Friday, October 24, 2008

Testing Obama's mettle


In a week and a half, American voters will elect the next US president. Their decision will impact the entire world.

Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama now enjoys a significant lead in the polls against Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain. For McCain to win, a lot of Obama supporters will need to reassess their choice for president. This week, Obama's running-mate Senator Joseph Biden gave Obama supporters a good reason to change their minds. In much-reported remarks to campaign donors in Seattle on Sunday, Biden warned that if Obama is elected to the White House, it will take America's adversaries no time at all to test him. In his words, "It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama…. The world is looking…. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate."

Biden then continued, "And he's gonna need help….We're gonna need you to use your influence…within the community, to stand with him. Because it's not gonna be apparent initially, it's not gonna be apparent that we're right."

Many commentators have minimized the importance of Biden's remarks by claiming that all new leaders are tested. But this is not exactly correct. World leaders test their adversaries when they perceive them as weak. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected US president in 1952, the Soviet Union did not move quickly to test the man who had led Allied Forces in World War II. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, the Iranian regime released the US hostages it had held for a year and a half.

In speaking as he did, Biden essentially acknowledged three things. First, he recognized that Obama projects an image of weakness and naiveté internationally that invites America's adversaries to challenge him.

Second, by stating that if Obama is tested a crisis will ensue, Biden made clear that Obama will fail the tests he is handed as a newly inaugurated president. After all, when an able leader is tested, he acts wisely and secures his nation's interests while averting a crisis.

Finally, Biden made clear that Obama's failure will be widely noted, and hence, "it's not gonna be apparent that we're right."

IN LIGHT of Biden's dire warning about his running-mate, the central question that Americans ought to be asking themselves is whether or not Biden is correct. Is it true that Obama projects a posture of weakness and incompetence internationally and is it likely that this posture reflects reality?

Unfortunately, it appears that Biden knows exactly what he is talking about.

Take Iran for example. Obama has stated outright that if he is elected US president he will offer to conduct direct negotiations with his Iranian counterpart President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Yet two weeks ago, the Iranians made clear that their dispute with America is not about who occupies the White House, but about the nature of the US.

Speaking to the official Iranian news service IRNA, Iranian Vice President for Media Affairs Mehdi Kalhor stipulated that Iran will only agree to meet with a US leader after America has bowed to Teheran's will. In his words, Iran will refuse to hold such high-level talks "for as long as US forces have not left the Middle East region, and [the US] continues its support for the Zionist regime."

Kalhor explained, "It is stupidity to hold talks without any change in US attitudes."

After naming its price, Iran has since done its best to make its preconditions palatable for an Obama administration. This it has done by claiming that it will not attack the US, it will only attack Israel.

Just after Kalhor's interview, Seyed Safavi, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told a diplomatic audience in London that Iranian leadership circles are now debating the option of attacking Israel without attacking US forces in the region. Safavi added that chances for direct negotiations between the US and Iran will increase if Obama is elected. Alluding to Kalhor's remarks, Safavi claimed that sanctions against Iran have failed and that if the US expects Iran to stop enriching uranium, it will have to take "firm and significant" steps in Iran's direction.

Then on Wednesday, in a visit to US-ally Bahrain, the speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani gave Obama the regime's official endorsement. Larijani said, "We are leaning more in favor of Barack Obama because he is more flexible and rational."

Iran's pre-US election behavior indicates that Iran will waste no time testing Obama's mettle. Iran is behaving as if it fully expects Obama to do what his supporter Rev. Jesse Jackson expects him to do. That is, like Jackson, Iran expects Obama to end "Zionist control" of US foreign policy. And to aid the process, the Iranians are willing to leave US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan alone as they attack Israel with their nascent nuclear arsenal shortly after Obama is inaugurated.

In his remarks on Sunday Biden made clear that he does not believe that Obama will agree to use the US military to confront Iran or any other enemy. His rejection of the use of force is not due to a sense that force is not necessary. Rather it is due to his dim assessment of America's military capabilities. In his words, "We do not have the military capacity, nor have we ever, quite frankly, in the last 20 years, to dictate outcomes. … It's so much more complicated than that. And Barack gets it."

Given the Democratic ticket's belief that the US military is too weak to protect American interests, it could be expected that Obama and Biden would support strengthening the US military. But the opposite is the case. Obama has called for slashing the US military budget, cutting back the US's anti-missile programs and scaling back drastically the US nuclear arsenal. That is, although Obama has claimed that he will never take the option of the use of force off the table, by refusing to strengthen the US military which he perceives as weak, he is making certain that the US military option is ineffectual.

IN CERTAIN respects, if Americans elect Obama to lead them on November 4, they will be repeating the decision of Israeli voters who elected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to lead them in March 2006. Like Obama, Olmert ran on a platform of appeasing Israel's enemies.

In addition to his plan to curtail US military options by decreasing US military budgets, Obama's appeasement platform includes his pledge to abandon the Bush administration's sole foreign policy success in its second term by pulling US forces out of Iraq. He has also promised to exacerbate Bush's second term policy failures by expanding the outgoing administration's penchant for courting US adversaries.

In 2006 Olmert's electoral platform included a naïve and defeatist pledge to unilaterally withdraw Israeli civilians and military forces from Judea and Samaria. As for Iran, Olmert's policy was to abdicate Israel's responsibility to prevent its own destruction by relying on the Americans and the Europeans to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Biden's warning that Obama will be tested and found wanting by America's adversaries almost immediately after entering office echoes warnings by politicians and commentators in the lead-up to Olmert's electoral victory in 2006. As subsequent events showed, Olmert's critics were correct.

Olmert was tested and found wanting when in July 2006 Iran's Hizbullah proxy went to war against Israel. Just as Olmert's political opponents warned, and Israel's enemies expected, Olmert's naïve perception of international affairs, his strategic incompetence and his exaggerated view of his own importance caused him to fail abjectly when his country needed him.

Largely due to Olmert's weakness and poor judgment, Israel was defeated by Hizbullah. And Israel's defeat fomented a radical reordering of the regional balance of power in Iran's favor. Hizbullah took over Lebanon. Hamas took over Gaza. Syria is being feted by the Europeans. Iran stands in the doorway of the nuclear club.

Olmert's failure not only strengthened Israel's enemies, it caused its own allies to reassess its value. After the war, the Bush administration embraced Europe's failed strategy of appeasing Iran and the Palestinians. Washington eschewed confrontation with Teheran and has renewed its push to compel Israel to withdraw from Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem despite the certainty that any territory Israel vacates will fall under the control of Hamas and Iran.

Iran will likely be the first US adversary to test Obama. And Obama will have no idea what to do. While Obama has stated repeatedly that a nuclear-armed Iran is a "game-changer," Obama's own rule book for international relations has no relevance for dealing with Iran's game.

Obama views international relations as a creature of American will. If America is nice to others, they will be nice to America. But the fact of the matter is that regimes like Iran hate the US regardless of how it behaves. The only question with strategic relevance for Washington is whether the Iranians also fear the US. And Obama has given them no reason to fear him. To the contrary, he has given them reason to believe that under his leadership, the mullahs can defeat America.

AMERICA STANDS to elect its new president in times of nearly unprecedented dangers. Iran is on the threshold of nuclear weapons. Thanks to the Bush administration, North Korea now feels free to vastly expand its nuclear proliferation activities. Oil rich states like Venezuela, Russia and Iran recognize that with global oil prices decreasing, now is the time to strike before they are impoverished. And the international economic turmoil will cause Western nations to recoil from international confrontations and so embolden rogue states to attack their interests.

For Israel, this state of affairs could not be more dire. As these threats mount, we find ourselves bereft of political leadership. Although Olmert has finally resigned, he remains in office as the caretaker prime minister until someone forms a new government. In the best case scenario, elections will be called and Olmert will remain in office for the next four to six months. In the worst case scenario, he will be replaced by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Like Obama and Olmert, Livni is perceived as weak and incompetent by Israel's enemies. Unlike Obama, Livni is judged not only by her words, but by her deeds. As foreign minister, Livni was an architect of the cease-fire with Hizbullah under which Hizbullah has taken control of Lebanon and rearmed. She is an architect of Israel's current policy of expanding the Hamas terror state to Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. She is an architect of Israel's policy of doing nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The prospect of an Obama-Livni partnership in policy failure is enough to keep men and women of good faith up at night. Certainly it should suffice to convince some Obama supporters to reconsider their options.

This article can also be read at /servlet/Satellite?cid=1222017613212&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

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