On Friday afternoon I spoke with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) about the array of foreign policy issues that popped up during the week. Through quiet pressure and a series of foreign policy speeches, Lieberman has persistently pressed the Obama administration on a range of issues, but never with fiery or personal criticism of the president. To the extent that the administration is now wising up on several fronts, Lieberman can claim a measure of the credit.
This is especially evident on Iran. Why did he and other senators send a letter to the president urging that sanctions not be relaxed and that the administration not allow Iran to continue limited enrichment of nuclear material? Lieberman explained that one reason for the letter was to help forge a "bipartisan stance" on Iran. But he acknowledged concern that these talks have a way of dragging on without result. He pointed to the secretary of state's chasing down the Iranian foreign minister as evidence that we're making precious little progress. He then shared that at a meeting with "one administration official" after the talks in Geneva, he sensed "some circumspection" about the likelihood that talks would bear fruit and a determination "not only to double down, but triple down on sanctions."
As for the potential for a deal allowing the Iranians' to pursue limited enrichment, he pointed to statements from members of the European Union and the Russians favoring such a deal. He warned, however, that "this is the wrong message" to send to a regime that has "such a pattern of deceit." He insisted that, should Iran get the bomb, "the consequences are so disastrous for us and our allies" that we now must try every means available. In sum, he argued that "it's time to be tough."
The dilemma for Lieberman and other advocates of sanctions, however, is the difficulty of knowing whether they are "working" and whether we are straining the regime (and inflicting hardship on the population) without affecting the regime's decision-making process on nuclear weapons. His expectations appear to be low, but the difficulty will be in pivoting to a more robust approach that may include the use of force.
This past week, the Obama administration finally gave up its effort to induce Israel to offer up a 90-day settlement freeze. Lieberman said he has no particular insight into why the administration finally woke up. He simply said, "There are smart people in this administration and they realized they were in a bad position." He observed that when you are in a hole, the first thing is "to stop digging." His was blunt in his criticism of the administration's Middle East policy. He said that focusing on a settlement freeze "was a mistake," putting both Israelis and the Palestinians in a position in which they could not give in. He recalled that past administrations never demanded a settlement freeze while they conducted far-reaching talks. The entire endeavor -- giving up so much for a 90-day freeze and putting the Israeli prime minister in the position to give up items on "unrelated matters" to his coalition partners (an apparent reference to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's support for the so-called loyalty oath) convinced Lieberman "this was going nowhere good."
In the administration's shift from pure "engagement" to a tough sanctions policy, and in giving up on its flawed settlement freeze strategy, Lieberman sees a positive pattern. "When they try something that doesn't work, then [they realize] it's time to try something else." One might hope, however, that the Obama team would learn at a more rapid pace.
Speaking of failed approaches, I asked Lieberman about Russian "reset." When we spoke, he hadn't heard Sen. John McCain's speech earlier in the day. He noted, however: "John and I have talked a lot. We feel quite similarly. We don't want to go back to a cold war relationship, but it can't be based on dishonesty" or confusion about Russian intentions. As McCain did in his speech, Lieberman said that "one element" in evaluating Russian leaders is "how they treat Georgia." He urged the administration to spell out that "the Georgians are our allies" and to be clear that "we are going to provide arms to defend themselves."
He also expressed sadness that the promise at the time the Berlin War [sic] came down of a free and prosperous Russia has yet to be fulfilled. He emphasized that the U.S. and Russia "are very different on human rights." And he observed that while Russia has begun to tap its natural resources, it has yet to "diversify its economy." All of these factors suggest to him that Russia is on a course that "is not good." It remains to be seen, however, whether the administration sees eye to eye with McCain and Lieberman. The White House's frenetic determination to ratify the START deal suggests it is straining, not to re-examine "reset," but to demonstrate that is has been a success.
Finally, Lieberman said he believed that after the tax vote on Monday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would bring "don't ask, don't tell" to the floor. Lieberman, who introduced a stand-alone bill after Democrats lost a cloture vote on a larger Defense Department funding bill, said he "knows there are 60 votes" -- including, he said, some "surprises." He contended that support for repeal of the Clinton-era policy has accelerated since release of the Pentagon report. He cautioned that it is "not going to be easy to get this done," with the tax deal and START votes still hanging out there. In his book, however, there is "nothing inevitable" about the Senate closing for the holidays, since "most Americans work right up to the day before Christmas and our troops work on Christmas."
Does he enjoy the irony that, as the recipient of many barbs from the left, he now stands as the lawmaker most likely to deliver a win on one of liberals' top agenda items? He laughed and confessed, "I enjoy that almost as much as seeing the president calling the left 'sanctimonious.'" In that respect, as in so many others, he is in good company with conservatives.
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