It's Not Just Ukraine

What his actions in Eastern Europe tell us about how Vladimir Putin sees the Middle East.
It's Not Just Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs bills making Crimea part of Russia, Friday, March 21, 2014. Photo credit: AP/Sergei Chirikov.
 
Observation
March 26 2014 12:05AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


Does the Ukraine crisis mark the beginning of a new cold war? The answer from President Obama is a firm no. “The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the cold war,” he told a Dutch newspaper.

The president is partially correct. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has neither the intention nor the capability to challenge the entire European order, and it is certainly not mounting a global revolutionary movement. Nevertheless, it is a revanchist power, and its appetites are much larger than the president cares to admit.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as a zero-sum game seems obvious. Somewhat less apparent is the fact that his revisionist aspirations also extend elsewhere, and most saliently to the Middle East. 

 

Obama’s first-term effort to “reset” relations with Russia was rooted in the firm conviction that the main cause of Russian-American competition in the Middle East lay in the previous Bush administration’s war on terror, which was read by the Russian leader as a pretext for a global power grab. Bush’s freedom agenda, with its support for democratic reform inside Russia, only confirmed Putin’s worst suspicions.

Alienating Putin, the Obama White House believed, had been a strategic blunder, depriving the United States of a potentially valuable partner. Putin, whatever his faults, was a realist: someone who could cut a deal in situations—like those in the Middle East—where Russia and America shared many interests. Once Putin fully grasped our sincerity, demonstrated by our ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian fears of American aggressiveness would dissipate and Russian-American cooperation would blossom. 

Unfortunately, getting through to Putin proved harder and took longer than expected—though not for want of trying. Famously, during the 2012 American presidential campaign, an open microphone caught Obama making his pitch. “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility,” he told then-Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. “I understand,” Medvedev answered. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

Eventually, Putin did seem to grasp the concept. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped forward last September with an offer to strip Syria’s Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama saw the move as a breakthrough, precisely the kind of mutually beneficial arrangement that the Russian reset was designed to generate. Soon, working together on the chemical-weapons problem, Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov also conspired to launch Geneva II, a peace conference designed to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. 

In the dawning new era, Syria was seen by the White House as a prototype: a model for stabilizing the Middle East and containing its worst pathologies. If successful, it could be applied to other problems in the region—including the Iranian nuclear program, the greatest challenge of all. In his speech at the General Assembly last September, the president was eager to defend his friendship with Putin in just these terms. “[L]et’s remember this is not a zero-sum endeavor,” Obama reminded his critics. “We’re no longer in a cold war.” 

 

Today, just six months later, the new model is collapsing before our eyes. The proximate cause is the spillover from the Ukraine crisis. On March 19, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that if the West imposed sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Russia would retaliate by exacting a much greater price: it would throw its support to Iran in the nuclear talks. “The historic importance of what happened . . . regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia,” Ryabkov explained, “is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.”

Even before Ryabkov issued this extortionate threat, there were clear signs that the Kremlin never truly supported the new model of Middle East cooperation. Kerry and Lavrov did convene Geneva II in January, but the conference ended in abject failure thanks to the intransigence of the Assad regime—which after all is Russia’s client. Shortly thereafter, Kerry openly blamed Russia for the Syrian disaster. “Russia needs to be a part of the solution,” he complained, “not contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they are really enabling Assad to double down.”

In the Middle East as in Eastern Europe, then, the reset looks increasingly bankrupt. In fact, being based on two major errors, it never had a chance.

 

The administration’s first error was the failure to appreciate Putin’s either-or perspective on politics, a viewpoint succinctly expressed in Lenin’s famous formula: “who-whom?” Who will dominate whom? In Putin’s view, all accommodations with the United States are tactical maneuvers in a struggle—sometimes overt, sometimes covert—for the upper hand.  

In the bad old days of the cold war, the overtly malevolent intentions of the Kremlin were hard to misread (although, even then, some American leaders did try to misread them). Today, Russia’s motivations are more complex: a unique mix of Great Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, and autocratic whimsy. This makes it difficult to predict the Kremlin’s behavior. For 364 days of the year, a deal between a Western client and Gazprom, the largest Russian natural-gas supplier, will function like a normal business transaction. On the 365th day, to teach the recipient a lesson about who’s really in charge, Putin will cut the gas flow. 

Adding to the unpredictability is Putin’s mercurial-seeming personality. Perhaps the single most revealing fact about him is his interest in Sambo, a Russian form of judo whose techniques have been deliberately tailored to the requirements of each state security service. “Judo teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses,” Putin writes in his official biography on the Kremlin website. “I am sure you will agree that these are essential abilities and skills for any politician.” As a former KGB agent and judo black belt, Putin is undoubtedly adept at the deceptive move that turns an ordinary handshake into a crippling wristlock, instantly driving the adversary’s head to the ground.

Turning a blind eye to such niceties, Western politicians assumed that by enmeshing Putin in a web of diplomatic and economic deals, they would foster in Moscow a sense of shared destiny that would ultimately work to moderate Russian behavior. As the Ukraine crisis demonstrates, the web has indeed created mutual dependencies. But the crisis also reveals that the two sides do not approach dependency in a spirit of reciprocity. When shaking hands on a deal, Putin never fails to assess whether he has positioned himself for a speedy takedown of his partner. 

The Sambo approach to diplomacy is particularly suited to the Middle East, where international relations, more often than not, is a zero-sum game dominated by brutal men with guns. This is Putin’s natural habitat; as prime minister in 1999, he supported the Russian military’s use of ballistic missiles against civilians in Grozny. It is a simple truism that a leader habitually photographed shirtless while performing feats of derring-do will understand the politics of the Middle East better than sophisticated Westerners who believe that the world has evolved beyond crude displays of machismo.

 

Lack of attention to the perfect fit between Putin’s mentality and Middle East reality constitutes the second error of the administration’s Russian reset.

With respect to political alignments, the most influential event in today’s Middle East is the Syrian civil war. That the conflict is barbarous is easily gleaned from a slogan of the pro-Assad forces, scrawled on buildings in all major cities: “Assad, or we will burn the country.” This demand has divided the entire region into two groups. On one side stand the allies of America: the Saudis, Turks, and other Sunni Muslim states, all of whom agree that, come what may, Assad must go. On the other side, the Iranians, together with Hizballah, have lined up squarely behind Assad, their partner in the so-called Resistance Alliance.

For Putin, Syria has raised two key questions, each a variant of who-whom: (1) who will dominate inside Syria; (2) who will dominate in the region more broadly. It was Foreign Minister Lavrov who two years ago, in a rare slip of the tongue, best explained how Putin saw these questions: “if the current Syrian regime collapses, some countries in the region will want to establish Sunni rule in Syria.” More bluntly, the Kremlin sees itself as the great-power patron not just of the Assad regime but also of Iran and Hizballah—the entire Resistance Alliance. At the time, Moscow’s unvarnished preference for Shiites won little attention in the United States, but it sparked a storm of outrage in the Sunni Arab world, leading one prominent Saudi commentator to dub the foreign minister “Mullah Lavrov.”

Not surprisingly, Putin’s position was in perfect keeping with one of the most fundamental rules of strategy, perhaps best expressed by Machiavelli: “A prince is . . . esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy, that is, when without any hesitation he discloses himself in support of someone against another.” In the Middle East, Machiavelli’s logic is inescapable, and Putin grasps it intuitively. Not so Obama, who has convinced himself that he can hover above the gritty game on the ground yet somehow still remain an influential player.

In Syria, the United States criticizes Assad harshly and says it sympathizes with the opposition. But it releases only dribs and drabs of military aid to opposition forces while simultaneously qualifying and hedging its diplomatic support. Fretting incessantly about the Sunni jihadist elements fighting the Assad regime, it develops no strategy to combat them; instead, it cozies up to Assad’s Russian and Iranian patrons. When the Sunni allies of the United States compare the confusion of American policy with the clarity of Russian strategy, it’s no wonder they despair.

Obama is not entirely oblivious of the problem. In a recent interview, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked him bluntly, “So why are the Sunnis so nervous about you?” His answer: “[T]here are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off-guard. I think change is always scary. I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran.” This exercise in condescension, while doing nothing to allay and everything to aggravate the fears of America’s allies, offers a glimpse into the mindset that generated the reset, a mindset that dreamed of a concert arrangement whereby both Russia and America would place a greater value on comity with each other than either would put on its relations with allies. 

To be sure, Putin will gladly sign on to American-sponsored initiatives like Geneva II. But he will insist on guiding them in directions that, regardless of their stated intentions, serve the interests of his clients. If the Obama administration has yet to admit or adjust to this reality, that is partly because the Russians do not wave a flag identifying themselves as the great-power patrons of Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. Nor does Putin back Tehran and Damascus to the hilt as the Soviet Union backed its clients in the cold war.

It is thus more accurate to say that Russia is in an alignment, not an alliance, with Iran and Syria. Depending upon competing priorities and the vicissitudes of world politics, Putin will tack this way today, that way tomorrow. In the end, however, he will never sell out Tehran and Damascus in order to win compliments in Washington; if forced to choose, he will always side with the former against the latter, and will certainly leave them in no doubt that Russia is their most dependable friend in the United Nations Security Council.

It is this fact that makes Russia a revisionist power in the Middle East and the permanent adversary of the United States. 

 

What, then, about the Iranian nuclear question? Hasn’t Russia consistently called for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Didn’t it vote in favor of six Security Council resolutions against Tehran? Hasn’t it signed on to the economic sanctions? Surely all of these actions support the Obama administration’s contention that Russia, in certain contexts, is a valuable partner. 

Indeed, Putin has a strong track record of supporting some actions designed to prevent an Iranian bomb; in an ideal world, he would probably prefer an Iran devoid of such weapons. But he also has a strong track record of building the Iranian nuclear program and of providing security assistance to the Iranian military. Whatever his preferences in an ideal world, in the here and now his goal is less to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than to garner as much power and influence for Russia as he can. He is supportive enough of the United States and its key European partners to maintain credibility with them. On the key issue of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he is never so supportive as to be taken for granted. 

How this cynical game works was revealed in Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov’s extortionate threat mentioned earlier. It has placed Obama on the horns of a severe dilemma. If, on the one hand, the president simply acquiesces in Putin’s power play in Ukraine, he will embolden not just Russia but also Iran, Syria, and Hizballah by demonstrating that, just as in Syria, he retreats when challenged. If, on the other hand, he marshals a robust Western response, he could well provoke the threatened Russian countermeasures of increased support for Iran.

No matter which course the president follows, the Ukraine crisis has damaged the prestige of the United States in the Middle East. America’s Arab friends in the region, who are on the front line against Iran, Syria, and Hizballah, already feel the pinch, and are deeply uncertain about how to respond. Unlike the Resistance Alliance, they are not accustomed to cooperating on their own. As Karl Marx notoriously said of peasants, America’s Arab allies are like potatoes. When U.S. leadership provides a sack, they take on a single form and become hefty in weight. In its absence, they are a loose assortment of small, isolated units.

The ally who most immediately feels the fallout is Israel. On March 17, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon described, with unusual bluntness, the consequences of what he called the “feebleness” of American foreign policy. The Obama administration’s weakness, he argued, was undermining the position not just of Israel but also of America’s Sunni allies. “The moderate Sunni camp in the area expected the United States to support it, and to be firm, like Russia’s support for the Shiite axis,” Yaalon lamented.

Yaalon spoke no less despairingly of Obama’s ability to make good on his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “[A]t some stage,” he observed, “the United States entered into negotiations with them, and unhappily, when it comes to negotiating at a Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better.” On the matter of Iran, Yaalon concluded, inevitably, “we have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.”

Whether Israel actually has the political will and military capability to launch an independent strike against Iran is anybody’s guess. But two facts are undeniable. First, Putin’s muscular foreign policy and Washington’s timorous response have increased the pressure on Israel to strike independently. Second, Obama has lost influence over the Israelis—just as he lost influence over his Arab allies when he refused to back them on Syria. 

Adrift in Machiavelli’s no man’s land, neither a true friend nor a true enemy, Washington is left with the worst of both worlds, treated by its adversaries with contempt, charged by its friends with abandonment and betrayal. President Obama was correct to say at the UN that the U.S. and Russia are no longer locked in a cold war. But it was a strategic delusion to assume that Putin’s handshake was an offer of partnership. It was instead the opening gambit in a new style of global competition—one that, in the Middle East, Russia and its clients are winning and the United States, despite huge natural advantages, is losing.

__________________________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated. 

More about: Foreign Policy, Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin

 

How to Say You're Welcome in Yiddish and Other Languages

And why we say it at all.

How to Say You're Welcome in Yiddish and Other Languages
Image by Mosaic staff using Imgur.
 
Observation
April 30 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

Mosaic reader Paul Socken writes to ask: “How do you say ‘You’re welcome’ in Yiddish?”

There are a number of ways to say “You’re welcome” in Yiddish, just as there are in English (in which, depending on the situation and speaker, one has such additional options as ” My pleasure,” “Don’t mention it,” “Think nothing of it,” “Any time,” “Forget it,” and “No problem,” let alone the ungrammatical but widespread “You welcome”). Probably the most common of these is nishto far vos, literally, “There’s nothing for which,” i.e., “There’s nothing to thank me for.”

Nishto far vos was not originally indigenous to Yiddish, which is probably why my friend Ruth Wisse, the scholar and critic of Yiddish literature, writes me that even though she uses it in Yiddish conversation, she finds it “not very couth.” It entered the language, most likely sometime early in the last century, as a translation of an idiom found in a number of European tongues, such as French il n’y a pas de quoi, Spanish no hay de qué, Russian ne za chto, Polish nie ma za co, and so on. This is no reason, however, to challenge its Yiddish credentials. Although it was probably borrowed from Polish or Russian, the Poles and Russians took their versions of it from French, which quite rightly didn’t bother them at all. Linguistic borrowing is a universal phenomenon for which there’s no need to ask permission or apologize.

Still, Yiddish does offer, as I have said, other alternatives. Indeed, Nahum Stutchkoff’s classic Yiddish thesaurus, Der oytser fun der yiddisher shprakh, lists no fewer than twenty of these. Among them are berotsen, “With pleasure”; mitn gantzn hartzn, “With all my heart”; mitn grestn koved, “It’s a great honor”; zikher, “Sure thing,” and adrabbe. The last, which comes from Hebrew like several of the others, means “On the contrary” and is a shortened way of saying “There’s no need to thank me—quite the reverse.”

Nor is Stutchkoff’s list all-inclusive. While a few of its expressions are rarely used, some common Yiddish ways of saying “You’re welcome” are missing from it. One of these is zol es aykh voyl bakumen, literally, “May it be received well by you”—in other words, “Enjoy it.” Another is zol aykh zayn tsu gezunt, “May it be for your health,” which can be abbreviated to tsu gezunt. Neither of these phrases is an all-around substitute for “You’re welcome.” You might use either if you were thanked for giving someone a gift, taking him or her out to dinner, or even passing the saltshaker, but for holding an elevator door open, nishto far vos would be more natural. It’s all a matter of context, though. If the door is being held for the rabbi of your synagogue or your daughter’s nursery-school teacher, mitn grestn koved would be just fine.

“You’re welcome” or its equivalents are generally optional in all languages. If I perform a kindness for you and you fail to say “Thank you,” I’ll consider you rude; but if I don’t respond to your thanks with a phrase of my own, you’re unlikely to think the same of me. There’s a limit in every culture to how long two people have to go on being demonstratively polite, and “You’re welcome” seems to represent that limit pretty much everywhere. No language that I know of has a rote expression that means, “I appreciate your saying ‘You’re welcome.'” The appreciated person might then have to express his appreciation at being appreciated, and where would it ever end?

Are there languages in which there are no expressions like “You’re welcome” at all? Probably not, although I’m told that in Japanese the proper response to “Thank you” is either “No, no” or “Thank you,” since anything suggesting that the thanked party thinks he deserves gratitude for an ordinary act of human courtesy would be considered haughty and even impolite. Before we categorize this as exaggerated, we might consider that nishto far vos, or the English “Don’t mention it,” are not very different. Here, too, we are saying, “There’s really no need to thank me, I haven’t done anything that calls for it.”

Expressions of politeness are often interchangeable, as “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” are in Japanese, because they’re all ways of saying, “Let’s be nice to each other.” This is why, for example, a word like the Italian prego can mean “You’re welcome,” “Please” (as in “Please come in”), and “Excuse me” (as in “Excuse me, is this seat taken?”), and why you can have a conversation in German that goes:

Möchten Sie eine Zeitung?” (“Would you like a newspaper?”)

Bitte. (“Please.”)

Bitte.” (“Here you are.”)

Danke schön.” (“Thank you.”)

Bitte.” (“You’re welcome.”)

Bitte comes from the verb bitten, to ask, beg, or entreat, which is close to beten, to pray, just as prego comes from pregare, which means all those things; both resemble the archaic English “prithee,” a contraction of “I pray thee,” whose functions were identical. (So, as a result of German influence, are those of Hebrew b’vakashah, which originally meant only “Please.”) And if you’re looking for one more way to say “You’re welcome” in Yiddish, bitte is perfectly acceptable, too. It’s no less couth than nishto far vos.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Jewish world, Philologos, Yiddish

 

Remembering the Mighty Slepak

Youthful encounters with the late Vladimir Slepak, the “stately bull” who fought for—and helped win—freedom for Soviet Jews.

Remembering the Mighty Slepak
Vladimir Slepak.
 
Observation
April 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Maxim D. Shrayer, born in Moscow in 1967, is a professor at Boston College and the author, most recently, of Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, a National Jewish Book Award finalist. He is also the editor of Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories by David Shrayer-Petrov, a Wallant Award finalist.


Vladimir Slepak, lionhearted warrior of the Soviet Jewry movement, died in New York on April 23. He will rest in Israel, which became his home in 1987 after seventeen years of fighting the Soviet regime for the right to live there.

Vladimir (Volodya) Slepak was one of the leading figures among the refuseniks—Jews who had applied to emigrate from the Soviet Union but were illegally held back, disenfranchised, and severely persecuted by the KGB and other branches of the regime. He was also a member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, a human-rights organization founded in 1976 and made up mainly of Soviet dissidents. As a dissident, Slepak sought the reform of the ideologically bankrupt Soviet system; as a Jewish activist, he sought to free his own family and others from captivity.

The grandson of a Jewish teacher, Vladimir Slepak was born in 1927. His father Solomon (Semyon)—like thousands of boys and girls of his generation—had abandoned Judaism and embraced the shadowy promise of revolutionary equality. A decorated hero of the civil war in the Russian Far East, Solomon Slepak served as the prototype of Iosif Levinson, a Jewish knight of the Bolshevik revolution in Aleksandr Fadeev’s novel The Rout (1927), a canonical work of early Soviet literature. Seventy years later, his son Vladimir would become the central figure in The Gates of November, a nonfiction account of the Slepak family by the novelist Chaim Potok.

An electrical engineer by training, Volodya, together with his wife Maria (Masha), a medical doctor, joined the Soviet Jewry movement in the late 1960s. Along with countless others, they heard the call in June 1967. Galvanized by Israel’s glorious victory in the Six-Day War, stung by Moscow’s open pursuit of an anti-Zionist (read: anti-Jewish) line, Jews all over the USSR awoke to a shocking awareness of their status as the unwelcome stepchildren of Soviet history. But it took Slepak’s uncompromising commitment to Jewish identity, and his moral and physical strength, to rise in open opposition to the regime.

Slepak’s legacy, a starkly illuminated page in the history of Russian and Soviet Jews, is one of fearlessness, audacity, and valor. Among his fellow refuseniks, he was famous for his heroic conduct during protest demonstrations when he would charge KGB thugs with his mighty torso before they had a chance to strike and haul him away. The Slepaks’ day of glory fell on June 1, 1978, when Volodya, Masha, and Ida Nudel, another legendary activist, flew banners of protest from the balconies of their apartment buildings in Moscow. The Slepaks were living right on Gorky (now Tverskaya) Street, the city’s central thoroughfare, and the slogan on their banner resonated with that age-old supplication of Jewish history, “let our people go.” They acted, moreover, in broad daylight, in plain sight of the public, their banner aimed almost directly at the equestrian statue of the medieval Grand Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy, often regarded as the city’s founder.

Of course, the three protesters were immediately arrested and tried in court. Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel were sentenced to five years of forced exile; Masha Slepak received a suspended sentence. Although formally they had been charged only with public disorder, the harsh verdicts were meant to send terror into the hearts of Jews throughout the USSR. But the refusenik movement was not thwarted. In the eyes of much of the world, Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel had become “Prisoners of Zion,” members a pantheon that would also include Natan Sharansky, Yosef Begun, and others condemned to serve time in jails, labor camps, and faraway places of punitive exile.

 

My parents and I met the Slepaks in Moscow in late 1983 or early 1984 upon Volodya’s return from exile in a remote province in the Trans-Baikal. Our family had just entered the second spiral of our struggle to break out of the limbo in which refuseniks typically found themselves after applying to emigrate. My father, David Shrayer-Petrov, had already completed the first part of Herbert and Nelly, a fictional saga of the refusenik ordeal that he had clandestinely sent out in microfilm for publication in Israel. In our Moscow apartment, located near the Institute of Atomic Energy, he and my mother, Emilia Shrayer, had created a salon for refuseniks as well as for writers, visual artists, and musicians banished by the Soviet system. Aside from personal affinities and a shared sense of mission, the Slepaks enjoyed the atmosphere of our home, where both poetry and history held court and where not only elders of the movement but young people congregated and—and much to the Slepaks’ delight—partied defiantly.

I was then eighteen, a university student and young refusenik living a double life. In the years 1984-1987, the Slepaks were regular guests at our Moscow apartment, and our families also saw each other frequently at various public and private occasions. Jovial drinking and an outpouring from the couple’s bottomless trove of activist stories and prison anecdotes accompanied our many shared meals. Like a stately bull who had miraculously survived years of fighting, Volodya would doze off during after-supper conversations in our kitchen, as imposing in slumber as when awake. I will never forget his weighty silver curls—the mane and the beard of a biblical prophet—and his grin, like that of a Judean zealot primed always for battle and self-sacrifice. My shoulders still remember the warmth and steely embrace of his bear hugs.

To me, the round, bespectacled face of Masha Slepak carried a special, dolorous beauty that I associate with certain Ashkenazi women in Slavic lands. Even in her lightest moments, sadness fluttered over Masha’s countenance. Both of the Slepaks’ sons, Leonid and Alexander, had been permitted to emigrate, but the parents themselves were still held hostage, and I sometimes felt that they, Masha especially, regarded me with an almost parental tenderness. In Masha’s big eyes I read an unspoken reproach addressed to all refusenik parents, both for the life they had chosen for their children and for having jeopardized the unity of their families. An unfair reproach, but understandable.

When we first met, the Slepaks were living in the same communal apartment from which they had unfurled the banner of refusenik protest back in 1978. To me, the site held mythological significance. On Friday nights, when we visited them at home, Masha would light the candles and then, eyes closed, whisper the Hebrew blessings interspersed with simple Russian pleas addressed to the Almighty: “Please let me see my boys this year.” Sometimes, without saying a word, one of us would gesture for the ever-ready pad and pencil so as to avoid the risk of sharing information with “listeners.”

I remember a day in October 1985, at the beginning of what would become the most trying period in our family’s own refusenik history. My father, Volodya, and I stepped out onto the balcony for some air. Down below, Gorky Street pulsated, Red Square on our right, the monument to Alexander Pushkin, the great poet and friend of fighters against tyranny, on our left. My father and Volodya were talking about the prospect of arrest and imprisonment. “The earlier you go to jail, the earlier you’ll get out,” Slepak said, the rays of his relentless smile converging in the corners of his mouth. My father said nothing in reply. Back then, so bleak did things look, we could hardly imagine that two years later, in June 1987, we would be leaving Moscow for good, and that the Slepaks would be seeing us off.

My father and I last saw Volodya on December 6 of the same year. The place was Washington, and the occasion was the now-historic Freedom Sunday when, coinciding with the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev to the Reagan White House, as many as 250,000 people marched in solidarity with the plight of Soviet refuseniks. Only a couple of months earlier, the Soviet authorities had finally granted the Slepaks their long-awaited exit visas. A red scarf wrapped around his neck, Volodya stood at the podium next to U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, a steadfast supporter of our cause who had lost his right arm in battle fighting Nazism. “We are free now,” Volodya said, in English; the crowd issued a huge grunt of happiness. This, too, I will never forget for as long as I live.

Vladimir Slepak was the mighty Samson of the refusenik movement, a Samson whom even years of exile and persecution had not drained of strength or courage. He was one of the last heroes of a now bygone, tragic, tumultuous epoch of Jewish, Russian, and Soviet history.

More about: History & Ideas, Refuseniks, Soviet Jewry, Vladimir Slepak

 

The Tectonic Shift in Obama's Iran Policy

A nuclear deal is only the beginning. The president’s goal, at the expense of America’s allies, is full-fledged détente with Iran.

The Tectonic Shift in Obama's Iran Policy
Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
 
Observation
April 22 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


When President Obama took to the podium in the White House rose garden on April 2, his mood was victorious. With evident pride, he announced that negotiators in Lausanne had reached a “historic understanding with Iran, which . . . will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

In truth, the negotiators had reached no understanding, historic or otherwise. Obama was celebrating something that did not exist—at least not yet. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had failed to agree on a text describing the terms of the so-called “Lausanne framework.” In its place, each issued a separate “fact sheet.” On some key issues the documents contradicted each other; on others they were entirely mute. Statements from officials did little to clarify the discrepancies or rectify the omissions. One official statement even seemed to widen the areas of disagreement.

In his own speech dedicated to the Lausanne framework, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, flatly denied that an understanding had been reached. He also disputed specific provisions of the emerging deal as described by the Americans. For example, he dismissed Obama’s assertion that the framework would permit “intrusive” inspections. On the contrary, military sites were off-limits to inspectors, because, he explained, “one must absolutely not allow infiltration of the security and defense realm of the state on the pretext of inspections.”

If the gap between the two sides was this big, what possessed Obama to announce a historic breakthrough? The answer is that the president was eager to produce tangible proof of progress in order to prevent the Republicans in Congress from branding the negotiations a failure. He could fend off the Republican challenge, he calculated, by telling a tale of progress—by depicting the remaining disagreements as details to be ironed out rather than as insurmountable roadblocks.

Exaggerating the successes of Lausanne may have been a savvy maneuver against the president’s domestic critics, but it weakened his hand against the Iranians by telegraphing his deep personal investment in the negotiations. Failure to get a deal would now be a major embarrassment. Knowledge of this fact gave Khamenei an opening, which he exploited with his defiant speech. Not so fast, the speech signaled to Obama. In order to get the agreement that you’re already celebrating, you must pay—in the form of more concessions to me.

If past behavior is anything to go by, Obama will give Khamenei what he wants. Indeed, American concessions have propelled the negotiations forward at every stage. A good example of the established pattern is the fate of Fordow, the bunker under the mountain near Qom. At the beginning of the negotiations, Obama publicly stated that the existence of the facility was inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear program. But after Khamenei announced his refusal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Obama agreed that Fordow would not close. In the latest round of negotiations, his position softened further. The bunker would not only remain open; it would also contain operational centrifuges.

 

Thanks to retreats like this one, it is Khamenei’s red lines, not Obama’s, that have determined the shape of the emerging deal—a fact that prompts the president’s critics to accuse him of fecklessness and/or naïveté. But these descriptions miss the mark. The president is not wedded to any set of specific demands. For him, the specific terms of the nuclear agreement are far less important than its mere existence. One of Obama’s greatest diplomatic successes is to have persuaded much of the world, including many of his critics, that the primary goal of his Iran diplomacy is to negotiate a nuclear arms-control agreement. In fact, the primary goal is détente with Iran.

In the president’s thinking, détente will restrain Iranian behavior more effectively than any formal agreement. In addition, it will also open the way to greater cooperation with Iran on regional security. Détente will permit the United States to pull back from the Middle East and focus more on its domestic priorities. Finally, it will vindicate Obama’s ethos of “engagement,” which he sees as a superior alternative to the military-driven concepts of American leadership championed by his Republican opponents. In short, détente will secure Obama’s legacy.

By contrast, Khamenei is pursuing highly specific goals. Three stand out above all others. He is seeking, first, to preserve Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure; second, to repeal the sanctions on the Iranian economy; and third, to abolish the international legal regime that brands Iran a rogue state. In all three areas, Obama has already satisfied his core demands.

True, significant disagreements still remain. One of the thorniest is the timing of sanctions relief, another dispute that Khamenei emphasized in his defiant speech. Whereas Obama says that sanctions should be lifted in a staged manner, Khamenei is calling for abolishing them immediately. Sanctions, he demanded, “must all be completely removed on the day of the agreement.”

How will Obama bridge the gap? He has two tools at his disposal. First, he will offer Khamenei what amounts to a signing bonus. Every piece of sanctions legislation passed by Congress gives the president the discretion to waive it if he perceives a national imperative for doing so. Using this waiver authority, Obama will unlock Iranian escrow accounts in China, India, Turkey, and elsewhere—accounts that hold somewhere between $100 and $120 billion. Some significant fraction of that amount, $50 billion according to one credible report, will be handed to the Iranians the moment they sign on the dotted line.

Next, the president will seek, and certainly receive, the UN Security Council’s approval of the agreement. Its stamp of approval will free the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, among others, to expand their commercial ties with Iran. And trade is not all that will grow. The deal will also generate increased Iranian-Russian military cooperation. Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of his intention to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran offered a foretaste of that cooperation.

The president’s offer of a signing bonus will be difficult for Khamenei to resist, because it will not limit his options in any way. On the contrary, it will increase them. Even if he has no true intention of honoring the terms of the agreement, it still makes sense for him to ratify it, if only to pocket the bonus and collect the other benefits that will thereupon accrue immediately. Later on, when Iran begins violating the agreement, the United States will likely try to re-impose sanctions. But it will now find the job of convincing the Security Council harder than ever before, for the simple reason that a powerful European commercial lobby will have come into being with a vested interest in doing business with Iran. Nor will there be any guaranteeing the support of the Russians and the Chinese for a resumption of sanctions. No matter what, Iran will negotiate from a position of much greater strength than currently.

Alarmed by this threat, the U.S. Congress is working on a bill that will give it the right to vote its approval or disapproval of the deal with Iran. However, a vote of disapproval can stop Obama only if it passes the House and Senate with a veto-proof majority—a very high bar to clear. So long as the president can convince just one- third of either the Senate or the House to support his diplomacy, he will be free to pursue his plan. Although there’s no guarantee the president will win the fight with Congress, the odds are strongly in his favor.

 

Détente may sound like a minor shift in American policy, but in truth it is nothing less than tectonic.

Obama has put an end to containment of Iran as a guiding principle of American Middle East policy. To be sure, he continues to pay lip service to the idea of countering Iran’s influence, but his actions do not match his rhetoric. In Syria and Iraq, especially, Obama has long been respectful of Iranian interests while treating Tehran as a silent partner against Islamic State (IS).

Détente requires Obama to demote all of those allies who perceive a rising Iran as their primary security threat. The process, which has been under way for many months already, is most advanced in the case of Israel. Of course, Obama has never admitted that he is demoting Israel. He and his senior officials prefer, instead, to blame the deterioration in relations on the personal failings of the Israeli prime minister. They have spared no effort to inform us of Benjamin Netanyahu’s myriad faults. His attitude toward Arab citizens of Israel, we are told, is bigoted; his failure to reinvigorate the peace process is indefensible; his readiness to serve as a pawn of the GOP is abject; and his supposed readiness to conduct espionage against the United States is treacherous.

The attacks on Netanyahu have been extraordinarily personal. Since the Israeli prime minister is the most persuasive opponent of the Iran deal, Obama is working to discredit him much as a defense attorney works to tarnish the character of the prosecution’s star witness. He is also teaching a lesson to other allies who might be tempted to speak out. And potential critics of the Iran deal are not in short supply. In private, the French, the Saudis, and most other Arabs all bemoan Obama’s policy. None of them, however, has stood up and directly attacked it in the manner of Netanyahu.

To reinforce the lesson, the president has given the Gulf Arabs a small taste of the chastisement he is holding in reserve for them. For example, in a recent interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama discussed the Gulf allies’ fears of Iran. These fears, he implied, were misplaced. In fact, Iran was not the biggest threat to their security; of greater concern is internal unrest. Young people, he explained, have no legitimate means to express their grievances, and so the top priority must be domestic political reform. In his interview, the president expressed keen interest in discussing with the Gulf states “how we can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [Islamic State] to choose from.”

Obama stopped short of accusing America’s allies of fueling the sectarianism and violence sweeping the Middle East, but the veiled threat was obvious. A week later, moreover, he made it more explicit when, in a discussion of Libya, he said the Gulf states sometimes “fan the flames of military conflict.” Whether to Israel or to the Gulf countries, Obama’s general message is the same: Iran is not the problem; you are. Get your own house in order.

While criticizing allies for their parochialism, Obama and his senior officials have a habit of praising Iran for its supposedly ecumenical spirit. “I think what the Iranians have done,” the president said in an interview last August, “is to finally realize that a maximalist position by the Shias inside of Iraq is, over the long term, going to fail. And that’s, by the way, a broader lesson for every country: you want 100 percent, and the notion that the winner really does take all, all the spoils. Sooner or later that government’s going to break down.” To hear the White House tell it, Iran could even serve as a role model for the Gulf Arabs.

 

Behind such statements is a new vision of the American role in the Middle East. In Obama’s eyes, the United States no longer leads a coalition dedicated to bringing order to the region. Instead, it is the convener of a grand negotiation between Shiite Iran and the Sunni powers. For over a year now, when describing the goal of his diplomacy the president has repeatedly returned to the same word: “equilibrium.” If the United States does its job correctly, he told Friedman, “what’s possible is you start seeing an equilibrium in the region, and Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran start saying, ‘Maybe we should lower tensions and focus on the extremists like [IS] that would burn down this entire region if they could.’”

The president believes that his détente policy—especially his willingness to compromise on the nuclear program—will convince the leaders in Tehran that the United States no longer sees their regime as an adversary. They will then work more cooperatively with Washington, especially in places like Iraq and Syria, where we supposedly share a common interest in stability and in defeating the Islamic State. At first this shift may alarm America’s traditional allies, but thanks to American mediation they will eventually drop their paranoid fears of Iran, and equilibrium will ensue.

The Saudi answer to Obama’s pursuit of equilibrium came recently when Riyadh organized a coalition of Sunni allies and intervened in Yemen. The intervention is certainly an effort, as advertised, to counter the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. But it was also meant to send a message to Obama: if you won’t organize the region to contain Iran, we will. To drive home the point, the Saudis gave Washington only an hour’s notice before commencing the operation.

Riyadh’s project of organizing the Sunnis, however, is fraught with difficulty. The three most influential powers—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey—all agree, generally speaking, that an Iranian-dominated Middle East is undesirable. But beyond that, they have no unified vision. The three cannot even agree on a common Syria policy, let alone a strategy for the entire region. The stark fact is that there is no such thing as a Sunni bloc.

There is, however, an Iranian bloc: the self-styled “resistance alliance” that includes Syria, Hizballah, and a network of Shiite militias now operating in Iraq, Syria, and, increasingly, Yemen. The glue holding this system together is the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. By means of subversion and extortion, and by playing on sectarian divisions, the Quds Force is expanding Iranian influence throughout the region. No Sunni state has a military branch analogous to the Quds Force.

In short, Obama’s pursuit of equilibrium is strengthening the player, Iran, with the greatest tools for projecting power and influence and with the least respect for the sovereignty of its neighbors.

Other than Iran, the only power in the region truly capable of projecting military power effectively is Israel. But its small size limits its ability to carry out a strategy regional in scope. Moreover, the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict hinder cooperation with the Sunni powers. While the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel now dovetail to a remarkable degree, a historical chasm continues to separate Riyadh and Jerusalem. The two sides can coordinate quietly, but the impediments to overt cooperation will likely prove insurmountable.

The disarray and atomization among the anti-Iranian states in the Middle East means that they (like the American Congress) will likely prove incapable of mounting a decisive opposition to Obama’s détente. But their inability to stop it does not mean they will ever accept it. They will remain dedicated to contesting Obama’s policy, and they will continue to fight back against Iran and its proxies in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq—not to mention new venues that will appear over time.

Détente, therefore, will deliver disequilibrium, the exact opposite of the effect intended. By negotiating an arms-control agreement, the president has shifted the tectonic plates of the Middle East order. And for tectonic plates, it takes a move of just inches to level whole cities.

More about: Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Iran, Iran nuclear program, Politics & Current Affairs

 

Why Israel's Memorial Day Turns into Its Independence Day

And why this week’s Torah portion fits into the spirit of both days.

Why Israel's Memorial Day Turns into Its Independence Day
Photo by Ari Bronstein/Flickr.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
April 21 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:
As you come to the land of Canaan
Which I’m giving you as your estate
And I put a plague of leprosy in a house
On the land of your estate,
Let him who owns the house come and tell the priest, saying:
Something like a plague has appeared to me in my house.
And the priest will command them to clear the house
Before the priest comes to view the plague
So that everything in the house won’t be contaminated.
And then the priest will come to view the house.

This week’s double portion of Tazria-Metsora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33) is a curious amalgam of physiology and metaphysics. In Tazria we have what appear to be prescriptions, medical and social, for treating a class of illnesses that spread from people’s flesh to their clothes and call for them to be isolated lest they contaminate the community at large. In Metsora, where my opening quotation appears, the discussion moves on from persons to houses, and its prescriptions come into play only once the Jews enter the land of Israel.

This order—persons first, domiciles second—makes sense on a practical level, since the Israelites do not own houses in the desert. But on some other level it seems significant that only in the land of Israel can a contamination of buildings take place. What is it about the land that causes your house to be vulnerable to plague? In thinking about this Torah reading, I can’t help being struck by the fact that in the annual calendar of the synagogue it falls right around the time of Israel’s national memorial day, which is succeeded immediately by the celebrations of Independence Day.

And he’ll view the plague and if there’s a plague in the walls of the house
Greenish or reddish dips that appear indented in the wall
Then the priest will come out of the house to the door of the house
And quarantine the house for seven days.
And the priest will return on the seventh day
And see if the plague in the walls of the house has spread.

Then the priest will command them to extract the stones
Containing the plague and throw them outside the city
To an impure place.
And he should scrape the house clear of any house around it
And pour the soil they’ve scraped outside the city
In an impure place.
And let them take other stones
And bring them to replace the stones
And take other soil and plaster the house.

But if the plague returns like a rash
In the house after he’s extracted the stones
And after scraping the house and after plastering,
Then the priest will come to view
And if the plague in the house has spread
It’s a corrosive leprosy in the house; it’s impure.
And he’ll tear down the house and its stones
And its beams and all the soil of the house
And take it out of the city to an impure place.

In interpreting the two sets of plagues, the rabbis were themselves of different minds. They tended to treat leprosy, an “eruption” in the flesh, as a stand-in for a variety of personal and moral failings. When it came to the leprosy of a building, they turned practical, looking for ways to reduce the cost to the owner of treating it. Thus, they allowed the householder considerably more time to avoid demolition than the seven days mandated by the Torah; they even speculated, rather wistfully, whether the plague might have been sent in order to help him find money hidden in the walls by the previous Canaanite owner.

But there is no question that the source of the plague, whether in a person or in property, is metaphysical:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani quoted Rabbi Yohanan: plagues come for seven things: slander and violence and false oaths and incest and rudeness and theft and miserliness. (Tractate Arakhin)

Midrash Rabba divides the category of theft into two—taking what belongs to another, and stealing from the public—and adds blasphemy, cursing the Lord, and idol worship.

The Torah itself endows leprosy with a curious metaphysical duality. In Numbers 12, it is a punishment meted out to Moses’ sister Miriam for slandering her brother’s wife Tsiporah. Much later, when Uzziah king of Judea seeks to offer up incense in the Temple, thereby violating priestly prerogatives, he, too, is punished with leprosy and remains an outcast until he dies.

But something like the opposite occurs in Exodus 4:6 when Moses asks the Lord for a sign that will help him control the obstreperous Israelites. Along with His more dramatic wonders—burning bushes, staffs that turn into snakes—the Lord simply gives Moses a leprous hand that he can display as needed to catch and hold their attention. Here the plague doesn’t resemble a punishment so much as a divine miracle.

 

In short, these laws are not about containing the spread of leprosy; a non-Jew does not become contaminated by leprosy, nor does a non-Jew’s house. They are about the Israelites’ spiritual purity, and leprosy is taken as an external indicator of the level of that purity within the individual and/or the community. Moses’ God-given ability to produce leprosy on his flesh symbolizes his control of this commodity. One might see in the flashing of his leprous hand a prelude to the role played by the tribe of Levites, the descendants of his brother Aaron the high priest. In their future service in the Temple and its sacrificial system, they will become the diagnosticians and therapists of spiritual eruptions within the other tribes inhabiting the promised land.

But if the priest comes to call and view
And the plague has not spread in the house
After he plastered the house
Then the priest will purify the house
For the plague is healed.
And to atone for the house he’ll take
Two birds and a pine branch and two dyed hanks of wool and hyssop

And he’ll slaughter one bird over a clay vessel filled with spring water
And he’ll take the pine branch and the hyssop and two dyed hanks of wool
And the surviving bird
And dip them in the blood of the slaughtered bird and the spring water
And spatter the house seven times
And he’ll atone for the house with the blood of the bird and the spring water
And the surviving bird and the pine branch and hyssop and two hanks of dyed wool.
But he’ll release the surviving bird outside the city
In an empty field and atone for the house
And it will be pure.

It’s this ceremony, in which one bird is killed and another remains alive and is released after being dipped in the blood of the dead one, that conjures up for me the time of year when the reading of Tazria-Metsora coincides with the annual ceremony developed in Israel to allow the transition from mourning to celebration, from Memorial Day to Independence Day.

 

It took a while. In 1949-50, the newly independent nation tried to mark both things—to celebrate independence and mourn those who died fighting for it—on the same day. It didn’t work. You cannot mourn and celebrate at the same time. Mourners are isolated in their grief, quarantined like an impure house and shut up in it with their grief for seven days.

In 1951, the families of fallen soldiers petitioned the government for a change. David Ben-Gurion, who at the time was both prime minister and defense minister, established a “public council for soldiers’ commemoration,” which duly recommended that the day previous to Independence Day be set aside as a “general memorial day for the heroes of the war of independence.” Still later, the scope of the mourning was expanded; now it is a “day of remembrance for the fallen soldiers of Israel and victims of terrorism.”

The day begins at sunset the evening before, with the sounding of a one-minute siren across the land; all stop in their tracks and observe a moment’s silence. The Israeli flag is lowered to half-mast at the Western Wall, and religious Zionists add prayers for the fallen soldiers in the evening service. The following morning at 11.00, a two-minute siren is sounded, and official mourning ceremonies begin at cemeteries all over the country. Many people take that day to visit their loved ones’ graves. The day draws to a close with the start of Independence Day celebrations at the national military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where the flag of Israel is restored to full staff and mourning merges into gladness and joy.

The sequence is designed to comfort the bereaved with the idea that their loss has secured the country’s independence. You may see the same symbolism at work in the bird that survives to be released into open country. The priest dips the live bird in the slaughtered bird’s blood, which has been mingled with the clean spring water, and together the two atone for whatever sin caused the plague in the first place.

The sages do not specify what those sins are, but, in keeping with their view that the laws of leprosy-in-a-house seek to quantify the particular challenges of being a decent human being if you’re a Jew in the land of Israel, they suggest guidelines. It’s a land, they say, that spits out the unjust. It’s a land in which moral failings will rot not just your insides, but your very walls.

Today’s mourners in Israel are impure not because they’re plagued, they’re impure because of their symbolically renewed contact with their dead; and so are all of their countrymen. Memorial Day allows all Israel to feel the loss again and to let go of it. Every year, Memorial Day relives the terrible cost of holding on to the land, thereby accentuating the great joy of possessing it that is celebrated the next day. One bird is dead, one is released to fly free, and we hope that when the priest walks away the house is pure and will continue to stand.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Israeli Independence Day, Leprosy, The Monthly Portion, Torah