With the Middle East – and U.S. Middle East policy – descending further into turmoil, the White House on Sunday sent President Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough to the Sunday shows to project confidence that the administration has matters under control in the most volatile part of the world.
It was a tall order, given the events of the past week when House Republicans threatened to derail ongoing negotiations about Iran’s development of nuclear technology by promising to pass new and tougher sanctions against Tehran. The threat was exacerbated by the decision of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the subject of Iran in a joint Session of Congress in March.
On Friday, the government of Yemen was effectively overthrown by a Shiite rebels group, casting a country already host to a significant terrorist presence into the sort of chaos that is likely to make it an even more attractive haven for Al Qaeda and its offshoots.
On Saturday, the terrorist group ISIS apparently beheaded another hostage -- Japanese journalist Haruna Yukawa -- and threatened to do the same to others in its custody, including Yukawa’s colleague, Kenji Goto and an American woman whose identity her family has asked not be publicized. (McDonough appeared to mistakenly reveal the woman’s name during an interview on ABC Sunday morning.)
Meanwhile, the President announced over the weekend that he would cut short a trip to India to attend funeral services for Saudi Arabia’s deceased King Abdullah, whose death will require a transfer of power in one of U.S.’s most important allies in the region.
Speaking on ABC’s This Week, McDonough refused to be drawn into a discussion of whether or not it was appropriate for Boehner to invite a foreign leader to address the U.S. Congress about a sensitive issue under negotiation by the administration. Netanyahu will likely lobby against a deal that the U.S., France, Germany, China, Russia, and the United Kingdom have been working on to curtail the possibility that Iran could develop nuclear weapons.
“We’ve asked Congress for forbearance, for some time to allow us to run these negotiations so that we are united with our allies,” McDonough said. “Maintaining Iran isolated rather than going with some kind of premature action up there on the hill that would risk really splintering the international community, making it [the U.S.] rather than the Iranians who are isolated.”
On CNN, host Michael Smerconish relayed a quote from Prime Minister Netanyahu, who addressed the controversy over his invitation to Washington, saying, “As Prime Minister of Israel, I am obligated to make every effort in order to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons that would be aimed at the state of Israel. This effort is worldwide and I will go anywhere I am invited in order to enunciate the State of Israel’s position and in order to defend its future and its existence.”
Smerconish noted that a story in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted an unidentified U.S. official calling Netanyahu’s decision insulting, and said there would be consequences. Smerconish noted that Obama has been criticized since White House officials have said that he will not meet with Netanyahu while he is in Washington.
McDonough first of all disavowed the unnamed speaker’s comments about the administration feeling insulted.
“This is the most important relationship we have in the world,” he said, referring to U.S.-Israel ties. “This is something that ought to be and will continue to be, as far as we’re concerned, above partisan politics. This is a relationship, given its importance that stretches across many different things, from values straight through intelligence cooperation, to defense and security assistance.”
Regarding the president’s decision not to meet with Netanyahu in Washington, McDonough said that the U.S. has a longstanding policy of not interfering in the domestic politics of its allies, and pointed out that at the time of his visit, Netanyahu will be two weeks away from an election.
“We think also we ought not to get involved in their politics,” he said. “That’s why the president thinks it doesn’t make any sense for him to meet with the prime minister two weeks before his election.”
On the question of the nuclear negotiations, he said, “We have isolated the Iranians over six years. We now have robust international multilateral sanctions in place, and we have very aggressive bilateral sanctions in place. That’s leading to Iran being isolated, its economy being in tatters, its ability to export and sell oil at near record lows.
“We can maintain that international unity by pressing through these last several months of negotiations. Congress should just give us the time to let those negotiations to play out. It doesn’t make any sense for them to prematurely act on legislation that the president will veto if it’s going to risk maintaining this international unity. Congress should let us finish this job.”
Pressed on ISIS’ murder of Japanese hostage Yukawa, McDonough said that while the U.S. is doing everything it could to assist the Japanese government; the White House has not changed its stance when it comes to negotiating with terrorists.
In exchange for the remaining hostage, Goto, ISIS has demanded the release of a failed suicide bomber currently jailed in Jordan.
“We don’t negotiate or make exchanges or pay ransoms,” McDonough said. “We think that results in more cash floating around with these very hateful characters who will just have more ability to ply their trade.”
In appearances on a number of different shows, McDonough tried to address the events in Yemen, and the broader uncertainty in the Middle East, by placing the burden on the people living there.
“The resolution of all these situations is going to be dependent on people on the ground – Muslims in many cases Arabs in other cases – taking the steps that they need to resolve the situation on the ground,” he said. “We cannot be an occupying force in a place like Yemen, or in Syria, and hope that we will be responsible for bringing this, as you say, chaos to an end.”
He was pressed particularly on the Yemen question by CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, who pointed out that the president, just four months ago, had held up the country as an example of a place where U.S. anti-terrorism policies were working. McDonough’s response suggested that the U.S. goal in Yemen had never been the preservation of a particular government there, but rather the suppression of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
“We weren’t surprised that this government collapsed,” he said, alluding to the announcement over the weekend that the country’s leadership had resigned in the face of an uprising by the Houthi, a primarily Shiite ethnic group.
“We knew that this was an ongoing challenge over the course of the last several months,” he said. That’s why we’ve been pressing on all the actors to take important steps to address the situation. We’re continuing to do that today.”
It is currently unclear what the effect of an organized Houthi takeover of the country would mean for anti-terror efforts. The Houthi, being Shiite rather than Sunni, are believed to be opposed to groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. McDonough’s effort to put a positive spin on the administration’s Middle East policy did not impress Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of its harshest critics.
“[McDonough] and the president have lost touch with reality,” McCain said. “Iran is on the march throughout.” Iranian influence, he said, is on the rise in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
“It is delusional for them to think that what they are doing is succeeding. We need more boots on the ground,” he said. “I know that’s a tough thing to say and a tough thing for American people to swallow.”
With regard to Israel, he said, “Relations have never been worse between ourselves and the only genuine democracy in the Middle Est. They believe and they are convinced that these negotiations with Iran will lead to Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon which will then nuclearize the entire Middle East and that will be a direct threat to the existence of the state of Israel. I regret that the relations have deteriorated to this degree. But I do believe that it is important that Prime Minister Netanyahu speak to the American people.
“And by the way,” he added, referring to the ongoing negotiations with Iran, “we need Congressional ratification of any agreement that is made. This is too big to not be treated as a treaty.”
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