Secretary of State Clinton’s blast at Russia and China last Friday blamed them for holding up international action against the Assad regime in Syria, but surely their position on Syria was not news. Clinton complained that they were “blockading” progress and “paying no price.”
But complaints do not constitute a policy. What Clinton did not supply was any approach or action that would change things—change Russia’s policy, change U.S. policy toward Russia, or change the facts on the ground in Syria. The administration’s diplomatic efforts, which put Kofi Annan at the fore, have failed, but they have not been replaced by anything effective.
The same is true on Iran policy, where the P5+1 negotiations with Iran have failed to produce progress but the administration has nothing new to say. When the talks get nowhere, the administration calls for more talks—sometimes technical talks, sometimes talks led by the EU, sometimes full-scale P5+1 negotiations. But this approach is manifestly not changing Iran’s conduct: the centrifuges keep spinning, the missile tests continue, and we must assume that warhead design is also going forward.
This same pattern is visible on the Israeli-Palestinian front, where administration policy has also failed and been replaced by nothing at all. George Mitchell left the scene in 2010, Dennis Ross resigned last year, the notion that a “settlement freeze” by Israel was the magic formula has been discredited, and there are no negotiations in sight. So what is U.S. policy? Have we advanced beyond Secretary of Defense Panetta’s urgings last December “just get to the damn table,” as if anything positive would happen at that mythical table?
In all three of these theaters, Obama administration policy is frozen solid: no new ideas, no initiatives, and no acknowledgment that what has been tried for three and a half years has failed. Israelis and Palestinians can probably wait this period out, to see if a new president or a re-elected Obama has any new policy ideas. But the Iranian nuclear weapons program is not in suspension, and dozens of Syrians are dying each day. November 6 and January 20 are very far away in those policy contexts.
Consider what Mrs. Clinton said at the international meeting on Syria just held in Paris.
What can every nation and group represented here do? I ask you to reach out to Russia and China, and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all — nothing at all — for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price. Because they are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable.
That summation of America’s policy and our situation today is far grimmer than Mrs. Clinton appears to recognize. The situation is “no longer tolerable” but there is nothing we plan to do about it except to ask other, smaller, weaker nations to plead with Russia and China to be nicer. With such leadership , and such refusal to acknowledge the bankruptcy of current policies in the Middle East, we can expect a grim summer indeed.