their issues have not risen to prominence in the midst of an agenda set largely by an economic crisis and a desire to move on a couple key issues such as health care and managing the revolving door that is our Middle East troop deployment strategy. Or alternatively, they just haven't been able to make much progress  or have faced unforeseen setbacks. Our Auto Industry Recovery czar, Ed Montgomery, and our manufacturing czar Ron Bloom, have seen their efforts remain hostage to the sluggish economy ... and it doesn't look like our bailout of Chrysler is, in the end, going to do much good. Our Guantanamo czar has found getting out of Guantanamo is tougher than expected. Our Wall Street Pay Czar has had influence over only a few companies and while he has tried to manage that the rest of the financial community has been thumbing their noses at any idea of bonus restraint. Dennis Ross who was designated as the "Central Region" (Iran) Czar has worked hard -- and he like Holbrooke is one of the very, very best out there -- but ultimately U.S. policy will cede nuclear weapons status to Iran and our earnest but likely-to-be ineffective sanctions efforts will be seen as futile.  

And so on. Admittedly our "Great Lakes Czar" can report that Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior are all roughly where we were when Obama came into office and Joshua DuBois our Faith-based Czar certainly has not seen a major fall in America's collective need or hope for some higher power to make sense of things. Because, as is almost always, the higher powers we create -- even when they are given grandiose titles like czars -- almost always disappoint for one reason or another. Hopefully, soon Obama will recognize this and make a long over-due return to the kind of simpler org chart that is almost always more effective.

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