Why Global Warming Is Not So Bad When Clinton Resets Russian Winter And Obama Calls For Iranian Spring

political_philosophy2 Is this the coming of Obamian naivity?

Last month the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced that the US is pressing the reset button in the relationships with Russia. Last week President Obama addressed Iran for the first day of Spring which marks the Iranian New Year. Together, these two top foreign policy initiatives amount to a global warming in the world political weather, marked by severing Russian political winter and Iranian nuclear fall.

Critics to this new foreign policy approach rushed to lump together the two initiatives pronouncing them to be the new Wilsonian idealism, perhaps worthy a name such as Obamian naivism. Their arguments against this unorthodox foreign policy approach have certain merits. It shows a dose of idealism and inexperience in the tough and cynical world of international politics, which indeed amounts to, yes, naivism. But on a closer examination, I argue, things do not seem so naive. Here is why.

The starting point for understanding what these new initiatives of breaking with the past mean is to examine the policy intentions (goals) and ways of achieving them (means). Focusing only on the former or only on the latter will inevitably fail to provide us with clear picture of the consequences from the new Administration's actions. Instead, it will send us back in the day when G.W. Bush's Administration focused too much on the goals, and not enough on the means considering that the world's greatest economic and military power can behave as a French absolutist and declare "L'etat (ergo le mond) c'est moi (nous)." So let us start with the goals and then come back to the means.

The Russian Perennial Winter

First Russia. For the past twenty years since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe the world's leading industrial democracies failed to define a coherent approach to Russia. They never settled on whether this is European country, Asian country, or neither. Geography does play a role, that much is true, and considering Russian geographic allocation, the country which even after the breaking of the Soviet empire is still the largest territorial state in the world, resembles a bug which small head is in Europe, but large body in Asia. The West until this day still does not know whether to fear Russia or whether to lure it in its family of western values, preferring to ignore it altogether until the urgency knocks on the door. For its own part, Russians also never decided what kind of socio-political and cultural animal are they. Suffering from industrial inferiority, intellectual superiority, and civilization idiosyncrasy, the majority of Russians consider themselves part of the West, albeit Far Eastern one. Identity paradox, no?

In the recent war with Georgia, the majority of the Russians were satisfied to rub the nose of the Georgians, and their western allies (particularly the US previous administration). This is a reaction to long felt indignation. NATO has completely surrounded Russia, colorful revolutions are encouraged in its sphere of influence, Central Asian countries are pressured to ally with US, and Russian foreign policy is evaluated on a double standard: good if supports the US 'war on terror,' and more tangible wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tough stance against Iranian nuclear ambitions, and bad when waging its own 'war on terror' and opposing the above mentioned US policies. In all that Russia sees itself as the victim, duped in believing in the West's good intentions.

Here comes Clinton's reset button policy. It was a clear recognition of past foreign policy mistakes and failures. The debate about how the West should deal with Russia mimics at least two previous debates: one in the wake of the Second World War, and one in the wake of the Cold War. Each time the discussion is not only what to do, but what causes the seemingly irreconcilable differences in the political positions of the two poles. Hilary Clinton seem to have made her position clear - the deterioration of the relationships, and pushing Russia on the defensive, is caused by US. So we need to press the reset button.

That position is, indeed, naive and shows lack of understanding of the dynamics of the international politics. The incoherence of US position to Russia did not start with G.W. Bush, only took a sharp turn south. During president Clinton's tenure Russia was turned into a lapdog, with drunk with both power and liqueur Boris Yeltsin, and the building of a powerful group of oligarchs. Myriad of Russians felt humiliated, deprived, and poor. Democracy for them acquired the hollow meaning of abject poverty, when one's monthly salary is paid in a few dozen eggs and a few bottles of vodka while multi billionaires are born overnight, and ontological security is reduced to zero by lawlessness, corruption, and crime. No matter what the US and the West do, Russians will feel the same way about their past twenty years experience. However, the reset button policy implicitly legitimizes these grievances. The problem is that none of these issues are black and white, and all have their respective counter-point.

Since the end of the Second World War Russia (then Soviet Union) did not behave exactly like a benign power, either. They reneged on their commitments to allow fair elections in Poland, expended over all Eastern Europe and imposed totalitarian communist system, dragged their feet for withdrawing from the Middle East (mainly Iran), punished Berlin, crushed the Hungarian and Czech attempts for liberation, and committed horrendous atrocities in Afghanistan. Since the end of the Cold War things did not change that much: Russia waged twice one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world against Chechnya, fueled separatism and irredentism in South Ossetia and Nagorno Kharabah, and keeps bullying neighboring states into submission, the latest of which is Kyrgyzstan, but hardly the last one.

Here is the crux with the reset button policy: acknowledgment of our mistaken policy will not lead the Russians to suddenly burst into tears of reconciliation and come running into our wide open arms for a big brotherly hug. Most likely, the reset button push call will be viewed and considered as tacit acknowledgment of fault and guilt. Worse yet, it will be seen by others, such as China, India, Brazil, and Iran the same way. US in the mean time will not get much in return. President Medvediev and Prime Minister Putin are not likely to change their line of current policies. Nor the reset button policy will arm our allies with potential arguments to join the US bandwagon to pressure Russia on changing course on issues, such as Iran, energy security, Far East, Chechnya, or democratization. In brief, the reset button policy will not deliver!

The Iran Spring of Enmity

At a first glance Obama's address to Iran, and please note the address was both to the Iranian people and the Iranian power elite, seems to fall into the same naïve politics of reconciliation with the past. But it is not! Again, let us start with the goals.

Iran has always been in a very precarious position. For the ignorant westerner it is one more Muslim extremist state. But for not so ignorant ones, Iran is a non-Arab Shia state, more often than not being at odds with its Sunni Arab neighbors, and under pressure from the West. Because of this, and especially after the Islamic revolution of 1979 which sent shivering spasms in the spines of most neighboring authoritarian regimes, the Iranian political elite has always been under pressure and felt on the defensive. Iranian sense of victimization is, indeed, akin to that of the Russians. Both countries share the same position the odd man in the group - not exactly Europeans, not exactly Asians, not exactly democracy, and not exactly powerful in the case of Russia, and not exactly Muslim, not exactly Arabs, not exactly democracy, and not exactly powerful in the case of Iran.

The foreign policy goals in the case of Iran are much more coherent and consistent. Iran increases the security dilemma by its efforts to develop military nuclear capabilities, stirs the muddy security water in Iraq, and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas among other groups is standing on the way of long term peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis. The only place where unwillingly Iran supports the US, or rather does not shake the ground beneath its feet, is in Afghanistan only because the Talibans are as belligerent as the Salafi jihadists in their outright hatred towards Shia Muslims, considering them heretics deserving nothing better than death. The US policy objectives are rather clear and well defined.

In the light of the hereto discussion, Obama's choice of policy approach (means) is both adequate and wit. Addressing both the people of Iran, and their government, he implicitly legitimizes the Iranian government, and thus the Islamic Revolution of 1979. There is no doubt that this is a huge change in US foreign policy towards Iran. He even named Iran by its formal name "Islamic Republic of Iran" which is a positive step. Positive, because thirty years of pretending that the change in Iran is illegitimate and unacceptable failed to deliver. On the contrary, it only exacerbated the problems in the region, and hardened the positions of all parties. This denial of acceptance actually emboldened the Iranian political elite and fed their populist anti-Americanism, and anti-Westernism in effort to diverge the public's attention from pressing domestic issues. This excuse is now gone and the ball is in the Ayetollah's court.

The address also has far reaching effect for the region. The corrupt Arab regimes must be extremely uncomfortable right now as they feel the heat of possible warming between US and Iran. Every time someone was opening the conversation for liberalization, change, anti-corruption and anti-cronyism measures in the region, the standard line of response by these governments was "OK, but you  deal with the Islamist extremists on your own, and count not for help to contain the Iranian threat." With just one 'naive' address Obama achieved two goals.

The pressure is no less intense on Israel. Iran is an important rallying point for blind support for various unacceptable positions by the Jewish state, including the recent war in Gaza, and a convenient excuse for its own bullying policies. Bypassing Israel on the way to Tehran undermines Israel's role of agenda setter in the Middle East and dethrones it from the position of official proctor of US politics in the region, enjoying unconditional and blind support from Washington. It is no coincidence that the Israeli president Shimon Peres surprisingly issued an address to the Iranian people on the same day with president's Obama address. It was meant to dilute the message from Washington and to arm the Iranian hardliners with a line of argument that lumps together Israeli and American foreign policies as one and the same, therefore dismissing its objectives and countering its effectiveness. Despite that subversion, the message was not lost and the Hamas leader did not hesitate to say so.

As for the Iranian political elite, the heat is on and burning. Put under unprecedented pressure by a clever move, hardliners and moderates alike in the Iranian political elite are equally pressed to cope with a reality which they cannot simply dismiss; not in this internet age! The immediate atavistic reaction of the Iranian government  to try to play down and dismiss the address with hard propaganda and strange demands underline the actual effect of Obama's Spring address. Just like a crack on a windshield will widen and grow from every slightest bump on the road, regardless how carefully the driver goes, much to the Iranian political elite' chagrin, the leadership will have to accept that they have no strong move but to accept a temporary defeat. They will have to deal with the pressure for normalization and change of policy, regardless how hard the elite tries to divert attention, downplay the reality, or play hard on negotiations.Whatever they do, it will not be enough to stop the crack from widening inside Iran, one bumb at a time.

A global warming may be on the way to international politics. Rejoice not! It will be naïve. As the climate global warming, the effects are not at all positive for all, and while the spring may be a bless for cold winter places on the poles, the center may easily overheat.


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