MoDo is having another Clinton tantrum. In “Mighty Morphin’ Hillary” she has a question, and then supplies her own answer: Longing to start the 2016 campaign? So’s Hillary. Mr. Cohen has decided to give us his 2 cents on Susan Rice. In “The Rice Question” he says Susan Rice is capable and tough, but her judgment can be troubling. The Moustache of Wisdom is in Tel Aviv. In “Iron Empires, Iron Fists, Iron Domes” he says going from Syria to Turkey to Tel Aviv raises a question of whether there are just three governing option. Here’s MoDo, displaying her irrationality when it comes to anything named “Clinton:”
Everyone expected Hillary to lower the boom on Bibi Friday night.
The bullying Israeli prime minister is fond of demanding that America set red lines on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But he blithely stuck a finger in the eye of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton Friday and went over a red line for successive American administrations: Israel gave the White House only a few hours’ notice that it was defying the U.S. and planning new settlements in the most sensitive territory east of Jerusalem, a move that Washington fears could obliterate any prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“If such a project were to go beyond blueprints,” Jodi Rudoren and Mark Landler wrote in The Times, “it could prevent the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state” by closing off the West Bank from East Jerusalem.
The brazen and counterproductive action, designed to punish the Palestinians, flouted the Obama administration, which had Israel’s back twice recently: in the clash with Hamas over Gaza and, despite increased diplomatic isolation, in opposing the successful vote to upgrade Palestine to a nonmember observer state in the United Nations.
The provocation preceded Hillary’s speech at the Saban Forum at the Willard Hotel here Friday night. The conference on the Middle East is run by Haim Saban, an Israeli-American media and entertainment mogul from Beverly Hills who is best known for three things: bringing the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers from Japan to America, being a vocal supporter of Israel and lavishing the Clintons with donations. (He gave $5 million to the Clinton presidential library, $5 million to the Clinton foundation and avidly supported Hillary’s ’08 bid against Obama.)
Last year, at the Saban forum, Hillary infuriated some Israeli ministers when she said she was alarmed about the rights of women and “antidemocratic” bills proposed by far-right members of the Netanyahu government. She talked about her dismay at learning that some religious Israeli soldiers walked out of events where women were singing and that some buses in Jerusalem operated under gender apartheid — “reminiscent of Rosa Parks,” as she put it. So, many in the audience this time assumed that the outgoing secretary of state would lay down the law to Bibi on settlements, and they were surprised when she pulled her punches and made only a mild reference, eschewing the word “settlements.”
“These activities,” she said, “set back the cause of a negotiated peace.”
She said the Palestinians could have a state “as old as I am” if in 1947 they had made “the right decision” or if they had “worked with my husband” in 2000. And she urged Israel to be “generous” toward the Palestinians. But she didn’t whack Bibi, as he deserved. Many there came away assuming that it was the beginning of Hillary’s 2016 campaign, that she was thinking about her future rather than her present. Her reasoning, they reckoned, was this: If Obama doesn’t want to have anything to do with the settlement issue, if he’d rather spend his time in Myanmar than Israel, then why should she stir up trouble with Israel and her pro-Israel supporters on her way out the door?
And aside from the dog that didn’t bark, there was the video that roared. A film that introduced Hillary featured leaders and Israeli pols — including Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni — gushing over the secretary.
In a dispatch headlined “Hillary Is Running,” David Remnick, The New Yorker editor, wrote: “The film was like an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.”
How can we focus on Barry’s transition when Hillary’s is so much more riveting? Far from being depleted and ready for a spa, she’s energetically rounding up the usual suspects. She “took steps to solidify her relationships with some Democrats by sending hand-signed notes to candidates who got bested in close Congressional races,” offering them encouragement and succor, The New York Observer’s politics blog reports. That provided a marked contrast to Obama, who did not bother to rally Democrats in his acceptance speech.
Secretary Clinton also reached out for the first time to reunite her Irish-American fund-raisers and top supporters. IrishCentral.com reports that Kris Balderston, a Hillary aide at State, sent invitations to several prominent Irish Democrats who raised millions for her Senate and presidential runs to accompany the top diplomat to events in Dublin and Belfast this week. Though other possible 2016 contenders, like Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo and Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, have Irish connections, Hillary is the cushla, or darling.
“I hope this means Hillary is running,” said Niall O’Dowd, the publisher of IrishCentral.com and other Irish publications in New York, who is joining the secretary in Ireland at her invitation. “She has enormous strength in the Irish-American community because of the Clintons’ massive role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. She’s a country mile ahead of every other contender with the Irish.”
I guess it makes no difference whatsoever to anyone that she’s repeatedly said she’s not going to run. After all, she’s only a woman and they change their minds all the time… Here’s Mr. Cohen:
When Thomas Pickering took up the No.3 position at the U.S. State Department in 1997, his attention turned to Sudan. The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum had been vacated the previous year after the C.I.A. reported threats, but Pickering wanted the mission reopened in a country that had harbored Osama bin Laden until May 1996 and had more experience than most with violent Islamist extremism.
“The intelligence reports that prompted the closure of the embassy were false and I felt strongly that the embassy should be reopened,” Pickering, who has served as ambassador to Nigeria, Israel, India, Russia and the United Nations, told me. “But Susan Rice and Sandy Berger felt strongly it should remain closed and so it did not get reopened for a long while.”
Rice, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a leading candidate along with Senator John Kerry to become the next secretary of state, was then assistant secretary for African affairs. She had strong views about Sudan and plenty of reasons to hold them: a terror-sponsoring Sudanese government playing host to anti-American Islamist radicals and engaged in a brutal war with its own citizens in the south.
But while under no illusions about the Sudanese government, Pickering, then under secretary of state for political affairs, saw an opportunity to probe possible shifts in Khartoum. “My view was that we needed to be in contact with governments around the world whatever their characters, and we might change Sudan’s attitude through being there,” he said. “Susan took a different view.”
Today we are at a crucial juncture for American power. President Obama’s priority in preserving U.S. influence in the world must be domestic: reviving the economy. He needs a secretary of state able to chart her or his own course at times, with a team-of-rivals independence, and the ability to talk to enemies — Iran being top of that list.
Susan Rice is certainly capable and tough. One person who has spent a lot of time with Rice is struck by her “bristling certitude.” A former U.S. ambassador told me, “Rice does not know how to be unblunt.” But it is her judgment at critical moments — as displayed on whether to reopen the Sudan embassy or in her handling of the talking points on the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans — that troubles me.
Of course, the ultimate decision on returning U.S. diplomats to Khartoum in 1997 did not lie with Rice. Samuel R. Berger, as national security adviser to President Clinton, had more clout. Still, as the State Department’s point person on Africa, her opinion had weight.
Rice’s thinking at the time, as described to me by several officials, ran like this: Reopening the U.S. Embassy would have been interpreted by the Sudanese as a reward for good behavior. The United States, she felt, could not send that signal to a country on the terrorist list and involved in the worst human rights abuses. Moreover, nothing she saw at the time suggested that the Sudanese offers of intelligence assistance were serious.
What difference a U.S. decision to engage with Khartoum would have made to intelligence gathering on Al Qaeda, preventing the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, averting the mistaken 1998 U.S. cruise-missile attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, and blocking the path to 9/11 is unclear.
On one particular issue — whether in 1996 (when Rice was a senior director for Africa at the National Security Council) Sudan offered to hand over Bin Laden — the 9/11 Commission Report “found no credible evidence that this was so.”
“Ambassador Rice believes that it is far better to have a diplomatic presence than not,” her spokeswoman, Erin Pelton, said in an e-mail message. “Thus her inherent predisposition is to try to reopen embassies as soon as possible. However, when the U.S. is dealing with countries that are state sponsors of terrorism, that decision cannot be made without regard to the policy signal it sends.”
Tim Carney, the ambassador to Sudan at the time, had to leave the country in early 1996 when the embassy was vacated. He believes that the decision not to reopen the following year was disastrous.
“We took our eye off the ball,” he told me. “We did not know what was happening in Khartoum, a center of extremist Islam. There was no logic to our policy beyond punishing Khartoum and supporting the rebellion in south Sudan. That the Sudanese could not ensure our security was complete and utter nonsense. In my experience, Rice failed in her judgment. Our interests suffered.”
Pickering was in general impressed with Rice, a woman of strong ideas navigating an effective course in many areas of African policy, including Ethiopia and Eritrea. It was only on Sudan, he said, that “we disagreed, and I was not happy.”
Rice, as Sudan suggests, is decisive: She joined the Obama team early in his first campaign when other foreign policy heavyweights backed Hillary Clinton. She is known to be very close to the president. He has made clear that he is prepared to spend significant political capital to defend her if he nominates her for secretary of state. During the first term, foreign policy was very White House-centered. If Obama plans a similar second-term set-up, Rice would be a natural fit.
Over the years I have heard Rice, whom I once met briefly, described as smart, loyal, earnest, combative, certain of her views and not particularly worldly. Her convictions on human rights, shaped through the Rwandan genocide that in turn influenced her views on south Sudan, are passionate.
She famously clashed with the late Richard Holbrooke (and successfully helped keep him from Obama’s inner circle); an attempt at a reconciliatory breakfast ended with him giving her his private cellphone number without the gesture being reciprocated.
One senior Obama administration official who was very close to Holbrooke and so, in her words, “got off on the wrong foot with Rice,” has become a great admirer. Rice, she argues, has done great things at the United Nations.
“The notion that she is a walkover for Obama is just nonsense,” she told me.
According to this official’s account, Rice was the “only cabinet member arguing for what we ended up doing in Libya” — a military intervention, backed by a strong U.N. resolution Rice managed to secure, that saved Benghazi and ended with the ousting of Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“She knows how to transcend the limits of American power by knowing the limits of American power,” the official said. “She uses all the tools in the toolbox. When the cry goes up in a crisis, ‘Save the peacekeepers,’ she says, ‘No, save the people!”’
Rice has been the object of egregious Republican attacks over her now notorious Benghazi television interviews on Sept. 16. Their attempt to portray her covering up a supposedly premeditated terrorist attack that left four Americans dead does not hold up. My understanding is there is no evidence of premeditation — as in advance planning — or even that the attackers knew that Ambassador Chris Stevens, who happened to be visiting Benghazi, was there. The charged Al Qaeda epithet has been loosely thrown around for a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariah.
Still, Rice’s performance raises questions. If the C.I.A. was the main editor of her talking points, and that editing involved the last-minute removal of references to Ansar al-Shariah for fear of tipping them off, would it not have been wise to avoid alluding to the killings as a “horrific incident where some mob was hijacked ultimately by a handful of extremists” — as she said on CNN? And if the C.I.A. knew that two of its own had been killed, why did Rice tell ABC News that “two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security”?
We now know, thanks to reporting by David Ignatius of The Washington Post among others, that the two C.I.A. agents, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed with mortar fire a full six hours after Stevens in a separate Benghazi location. By the time Rice went on TV, five days had elapsed since the killings, and the C.I.A. had done extensive debriefing.
Why then did Rice not step back, ask questions and hedge her talking points rather than plunge ahead with an account of a spontaneous reaction by “folks in Benghazi,” like the one in Cairo, to the anti-Muhammad video? As is now clear, the demonstration never happened.
Stevens is mentioned just once in the various Rice interviews. The killing becomes an almost abstract “violence” committed by “extremists.” The video is “hateful,” “heinous,” “disgusting,” “offensive” and “reprehensible.” The killing of four Americans is “condemnable,” “unacceptable,” “reprehensible” and “horrific.”
Somewhere in all those adjectives the distinction on the scales of iniquity between mischief and murder is lost.
The U.S. secretary of state needs several skills: leadership, strategic vision, an inner compass, knowledge of the world and judgment. The most effective secretaries — Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker come to mind — have served their presidents, of course, but were also shapers and clinchers of policy.
The recent precedent of Colin Powell’s reluctant support for the Iraq war shows how important it can be for the secretary to stand up to the White House — even to the point of resignation, as Cyrus Vance did in 1980 over a disagreement with Jimmy Carter.
In diplomacy the core question is often this: What do I want to get and what do I have to give to get it? Certitudes and bluntness get you only so far. It is less a question of what you know than how curious you are about what you do not.
Susan Rice’s story includes several significant achievements. But, from Khartoum to Benghazi, it has been more one of knowing than asking.
And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
I went to synagogue on Saturday not far from the Syrian border in Antakya, Turkey. It’s been on my mind ever since.
Antakya is home to a tiny Jewish community, which still gathers for holidays at the little Sephardic synagogue. It is also famous for its mosaic of mosques and Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian and Protestant churches. How could it be that I could go to synagogue in Turkey on Saturday while on Friday, just across the Orontes River in Syria, I had visited with Sunni Free Syrian Army rebels embroiled in a civil war in which Syrian Alawites and Sunnis are killing each other on the basis of their ID cards, Kurds are creating their own enclave, Christians are hiding and the Jews are long gone?
What is this telling us? For me, it raises the question of whether there are just three governing options in the Middle East today: Iron Empires, Iron Fists or Iron Domes?
The reason that majorities and minorities co-existed relatively harmoniously for some 400 years when the Arab world was ruled by the Turkish Ottomans from Istanbul was because the Sunni Ottomans, with their Iron Empire, monopolized politics. While there were exceptions, generally speaking the Ottomans and their local representatives were in charge in cities like Damascus, Antakya and Baghdad. Minorities, like Alawites, Shiites, Christians and Jews, though second-class citizens, did not have to worry that they’d be harmed if they did not rule. The Ottomans had a live-and-let-live mentality toward their subjects.
When Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire in the Arab East, they forged the various Ottoman provinces into states — with names like Iraq, Jordan and Syria — that did not correspond to the ethnographic map. So Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Kurds and Jews found themselves trapped together inside national boundaries that were drawn to suit the interests of the British and French. Those colonial powers kept everyone in check. But once they withdrew, and these countries became independent, the contests for power began, and minorities were exposed. Finally, in the late 1960s and 1970s, we saw the emergence of a class of Arab dictators and monarchs who perfected Iron Fists (and multiple intelligence agencies) to decisively seize power for their sect or tribe — and they ruled over all the other communities by force.
In Syria, under the Assad family’s iron fist, the Alawite minority came to rule over a Sunni majority, and in Iraq, under Saddam’s iron fist, a Sunni minority came to rule over a Shiite majority. But these countries never tried to build real “citizens” who could share and peacefully rotate in power. So what you are seeing today in the Arab awakening countries — Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen — is what happens when there is no Iron Empire and the people rise up against the iron-fisted dictators. You are seeing ongoing contests for power — until and unless someone can forge a social contract for how communities can share power.
Israelis have responded to the collapse of Arab iron fists around them — including the rise of militias with missiles in Lebanon and Gaza — with a third model. It is the wall Israel built around itself to seal off the West Bank coupled with its Iron Dome antimissile system. The two have been phenomenally successful — but at a price. The wall plus the dome are enabling Israel’s leaders to abdicate their responsibility for thinking creatively about a resolution of its own majority-minority problem with the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
I am stunned at what I see here politically. On the right, in the Likud Party, the old leadership that was at least connected with the world, spoke English and respected Israel’s Supreme Court, is being swept aside in the latest primary by a rising group of far-right settler-activists who are convinced — thanks, in part, to the wall and dome — that Palestinians are no threat anymore and that no one can roll back the 350,000 Jews living in the West Bank. The far-right group running Israel today is so arrogant, and so indifferent to U.S. concerns, that it announced plans to build a huge block of settlements in the heart of the West Bank — in retaliation for the U.N. vote giving Palestinians observer status — even though the U.S. did everything possible to block that vote and the settlements would sever any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, the dome and wall have so insulated the Israeli left and center from the effects of the Israeli occupation that their main candidates for the Jan. 22 elections — including those from Yitzhak Rabin’s old Labor Party — are not even offering peace ideas but simply conceding the right’s dominance on that issue and focusing on bringing down housing prices and school class sizes. One settler leader told me the biggest problem in the West Bank today is “traffic jams.”
I am glad that the wall and the Iron Dome are sheltering Israelis from enemies who wish to do them ill, but I fear the wall and the Iron Dome are also blinding them from truths they still badly need to face.