Friday, March 19, 2010

Diplomacy, Chicago style?

The Israeli government's announcement of its approval for a long planned expansion of a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem has caused quite a stir. It went forward during a visit of U.S. Vice-President Biden intended, among other things, to focus attention on U.S. Israeli solidarity in their stand against Iran's push for nuclear weapons capability. Was the overdone U.S. government reaction to the supposed slight to the Vice-President the result of high-level diplomatic immaturity? Or was it part of a shrewdly calculated attempt to facilitate Israeli concessions that may improve the Palestinian community's perception of the Palestinian Authority's stature as indirect negotiations between Israel and Palestine begin?

However that may be, it has distracted attention from another more significant rebuff of U.S. policy. Hilary Clinton is visiting Moscow. According to a report in the online edition of the French newspaper "Le Figaro" "At the moment when the American Secretary of State was conversing with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, the [Russian] Prime Minister [Vladimir Putin], visiting southern Russia, announced the start-up this summer of Iran's first nuclear reactor, built by the Russians in Bushehr, a city in the south of the Islamic Republic."

A good case can be made that Russia's rebuff, which merited a diplomatically restrained rap on the hand from Hilary Clinton, is far more significant than the pretended Israeli slight that got a far harsher reaction. The low level Israeli government announcement involved Israeli activity with respect to an issue on which the likely outlines of an Israeli Palestinian agreement already exist. The very high level Russian announcement involves a "fait accompli" that highlights the possibility that U.S. diplomatic efforts to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapons capability are at best already OBE, and at worst an impotent pantomime, doomed by the recalcitrance of the Russians and the Chinese.

Of course, it's easier for the U.S. government to bully Israel than Russia. That may explain the disproportionate reactions to these two similarly structured diplomatic slights. But since Moscow's rebuff points to the possibly insurmountable difficulties facing diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran's full development of the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, it directs attention to the alternative: direct military action. Israel took such action against Saddam Hussein's Iraq when it seemed poised to cross the nuclear weapons threshold. That was the last time the U.S. condemned an Israeli action the way it appears to be condemning the far less significant bureaucratic snafu over a routine announcement related to construction in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem. Is the U.S. government's overreaction now meant to raise the prospect of a reaction that goes beyond verbal condemnation should Israel take direct military action to stop Iran's emergence as a nuclear weapons power? Does it raise the bar of expectation in a way that vastly increases the likelihood of that reaction?

So have the Obama faction's actions in the past few days been the result of temperamental incompetence (what Jackson Diehl labeled "a fit of pique" or an even more far reaching Machiavellian calculation (than someone like Charles Krauthammer suggested)? While seeming to pressure Israel in one way, present events may implicitly confront Prime Minister Netanyahu with a far more ominous and fateful pressure: accept a fait accompli that puts Israeli in the way of destruction at the hands of Iranian nuclear weapons; or act to preempt that threat in the face of a U.S. administration that may be positioning itself to justify not merely a freeze in U.S.-Israeli relations, but an unprecedented disruption. Is this diplomacy, Chicago style?


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