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Obama’s State Department: Representing the American people to Russia and Israel

posted at 6:11 pm on July 28, 2011 by

Kim Zigfeld at Pajamas picks up on a position assumed by the Obama administration on a Senate bill that would condemn Russian officials complicit in the torture and death of a rights lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky.  The bill, sponsored by John McCain and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), would deny US visas to a list of Russian officials and freeze their assets in America.  Equally important, it would call attention to what those officials have done, and to the pattern of threats, intimidation, and even homicidal brutality wielded by the Russian government against whistle-blowers.

The Russians have warned the Obama administration about what will happen if the Senate goes through with the McCain-Cardin bill.  And the Obama State Department has in turn conveyed that warning to the Senate:

Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if this legislation passes. Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit to Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes.

The administration revealed yesterday that it has “quietly” placed a number of Russian officials on a no-visa list – “without,” as the New York Times delicately puts it, “official notification to the Russians.” Faithfully reporting the situation according to the administration’s talking points, the Times continues:

A State Department memo laid out the visa ban, which was first reported by The Washington Post. The document was sent last week to senators who have been pushing for far more stringent measures. Their provisions would not only deny American entry to Russian officials linked to the case of the lawyer, Sergei L. Magnitsky, but also freeze their American assets. At least 19 senators are sponsoring the bill, including Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

The measure would apply as well to officials implicated in the shooting deaths of Natalia Estemirova, a human rights worker killed in the North Caucasus in 2009, and Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist killed at the entry to her Moscow apartment in 2006.

The State Department’s memo argued against such sweeping measures, saying they might undermine Mr. Obama’s policy of reset with Moscow and that the Russians had threatened retaliation that could harm American interests around the world.

Particularly ineffable is NYT’s characterization of the overall episode:

The Obama administration has disclosed one of its sharpest policy responses to Russian human rights abuses, telling American lawmakers that dozens of Russian officials have been quietly barred from the United States…

Skeptics can be pardoned for doubting the “sharpness” of a policy implemented “without official notification” to the Russians.  Even Jimmy Carter displayed more fortitude in standing up for human rights.

When it comes to US ally Israel, however, the Obama State Department is prepared to eschew euphemism and deal in actual money.  Haaretz got hold of two internal State Department reports in which the US delegation in Israel is judged to have done poorly at the task of convincing the Israeli public about Obama’s policies.  That these reports found their way to Haaretz looks like a story in itself; the administration comes off in them as peevish and ultimately spiteful, because the upshot of the internal assessment is that the US should terminate our program of guaranteeing loans to Israel.

Does the skepticism of the Israeli public about the Obama administration justify terminating a loan-guarantee program?  The main context in which the connection would be obvious is that of Chicago politics.  (Or Putin-style Russian politics, for that matter.)  Relevant passages from the Haaretz story:

“A fragile Israeli coalition government leans toward the views of its members from the nationalist and religious right, creating a challenge for diplomats seeking to build support for U.S. policies,” the report says….

The reports portray a problematic picture of the missions’ performance in Israel.

The Tel Aviv embassy faces intense challenges, generated by Israel’s current government, negative public opinion toward President Obama, a sensitive political environment and a vibrant media scene, the report says.

It finds that the embassy’s annual public relations budget, intended to influence public opinion in Israel, is about $7 million a year, or roughly NIS 25 million.

Despite its diplomatic wording, the report implies the Tel Aviv embassy has totally failed in its public relations efforts during the Obama term. “Much of the Israeli public is suspicious of U.S. efforts to promote negotiations aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state,” it says. “The lively and fractious press often misinterprets American policies.”

Israel can probably survive without the loan guarantees.  On the other hand, the Obama administration has been at pains to continue aid to Egypt (and indeed announced an augmentation in the form of debt forgiveness and a “sovereign guarantee” of new bonds issued by Egypt), in spite of the change of regime there, Egypt’s uncertain future, and poor polling for Obama among the Egyptian people.

On Wednesday, Caroline Glick cited news reports that the Obama administration is now pressuring Israel to issue an apology to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, and pay compensation to the families of those killed.  The implication Glick points out if Erdogan were to get the apology he is so determined on – a big boost for his image as an Islamic leader, at a time when he is vying with Iran and the Arab Muslim Brotherhood for primacy in that regard – ought to be obvious to Team Obama, and perhaps that’s what the administration wants.  But in the context of all the other foreign policy being perpetrated by this White House, it’s not clear that decisions – even bad ones – are being made for reasons of that kind.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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You make me think that the Obama playbook for foreign policy and US economic policy are one and the same. Backroom deals, shifting alliances, finger pointing. OK, not much of a playbook, but it’s all BarryO’s got.

Robert17 on July 28, 2011 at 6:28 PM

Thanks, Robert17. That was cerrtainly the implication. I would only enter the caveat that I think it’s the facts themselves making you think that.

J.E. Dyer on July 28, 2011 at 6:52 PM

Can’t wait for Obie to get the boot.

AH_C on July 29, 2011 at 4:33 PM