Dan Simpson: Leave Ukraine to Europe

The United States should focus on Mideast negotiations

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Five years into Barack Obama’s presidency isn’t a bad time to review the bidding on the effectiveness of his foreign policy.

Although his choice of Hillary Rodham Clinton as his first secretary of state may have been brilliant in domestic political terms, it turned out to have been a damp squib in terms of getting things done on the international front. She traveled a lot but was unwilling to tackle controversial problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, the Indian-Pakistani scrap over Kashmir, the Iran nuclear/​economic sanctions knot or even relatively little stuff such as the Greek-Turkish Cyprus problem because she risked damaging her prospects for a possible presidential run.

John F. Kerry, Mr. Obama’s second-term secretary of state, hit the ground running in January 2013 by actively pursuing three major Middle East negotiations. The most important was his relaunch of the Israeli-Palestinian talks begun by Mr. Obama himself in September 2009 and then abandoned when the Israelis refused to stop building settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and the Palestinians refused to talk while the Israelis did so.

Those talks are still afloat, with Mr. Kerry proposing a framework of topics and a timetable. There was a serious flaw in the effort from the beginning, though, which Mr. Kerry failed to address. Hamas, the Palestinian group which dominates Gaza, the smaller part of the Palestinians’ theoretical territory, remains estranged from Fatah, the group led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which dominates the larger West Bank.

Hamas is now letting the more militant Islamic Jihad pick a fight with Israel by launching rockets from Gaza into Israel, causing the Israelis to carry out air strikes in Gaza, thus jeopardizing the talks at a critical point. Mr. Kerry could have forestalled this problem by establishing lines to Hamas at the beginning of negotiations. But he didn’t.

The second major set of negotiations Mr. Kerry dove into was talks with Iran. The United States wants to curtail Iran’s nuclear program and prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons capacity. That enterprise is still very much afloat. One of its virtues is that it is not being led exclusively by the United States, given the iffy political situation in Washington where some of the nation’s prime dimwits are sometimes able to dominate the headlines and TV talk shows. Instead, the international side of the table includes U.N. Security Council permanent and veto-bearing members China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States, with Germany added, and the talks on that side are led by European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

The third of Mr. Kerry’s negotiating enterprises is to seek reconciliation between the parties to the Syrian civil war. That has not gone so well. Government forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose sticky end Mr. Obama had foretold long ago, have instead continued to improve their situation on the ground. The main problem of members of the Syrian opposition is that they not only are severely divided among themselves, to the point of open conflict, but they also include Islamic extremist elements. Those groups are sworn enemies of the United States, making it difficult and embarrassing for America to help them, but they also don’t fight well, permitting Assad’s troops to continue to regain ground. Now, Assad’s side sees little reason to negotiate with the opposition.

Mr. Kerry also made a mistake in lining up participants in the Syrian talks. Assad’s primary backer, alongside Russia, has been Iran. Iran should have been invited to urge Assad to see reason. Iran would have liked that, thus presenting itself as reasonable international interlocuter. But America blocked Iran’s participation.

The irony is that, now, with the Syrian talks basically sinking beneath the waves, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has sent the talks’ mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, off to Tehran to see if the Iranians might like to help now. It is probably too late. The Syrian government has, in effect, won, leaving Iran with little reason to get involved. Tehran probably figures that it has many other important fish to fry at this point.

Then there is the Ukraine-U.S. debacle, which Mr. Kerry has, by virtue of his position, been pulled into. Instead of concentrating on bringing the Israeli-Palestinian and Iranian nuclear ships to safe harbor, the secretary of state instead has been dragged into a pointless dog-and-pony show in a little piece of far-eastern Europe.

Is it possible that American leaders don’t understand that the relationship between Russia and Ukraine goes back centuries and includes cultural, religious, political and economic ties that make the Russians and Ukrainians laugh when they hear Americans pretend that what is going on in Ukraine is a U.S. affair? On Sunday, of the Crimeans who voted, 97 percent favored uniting with Russia. It is impossible to say what the vote was really worth, with Russian troops and pro-Russian Ukrainian militias in place, but it is not hard to believe that the people of Crimea would rather throw in their lot with Russia than with Ukrainian leaders whose previous iteration stole an estimated $70 billion in foreign aid.

Mr. Kerry now needs to hurry to shift responsibility for what happens in Crimea, Russia and Ukraine entirely into the hands of the Europeans, tamping down the old fires, rather than let various American war-hawks use the issue to replace the embalming fluid in the corpse of the Cold War, which died 24 years ago, with fresh American blood.

There are still two very much alive negotiations out there — the Israelis and Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear projects — for him to devote his considerable energies to. Let someone else pull at the legs of the dead Cold War horse.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).


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