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Walter Russell Mead of the CFR on Obama’s Iran policy, and how he’s treating the Israelis

Friday, September 25, 2009
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HH: You know, I have been blasting President Obama’s speech to the United Nations yesterday, and his speech on climate change the day before, but I want to make sure it’s not just me, at least in my objective assessment. So I asked Walter Russell Mead of the Council On Foreign Relations, author of the very important book, God And Gold, to join me. Walter, it’s good to have you back, thanks for making some time.

WRM: Glad to be here.

HH: Let’s start. I made the assessment that the president’s speech yesterday was the most negative about Israel every delivered by a sitting president to an international organization. Am I wrong?

WRM: I think that’s probably fair, although I would want to go back and look and see you know, what did Dwight Eisenhower say during the Suez crisis?

HH: Okay, but if he said it, he probably did it in a press conference or something like that, not to a…

WRM: Yeah, not certainly, he didn’t address the U.N. over it. So you know, on that basis, you’re right.

HH: Okay, so what do you take away from that? And what should friends of Israel be thinking at this point?

WRM: Well first of all, I think it was an expression of frustration, because President Obama made a big point of wanting to get Netanyahu to agree to a complete, a total settlement freeze, and he’s been unable to make that happen. So I think what we’re seeing partly is just frustration.

HH: Does frustration, Walter Russell Mead, though, justify in your mind the president gliding over the fact that Hamas and Hezbollah, but let’s stay focused on Hamas since this is the Palestinian territories. They haven’t yet agreed that Israel has a right to exist.

WRM: Well, that’s right. Look, it’s…what President Obama thought he could do here was get the Israelis to get a total settlement freeze, the Arabs then to make some steps toward recognition of Israel, and some softening of their positions, reopening of some missions, and that would protect, you know, that would sort of advance the peace process, make him look good. It’s not a bad thing to want, but I think he didn’t understand that he couldn’t, that the Arabs were not prepared to put enough on the table that would make the Israelis willing to do what he wanted.

HH: Now what about the rest of the speech, because not only was it blasting away at Israel, and not only did it leave unmentioned Hamas’ intransigence…

WRM: Right.

HH: It doesn’t really call out Iran as being the great gangster on the international stage right now.

WRM: Yeah, again, I think, I think it would have been better. It was amazing, I don’t know if you actually saw Ahmadinejad’s speech…

HH: I did. It was on in the background, and I would go in and out during my show.

WRM: Right, well, you know, the U.N. cameras kept it fixed on Ahmadinejad. But every now and then, they cut away. The room was almost empty. It was extraordinary. I have never seen a speech by a foreign leader at the U.N. with so many delegations staying away. And I’ve been surprised that the coverage hasn’t focused enough on the incredible isolation of Iran at this moment.

HH: Well, is the president, is the Obama administration, not capitalizing enough on that, Walter Russell Mead, because I agree with you, and you’ve got a million people in the streets in Tehran a week ago tomorrow.

WRM: Yeah.

HH: Are they doing the right thing to bring pressure to bear on the fanatical mullahs?

WRM: It’s hard to tell, because look, here’s the thing. President Obama’s political constituency, his base, is on the left. And he’s just had, he’s having to go on this public option thing on health insurance, he’s not going their way. We see him kind of wrestling with the Afghanistan thing. It’s very unlikely, no matter what he finally decides, he’s going to give them the satisfaction they want on that. Now, you know, a tough speech on Iran, what does he look like? So he’s, you know, I can’t tell if what he’s doing is trying to protect his left flank even while he prepares to make some very strong decisions, or if in fact he is waffling on some core things. It’s a little too soon to tell. We’ll know more after his October 1st, after the negotiations with the Iranians, what happens then.

HH: At what point, Walter Russell Mead, is it, I am already using it, but I doubt very much a CFR person’s going to use it, is it fair to use the term appeasement? At what point when the Iranians say we don’t want what you’re offering, the Iranians say go pound sand, the Iranians meet with us on everything except nukes, and we jump down the throat of Israel, and we leave unremarked upon Hamas’ intransigence, we don’t talk about it, at what point does it become appeasement of radical Islamist states?

WRM: Well, I think it’s…you know, if we get to the point where not only is he sort of willing to accept an Iranian bomb himself, but wants to take strong action to prevent Israel from acting in that case, then I think you’ve got a, that’s not a pretty spot to be in.

HH: Zbigniew Brzezinski suggested that it might be necessary to shoot down Israeli Defense Forces planes, Walter Russell Mead. Is that unprecedented in terms of American foreign policy establishment voices being anti-Israel?

WRM: It’s pretty strong. It’s really, again, unprecedented is a strong word. There have been a lot of American diplomats over the years who really did not like Israel very much, going back to like the 1920s and 30s, even before there was an Israel. So I don’t know about unprecedented, but it’s awfully strong. And you know, Zbigniew Brzezinski is a guy in many ways, I admire his mind, he was my sparring partner at one point on the News Hour over Iraq, and he was constantly talking about we’d lost the war in Iraq, there was no way forward. So he’s not always right, but he is very smart. However, I think here, he really let himself, his emotions get control. That’s not a helpful thing to say. It’s inconceivable to me that President Obama would actually adopt that as U.S. foreign policy.

HH: Now you have written rather recently about how to get the Middle East peace process restarted. It does not appear to be coming to pass. Who’s to blame for this, in your opinion, Walter Russell Mead?

WRM: Again, I’m afraid that the Obama administration came in with what it thought was new thinking, but wasn’t really enough. Here’s the thing. Right now, Americans want the two state solution more than the Israelis and the Palestinians do. The Palestinians don’t want it, frankly, because the two state solution still leaves a lot of those people in Hamas in Gaza. It’s a desert, Gaza. There’s no water, there’s no way to make a living, and these people have been basically in a U.N. welfare state for three generations living on refugee relief. Independence, what is that? They want, they had this fantasy of going back to their original homes, and they’re not going to settle for less. The Israelis sort of know what, and so they’re aware that any, if they sign a peace treaty with the Palestinians, the next day, a rocket comes over from Gaza, and what are they going to do? And they don’t think a Palestinian government is going to do anything about it, and they’re probably right. So the mainstream approach to this issue has been to try to ignore the Israeli conservatives who don’t, or who are suspicious of the two state deal, and the Palestinians like Hamas and others who want nothing to do with the two state deal, and try to kind of force the moderates together into some kind of a compromise to make it stick. I don’t think that can work. And I think you actually have to, you have to listen seriously to what you’re hearing from the Israeli right, and from the Palestinian left, not that you agree necessarily with what either one of them wants. I certainly don’t agree with the Palestinian left. But they’re facts. They’re…the public sentiment they represent are facts. You have to think about a peace process, a peace arrangement that can work, and right now, I think it’s somewhat utopian. People want to look like they’re working for peace. It’s probably an American diplomatic interest to have a peace process going, even if it doesn’t get to peace.

HH: I’m talking with Walter Russell Mead of the Council On Foreign Relations. Yesterday, Walter, I had Dore Gold on, former ambassador of Israel to the United Nations. He says Israel’s 80-85% unified across the political spectrum that Iran is an existential threat, and basically that if the world doesn’t control them, Israel will.

WRM: Yup.

HH: Will Israel, in your opinion, Walter Russell Mead, be justified in striking at Iran’s nuclear program militarily if the world does not bring this rogue regime to heel?

WRM: I think if you look at the facts of Jewish history, you know, I was shocked last night when Ahmadinejad, he…you know, I shouldn’t have been shocked. It maybe shows how naïve I still am. But he didn’t just say I don’t like Israel, I don’t like Zionism. But he went right out there into full-throated anti-Semitism. You know, he talked about a small minority of people who plot and scheme and control the world, and put whole nations into slavery. That’s a speech that Goebbles or Goring or Hitler could have given easily. And I do not see how any democratically elected Israeli politician can sit there while somebody who talks of this way moves closer and closer to nuclear weapons.

HH: Last question, Walter, how can any democratically elected American president sit there and not bring it up in front of the world, that these crazy fanatics, and they’re not crazy, they’re fanatics, are moving to a nuclear weapon on his watch?

WRM: I’m going to give him benefit of the doubt through…you know, he’s announced a policy which is let’s engage in face to face negotiations with the Iranians. I’m going to say he’s sincere in thinking that that’ll work. I’m not sure myself that it will. In fact, I’m rather doubtful. But I think he needs to go ahead and get to that point, try his policy. Now will he change when it doesn’t work? Will he learn from what the Iranians are telling him? Or will he continue down a blind alley? That’s what we have to wait for.

HH: We look forward to having you back to talk about that. Walter Russell Mead of the Council On Foreign Relations, author of God And Gold, thank you so much, Walter.

End of interview.

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