Archive for the ‘Mid East’ Category

30/12/2016

“A cease-fire agreement between Syria’s government and the country’s mainstream rebel groups has gone into effect in the war-ravaged nation. The truce was brokered by both Russia and Turkey, who support opposing sides in the war. It took effect at midnight Thursday. The agreement is a potential breakthrough in the six-year civil war that has left more than a quarter-million people dead and triggered a refugee crisis across Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin says that if the truce holds, it will be followed by peace talks next month in Kazakhstan between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and opposition groups”.

Christians, returning to Iraq?

18/12/2016

An important article notes that some Christians are returning to Iraq, “Christians are finally returning to the Church of the Immaculate Conception. In the courtyard, they find piles of shell casings and mannequin torsos riddled with bullet holes. The Islamic State fighters who held the building until just a few days ago used the space for target practice. The cavernous interior of the church, the largest in Iraq, is charred and black. The floors are strewn with trash. Islamic State fighters destroyed the crosses and burned any religious books they could find. Now a man is searching through the rubble, salvaging scraps of manuscripts in Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by Jesus. A small group of priests and local people gathers around the altar, and for the first time in two years, the sound of prayer fills the hall”.

It adds “Gunfire and shelling can still be heard not far away. A man goes up to the darkened altar and kisses it, shaking his head in disbelief at the level of destruction. One of the priests finds a few pieces of communion wafer and wraps them respectfully in paper. “This is Christ’s body, after all,” he says. Before the Islamic State launched its war in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, the town of Hamdaniya (also known as Qaraqosh or Bakhdida), 20 miles southeast of Mosul, was home to 50,000 people, most of whom belonged to several ancient Christian sects. These are some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and the Islamic State was determined to wipe them out. When the jihadis invaded, most residents fled to safety in the nearby Kurdish region or left the country entirely. Now the military campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, has liberated nearby Hamdaniya, potentially enabling its people to revive their unique and imperiled culture. But that task seems horribly daunting for the first brave ones who made the journey to their ruined hometown”.

It mentions “A sense of jubilation momentarily unites the liberators — the Christian militias and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army soldiers who fought together against the Islamic State (which espouses a twisted version of Sunni Islam). Shiite mullahs and Christian priests tour Hamdaniya together. The cross on the majestic dome of another church, St. Barbara’s, was destroyed by the jihadis. It has now been replaced by a wooden cross — courtesy of the Iraqi Army. “I haven’t seen my home in two and a half years,” says Jameel, a young member of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a 500-strong Assyrian Christian militia.  “Now I’m back, and it’s beautiful, even though everything is bombed out.” A self-described poet, he joined the militia last year. On his iPhone, he proudly shows off a photo of a dead Islamic State fighter he says he killed. But there are mixed feelings about how to move forward. Despite the euphoria, there’s a sense that the fabric of Iraqi society is as fragile as ever. A desire for revenge against Sunnis simmers beneath the surface”.

It notes how “Iraqi Army Humvees and armoured personnel carriers, some adorned with images of revered Shiite Muslim leaders, roam the ruined streets. Many of the houses once owned by Christians are burned-out hulks, their walls spray-painted with Islamic State graffiti. In some places, a jihadi slogan — “Islamic State is here and will expand” — has been painted over with praise for Christian militias. One sign proclaims hopefully, “We are all Iraq.” But many of the returnees are focusing first on the idea of reviving their own endangered community, not on building a common nation. During his stint in parliament, Ayshon worked on legislation to prevent Christians from selling their land to any other community. He says it’s important for them to hold on to their place in Iraq. “Our roots go back 5,000 years,” he says, referring to Assyrian Iraqis. “We built this civilization, which they, the Arabs from the desert, have destroyed.” “We built this civilization, which they, the Arabs from the desert, have destroyed.” He makes little effort to hide his contempt for the majority of Iraqi society — yet another reminder of the mutual distrust that permeates the country. But he insists that he doesn’t want to pick a fight”.

Importantly he writes “Iraqi Christians want two things: assurance of their future security and acknowledgment of their past suffering. To these ends, Ayshon this year founded Shlomo, a nongovernmental organization that documents violence and intimidation against Christians in Iraq. The group’s volunteers claim to have collected 30,000 testimonies from Christians who fled the Islamic State. Ayshon says almost all of the 130,000-150,000 Christians who lived in the Nineveh plains, the area east of Mosul, have been displaced. His group has tracked cases of killings, torture, forced conversions, and the kidnapping and selling of Christian girls and women. “We want to prove that what has happened to Christians is a genocide,” Ayshon says. “I want the U.S. State Department and Congress to say that what happened here was genocide and maybe take the case to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.” Ayshon dreams of an autonomous Christian province within Iraq, which he says could be secured by a referendum. Its safety, he says, should be assured by its own protection forces. “We want to live as we want, not as they [Muslims] want us to live,” he adds. In thinking this way, he is not alone”.

It ends “Back in Hamdaniya, Ayshon gets tired of waiting for the army to provide protection for his homecoming. He persuades a fighter from the Nineveh Plain Protection Units to escort us so we can go and see what has become of his former home. The militiaman enters the burnt-out house first to check for booby traps or Islamic State fighters who have stayed behind. After he gives the all-clear, we follow him in to find shattered glass and charred walls. The furniture is gone or destroyed. Ayshon looks around stoically. Amid the rubble, he finds his college diploma in electrical engineering, the only thing that remains intact. “At least the fountain in the garden is still standing,” he says wryly. “That’s a start.” By the time we’re ready to leave, an Iraqi Army Humvee is waiting. An officer scolds Ayshon for driving around in a civilian vehicle that could easily be mistaken for an Islamic State suicide car bomb. On our way back to Erbil, where Ayshon has been living for the past two years, he sighs, thinking of the destruction. But he’s determined to remain optimistic. “When the people return, life will return,” he says. “But we need money and jobs fast to restore Iraqi Christians’ faith in their own land.”

 

Iran, keeping to the deal

18/12/2016

Iran has shipped 11 tonnes of heavy water abroad to bring its stock back under a limit set by its landmark nuclear deal with major powers, according to a diplomat citing a confidential U.N. nuclear watchdog report. The shipment is a step toward resolving a dispute with Western powers including the United States that are keen to prevent Iran from testing the deal’s terms. The report substantiated an Iranian statement last month about a transfer to Oman but does not identify the destination, the diplomat said. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is policing the restrictions placed on Iran’s atomic activities under the July 2015 deal, said in a report last month that Iran’s stock of heavy water had for the second time exceeded a soft limit of 130 tonnes, and the IAEA expressed its concerns to Tehran. “On 6 December the agency verified the quantity of 11 metric tonnes of the nuclear-grade heavy water at its destination outside Iran,” the diplomat quoted the five-paragraph report by the IAEA to member states as saying. “This transfer of heavy water out of Iran brings Iran’s stock of heavy water to below 130 tonnes,” it said, adding that Iran had told the agency that the shipment left the country on Nov. 19.

Trump, liberalism and the search for meaning

18/12/2016

An article argues that Trump has returned America to its norm of fighting over identity, morality and religion, “Americans have elected an “illiberal democrat” as president. That doesn’t mean the United States will become an illiberal democracy — where democratically elected leaders fundamentally erode the rights and freedoms we associate with the classical liberal tradition — anytime soon. But it does mean we could become one. As a minority and a Muslim, the result of this election is distressing — and perhaps the most frightening event I’ve experienced in my own country. That said, there is something admirable in the idea that democratic outcomes will be respected even when people you hate (or people that hate you) come to power. I’ve studied “existential” elections in the Middle East, where there is simply too much at stake for the losers of elections to accept that the victors have, in fact, won. I was nervous about Donald Trump. But I also recognized that he was an unusually compelling candidate in an age when they are few and far between. I remember the first time I heard him give a long, rambling, ad-libbed speech at a raucous rally. It’s not just that I couldn’t look away; I didn’t want to. Trump was funny, charismatic, and vaguely charming but also quite obviously petty and vindictive. His rallies were more like faith-based festivals. This wasn’t politics as an end — it was politics as a means to something else, although I wasn’t quite sure what. But I did know that I had seen it before”.

The writer goes on to point out “It’s almost unfair to compare Trump to the democratically elected Islamists that I normally study, since Trump’s open disrespect not just for liberal norms, but democratic ones as well, has been so unabashed. In his infamous statement during the final presidential debate, Trump refused to commit himself to democratic outcomes if his opponent won. Mainstream Islamist groups that participate in elections — whatever we think their true intentions are — have rarely gone this far. The differences between ethno-nationalist parties, such as Trump’s new Republicans, and religious parties are of course numerous, which makes the similarities all the more glaring. There is the same sense of victimization, real and imagined, at the hands of an entrenched elite, coupled with an acute sense of loss. In both cases, the leader of the movement is seen as the embodiment of the national will, representing “the people.” The overlap between Trumpism and Islamism is no coincidence. In my book Islamic Exceptionalism, which discusses Islam’s tensions with liberalism and liberal democracy, I argue that some public role for religion is necessary in religiously conservative societies. Religion, unlike secular nationalism or socialism, can provide a common language and a kind of asabiyya — a 14th-century Arabic term coined by the historian Ibn Khaldun meaning roughly “group consciousness.” Asabiyya was needed to bind states together, providing cohesion and shared purpose”.

The author crucially argues that “In less religious or “post-Christian” societies, a mainstream Christianity is no longer capable of providing the necessary group identity. But that doesn’t mean other ideas won’t fill the vacuum. In other words, be careful what you wish for: An America where religion plays less of a role isn’t necessarily a better one, if what replaces religion is white nativism. Whether it’s nativism, European-style ethno-nationalism, or, in the case of the Middle East, Islamism, the thread that connects these disparate experiments is similar: the flailing search for a politics of meaning. The ideologies might seem incoherent or hollow, but they all aspire to some sort of social solidarity, anchoring public life in sharply defined identities. During the Arab Spring, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood hoped, at least in the long run, to transform Egypt into a kind of missionary state. The essence of politics then isn’t just, or even primarily, about improving citizens’ quality of life — it’s about directing their energies toward moral, philosophical, or ideological ends. When the state entrusts itself with a cause — whether based around religion or ethnic identity — citizens are no longer individuals pursuing their own conception of the good life; they are part of a larger brotherhood, entrusted with a mission to reshape society”.

Pointedly he contends that “This isn’t necessarily surprising. Western elites too often assume liberalism as a default setting, but after spending more than six years living, studying, and conducting fieldwork in the Middle East, and after witnessing the demise of the Arab Spring, my view of human nature became quite a bit darker. Illiberalism, not liberalism, seemed the default setting. Islamism promised to remove the spiritual confusion associated with individualism and seemingly unlimited choices. I’ll never forget sitting in the back of a Cairo cab with a random guy, who was getting high on hashish and going on about the need for sharia, or Islamic law. He wanted an Islamic state to force him to stop doing drugs because he didn’t want to sin. But he didn’t know how, at least not on his own. Despite watching the march of illiberalism nearly everywhere, from Europe to the Middle East to Asia, I resisted my own conclusions when it came to considering the appeal of Trump’s illiberalism at home”.

He continues “As a personality, he was singular and compelling — but could he really win in a country where constitutional liberalism was so deeply entrenched? Intellectually, I knew we had to take his movement seriously and thought he had a good chance of winning. But as an American citizen with a stake in my country’s democratic ideals, I couldn’t bring myself to actually visualize it as something real. We all need to believe in our better angels, particularly when it comes to the very countries in which we live and believe. The writer Yascha Mounk called Nov. 8 “the worst night for liberal democracy since [1942].” He’s probably right. But there is a perhaps sunnier way to view Trump’s election: It could prove a definitive rebuke to what liberal democracy had, contrary to the intent of its originators, become — the kind of center-left managerial technocracy that was as uninspiring as it was unthreatening. This techno-liberalism could, to be sure, improve people’s lives by nudgingand tinkering around the margins. But aside from the “poetry” of periodic moments like Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, it offered only the prose of technocratic policy — prose that could become its own kind of faith, offering certainty and even a sense of identity, but primarily directed at elites and wonks who believed that the future of politics was in finding the right “facts.” These facts, objective and unimpeachable, would aid in the slow work of, say, refining a flawed universal health-care system and getting Wall Street to behave a little bit better. For everyone else, it failed to offer a substantive politics of meaning”.

Importantly he posits that “Humans need to belong, and so we gravitate toward in-groups of like-minded people. In my case, those like-minded people are of different races and religions, but we share a culture, lifestyle, and a sensibility. We were moved by the kind of joyous diversity on display at the Democratic National Convention. In those images, I could recognize the America that I knew and perhaps the only America I hoped to know.  But most members of the so-called and now somewhat clichéd “white working class” relate to each other more than they could ever relate to me. They see me as different, in part because I am. Is this a kind of nativism? Maybe. But, ultimately, my politics are just as motivated by identity and culture as theirs. The decline of Christianity in the United States has left an ideological vacuum, and for many, perhaps most, modern liberalism is just a bit too boring to fill the gap. Or, to put it differently, it doesn’t provide the existential meaning that they want and even crave”.

He ends “In his seminal essay “The End of History?” the political scientist Francis Fukuyama grappled with the victory of liberal democracy. He wrote that “the struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” But Fukuyama was ambivalent about this, instinctively recognizing liberal democracy’s inherent weakness before most. He ended his article on a prescient if now somewhat terrifying note: “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” We are now condemned to live in exciting times. Boredom is, quite clearly, underrated. At the same time, I must confess that as Trump’s victory settled, my despair was coupled with a rush of blood to the head. I felt my fear, including for my family, giving me a sense of purpose. I at least knew what I believed in and what I hoped America could still become. And, in one way or another, even if we don’t quite consciously want it, it’s something we all apparently need — something, whatever it is, to fight for. Now Americans on both sides of the ever-widening divide will have it.

 

Bibi tries to influence Trump

16/12/2016

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he would discuss with Donald Trump the West’s “bad” nuclear deal with Iran after the U.S. president-elect enters the White House. Speaking separately to a conference in Washington, Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry clashed over the Iran deal and Israel’s settlement construction on the occupied West Bank, which Kerry depicted as an obstacle to peace. During the U.S. election campaign, Trump, a Republican, called last year’s nuclear pact a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated”. He has also said it would be hard to overturn an agreement enshrined in a U.N. resolution. “Israel is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That has not changed and will not change. As far as President-elect Trump, I look forward to speaking to him about what to do about this bad deal,” Netanyahu told the Saban Forum, a conference on the Middle East, in Washington, via satellite from Jerusalem. Trump takes office on Jan. 20″.

 

“For the first time in eight years it would cut back oil production”

16/12/2016

A report discusses the recent news about an oil production cut, “OPEC surprised the world by announcing that for the first time in eight years it would cut back oil production to nudge up crude prices. The deal, to start in January, would see OPEC member countries trim their combined oil output by about 1.1 million barrels a day, to 32.5 million barrels of oil a day, according to a statement released after the group’s ministerial meeting on Wednesday”.

The writer goes on to mention “It’s a long-delayed response to a flood of oil that has outstripped global demand for the stuff and kept prices less than half of what they were in 2014. It’s also an indication that OPEC, and especially Saudi Arabia, the biggest oil producer in the group, is willing to again play a role as market balancer — potentially bringing some longer-term stability back to the global oil market”.

Crucially it notes that “Riyadh, who championed OPEC’s drill-till-you-drop approach two years ago, will take the brunt of the pain, agreeing to an output cut of nearly 500,000 barrels a day from record-high levels of production of 10.673 million barrels a day. Iraq, the cartel’s second-biggest producer, will cut 210,000 barrels a day. In all, OPEC members — famous for their fractiousness and an inability to share the pain — appear to have agreed to trim production by about 5 percent each. Even Russia, which isn’t a member of OPEC but whose breakneck oil production has contributed to the glut, agreed to gradually rein in output by 300,000 barrels a day. In answer, crude oil prices leapt upward by over 10 percent to top $50 a barrel for the first time in a month. While that’s great news for cash-strapped petro states like Iraq and Venezuela — and an early Christmas gift for the U.S. oil patch — it’s a little less cheery for consumers, who will have to pay a bit more at the pump”.

The writer mentions that “Under OPEC’s surprise agreement, one country caught a break: Iran will be allowed to increase production by about 90,000 barrels a day while everyone else cuts back. Tehran has been adamant that it must regain market share that it lost while facing U.S. and Western sanctions that halved its oil exports from 2012 through last year. OPEC’s first agreed cut since 2008 — when oil prices collapsed late in the year after hitting record levels in the summer — comes when the group’s members are reeling. OPEC is on track to earn just $341 billion in oil exports in 2016, down from a record $920 billion in 2012. That has hammered oil-dependent states, making it tougher for Iraq to fight Islamic State, for example, or Venezuela to craft a functioning economy. Even wealthy states, like Saudi Arabia, have felt the pinch, burning through about $180 billion of currency reserves and slashing public-sector salaries in the last two years”.

He goes on to point out, “OPEC’s rediscovery of discipline could be enough to help rebalance the market next year and push up oil prices — if, that is, members actually adhere to it, and if rejuvenated U.S. oil production doesn’t spoil the party before it gets started. OPEC members don’t have a great record of actually sticking to agreements they make. And political feuds between members, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, had a habit of boiling over into OPEC meetings and torpedoing agreements in the past. “We believe much uncertainty remains with respect to global oil supply in 2017,” said Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners. That’s primarily due to OPEC’s “poor track record of adhering to production quotas and ongoing supply disruptions around the globe,” he added. Another OPEC cut might be needed in the second half of next year, he said. Meanwhile, U.S. oil companies, who need higher crude prices than their Middle Eastern counterparts, have just been waiting for an uptick to drill even more. And thanks to a couple years of belt-tightening, U.S. drillers have gotten great at cutting costs and squeezing out productivity gains, making it easier to thrive in a low-price environment. Renewed U.S. production on the back of rising prices could simply end up prolonging the glut, push prices back down, and end up costing OPEC billions”.

Francis writes to Assad

16/12/2016

Pope Francis appealed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a personal letter to ensure that international humanitarian law is respected so that civilians are protected and aid can get to them, the Vatican said on Monday. In the letter, given to Assad by the Vatican ambassador in Damascus, the pope appealed to Assad and the international community for an end to violence and condemned “all forms of extremism and terrorism from whatever quarter they may come”. The letter from the pope, who has made numerous public appeals over the fate of Aleppo, was delivered as a Syrian general said the country’s army and its allies were in the final stages of recapturing the city from rebels. The statement said the pope wrote of his affection for the “sorely tried” people of Syria and appealed to Assad “to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully respected with regard to the protection of the civilians and access to humanitarian aid”. It is not common for the Vatican to release details about private letters the pope sends to world leaders”.

 

Tillerson at State?

14/12/2016

The New York Times reports that “Trump settled Monday on Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to be his secretary of state, transition officials said. In naming him, the president-elect is dismissing bipartisan concerns that Mr. Tillerson, the globe-trotting leader of an energy giant, has a too-cozy relationship with Vladimir V. Putin, the president of Russia. Mr. Trump planned to announce the selection on Tuesday morning, bringing to an end his public and chaotic deliberations over the nation’s top diplomat — a process that at times veered from rewarding Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of his most loyal supporters, to musing about whether Mitt Romney, one of his most vicious critics, might be forgiven. Instead, Mr. Trump has decided to risk what looks to be a bruising confirmation fight in the Senate”.

The article mentions that “In the past several days, Republican and Democratic lawmakers had warned that Mr. Tillerson would face intense scrutiny over his two-decade relationship with Russia, which awarded him its Order of Friendship in 2013, and with Mr. Putin. The hearings will also put a focus on Exxon Mobil’s business dealings with Moscow. The company has billions of dollars in oil contracts that can go forward only if the United States lifts sanctions against Russia, and Mr. Tillerson’s stake in Russia’s energy industry could create a very blurry line between his interests as an oilman and his role as America’s leading diplomat.

Mr. Tillerson has been publicly skeptical about the sanctions, which have halted some of Exxon Mobil’s biggest projects in Russia, including an agreement with the state oil company to explore and pump in Siberia that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on Saturday that Mr. Tillerson’s connections to Mr. Putin were “a matter of concern to me” and promised to examine them closely if he were nominated.

“Vladimir Putin is a thug, bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying,” Mr. McCain said on Fox News.

Mr. Trump has fanned speculation about his choice for secretary of state for weeks. In the end, he discarded not only Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Romney, but also an endlessly changing list that at times included Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee; David H. Petraeus, the former Army general and C.I.A. director; and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and presidential candidate in 2012.

Mr. Romney, Mr. Petraeus and Mr. Corker, the three leading runners-up, all received calls late Monday informing them of Mr. Trump’s decision, according to people familiar with the president-elect’s final choice.

He settled on Mr. Tillerson, a deal maker who has spent the past four decades at Exxon, much of it in search of oil and gas agreements in troubled parts of the world. A native of Wichita Falls, Tex., who speaks with a strong Texas twang, Mr. Tillerson, 64, runs a company with operations in about 50 countries, and has cut deals to expand business in Venezuela, Qatar, Kurdistan and elsewhere.

If confirmed as secretary of state, Mr. Tillerson would face a new challenge: nurturing alliances around the world that are built less on deals and more on diplomacy.

That could prove to be a special test when it comes to Russia, where Mr. Tillerson has fought for years to strengthen connections through business negotiations worth billions of dollars. Under his leadership, Exxon has entered into joint ventures with Rosneft, a Russian-backed oil company, and donated to the country’s health and social programs.

In his new role, Mr. Tillerson would have to manage the difficult relationship between the United States and Mr. Putin’s Russia, including the economic sanctions imposed after Moscow intervened in Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Last month, President Obama and European leaders agreed to keep sanctions in place until Mr. Putin agrees to a cease-fire and to the withdrawal of heavy weapons from front lines in eastern Ukraine.

Other Republicans who have challenged Mr. Tillerson’s potential selection include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who expressed concern in a Twitter post on Monday about his relationship with Mr. Putin.

Mr. Trump favored Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, initially, but quickly grew weary of his penchant for drawing outsize media attention. Mr. Trump was also troubled by reports of Mr. Giuliani’s business entanglements overseas. And some of the president-elect’s closest advisers, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, saw Mr. Giuliani as a poor fit for the job.

That led to interest in Mr. Romney, who had called Mr. Trump a “fraud” and a “phony” during the campaign. Mr. Romney had also highlighted Russia as a danger to United States interests during the 2012 race.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Romney made peace, meeting twice and speaking periodically by phone. But some of Mr. Trump’s advisers, including his last campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, warned publicly in a series of television interviews that some of his supporters would quickly drift away if Mr. Romney were chosen for the job.

Mr. Tillerson emerged as a contender on the strong recommendations of James A. Baker III, the secretary of state under President George Bush, and Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary, according to a person briefed on the process.

Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, argued strongly for Mr. Tillerson, and the president-elect was intrigued.

Mr. Trump met with Mr. Tillerson for more than two hours on Saturday at Trump Tower in Manhattan. To his aides, Mr. Trump described Mr. Tillerson as in a different “league” than his other options.

Mr. Romney acknowledged late Monday night in a Facebook post that he had been passed over, writing, “It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country.”

“My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening,” Mr. Romney wrote.

Brennan warns Trump on Iran deal

10/12/2016

The director of the CIA has warned US President-elect Donald Trump that ending the Iran nuclear deal would be “disastrous” and “the height of folly”. In a BBC interview, John Brennan also advised the new president to be wary of Russia’s promises, blaming Moscow for much of the suffering in Syria. In his campaign, Mr Trump threatened to scrap the Iran deal and also hinted at working more closely with Russia. Mr Brennan will step down in January after four years leading the CIA. In the first interview by a CIA director with the British media, John Brennan outlined a number of areas where he said the new administration needed to act with “prudence and discipline” – these included the language used regarding terrorism, relations with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal and the way in which the CIA’s own covert capabilities were employed”.

Iranian bases in Syria and Yemen

08/12/2016

Iran’s chief of staff of the armed forces said Saturday that Tehran may be interested in setting up naval bases in both Syria and Yemen, the semi-official Tasnim reported.  “Maybe, at some point we will need bases on the shores of Yemen and Syria,” the report by Tasnim quoted Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri as saying. “Having naval bases in remote distances is not less than nuclear power,” he said. “It is ten times more important and creates deterrence.” Gen. Bagheri added that setting up naval platforms off the shores of those countries requires “infrastructures there first.” He said Iran is also able to set up permanent platforms for military purposes in the Persian Gulf and roving ones in other places.

“Anyone expecting Germany to fill America’s shoes will be disappointed”

08/12/2016

An excellent article in the Economist rejects the view that Germany will become the leader in liberal international globalism after Trump takes office, “To visit Berlin is to be confronted at every turn by reminders of the evils that Germans do. Memorials to the Holocaust and other wartime atrocities dot the city. In Kreuzberg, a scruffy-but-hip neighbourhood, posters and leaflets denounce milder German iniquities, from urban gentrification to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a hated trade deal between the European Union and America that the election of Donald Trump may have killed for good. Outside Germany, though, Mr Trump’s victory has left disaffected liberals gasping for German benevolence. Brexit, the refugee crisis and the rise of drawbridge-up populists across Europe had already punctured the West’s self-confidence. Now, after an election campaign in which Mr Trump trashed immigrants, vowed to rewrite trade deals and threatened to withdraw America’s security guarantee, the West’s indispensable nation appears to have dispensed with itself. Desperate for a candidate to accept the mantle of leader of the free world, some alighted on Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor”.

The writer points out that “It is easy to see why. Unflappable and patient, dedicated to the freedom she had thrust upon her as a young East German physicist in 1989, Mrs Merkel is a beacon to those who fear the flickering of the liberal flame. She likes markets, trade and good governance. Her commitment to helping refugees fleeing strife in Syria contrasts with the anti-migrant turn elsewhere in Europe. Mr Trump’s victory should extinguish any speculation that Mrs Merkel will not seek a fourth term as chancellor next year in Germany’s federal election; expect an announcement soon. Yet anyone expecting Germany to fill America’s shoes will be disappointed. Consider Mrs Merkel’s approach to crisis management, from the euro to Ukraine to refugees. Each played out differently, but Mrs Merkel’s prevarication was consistent: humming and hawing over bail-outs for indebted governments; taking Vladimir Putin at his word before realising he was a liar; reacting to the refugee surge rather than trying to prevent it. For those seeking stability, Mrs Merkel’s taste for hesitation may be a feature, not a bug, but it hardly makes for bold leadership”.

He correctly notes “Nor does German assertiveness inside Europe run smoothly. Seventy years after the second world war, protestors in Greece and Spain who resent Germany’s strict approach to fiscal stewardship still resort to Nazi tropes. The occasional attempt to form “anti-austerity” (read: anti-German) axes inside the EU elicits terror in Berlin. The world’s progressives may have loved it, but some in Berlin were uneasy at the chiding tone of Mrs Merkel’s letter of congratulation to Mr Trump, which pledged co-operation on the basis of a commitment to liberal values. “We are protected by our terrible history,” says Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister. “You cannot say, ‘Make Germany Great Again’.” More importantly, Pax Americana has always required American bite. Germany, with a defence budget one-fifteenth that of the United States, no nuclear deterrent and an instinct for pacifism, has neither the ability nor the aspiration to act as the world’s liberal hegemon. This is a country that went through agonies over whether to arm Iraqi Kurds battling Islamic State. Inside Europe, let alone elsewhere, only France and Britain have the ability to project power, and that suits Germans fine. Put bluntly, if Mr Putin’s tanks roll into the Baltics it will not be the Bundeswehr that takes the lead in rolling them back”.

Rightly he points out that “Mrs Merkel’s ambitions are altogether smaller. First among them is to hold together the fracturing EU, via a blend of prayer and policy. Germany is pinning its hopes on France, its eternal partner inside the EU, electing a sane president next year—ideally Alain Juppé, the centre-right front-runner. Franco-German comity should help EU governments find common ground on defence co-operation, the focus of their efforts over the next few months. (Mr Trump’s questionable commitment to NATO should provide another spur.) Should the politics prove propitious, Germany may one day be open to more ambitious schemes, such as greater integration of the euro zone. But grand visions of EU institutional change, let alone a German-led reshaping of the world order, are off the menu in Berlin. The priority is stopping the rot. Meanwhile Mrs Merkel, her political capital depleted by the refugee crisis, must hold the line at home. Owing in part to the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the coalition that emerges from next year’s election will probably command a Bundestag majority far smaller than the one Mrs Merkel’s centrist grand coalition enjoys today. That will limit the chancellor’s room for manoeuvre, at home and in Europe. The political fragmentation is also disinterring old questions about Germany’s geopolitical allegiance. The Westbindung (Western integration), a staple of German foreign policy since Adenauer, is fraying as extremist parties on the left and right cosy up to Russia”.

He concludes “And what about Mr Trump? For now, Germany retains a touching faith in America’s institutions to rein in the president-elect’s worst impulses. But from his vicious campaign to the chaotic management of his transition, there is every sign that Mr Trump will prove to be another of the erratic politicians, like Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy, who have tested Mrs Merkel’s patience. Russia is a particular worry. If Mr Trump abandons Ukraine and allows America’s sanctions to wither, Mrs Merkel’s task of maintaining European unity will become almost impossible. Germany’s stake in the global liberal order is immense. Its export-led economic model relies on robust international trade; its political identity is inexorably linked to a strong EU; its westward orientation assumes a friendly and engaged America. All of these things may now be in jeopardy, and Germany would suffer more than most from their demise. But do not look to Mrs Merkel to save them, for she cannot do so alone”.

 

 

Trump backs Abadi?

08/12/2016

The prime minister said he expects the incoming Trump administration to grant Iraq a greater degree of logistical support in its war on terror, and dismissed suggestions by Donald Trump in the election campaign that he would seize some of Iraq’s oil production as a kind of “reimbursement” for U.S. efforts in Iraq. Trump said in September that he would “take the oil” from Iraq, claiming that the Iranians would step in otherwise. “I am not going to judge the man by his election statements,” al-Abadi said with a smile. “I am going to judge him by what he does later.” He called Trump, who he spoke with by phone soon after his election victory, a “pragmatic man” who would reassess the situation once in office. But Iraqi oil, he said, belongs to Iraqis. “The Iraqi people will not allow any country to take possession of their own resources,” he said in the interview held at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces inside the heavily-fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital.

“The result could be the end of the post-1945 Pax Americana”

04/12/2016

Max Boot, echoing William Inboden, writes about the similarities between Trump and Obama, “It is hard to imagine two presidents more dissimilar than Barack Obama, the cerebral and elegant liberal law professor, and Donald Trump, the brash populist and reality TV star. But if Trump’s campaign pronouncements are anything to judge by, his foreign policy may be more in sync with President Obama’s than either man would care to admit. And not in a good way: Trump shares with Obama a desire to pull back from the world but lacks Obama’s calm, deliberative style and respect for international institutions. A Trump presidency is inherently unpredictable — no one knows how much of his overblown rhetoric to take seriously — but if he does even half the things he suggested on the campaign trail, the result could be the end of the post-1945 Pax Americana”.

Boot goes on to note “One of Trump’s top priorities is to improve relations with Vladimir Putin. In a post-election phone call, Trump told the Russian dictator that “he is very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.” Sound familiar? Obama spoke in virtually identical terms when he took office in 2009. Hence his failed “reset” of relations with Moscow. This was part of Obama’s larger rejection of what he saw as the moralizing, interventionist approach of the George W. Bush administration. (Obama also thought that Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, would be a more accommodating partner than Putin, who remained as prime minister.) During the 2008 campaign, Obama made a big point of saying that he would talk to any foreign leaders without any preconditions — a stance that his primary challenger, Hillary Clinton, criticized as naive. In office, Obama has re-established relations with the Castros in Cuba and Myanmar’s junta, reached a nuclear deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Iran, and did little to back up his calls for Bashar al-Assad to leave office. Instead of enforcing his “red line” with Syria, Obama agreed to a Russian-orchestrated deal under which Assad was supposed to give up his chemical weapons (a pledge the Syrian despot has not fully carried out). Obama has also refused to take any military action to stop Assad’s assaults on civilians, notwithstanding his creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board. Obama has often expressed his admiration for George H.W. Bush, and he has largely governed as an amoral realpolitiker who has put American interests, as he defines them, above the promotion of American values. Far from proselytizing for freedom and democracy, Obama has given a series of speeches in venues including Cairo and the Laotian capital of Vientiane — speeches that, to critics, have sounded like apologies for past American misconduct. (Obama’s aides have claimed he was merely “reckoning with history.”) When Iranian protesters took to the streets in the 2009 Green Revolution, Obama did not express support because he feared that doing so would interfere with his attempts to engage with the Iranian regime”.

Boot contends that “On only a few occasions has Obama allowed idealistic considerations to gain the upper hand in his cold-blooded foreign policy — and never for long. He did intervene in Libya to help topple Muammar al-Qaddafi — an intervention Trump supported at the time but now criticizes — but he did little to try to shape post-Qaddafi Libya and gives every indication of regretting his initial intervention. He also called for Hosni Mubarak to step down as Egypt’s ruler during the Arab Spring but did not oppose the subsequent military coup that ousted an elected Muslim Brotherhood government and installed the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It is obvious that human rights promotion, while not dismissed entirely, has not been an animating principle of the president’s foreign policy. More broadly, Obama has given every indication that he does not see America as an exemplar but rather a deeply flawed nation whose forays abroad often have harmful consequences. In a 2009 press conference, Obama dismissed the idea that America is “uniquely qualified to lead the world,” saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That doesn’t mean that Obama hates America, as the cruder right-wing attacks have had it. In the very same press conference, he went on to say: “Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.” Thus Obama sees the United States as imperfect but virtuous as long as it acts in concert with others — something that it has not always done”.

The piece argues that “Trump, who has a far more jaundiced view of America than Obama does. In a revealing July 20 interview with the New York Times, Trump dismissed concerns about the massive violations of civil liberties being committed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime in Turkey: “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.” In a similar vein, Trump dismissed concerns that Putin kills journalists: “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.” This is the kind of moral relativism that Republicans once denounced but now accept from the president-elect. As with Obama, Trump’s refusal to see America as a country with a mission leads him to look askance upon interventions abroad. Like Obama, he eschews nation-building and expresses a preference to work with foreign rulers regardless of their lack of democratic legitimacy. Trump reiterated to the Wall Street Journal after his election that he plans to end support for Syrian rebels and align with Russia in Syria: “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS.” And never mind that Iran, Russia, and Assad are all committing war crimes. Trump’s approach is quite different from what Clinton advocated during the campaign; she called for no-fly zones and safe zones. But it’s not so different from Obama’s current policy, which provides a modicum of aid to the Syrian rebels but tacitly concedes that Assad will stay in power”.

It concludes “This is not to suggest that Trump’s worldview is identical to Obama’s. One of their big divisions is over international institutions. Obama negotiated an international accord to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases; Trump has said global warming is a Chinese hoax and called for pulling out of the Paris agreement. Obama negotiated a nuclear accord with Iran; Trump promises to renegotiate it, calling it a “disgraceful deal” and an “embarrassment to our country.” Obama is a free-trader who negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); Trump is a protectionist who vows to withdraw from the TPP, rip up NAFTA, and impose tariffs. Obama has been supportive of NATO, working to expand the forces that the alliance deploys in Eastern Europe and the Baltics to guard against Russian aggression; Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and questioned the need to station U.S. troops to defend countries that don’t pay enough for the privilege. In sum, Obama is a believer in international organizations and international law; Trump is not. It is hard to imagine Trump saying, as Obama did: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” In turn, it is hard to imagine Obama ever threatening to bomb the “shit” out of another country, to steal its oil, or to torture detainees — all of which would constitute war crimes”.

He ends “In the terms coined by Walter Russell Mead, Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian: The former believes that the United States should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” whereas the latter believes that “the United States should not seek out foreign quarrels” but that it should clobber anyone who messes with it. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, in spite of their substantial differences, is that both support quasi-isolationism — or, if you prefer, noninterventionism — unless severely provoked. Obama has been intent on pulling the United States back from the Middle East. The result of his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his failure to get more actively involved in ending the Syrian civil war has been to create a vacuum of power that has been filled by the likes of the Islamic State and Hezbollah. Undaunted, Trump has said he wants not only to continue the pullback from the Middle East (he wants to subcontract American policy in Syria to Putin) but also to retreat from Europe and East Asia. He has suggested that he may lift sanctions on Russia and pull U.S. troops out of countries (from Germany to Japan) if he feels they are not paying enough for American protection. It is quite possible, then, that Trump’s foreign policy would represent an intensification rather than a repudiation of Obama’s “lead from behind” approach. American power survived eight years of an Obama presidency, albeit in diminished form. If the president-elect governs the way he campaigned (which, admittedly, is not necessarily a safe assumption), there is good cause to wonder whether U.S. ascendancy will survive four to eight years of Trumpism. The post-American age may be arriving sooner than imagined, ushered in by a president with an “America First” foreign policy”.

“Mattis may break with Trump’s practice”

04/12/2016

A report notes that Trump has picked Mattis for DoD, “Trump said Thursday he has chosen retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, who has said that responding to “political Islam” is the major security issue facing the United States, to be secretary of defense. “We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis as our secretary of defense,” Trump told a rally in Cincinnati, the first stop on a post-election “thank-you tour.” Trump joked that the media and audience should keep the news to themselves. “We are going to be announcing him Monday of next week,” Trump said. “Keep it inside the room.” Mattis, who retired as chief of U.S. Central Command in 2013, has often said that Washington lacks an overall strategy in the Middle East, opting to instead handle issues in an ineffective one-by-one manner”.

It goes on to mention ““Is political Islam in the best interest of the United States?” Mattis said at the Heritage Foundation in 2015, speaking about the separate challenges of the Islamic State and Iranian-backed terrorism. “I suggest the answer is no, but we need to have the discussion. If we won’t even ask the question, how do we even recognize which is our side in a fight?” To take the job, Mattis will need Congress to pass legislation to bypass a federal law stating that defense secretaries must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years. Congress has granted a similar exemption just once, when Gen. George C. Marshall was appointed to the job in 1950″.

It adds that “Miller, a spokesman with the Trump transition team, tweeted that no decision had been made, but Trump’s son Donald Jr. retweeted a report saying that Mattis got the job. Mattis, 66, served more than four decades in the Marine Corps and is known as one of the most influential military leaders of his generation, a strategic thinker who occasionally drew rebukes for his aggressive talk. Since retiring, he has served as a consultant and as a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University. Like Trump, Mattis favours a tougher stance against U.S. adversaries abroad, especially Iran. The general, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April, said that while security discussions often focus on terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” Mattis said the next president “is going to inherit a mess” and argued that the nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration last year may slow Iran’s ambitions to get a nuclear weapon but will not stop them. But he added that “absent a clear and present violation,” he did not see a way that Washington could go back on it, because any unilateral sanctions issued by the United States would not be as valuable if allies were not on board. “In terms of strengthening America’s global standing among European and Middle Eastern nations alike, the sense is that America has become somewhat irrelevant in the Middle East, and we certainly have the least influence in 40 years,” Mattis said”.

It goes on to argue “Mattis may break with Trump’s practice of calling out allies for not doing enough to build stability. Mattis served from November 2007 to August 2010 as the supreme allied commander of transformation for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, focused on improving the military effectiveness of allies. Trump called NATO “obsolete” earlier this year before saying later that he was “all for NATO” but wanted all members to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defence, a NATO goal. “The president-elect is smart to think about putting someone as respected as Jim Mattis in this role,” said a former senior Pentagon official. “He’s a warrior, scholar and straight shooter — literally and figuratively. He speaks truth to everyone and would certainly speak truth to this new commander in chief.” But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s personnel choices, said: “If there’s any concern at all, it’s the principle of civilian control over the military. This role was never intended to be a kind of Joint Chiefs of Staff on steroids, and that’s the biggest single risk tied to Mattis. For Mattis, the biggest risk for him personally is that he will have a national security adviser in the form of Mike Flynn whose management style and extreme views may arch Mattis’s eyebrows and cause conflict over time. It’s no fun to be secretary of defense if you have to constantly feud with the White House.” Mattis, whose nicknames include “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk,” has had a leading hand in some of the U.S. military’s most significant operations in the past 20 years. As a one-star general, he led an amphibious task force of Marines that carried out a November 2001 raid in helicopters on Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, giving the Pentagon a new foothold against the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Using the call sign “Chaos,” he commanded a division of Marines during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and returned there the following year to lead Marines in bloody street fighting in the city of Fallujah”.

It ends “He was considered a leading contender to become commandant of the Marine Corps in 2010 but was bypassed in favor of Gen. James F. Amos. Instead, Mattis replaced Petraeus as the chief of Central Command, overseeing U.S. military operations across the Middle East”.

Mattis at DoD?

02/12/2016

An article profiles James Mattis who could be the next defence secretary, “If President-elect Donald Trump picks Gen. James Mattis to be his secretary of defense, the retired Marine and combat veteran may be a moderating influence on the impulsive incoming commander in chief. But Mattis shares a hawkish view of Iran echoed by others in Trump’s national security team, raising the potential specter of a conflict with Tehran. The president-elect’s hints that he will nominate Mattis for the job have raised hopes among conservative policy experts and some lawmakers in Congress that the former commander could add strategic perspective and prudence to a Trump White House sorely in need of both. Revered as a war-fighting legend in the Marine Corps, the “warrior monk” is also well-steeped in history and strategy and carries around a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations.” Trump, a novice in foreign affairs, has often relied on his instincts and his shoot-from-the-hip style throughout his career in real estate and, more recently, as a presidential candidate. And given Trump’s isolationist campaign trail rhetoric and trashing of U.S. alliances, some former defense officials and lawmakers believe Mattis could steer the president-elect and his national security team away from hasty action or a radical break with America’s traditional foreign policy”.

The piece adds “Nominating Mattis, who only retired from active military service three years ago, also will test a long-established principle of civilian control of the armed forces. Trump has already appointed a retired three-star Army lieutenant general — Mike Flynn — as his national security advisor. At least two other retired generals have met with Trump as possible candidates for secretary of state or other top positions: Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly and Army Gen. David Petraeus. Only Mattis would require a congressional exemption to serve as a civilian secretary of defense. It’s unclear if Mattis’s forceful personality will ultimately gain Trump’s ear and shape his decisions. Yet his moderating influence is already on display: Trump told the New York Times last week that after a conversation with Mattis, the president-elect re-examined his views on waterboarding and torturing terrorist suspects, a stump speech staple. Trump said he was “surprised” Mattis didn’t think such tactics were useful and that the president-elect came away “impressed by that answer.” Mattis is famous for his blunt, salty language when speaking to troops preparing for battle. But the retired four-star general has often displayed a nuanced understanding of geopolitics that contrasts with Trump’s black-and-white view of the world, say officials and officers who have worked with Mattis. His nomination would also serve to reassure prospective Republican appointees to the Pentagon, many of whom are ambivalent about signing up to work for the Trump administration, given the president-elect’s off-the-cuff remarks and nativist “America First” rhetoric during the campaign”.

The article adds “When it comes to the threat posed by Iran, however, Mattis seems closer to other Trump advisors and most Republican lawmakers. In a speech last April, Mattis ranked Iran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East” and cited Tehran’s hostile rhetoric toward Israel and Persian Gulf states. Mattis sharply criticised President Barack Obama over the nuclear deal negotiated with Tehran last year. His view of the danger posed by Iran, coupled with the hawkish outlook shared by Flynn and Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), could pave the way for heightened U.S. tensions with Tehran. Mattis led U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, overseeing U.S. forces across the Middle East. He later said his first three questions every day during those years were “Iran, Iran, and Iran.” A former Centcom official told FP that Mattis spent much of his time there focused on Iran and the potential threats it poses”.

It adds that “Mattis would eventually be forced out of his job at Centcom in 2013 after a series of disagreements with the White House over Iran. He argued — unsuccessfully — for a tougher military posture designed to deter Tehran from backing its proxies in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, a view shared by many others at Centcom. But unlike other hawks advising Trump, Mattis is more realistic about U.S. options in the Middle East, former colleagues said. He recognizes that a unilateral bid to dump the Iran nuclear deal — which was negotiated between major powers and Tehran — might harm American interests. Instead, the colleagues said, Mattis probably would argue for enforcing every provision of the nuclear deal, insisting that Iran abide by the agreement “to the letter.” “He’s not a rash guy. He’s not looking to tear the lid of this thing and just duke it out,” the congressional staffer said. The former Centcom official agreed. “You have a number of people who are coming onto the [Trump] team who are going to take a strong line on Iran,” but “Mattis really brings an enormous range of experience on these issues that would be very important and that requires you, frankly, to be very realistic in understanding the vast capabilities and limitations of American power.” In his April speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Mattis questioned the benefits of the Iran nuclear deal but said “there’s no going back” on it and the next president would have to live with it”.

It mentions that “Yet he also is a voracious reader, fond of quoting Marcus Aurelius and comfortably fluent in ancient history and geopolitics. He has a relentless work ethic and is a demanding boss, with no patience for shoddy work or missed deadlines. Widely respected across the government, Mattis likely would win broad and swift support from both parties in Congress if he is nominated as the next Pentagon chief. But lawmakers would have to make an exception for Mattis. By law, a defense secretary must have retired from active military service at least seven years before taking the job. His nomination would require amending current legislation, thereby expending some of the new administration’s already shaky political capital. Congress has granted such an exception only once before, in 1950, for retired Gen. George Marshall, when he served as President Harry Truman’s defense secretary to manage the Korean War. But Marshall was a staff officer and a diplomat. And although Mattis has a breadth of experience from his 44 years in uniform, he may struggle as a civilian administrator of the sprawling Defense Department bureaucracy and its $600 billion budget. Some senior defense officials are wary of Mattis possibly taking over the Pentagon and applying military-style leadership to a largely civilian workforce”.

It adds that “Having several recently retired military officers serving in top administration positions would mark an unprecedented break with convention. It could send a charged symbolic message that the top brass favour one political party over another and that civilian leadership has failed and only former generals can repair the damage. “They are all independently extremely capable as individuals, but appointing them all creates an optics problem,” said Edelman, now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Trump reportedly mulled naming Flynn to the Pentagon job. But unlike Mattis, the retired Army intelligence chief would have faced stiff opposition in Congress to amending the law and allowing him to take the post. Whoever gets the job, one of the first big issues the incoming defense secretary will face is the Pentagon’s budget, which is currently funded through a stopgap measure slated to expire next March. Trump has promised to dramatically increase defense spending by roughly $100 billion over the course of his first term to pay for dozens of new warships, hundreds of planes, and tens of thousands of additional troops — increases that have not come along with any proposed change in U.S. strategy. But it’s unclear how the massive arms buildup would be funded, as Trump has also promised a big tax cut and a major investment in infrastructure projects across the country. The battle over military spending could spark feuds not only between Republican and Democratic lawmakers but among different factions inside the GOP — with some fiscal conservatives reluctant to raise federal spending even for defense”.

Trump’s dangerous Syria policy

02/12/2016

Charles Lister argues that Trump’s Syria policy would be a disaster, “Trump explained for the first time since his election victory his position on the crisis in Syria. In his remarks, he laid out his determination to ramp up the fight against the Islamic State and to cease support to those fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime: I’ve had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria.… My attitude was you’re fighting Syria; Syria is fighting ISIS; and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria.… Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are. Though this is an extraordinary simplification of a highly complex crisis, the president-elect’s views on Syria do evince some consistency — just not the consistency he apparently intends. Trump says he wants to focus on destroying the Islamic State. But the main effect of the policies he describes would be to eliminate the moderate opposition to the Assad regime and to empower extremism”.

He adds “Before considering all the disastrous effects of Trump’s policy, we should examine why even his stated justification for it doesn’t hold water. A brief history lesson should suffice to demonstrate the Assad regime’s lack of counterterrorism qualifications. This is the government whose intelligence apparatus methodically built al Qaeda in Iraq, and then the Islamic State in Iraq, into a formidable terrorist force to fight U.S. troops in that country from 2003 to 2010. Hundreds of American soldiers would probably still be alive today if it had not been for Assad’s state-backed support to the Islamic State’s direct predecessors. Meanwhile, Trump’s suggestion to partner with Russia in “smashing” the Islamic State is little more than a non sequitur, given Russia’s near-consistent focus on everything but the jihadi group. According to recent data monitoring airstrikes across Syria, only 8 percent of areas targeted by Russian airstrikes between Oct. 12 and Nov. 8 belonged to the Islamic State. With only one brief exception — the capture of Palmyra from the jihadi group during an internationally imposed cessation of hostilities — the Kremlin’s focus has unequivocally and consistently been on fighting Syria’s mainstream opposition, not the Islamic State. Much of its targeting has been against U.S.-linked members of Syria’s opposition”.

Lister argues “contrary to Trump’s statement, the United States knows precisely who “these people” receiving U.S. support are. The CIA has been running an intricate web of relationships with dozens of moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups since late 2012. Today, this program, code-named Timber Sycamore, continues to provide support to 80 such “vetted” groups across Syria in coordination with international and regional allies. The U.S. role in this multilateral effort has ensured a modicum of control over the breadth of international support for the Syrian opposition, and over the risk that extremists will gain control over opposition weapons or fighters. In fact, contrary to an increasingly popular narrative, fighters in these vetted groups are not, with very few exceptions, handing over U.S. weapons to jihadis, nor are they wandering off to join the extremists themselves. The cornerstone of the CIA effort has been to supply rebel groups with U.S.-manufactured BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missiles, which have ensured that the moderate opposition has remained a relevant actor in the conflict. Thus far, according to publicly available information, at least 1,073 TOW missiles have been sent to Syria and used in combat, only 12 of which have changed hands and been used by nonvetted groups — amounting to an impressively low proliferation rate of 1.1 percent. Of all the groups that have enjoyed “vetted” status, only two have been defeated by groups linked to al Qaeda and one was withdrawn from the program for questionable activities”.

He goes on to point out “Trump appears to be indicating a preference for combating the symptoms of a crisis — that is, terrorism — while strengthening their principal cause: Assad’s dictatorship and his refusal to negotiate. Although Syria’s moderate opposition is far from perfect, withdrawing U.S. support and thus the basis of its international legitimacy will only undermine U.S. interests in Syria. But the dangers of Trump’s policy are far greater than that. If Trump follows through on it, he risks exacerbating six major threats to U.S. domestic and international security; Al Qaeda’s de facto affiliate in Syria has positioned itself perfectly to reap the benefits of a decrease in U.S. support to the moderate opposition. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, has spent more than four years embedding itself in the Syrian revolution and presenting itself to opposition groups and civilians as a partner and protector of their national movement. These efforts have guaranteed that its power will increase markedly should more moderate groups suffer a reduction in support. In other words, erroneously labeling the mainstream opposition as universally “extremist” today will produce a self-fulfilling prophecy and create a threat of far greater magnitude than what was posed by the Islamic State in 2014″.

Lister notes “The widespread perception that Washington is indifferent to the suffering of Syrian civilians has led ever more members of the Syrian opposition to consider al Qaeda a more willing and more effective protector of their lives and interests than the United States, the supposed “leader of the free world.” Trump’s proposed abandonment of the Syrian opposition would permanently cement that perception and make Syria a pre-9/11 Afghanistan on steroids. This should be deeply troubling to anyone concerned about international security, given Syria’s proximity to Europe”.

Lister argues that Trump would encourages allies to go it alone “A U.S. decision to disown the Syrian opposition would undermine its European allies and enrage its regional partners. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar in particular have been determined supporters of Syria’s armed opposition since its earliest days, often with a cooperative U.S. ally in hand. Which is not to suggest that these states have always been effective: It is no secret that the chaotic and disorganized support provided by these states to armed groups in Syria in 2011 and 2012 played a role in the FSA’s failure to coalesce into a single unified organization.  It was U.S. support that managed to help organize the armed opposition. From late 2012 onward, the U.S. role in the multinational “operations rooms” in Turkey (the MOM) and Jordan (the MOC) imposed some control over the influx of military equipment and finance. Removing that U.S. role risks re-creating the chaos and infighting that ruled the early days of the Syrian crisis, but this time in a context where extremists are poised to swiftly take advantage. Al Qaeda’s well-publicized “rebranding” of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham also makes it an increasingly likely recipient of support from exasperated regional states. Given that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham now outwardly claims to have done away with its “external” ties to al Qaeda, it would not be altogether surprising to see Qatar or Turkey — for example — switching the bulk of their support to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and similar groups were the United States to cease supporting the opposition. Although regional states have yet to explicitly propose throwing their full weight behind Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group’s growing military capabilities and levels of lethal and nonlethal equipment, especially since its rebrand, already suggest some level of direct or indirect state support”.

Lister writes that Trump could be giving ISIS another chance “Although a U.S.-Russian alliance would likely increase the threat to the Islamic State’s territorial holdings in Syria, at least in the short term, such a partnership would be an invaluable long-term boon to the group’s propaganda. Were Russia to employ the same carpet-bombing tactics it has used in its attempt to crush the Syrian opposition, the consequences of such “victories” would ensure that the Islamic State has a ready-made narrative to attempt a determined resurgence with some level of popular acceptance or even support. While the Islamic State’s recovery in Iraq between 2010 and 2014 was driven by Sunni resentment at a perceived sectarian leadership in Baghdad and a raging civil war next door in Syria, its future recovery could feasibly be empowered by widespread Sunni fury at the brutal and indiscriminate U.S.-Russian assault launched on Islamic State-held populations in 2017. Trump has spoken frequently about the dangers posed by domestic terrorism. But a potential U.S.-Russian partnership in Syria could also further energize the Islamic State’s calls for attacks against targets in the West, particularly in the United States. The Islamic State has maintained a potent capacity to “inspire” foreign attacks during its times of success, but one should not underestimate the possibility that it could spark an even greater homeland terrorism threat while in retreat. Paired with the possibility that Trump may introduce newly oppressive domestic policies on immigration and other issues relating to race and religion, this scenario portends greater threats, not a safer America”.

Lister suggests that he could empower Iran “As a staunch opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, it is surprising that Trump appears to be proposing Syria policies that would save Iran from a geopolitically crippling defeat and strengthen its regional influence. For years prior to the Arab Spring, Syria represented the existentially important “glue” holding together Iran’s spheres of influence — from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut. Assad was Iran’s most important Arab ally, and his proximity to Lebanon ensured that Hezbollah remained a truly formidable terrorist organization. Since the Syrian crisis erupted, Iran’s role in protecting the Assad regime has been of paramount importance, consistently outweighing the role played by Russia on the ground. This is for one simple reason: An Assad defeat in Syria would dismantle Iran’s regional empire, leaving a gaping hole at its heart. It would also pose a serious threat to Hezbollah, the world’s only terrorist organization whose armed forces are a recognized paramilitary actor in a nation-state. Despite having lost some of its popular appeal in the Arab world, Hezbollah in particular appears to have emerged stronger from the Syrian crisis. It has received highly significant arms shipments from Iran and Assad: Only this past Sunday, Hezbollah held an impressive military parade in western Syria”.

He contends that Trump’s policy would strengthen Russia “Trump has indicated that he thinks Vladimir Putin is a “great” man and has described how he is “doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia.” This ignores the fact that Putin seeks to secure a Russian rise at the expense of American power and influence, not in equal partnership with them. Putin is a deft strategist and tactician who has consistently outplayed an Obama administration known to favour drawn-out deliberations when faced with troubling issues abroad. When faced with Trump who says he wants to “bomb the hell out of” terrorists and withdraw from costly situations overseas, Putin is well-placed to offer a relationship of cooperation that he knows will benefit Moscow a great deal more than Washington. An inevitable consequence of a U.S.-Russia partnership in Syria would be their eventual attempt to negotiate an enforced settlement for the civil war. Paired with Trump’s erroneous suggestion that confronting Assad would damage counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State, Syria’s opposition would conclude that their presumptive negotiating partners would be expecting them to surrender and accept an Assad “victory.” The pursuit of such an objective would fail before it started. It would also give Assad, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and their militia allies the excuse — with quiet U.S. complicity — to treat the entire Syrian opposition as if it were no different to the Islamic State. Doing so would encourage further war crimes; make any negotiations in Syria practically impossible; and further embolden an aggressive Russia, giving it the confidence to act with impunity elsewhere, in direct opposition to U.S. interests”. 

He adds that it would worsen that refugee crisis with all its knock on consequences in Europe.

 

 

 

Obama, attempting to secure his legacy

29/11/2016

A report discusses the legacy building attempts of President Obama, “With less than three months left in office, President Barack Obama will soon relinquish his foreign-policy legacy to the gimlet-eyed gaze of historians and presidential scholars. But before that happens, the White House is hellbent on completing an ambitious to-do list that will face a considerable head wind in Congress.  Eight years ago, the energetic senator from Illinois came to power on a promise to end the bloody wars and counterterrorism policies of former President George W. Bush, a Republican. But the 8,400 troops currently in Afghanistan and 5,000 in Iraq — not to mention regular airstrikes on Islamist fighters in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia — demonstrate the intractability of America’s post-9/11 conflicts. And though Obama closed the book on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, the lasting presence of the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is a stinging reminder of unfulfilled campaign promises to do away with the excesses of the Bush era”.

It goes on to mention how “Other widely touted achievements, such as the Iran nuclear deal or the rapprochement with Cuba, could be rolled back by Obama’s successor or Congress. Just last week, days before Secretary of State John Kerry received a peace award in Ireland for securing the Iran deal, House Republicans announced plans to pass a 10-year reauthorization of sanctions on Tehran that could undermine the landmark accord. For the president’s critics, that deal is the most vulnerable part of his foreign-policy legacy. “The Iran deal will be in trouble no matter who is elected,” said James Carafano, a conservative foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. Obama’s supporters say an underappreciated aspect of his legacy — the successful restoration of America’s standing in the world after Bush’s presidency — may be the most in danger”.

The author adds that “Another major part of Obama’s legacy relies on galvanizing Congress in the dying days of his presidency. On trade, Congress has yet to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive pact involving 11 Pacific Rim countries and the United States that the White House views as essential to boosting U.S. exports and checking China’s influence in the region. And on Syria, U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire have failed in a conflict that has killed at least 400,000 people and displaced millions more”.

The article notes the list of items Obama will try to protect “In his final months in office, Obama will be keen to prevent any attempt by Congress to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement reached in July 2015 between Tehran and world powers. The president maintains that he already has all the authority he needs to reimpose economic penalties if Tehran violates the deal and is seeking to stave off growing bipartisan support for renewing the Iran Sanctions Act, which expires in December. However, hawkish Democrats want to send a clear message to Iran that the United States stands ready to resume economic sanctions if needed. And some Republicans want to introduce additional measures that could broaden possible sanctions. Some of those new sanctions could amount to poison pills that effectively sabotage the Iran deal, possibly prompting Tehran to renounce the agreement”.

He adds that “Congressional Republicans could also forgo tinkering with sanctions in exchange for promises to pursue another bill that imposes economic penalties against Iran for its ballistic missile testing. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, adamantly wants both bills approved, which could prevent Republicans from using either legislation as a political messaging tool”.

The piece notes that he will also try to cement counterterrorism policies, “In July, Obama released policy guidance outlining in unprecedented detail his extensive rules on drone strikes, “kill or capture” missions, and detention. But because little of Obama’s so-called counterterrorism playbook is enshrined in law, a future commander in chief could reverse key parts of it. Brookings Institution legal scholar Benjamin Wittes said laws regarding the use of force and armed conflict are “frankly pretty permissive” and the next president will have “wiggle room” to change the way U.S. counterterrorism missions operate. “If we’re going to kill people — and, by the way, we’re going to kill people — you have to have a process for it,” Wittes told FP. “Otherwise, it becomes sort of Putin-esque. If you don’t know the rules, then you’re in a very scary world.” Obama has steadily loosened the rules of engagement for American troops and aircraft in places like Afghanistan and Somalia, where U.S. special operations forces are accompanying local forces on the ground. In Afghanistan, U.S. special ops commandos have been given the green light to fight the Islamic State and the Taliban — in loosely defined self-defense missions — as American troops accompany Afghan army units in the field. In June, Obama allowed U.S. aircraft to target both extremist groups in Afghanistan”.

Rightly the piece admits that “Obama has already all but lost the fight on another early campaign promise — to shutter the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Though the Obama administration has steadily whittled down the inmate population since 2009, 60 men remain detained there”.

Revising the 9/11 terrorism bill

It ends that he hopes to revise a terrorism bill, “The first and only veto override of Obama’s presidency came in September when Congress voted overwhelmingly to allow 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the terrorist attack. But less than 24 hours later, Congress’s top Republican leaders announced they might rewrite the legislation “so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan said after the 348-77 vote. That was the same argument cited by Obama when he vetoed the legislation. But the president might be blocked from reversing the law from within his own Democratic Party. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is expected to become the next Senate Democratic leader, remains opposed to any changes. And no lawmaker — either in the House or Senate — has yet offered to rally support for revising the law, a congressional aide told FP on condition of anonymity”.

Obama speaks to Putin

27/11/2016

President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke for about four minutes on Sunday at the APEC summit about Syria and Ukraine, a White House official said. “The president urged President Putin to uphold Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements, underscoring the U.S. and our partners’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty,” the official said. The summit is taking place in Peru’s capital, Lima. Obama also emphasized the need for their two countries’ foreign ministers “to continue pursuing initiatives, together with the broader international community, to diminish the violence and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people,” the official said.

GOP, constraining Trump?

21/11/2016

A piece discusses how the GOP will constrain Trump, “Some of the most powerful foreign-policy makers in the U.S. government are outside of President-elect Donald Trump’s control and are already signaling an early end to the honeymoon period over their fellow Republican’s security and diplomatic stances. No matter whom Trump picks for his cabinet — and who might actually accept top posts implementing his “America First” foreign policy — he’ll have to contend with GOP congressional committee chairmen at the top of defense, intelligence, and diplomatic panels in both the House and Senate, many of whom are wary, at best, of his approach to issues ranging from Russia to the Syrian civil war to immigration. Most of the sitting chairs on these panels will remain where they are next year — and just emerged from an election season of defending, dancing around, or distancing themselves from the controversial GOP presidential candidate. On Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the incoming president’s proposed thaw of U.S.-Moscow relations was “unacceptable.” An spokesman said he has no intention of leaving his powerful committee perch next year. McCain was responding to Trump’s comments a day earlier in which he said he’s “very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia,” followed by Moscow’s announcement on Tuesday of a renewed air assault on rebel-held areas of Syria and reports of resumed bombings on Aleppo. “With the U.S. presidential transition underway, Vladimir Putin has said in recent days that he wants to improve relations with the United States,” McCain said in a statement, referring to the Russian president”.

Reassuringly the report mention McCain’s role, “McCain and Trump have long been at odds. Still, McCain’s statement served as an early-warning shot that Trump may find himself with a less pliant Congress than he expects on cabinet confirmations and the contentious foreign-policy issues that buttressed his campaign. Former GOP presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), speaking for himself and McCain, told reporters Tuesday that whether on the Syrian conflict or lethal aid to Ukraine, “on all things Russia” they are going to be “hard-ass.” “He is president of the U.S. and the leading diplomat for our country,” Graham said of Trump, whom he has opposed from the outset. “But Congress has a role in all of this.” Trump’s relations with Congress will be defined both by the campaign scars and the staffing of his administration. Trump is reportedly considering several senators for top cabinet jobs: Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee for secretary of state, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama for secretary of defense or attorney general, or even GOP primary rival Sen. Ted Cruz for the Justice Department. He’s also reportedly looking at Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) for the job of Pentagon chief, although a person close to the Trump transition team told Foreign Policy that Hunter, at least, is an unlikely pick. Earlier this week, Sessions appeared to be the front-runner for secretary of defense, and “once he decides how he wants to spend the next four years, he can do whatever he wants to do” in the administration, said the person familiar with the Trump transition, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reports Wednesday morning suggested he is leaning toward attorney general”.

Interestingly it adds how “McCain has made clear that he will challenge Trump on any number of fronts stemming from sharp — and often philosophical — disagreements over congressional oversight and America’s role in the world. Beyond the warming relations with Putin, McCain also is at odds with Trump’s stand to keep open the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, for example, as well as the president-elect’s vow to bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” when interrogating terror suspects. McCain was tortured as a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and sponsored legislation to ban the practice. On Syria, Trump has suggested that Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad largely be left alone to battle Sunni rebels in the name of fighting terrorists. That’s anathema to McCain and other Republican hawks. “At the very least, the price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people,” McCain said Tuesday. Trump’s positions on Syria — as well as Russia — have also troubled Corker, though he advised the president-elect throughout the campaign. Corker has called for the United States to be tougher on Assad and provide Ukrainians with lethal defensive aid. He recently described Putin as “very brutal” in enacting policy. On Trump’s coziness toward Moscow, Corker said, “I don’t share those views, and I think one needs to be careful about responding to flattery, let’s just be honest.” Additionally, Corker has backed bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform and rejects banning Muslims from entering the United States as “completely counter to the values and principles of our great nation.” Trump has reversed himself several times on the ban he first called for in the wake of the attack last December in San Bernardino, California”.

It points out how “Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, (R-N.C.), has stopped far short of criticizing Trump’s relationship with Putin. He was reluctant to the point of dismissive about siding with U.S. intelligence indicating Russian hackers sought to meddle in the presidential election to the Republican nominee’s advantage. But the closer Trump’s relationship with Putin, the more difficult it may be for Burr to go along — especially if primacy over U.S. foreign policy turns into a battle between the White House and a staunchly GOP Congress. “Donald Trump is not an ideologue,” Burr said Tuesday in trying to assuage concerns about the Trump administration. “He’s barely a Republican.” Key House chairmen also appear unsettled by Trump’s security policies — especially as they pertain to Russia. They include:

  • House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who told FP this week that Trump should tread carefully with Putin. Nunes has emerged as one of the Trump transition team’s key national security advisors after ousters in recent days.
  • House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas), who last month said he told Trump that Russia was behind the political campaign hacks, but that the nominee didn’t believe there was enough evidence. McCaul, who advised Trump on national security, saidit’s “not [Trump’s] strength.”
  • House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) did not endorse Trump during the campaign and has refused to say whether he voted for the GOP standard-bearer. Thornberry has voiced “concerns” about Trump’s foreign policy, although hewelcomed Trump’s pledge to end sequestration, the budget caps that limit defense spending.
  • House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) called for better vetting of refugees, but said Trump’s Muslim ban was unconstitutional.

However, congressional Republicans may still find themselves rallying around the new president on domestic issues that excite their constituents. Unanimously re-elected to his post Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan has signaled support of Trump’s plans to overhaul Obamacare and enact strict immigration policies. So, too, has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was also unanimously re-elected in pro-forma elections Wednesday.Both are eager to demonstrate unity after a divisive campaign in which Trump declared war on the party”.

The piece ends “Trump may see some lawmakers, such as Corker, as more effective allies on Capitol Hill than in his cabinet. In a statement Monday, Corker told FP that he’s “excited” about the opportunity for Trump and the Congress, given that the GOP will control the White House and both chambers. But he made clear that he also wants to restore Congress’s role in shaping U.S. foreign policy, and touted his committee’s “progress in restoring Congress’s constitutional role in advancing U.S. interests internationally.”That could well serve as a strong check on Trump’s vision of America’s place in a new world order: back at home”.

“Putin wants to challenge the notion of a U.S.-led world order”

21/11/2016

A piece warns of how Putin is taking control ofthe Middle East, “Sir Lawrence Freedman defines strategy as “the art of creating power.” This is a useful lens through which to consider one of this year’s key geopolitical trends: Russia’s return to the Middle East. Apart from its close ties to the Syrian regime, which date back to the 1970s, Moscow has had no substantial role in the Middle East since 1972, when President Anwar Sadat kicked Soviet advisors out of Egypt. Why return now? At a general level, it’s clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to challenge the notion of a U.S.-led world order and encourage the return to a multipolar one, though there are certain self-imposed constraints on his ambitions. Although he has intervened in Georgia and Ukraine, he doesn’t seem willing to start a wider war by attacking any Eastern European states that are already members of NATO. In the Middle East, however, Putin has a theater to undermine Western influence, and to create power for himself, without the risk of triggering a war with the West. As any demagogue knows, one way to create power out of nothing is to find a division and then exploit it. In the Middle East, the fundamental division Russia has exploited is the one between the West’s aversion to Islamists, on the one hand, and human rights abuses on the other. The conflict between these aims often produces equivocation in Western foreign policy. It also opens up political space where Russia can operate by investing in repression and discounting democracy”.

The article correctly notes how “Moscow unequivocally supports the current authoritarian regimes in Damascus, Cairo, and Tobruk, which it portrays as bulwarks against the spread of radical Islam. In Egypt, Putin has consistently backed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, in the face of widespread evidence of repressive tactics by his military government. Since 2013, Russia has stepped in to provide arms to the Egyptian government, exploiting U.S. reluctance to provide military hardware that could be used for domestic political repression. Although Egypt continues to depend on much greater levels of financial support from Washington than from Moscow, this action exemplifies Russia’s strategy for exploiting any seam between the United States and its regional allies when Washington equivocates between security and human rights. We see the same thing in Libya and Syria, where Russia does not contend with an established U.S. partner. In Syria, despite human rights atrocities by the Syrian government that have attracted Western scorn, the West has not been able to explain how getting rid of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would improve the country’s security, since that could lead to a rise in Islamist anarchy. Putin has exploited this gap by unreservedly backing Assad, leaving the West arguing for a gradual “transition” away from the Syrian president. And that further boosts the influence of Russia and Iran, the only countries with the leverage to initiate any such transition”.

The piece argues that “Though Putin has tried to insert himself into several other areas of Middle Eastern politics this year, we should not exaggerate his influence. Recall for example that the propaganda value the Russians attached to a Syria bombing raid from an Iranian base in August irritated Tehran, and the Russians were kicked off the base three days later. Likewise, Putin’s attempt to carve out a role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process this year, which appears primarily designed to challenge the United States as the key broker, is not likely to result in any breakthrough. So is Putin a strategic mastermind or a reckless gambler? The reality is more prosaic. Yes, Russia has made diplomatic gains this year, notably in eastern Libya and Turkey, and has propped up Assad, but this has come at serious long-term economic cost to Russia”.

It expands on this point noting how “As any demagogue knows, the only way to maintain power generated out of nothing through division is to keep stoking the flames of perpetual conflict upon which these divisions depend. But when you make a perpetual enemy out of the West, you can’t be surprised when you seem to be perpetually on the receiving end of economic sanctions and a general wariness by Western firms to invest in your country. It’s possible that Putin believed his actions in the Middle East would give him leverage to bargain sanctions away, despite the fact that Ukrainian and Syrian sanctions are not formally linked. But it’s more realistic to assume that Putin’s encouragement of a state of perpetual conflict with the West makes a relaxation of sanctions unlikely in the near term. If anything, Putin has boxed Russia into a position where it must increasingly orient its economy toward China, and away from the West, which gives Beijing considerable leverage over Moscow. It’s also important to note the role of deception and bluff in Russian strategy. This is a way of generating power out of nothing, but it’s a duplicitous kind of power that in the long run destroys one’s credibility. Take for example Russia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Despite being on different sides of the Syrian civil war, Putin has managed to bring Riyadh into its diplomatic orbit through cooperation on oil policy, given how both Saudi-led OPEC states and Russia need substantially higher prices for government budgets to break even”.

It posits that “Moscow has voiced commitment to such cooperation, and the Saudis appear to have bought into this assurance — for without it, Russia could simply gobble up much of any market share conceded by a Saudi production cut. But Riyadh will almost certainly lose out in any such deal. Last month, Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft, said his company would not take part in any such cut, implicitly contradicting Putin. Russia seems to want to get the Saudis to sign on to a deal Moscow has no real intention of supporting. But it’s hard to see how long Putin can trick them into doing the heavy lifting. In the short term, the official announcement of an OPEC-Russia oil production deal, which is expected to come this month, will temporarily lift prices. But in the long term, when the deal breaks down, as it must, it will erode Putin’s credibility with Riyadh and OPEC. Gauging the success of Putin’s strategy really depends on the time frame: In 2016, Russia is up in the Middle East; in the longer term, the damage he has done to the Russian economy by breaking with the West will outweigh the value of an alliance with the likes of eastern Libya or even perhaps Turkey. Already battered by low oil prices, the Russian economy can hardly afford to be unplugged from Western capital markets and investment”.

He ends “But maybe Russian international success is entirely the wrong way of thinking about what Putin gains from a strategy of perpetual conflict. Strategy might be the art of creating power, but the power the strategist is most interested in might be at home. Perpetual conflict abroad clearly helps rally popular support among Russians to keep Putin entrenched in the Kremlin, even as his country rots around him”.

Flynn as NSA, a Putin apologist

19/11/2016

A report in the Washington Post notes how Trumps choice of Michael Flynn for NSA brings experience and controversy, “The most influential national security job in the still-forming Trump administration will go to a retired three-star general who helped dismantle insurgent networks in Afghanistan and Iraq but then surprised — and sometimes dismayed — colleagues by joining the political insurgency led by Donald Trump. As national security adviser to Trump, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn would be responsible for helping a president with no national security experience navigate complicated global issues including the unfinished campaign against the Islamic State, the expansionist agenda of China and rising aggression from Russia. Flynn’s selection for the post was confirmed Thursday night by a person close to the Trump transition team who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. As a decorated military intelligence officer and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn has deep experience to draw upon as he serves as Trump’s principal point of contact with the State Department, the Pentagon and a collection of U.S. intelligence agencies that have surged in power and influence since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks”.

The report notes that “Flynn has also shown an erratic streak since leaving government that is likely to make his elevation disconcerting even to the flag officers and senior intelligence officials who once considered him a peer. Flynn stunned former colleagues when he traveled to Moscow last year to appear alongside Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at a lavish gala for the Kremlin-run propaganda channel RT, a trip Flynn admitted he was paid to make and defended by saying he saw no distinction between RT and U.S. news channels such as CNN. Flynn said he used the trip to press Putin’s government to behave more responsibly in international affairs. Former U.S. officials said Flynn, seen dining next to Putin in photos published by Russian propaganda outlets, was used as a prop by the autocratic leader. Flynn was forced out of his job as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 over concerns about his leadership style. After the ouster, he frequently lashed out in public against President Obama and blamed his removal on the administration’s discomfort with his hard-line views on radical Islam. Spurning the decorum traditionally expected of retired U.S. flag officers, Flynn became a fervent campaigner for Trump and was given a high-profile role speaking before the GOP convention, an appearance in which he led the crowd in “lock her up” chants against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton”.

It mentions how “McChrystal and retired Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contacted Flynn and urged him to show more restraint, with Mullen warning that Flynn’s behaviour could jeopardize White House trust in the military. Flynn dismissed those concerns in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, saying efforts to quiet him impinged on his free speech rights. “When someone says, ‘You’re a general, so you have to shut up,’ ” he said, “I say, ‘Do I have to stop being an American?’ ” Flynn continued to campaign for Trump and has said he has admired the mogul since their initial meeting. “I was very impressed,” Flynn said in the interview with The Post. “Very serious guy. Good listener. Asked really good questions . . . I found him to be very attuned to what was going on around the world.” Civil rights groups denounced the Flynn selection, saying he has refused to reject Trump’s repeated statements supporting the use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation measures on terrorism suspects. Trump has also advocated killing or capturing innocent relatives of terrorism suspects. Asked about such proposals, Flynn said in an interview with Al Jazeera this year that he is a “believer in leaving as many options on the table right up until the last possible minute.” “Michael Flynn has exhibited basic contempt for international law, including the Geneva Conventions and laws prohibiting torture,” said John Sifton, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “By offering the post to Flynn, President-elect Trump will be cementing a dark return to the illegalities of the Bush administration and further undermining the foundation of the international human rights system.” A longtime Democrat and native of Rhode Island who grew up in a military family, Flynn has articulated an increasingly dark vision of the direction of the United States, saying that it has fallen into a struggle between “centrist nationalists” and “socialists.” He has also warned that the United States is failing to adequately address the threat posed by what he calls a “diseased component” of Islam”.

The report ends “That view, and his willingness to voice it publicly, put him in close alignment with Trump, who has called for Muslims in the United States to be registered, subjected to loyalty tests and in some cases deported. In February, Flynn tweeted a link to a YouTube video with the message: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: Please forward a link to this video so that people may learn the BASICS of Islam.” As national security adviser, Flynn would be a White House insider in a unique position to influence Trump on almost all aspects of foreign policy. Trump has shown scant respect for the intelligence and institutions that shaped Flynn, dismissing an intelligence community assessment that Russia was interfering in the presidential election as “public relations.” Trump has also said he probably knows more than American generals about how to succeed in conflict zones such as Syria”.

 

 

Trump’s transition in disarray

17/11/2016

The New York Times reports that Trump’s transition is in disarray, “President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition was in disarray on Tuesday, marked by firings, infighting and revelations that American allies were blindly dialing in to Trump Tower to try to reach the soon-to-be-leader of the free world. One week after Mr. Trump scored an upset victory that took him by surprise, his team was improvising the most basic traditions of assuming power. That included working without official State Department briefing materials in his first conversations with foreign leaders. Two officials who had been handling national security for the transition, former Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan and Matthew Freedman, a lobbyist who consults with corporations and foreign governments, were fired. Both were part of what officials described as a purge orchestrated by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser”.

The article notes how “The dismissals followed the abrupt firing on Friday of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who was replaced as chief of the transition by Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Mr. Kushner, a transition official said, was systematically dismissing people like Mr. Rogers who had ties with Mr. Christie. As a federal prosecutor, Mr. Christie had sent Mr. Kushner’s father to jail. Prominent American allies were in the meantime scrambling to figure out how and when to contact Mr. Trump. At times, they have been patched through to him in his luxury office tower with little warning, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt was the first to reach Mr. Trump for such a call last Wednesday, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel not long afterward. But that was about 24 hours before Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain got through — a striking break from diplomatic practice given the close alliance between the United States and Britain. Despite the haphazard nature of Mr. Trump’s early calls with world leaders, his advisers said the transition team was not suffering unusual setbacks. They argued that they were hard at work behind the scenes dealing with the same troubles that incoming presidents have faced for decades”.

It adds that “Trump himself fired back at critics with a Twitter message he sent about 10 p.m. “Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions,” he wrote. “I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!” The process is “completely normal,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, who emerged on Tuesday as the leading contender to be Mr. Trump’s secretary of state. “It happened in the Reagan transition. Clinton had delays in hiring people.” Giuliani, who made his comments in a telephone interview, added: “This is a hard thing to do. Transitions always have glitches. This is an enormously complex process.” There were some reports within the transition of score-settling. One member of the transition team said that at least one reason Mr. Rogers had fallen out of favour among Mr. Trump’s advisers was that, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he had overseen a report about the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which concluded that the Obama administration had not intentionally misled the public about the events there. That report echoed the findings of numerous other government investigations into the episode. The report’s conclusions were at odds with the campaign position of Mr. Trump, who repeatedly blamed Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent and the secretary of state during the attacks, for the resulting deaths of four Americans”.

Not supurisingly the article notes “Eliot A. Cohen, a former State Department official who had criticized Mr. Trump during the campaign but said after his election that he would keep an open mind about advising him, said Tuesday on Twitter that he had changed his opinion. After speaking to the transition team, he wrote, he had “changed my recommendation: stay away.” He added: “They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’ Will be ugly.” Mr. Cohen, a conservative Republican who served under President George W. Bush, said Trump transition officials had excoriated him after he offered some names of people who might serve in the new administration, but only if they felt departments were led by credible people. “They think of these jobs as lollipops,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, weighed in as well. On Tuesday, he issued a blunt warning to Mr. Trump and his emerging foreign policy team not to be taken in by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whom Mr. Trump praised during the campaign”.

The piece mentions that “Some of the early transition difficulties may reflect the fact that Mr. Trump, who has no governing experience or Washington network and campaigned as an agent of change, does not have a long list of establishment figures from the Bush era to tap. His allies suggested that might ultimately prove positive for Mr. Trump if he was able to assemble a functioning team that would bring new perspectives to his administration. For advice on building Mr. Trump’s national security team, his inner circle has been relying on three hawkish current and former American officials: Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; Peter Hoekstra, a former Republican congressman and former chairman of the Intelligence Committee; and Frank Gaffney, a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration and a founder of the Center for Security Policy. Mr. Gaffney has long advanced baseless conspiracy theories, including that President Obama might be a closet Muslim. The Southern Poverty Law Center described him as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.” Prominent donors to Mr. Trump were also having little success in recruiting people for rank-and-file posts in his administration”.

“Hoping against hope that he will grow in the White House”

11/11/2016

Max Boot writes that Trump may not be so bad after all, “Nov. 9, 2016, is a dark, depressing day for me and for the slim popular majority of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton. It is easy on a day like this to fall prey to one’s worst fears. Is this the dark night of fascism descending on America? Maybe. Is this the triumph of white supremacists? Could be. Is this the end of NATO and the triumph of Vladimir Putin? Quite possibly. I admit that I am deeply worried that these cataclysmic scenarios could actually come to pass. This really could be Apocalypse Now. But I have to admit it’s also possible that the worst won’t happen and that Trump will exceed the low-low expectations that greet his ascension. In truth, although I have been warning — along with many others — of the catastrophic consequences of a Trump presidency, I have no idea what he will actually do. Nobody does, probably including Trump himself. If there is any optimism to be gleaned on this day after, it lies in the very fact that Trump has been so utterly incoherent on just about every policy issue”.

He argues that “On immigration, for example, he began by promising to build a wall that Mexico would pay for and to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. He ended the campaign by saying that U.S. taxpayers would build the wall with Mexico eventually paying us back and that deportations would proceed “in a very humane way” targeting “gang members” and “drug peddlers.” What about mass deportations? “We’re going to make a decision at a later date.” He even suggested that he would not rule out a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. On homeland security, at first he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” By the end of the campaign, this radical idea had been dropped. It had “morphed,” he said, “into an extreme vetting from certain areas of the world,” whatever that means. In the battle against terrorism, he began by calling for taking Iraq’s oil, for bombing the “shit” out of the areas under Islamic State occupation, for torturing terrorists and killing their relatives — all of which would constitute war crimes. At a March 3 debate, he insisted that the military would carry out his orders even if those orders were illegal under international law; the very next day, however, he reversed himself and said he wouldn’t order the armed forces to do anything illegal. By the end of the campaign, he was saying that “after taking office, I will ask my generals to present to me a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS. This will require military warfare but also cyberwarfare, financial warfare, and ideological warfare.” In other words, the anti-ISIS plan is TBD”.

Boot writes that “On abortion, he used to describe himself as “very pro-choice.” During the campaign, he became so anti-abortion that he called for women who get the procedure to be punished, before walking back that position. Now he says he’s in favour of overturning Roe v. Wade and letting the states decide, which would effectively mean that abortion would remain legal in almost every state. On U.S. troops overseas, he has called NATO “obsolete” but also said he wants it to play a bigger role in the war on terrorism. He has said that if U.S. allies don’t “pay up” for the protection provided by American troops, he would withdraw them, but he has also said this is only a bargaining position and implied that he doesn’t really mean it. He has said he didn’t care if South Korea and Japan acquired nuclear capabilities after the withdrawal of U.S. forces but subsequently denied saying that. What are we to make of all this?  My conclusion is that Trump has few fixed principles beyond self-promotion. He wants to make America “great” but has little idea how. He has expressed certain sentiments — in favour of being strong and surprising our enemies, against political correctness, immigration, and disadvantageous trade treaties — without knowing exactly how they would translate into policy”.

The piece adds “During the campaign, I thought this was a tremendous weakness, because Clinton had policy knowledge and specifics that he lacked, but in office it could be a saving grace. If Trump were to staff his administration with competent professionals with prior government experience, and if he were to listen to their advice, he could actually wind up implementing a fairly conventional conservative agenda in many respects. He could be especially positive in economic policy, where he has promised to cut taxes and regulations — a promise that, if not offset by job-killing tariffs, could turbocharge growth. Granted, the Trump we saw on the campaign trail was so erratic that it’s hard to believe he will be disciplined and prudent in office. But I’m hoping against hope that he will grow in the White House — that the office will make the man. Because if that doesn’t occur, the consequences are too ghastly to contemplate”.

Rouhani, Trump and the deal

09/11/2016

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that the U.S. election results would have no effect on Tehran’s policies, state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying, noting that Iran’s expanding economic ties with the world were irreversible. “The results of the U.S. election have no effect on the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Rouhani said. “Iran’s policy for constructive engagement with the world and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions have made our economic relations with all countries expanding and irreversible.” He added that Iran’s nuclear deal with six world powers has been reflected in a United Nation Security Council resolution and cannot be dismissed by one government”.

Iran’s 25,000 in Syria

09/11/2016

Iran now commands a force of around 25,000 Shi’ite Muslim militants in Syria, mostly made up of recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency has told a visiting Swiss delegation. Avi Dichter, chair of Israel’s foreign affairs and defense committee, told members of the Swiss parliament the Iranian-backed force was focused on fighting Sunni rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not Islamic State. “This is a foreign legion of some 25,000 militants, most of whom have come from Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Dichter told the delegation during the briefing on Wednesday, according to details provided by his office. “They are fighting in Syria only against the rebels and not against ISIS.” It was not clear what the source of Dichter’s information was, but he receives intelligence briefings in his role”.

Baghdadi breaks his silence

07/11/2016

After a nearly yearlong silence, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State, released a blistering audio recording imploring his forces to remain firm in the face of the American-backed Iraqi offensive in Mosul and excoriating those who might consider fleeing. “Know that the value of staying on your land with honor is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame,” he said, adding: “This war is yours. Turn the dark night of the infidels into day, destroy their homes and make rivers of their blood.” The last time Mr. Baghdadi addressed his followers was in a recording released Dec. 26. His silence since then has led to persistent rumors that he had been wounded or killed. He was not heard from even after one of his closest associates — the extremist organization’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who headed the group’s efforts to export terror abroad, including overseeing attacks in Paris and Brussels — was killed in an airstrike in August. The terrorist leader’s tone in the new recording at times suggested an air of panic, as if he was trying to shore up his fighters and enjoin them to continue battle, promising them heavenly rewards: “Oh soldiers of the caliphate, if you stand in the line of fire from America’s jets and its allies, then stand firm.” He added: “Know that if the sky collapses onto the earth, God will make room for the believers to breathe.” The new 31-minute recording, which was uploaded Wednesday on one of the Islamic State’s channels on the encrypted app Telegram, eulogized both Mr. Adnani and Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, the head of the Islamic State’s media operations, whose death was made public in October”.

Trump, doing permanent damage

07/11/2016

Stephen Walt writes the damage done during the election could be permanent, “assuming, Hillary Clinton is elected president, the collective sigh of relief heard ’round the world could well be deafening. Way back in June (i.e., before the revelations about Trump’s fondness for groping women surfaced), a Pew Research Center survey found that more 80 percent of Swedes, Germans, French, British, Japanese and Australians, had “no confidence” in Trump’s ability to handle foreign affairs. Their scepticism wasn’t surprising, insofar as the Republican nominee had already revealed himself to be the living embodiment of the “Ugly American” stereotype: a bumptious blowhard who knows little about foreign policy and isn’t troubled by his own ignorance. There are undoubtedly some U.S. rivals who will be disappointed by his defeat: the Islamic State will be deprived an ideal recruiting poster, Putin won’t have an admirer in the White House, and Xi Jinping won’t get to go up against rank amateur with a short attention span and long record of failure. For the rest of the world, however, it will be a moment to exhale and to be grateful for a bullet dodged”.

Walt writes that “That sense of relief may be short-lived, however, because Trump’s candidacy and the broader condition of American politics have already done considerable damage to America’s image overseas. If you talk to foreigners a lot (it’s part of my job), you mostly hear repeated expressions of bewilderment: they find the Trump phenomenon as hard to understand as America’s fondness for guns. The French newspaper Liberation called him the “American Nightmare,” and a diverse array of foreign media outlets offer similar appraisals. Or as the New York Daily News headlined in March: “As [Trump] sinks lower, he does lasting harm to America’s image in the world.” But it’s not just Trump. In fact, the entire 2016 election has been a pretty poor advertisement for American democracy”.

Not supurisingly he notes “To make matters worse, the Trump campaign has revealed that a fair number of Americans seem to like the Donald’s disdainful and bigoted views of Muslims, Mexicans, and most U.S. allies. It can’t be encouraging for the citizens of other countries to discover that a non-trivial chunk of the American body politic is xenophobic, racist, protectionist, and ill-informed. That may always have been true, but it took the Trump campaign to put it up in bright lights. 2016 also reveals that the two-party system (or at least the two parties that currently dominate that system) is badly broken. More than 150 million Americans are technically eligible to be president, yet somehow this long and costly process produced two major-party candidates with historically strong negatives and repeated episodes of bad judgment. And it’s not like the alternatives were any better. The Republican primary was a clown show — I mean, seriously: Marco Rubio? Ted Cruz? Chris Christie? Ben Carson? — and the reason why a boorish cad like Trump could steamroll them all. On the Democratic side, all those earnest Sanders supporters never seemed to realise he was both a one-note candidate and one of the least popular or effective members of the Senate. If this collection of contenders was the best the American system could offer up, no wonder foreign observers are beginning to think something is broken. Alas, the problem isn’t just the campaign. The recurring dysfunctions at both federal and state levels reinforce the growing sense that something has gone badly awry with America’s other political institutions. Congress can’t pass budgets or ratify trade agreements, won’t even bother to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees, won’t vote either to authorise the use of force or to withhold authorization, won’t conduct genuine oversight of the intelligence community, and won’t perform any of the other key functions the Founding Fathers designated for them. Instead, representatives and senators spend more time “dialing for (campaign) dollars” than they do legislating, while the rascals most responsible for all this obstructionism keep getting reelected. Several U.S. states are flirting with bankruptcy; gerrymandering is endemic; media outlets spew fact-free bile on a daily basis; and the country’s existing institutions seem incapable of undertaking clear, obvious, and farsighted initiatives and then bringing them to fruition”.

Pointedly he notes “Perhaps the only consolation in all this is that politics in the U.K., the Philippines, Turkey, Italy, and many other places have been equally unsettling. And there is a silver lining, at least potentially. If global impressions of American democracy could decline so sharply from 2008 to 2016, then in theory they could swing back just as quickly now. Engineering that shift will be Hillary Clinton’s greatest challenge. The success of her presidency — including the success of her foreign policy — will depend not on whether she ends the Syrian civil war; resolves the disputes over the South China Sea; caps North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; conjures up a stable government in Yemen, Libya, or South Sudan; liberates Crimea; gets major carbon emitters to abide by the Paris climate accord; or successfully manages any of the other foreign-policy problems that her advisors will be eager to address. Rather, the success of her presidency will depend on whether she can figure out a way to get America’s democratic system working again. Not perfectly or brilliantly, perhaps, but at least competently. The surest way for her to fail at that task would be to take on a bunch of ambitious new burdens abroad. She may be tempted to do so, because then she wouldn’t have to deal with a pesky or obstructionist Congress and she’ll get some grudging support from interventionists, hawks, and the numerous special interest groups which are always trying to get Washington to do something, somewhere, on behalf of someone”.

 

 

Return of the Blob?

05/11/2016

A report addresses the return of the “Blob” as Obama prepares to leave office, “Obama’s presidency sent Washington’s foreign-policy hawks, or “the Blob,” as White House aide Ben Rhodes once disparagingly called them, into the wilderness. But the Blob is back, facing its best opportunity in eight years to push for a greater U.S. military role in the Middle East, this time in Syria. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, hold vastly divergent positions on how to bring the five-and-a-half-year war in Syria to an end. As secretary of state, Clinton favoured arming Sunni rebels against President Bashar al-Assad and has proposed installing a no-fly zone or safe zone to protect civilians from Russian and Syrian government bombers. She has also called for providing additional arms and training to Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State. It’s less clear, however, how far she would go in arming opposition groups devoted to toppling Assad”.

The piece adds “Neither Clinton nor most of the others who are calling for a tougher military response in Syria are advocating the kind of full-fledged intervention, with U.S. ground forces, that the United States has undertaken over the past 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, her proposals have emboldened those who believe that only American firepower is capable of forcing Assad to pursue a peace deal in good faith. Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who now advises the Syrian opposition, says he believes both Clinton and Trump would pursue a “more aggressive” Syria policy than the Obama administration — though he has no expectations of U.S. forces entering the war to fight Assad”.

He notes “plenty of voices still believe that Obama got it right by withstanding pressure from Washington’s foreign-policy establishment to bomb Assad and increase arms deliveries to a hodgepodge of rebel groups, many of whom have become entangled in alliances with extremists. Some experts say there is even scepticism within Clinton’s tight-knit group of foreign-policy advisors by some who doubt the wisdom of deepening America’s military involvement in Syria. As for a Trump presidency, the GOP nominee has expressed little interest in taking down the Syrian leader, saying in the Oct. 19 presidential debate that “you may very well end up with worse than Assad” if others vie to fill a leadership vacuum his departure would create. Instead, Trump would prefer to work with NATO allies and Russia to defeat the Islamic State: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” he asked at a rally in July. As Obama leaves office next January, foreign-policy wonks will have their best opportunity yet to recalibrate and redirect U.S. policy for Syria. Here’s a mix of hawkish and dovish proposals, as outlined to Foreign Policy, the next president could consider”.

The first involves “no-bomb zones”, “Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, believes Russia’s deployment of advanced missile defense systems would prove more complicated for a Clinton presidency than when she first began pushing the idea of a no-fly zone from inside the Obama administration. But Lister said the United States and Turkey have already effectively created no-bomb zones for Russian and Syrian aircraft in northeastern Syria and northern Aleppo. He suggested deploying international commandos to other areas in Syria to deter airstrikes. Lister also estimated that some 70 armed opposition groups, which he deemed “sufficiently moderate,” have been vetted by the CIA and Defense Department to receive military assistance from the United States”.

It continues with another option which suggests cutting off the rebels with the hope that the war will then end “Some critics of a military solution in Syria see the crisis from an entirely different perspective: They believe the Obama administration did not move fast enough to cut off allied support for the rebels who are linked to extremists — including the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — a dynamic that prolonged the war in Syria. “Escalation has failed to win this proxy war. It has only prolonged it and increased the death toll,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. While no fan of Assad, Landis said the regime’s atrocities do not justify providing military and logistical support to rebels in the dim hope of a political transition that might bring a better outcome. Even so, Landis said there’s still time for the next U.S. president to get the policy right. “The U.S. should help bring the Syrian civil war to a quick end in order to reduce the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said. “The U.S. can assist in this by refusing to send more arms and money to the rebels and to encourage our allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, to reduce arms shipments and money flows to insurgents.”

A more aggressive strategy is outlined with decisive military force, “A new U.S. president will need to impose and maintain a credible cease-fire in Syria, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. By most accounts, a U.S.- and Russian-brokered initiative to stop the fighting in eastern Aleppo unraveled in September after Damascus and Moscow restarted a massive bombing campaign. Tabler said Syria paid no price — nor has it ever — for violating the fighting pause. But he said Washington could enforce future cease-fires by launching cruise missile strikes from U.S. warships, or from a neighbouring country, to destroy Syrian airfields and other targets. To avoid escalating tensions with Moscow, the United States would need to limit its targeting to military facilities where the Russians are not present”. In August, Tabler co-wrote a New York Times op-ed with Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy who initially supported, but later regretted, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq”.

Importantly it adds “punishing Assad’s regime is easier said than done. Russia has signaled it will use its influence at the U.N. to block attempts by the United States and its allies to further sanction Syria for dropping chlorine-filled toxic bombs on opposition-controlled towns. The new president will have to find a way to overcome Russian opposition”.

The other option is to simply increase the arms to the rebels “The Syrian civil war will either end in defeat for one party or it will come to peace as the result of a negotiated settlement that most likely will be based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué, brokered by the United Nations. Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said he prefers the diplomatic outcome. But getting there will require a military buildup of Syria’s beleaguered rebel forces”.

The last option, and perhaps by far the weakest as it would give Russia and Iran the status and influence they crave is to do a deal “A grand bargain would require buy-in from key regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and especially Iran and Russia, Bowen said. The deal should also entail “security service reform including demilitarization of militias and the withdrawal of foreign forces,” he said.

“Syrian rebels launched a broad offensive for Aleppo”

05/11/2016

Syrian rebels launched a broad offensive for Aleppo Friday as the Russian, Syrian, and Iranian foreign ministers vowed to intensify their fight against terrorism in the country. The battlefield allies met in Moscow as the Syrian government is looking to cement its authority over the divided northern city and the contested suburbs of the capital, Damascus. Fighting for Aleppo appeared to have calmed by the afternoon after rebels assaulted the city’s government-controlled western side with three vehicle bombs and at least 150 rockets in the morning. The Syrian military said the rockets were Russian-made Grad missiles. At least 15 civilians were killed in the volley, according to pro-government TV stations. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also said that 15 civilians were killed, and over 100 injured”.

Dems, 2016 and Iran

03/11/2016

An interesting article argues that Democrats are getting a “pass” on the Iran deal during these elections, “Democrats in Congress found themselves squeezed in a political vise over the Iran nuclear deal. President Barack Obama leaned heavily on fellow Democrats to back the agreement in the biggest lobbying effort of his administration. And pro-Israel groups launched a full-court press against the deal, spending tens of millions of dollars on adswarning lawmakers they would have “blood on their hands” if they endorsed the accord. In the end, the White House won the heated political battle, securing just enough support among Democrats in the Senate to stave off a bid to block the deal. But many Jewish groups and donors at the time warned Democratic lawmakers who supported the Iran agreement that they would pay a steep political price in the 2016 election”.

Pointedly, the writer argues “Yet more than a year later, no Democrat has been kicked out of office over the nuclear deal in a primary and it’s unlikely that any Democratic incumbent will lose their seat in the Nov. 8 election because of it. The much-anticipated blowback has yet to materialise, despite opinion polls that show a majority of Americans oppose the agreement. Although the Republican Party is hitting the issue hard in Senate and House races across the country, conservative Jewish organizations and activists have mostly pulled their punches and resisted funding rivals of lawmakers who voted for the Iran agreement. Both opponents and supporters of the deal agree the main reason the issue has not become a political spoiler is the man at the top of the Republican ticket, Donald Trump. The toxic nature of Trump’s candidacy, from his comments denigrating women to his refusal to accept the election result if he loses, has dominated the campaign and pushed aside policy debates that normally occur in presidential contests. He has turned off swaths of conservative Jewish and pro-Israel activists by trafficking in anti-Semitic rhetoric, as well bashing immigrants and U.S. allies, while praising Russian President Vladimir Putin”.

The author mentions “In last week’s presidential debate, Trump called the Iran agreement “the stupidest deal of all time, a deal that’s going to give Iran absolutely (sic)nuclear weapons.” But the Iran agreement barely featured in post-debate media coverage, largely because of Trump’s jaw-dropping comment that he was not sure if he would accept the results of the election. “This hasn’t exactly been a policy-oriented campaign season,” said Jeff Ballabon, a former media executive who runs a conservative pro-Israel super PAC called Iron Dome Alliance. “Like pretty much every substantive issue, Israel and the Iran deal have taken a back-burner to matters of personality, conduct, and style.” With Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton consistently ahead in national polls and widening her lead in key states, pro-Israel hawks are mostly resigned to a Clinton victory and see no reason to antagonise the next administration — as well as a possible Democratic majority in the Senate”.

Naturally he notes how “Sheldon Adelson, the conservative Jewish megadonor known for his hawkish stance on Israel, spent at least $98 million on Republican candidates in the 2012 elections. This year, the Las Vegas billionaire and his wife have spent only about $40 million on campaigns nationwide. And generally, Jewish donors have shunned Trump in a dramatic way. Of all funds contributed to major party candidates this year by Jewish donors, 95 percent went to Clinton and only 5 percent to Trump, according to an analysis published last month on FiveThirtyEight. That’s a sharp contrast to the 2012 presidential campaign, when about 71 percent of the $160 million given to major party candidates went to Obama’s reelection campaign and 29 percent went to the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. The funding four years ago roughly reflected the breakdown of the Jewish vote in that election. Until it became clear Trump would be the nominee, organizations and donors on both sides of the Iran nuclear issue were bracing for a no-holds-barred brawl in the election season. To national security hawks and conservative Jewish groups in Washington, Democrats — particularly incumbents who openly endorsed the deal — looked vulnerable and ripe for defeat at the ballot box”.

The report notes “Advocates of the deal, however, say Trump’s antics and insults are not the only reason the issue is not gaining more traction. They argue the agreement is working, and that there is no smoking gun that shows Iran is violating the deal and secretly building nuclear weapons. The agreement offers “a way to defang Iran’s weapons program without firing a shot,” said Jessica Rosenblum of J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group that supports the agreement.  “It’s good policy and it’s good politics.” The agreement clinched in July 2015 between Iran and major powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, imposed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions that were choking the Iranian economy. The White House says the agreement blocks Iran’s potential path to a nuclear weapon as it imposed extensive international inspections and forced Tehran to dismantle a heavy water reactor, remove thousands of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and ship out stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium. But opponents maintain that easing sanctions enables Iran to bankroll its militant proxies across the Middle East, and opens the door to Tehran acquiring a nuclear arsenal in 15 years when certain provisions of the agreement expire. Critics also object to how the deal was implemented. Republicans were outraged over a $400 million cash payment that Washington sent Iran on the same day last January that several American prisoners were released by Tehran. The United States sent the funds to settle a longstanding claim by Iran before an international tribunal. The money had been set aside to pay for weapons that were never delivered because the pro-U.S. monarchy fell following the Iranian revolution of 1979”.

Interestingly it notes “Throughout her campaign, Clinton has never shied away from expressing her support of the deal, even though a majority of Americans say they oppose it. She has argued the agreement “lowers the threat” posed by Iran and has vowed to hold Tehran accountable for other activities that fall outside the deal. Americans disapprove of the deal, 57 percent to 30 percent, according to a February poll by Gallup. And surveys have shown Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose the accord. Yet some polls indicate a majority of Jewish voters support the deal, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition. Anxious to retain a GOP majority in the Senate, Republican candidates and conservative political action committees see the issue as a winner. The Iran nuclear deal is a frequent talking point in pivotal Senate races in Florida, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Illinois, with Republicans seeking to portray their opponents as naive and weak on national security. In New Hampshire, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is gambling that her opposition to the nuclear deal can help her fend off a serious challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte made the issue a key part of a $4.2 million advertising buy for her campaign”.

“Weighing plans to rush more firepower to CIA-backed units”

03/11/2016

As rebel-held sections of Aleppo crumbled under Russian bombing this month, the Obama administration was secretly weighing plans to rush more firepower to CIA-backed units in ­Syria. The proposal, which involved weapons that might help those forces defend themselves against Russian aircraft and artillery, made its way onto the agenda of a recent meeting President Obama held with his national security team. And that’s as far as it got. Neither approved nor rejected, the plan was left in a state of ambiguity that U.S. officials said reflects growing administration skepticism about escalating a covert CIA program that has trained and armed thousands of Syrian fighters over the past three years. The operation has served as the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. But U.S. officials said there are growing doubts that even an expanded version could achieve that outcome because of Moscow’s intervention. Obama, officials said, now seems inclined to leave the fate of the CIA program up to the next occupant of the White House. If so, Obama’s successor will inherit an array of unattractive options. Critics of the proposal to increase arms shipments warn that it would only worsen the violence in Syria without fundamentally changing the outcome. But inaction has its own risks — increasing the likelihood that Aleppo will fall, that tens of thousands of CIA-backed fighters will search for more-reliable allies, and that the United States will lose leverage over regional partners that until now have refrained from delivering more-dangerous arms to Assad’s opponents.

“Expects Islamic State to use crude chemical weapons”

30/10/2016

The United States expects Islamic State to use crude chemical weapons as it tries to repel an Iraqi-led offensive on the city of Mosul, U.S. officials say, although adding that the group’s technical ability to develop such weapons is highly limited. U.S. forces have begun to regularly collect shell fragments to test for possible chemical agents, given Islamic State’s use of mustard agent in the months before Monday’s launch of the Mosul offensive, one official said. In a previously undisclosed incident, U.S. forces confirmed the presence of a sulfur mustard agent on Islamic State munition fragments on Oct. 5, a second official said. The Islamic State had targeted local forces, not U.S. or coalition troops”.

“Extremist fighters are losing access to the sources of revenue”

30/10/2016

As the Islamic State group sees its territory shrink to half its original size and its dreams of a caliphate evaporate, the extremist fighters are losing access to the sources of revenue that once gave them their power, prompting them to turn to extortion, kidnapping or foreign donations like their predecessors, the militant group al-Qaida. The Islamic State group had a unique ability to capitalise on the natural resources of its territory in Iraq and Syria and swiftly implement a system of taxation and governance that allowed it to rule an area that once was the size of Switzerland. As the battle gets underway to retake Mosul, the group’s largest stronghold in Iraq, the Islamic State group is being denied access to revenue sources such as oil and gas and cash reserves that once amounted to more than $1 billion in 2014, said Daniel Glaser, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing.

 

“A planned, unilateral ceasefire, which saw Russian jets grounded”

28/10/2016

the skies above Aleppo fell quiet Tuesday morning ahead of a planned, unilateral ceasefire, which saw Russian jets grounded to set the stage for a “humanitarian pause” later this week. “Today the airstrikes of Russia’s Aerospace Forces and Syria’s Air Force stop in the Aleppo area from 10 a.m.,” a statement posted on the Russian Ministry of Defense’s Facebook page said. “The long-term suspension of airstrikes is necessary to introduce a ‘humanitarian pause’ on October 20.” Residents of the battered Syrian city told CNN they had heard no bombing early on Tuesday. The temporary pause in airstrikes will allow civilians to flee the city via “six corridors,” according to Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu. He added that Syrian forces will withdraw and give rebels a chance to leave the beleaguered city via a further two corridors”.

EU formally criticises Russia

26/10/2016

Over coming a wave of reluctance to antagonize Moscow, European Union foreign ministers are planning to formally and explicitly admonish Russia for supporting the Syrian government’s deadly assault on Aleppo, an attack that “may amount to war crimes,” diplomats tell Foreign Policy. The European ministers, who will meet meet on Monday in Luxembourg, are also expected to support the imposition of sanctions on as many as 20 Syrian government officials who have had a role in the bombardment. An earlier draft of the EU statement did not include a direct reference to Russia, but has been added at the insistence of the French, British and German governments. The move comes as Secretary of State John Kerry mounts a new diplomatic push to pursue a ceasefire for the besieged city at a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland on Saturday that includes representatives of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “Since the beginning of the offensive by the regime and its allies, notably Russia, the intensity and scale of the aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo is clearly disproportionate,” reads a draft joint statement obtained by FP. “The escalating violence in Aleppo is causing untold and unacceptable suffering for thousands of its inhabitants.”

“Iran could be part of the solution to the Syrian conflict”

22/10/2016

An interesting article argues that the US should be arguing with Iran over how to end the war in Syria, not Russia, “Wherever there has been a glimmer of light in the Syrian war, it has always been quickly extinguished. Take the cease-fire agreement reached in September by Washington and Moscow. After Red Crescent trucks delivering aid to the besieged city of Aleppo were bombed by suspected Russian aircraft, the deal quickly fell apart. The many skeptics of the cease-fire were not surprised by its fate. But its dissolution had less to do with Russia’s duplicitousness than with the fact that Russia never should have been the main interlocutor to begin with. Of the outside backers of the Bashar al-Assad regime, Iran — which has sent hundreds of its troops to Syria and facilitated the involvement of several thousand non-Syrian Shiite militants to prop up Assad — has the most influence in Syria”.

He goes on to point out “Russian and Iranian objectives in Syria are not the same, and there’s no reason to think Iran’s interests are well represented by Russian negotiators. If the United States hopes to achieve any measure of peace in Syria, it can’t avoid directly negotiating with Iran — which is not to suggest that peace will be the immediate result. Washington first needs to understand why Iran’s stake in Syria runs so deep. Syria under Hafez al-Assad was the only country in the Middle East to back Iran in its devastating war with Iraq during the 1980s. Iran’s military leaders are all veterans of that conflict. They still bear the scars, emotional and physical, of fighting in a war fueled by Iran’s Sunni neighbors that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. Tehran has a very small cadre of allies, and it will sacrifice plenty to avoid losing its oldest friend”.

The piece mentions that “Losing access to Syrian territory, in other words, would undermine Iranian deterrence and make it more vulnerable to Israeli and U.S. coercion. As one former official with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) put it, Syria is so strategically important that Iran considers it to be its “35th province.” It would be better for Iran to lose its oil-rich southwest province to adversarial forces (as had happened in the Iran-Iraq war) than to lose Syria, he reasoned. “Because if we hold Syria, we would be able to retake Khuzestan [province]; yet if Syria were lost, we would not be able to keep even Tehran.” From its perspective, the Islamic Republic has little reason to support any variation of regime change on offer in Syria. The country’s Sunni rebels have displayed a strong bias against Shiites. Jihadi groups like the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic State advocate a virulently anti-Shiite worldview. The Islamic State has put that ethos into practice through massacres of Shiite Alawites in Syria and mainstream Shiites in Iraq. Iran assumes other rebel groups would act similarly if given power in Syria and that such Sunni extremism would quickly spill over into Lebanon and Iraq, threatening Shiites in those countries. Iran also has its own problem with Sunni sectarian militants, particularly within its western and southeastern provinces”.

The report argues “The reason Iran has made itself such a central actor in the Syrian conflict is to influence its postwar future. That’s why it never bode well that Tehran was excluded from the September cease-fire negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Moscow and Washington may have formally represented the two main sides of the war, but neither was in a position to dictate terms to the numerous actors fighting on the ground. Unlike Iran, neither power has ever committed to having a formidable presence on the ground, where it matters most. Given its deep involvement in Syria, and outside of a military victory by the rebels, Iran will have to be part of any political solution. The United States and Iran already have common cause against jihadis and support the same side of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq. U.S.-Iranian engagement on Syria could help both states advance their objectives. That alone should be enough to warrant bilateral negotiations”.

He goes on to point out that “It’s also worth noting that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected the expansion of U.S.-Iranian talks beyond the nuclear deal. Last year, he made this policy clear: “We agreed to talks with the United States only for the nuclear issue. … In other areas, we did not allow talks with the U.S., and we will not negotiate with them.” In August, he reiterated that stance, saying, “They [the United States] want us to negotiate with them on the regional issues, but the nuclear deal experience tells us that [negotiating with the United States] is a lethal poison and we cannot trust the Americans’ words in any issue.” Khamenei has been backed by Iran’s military, which has similarly rejected compromise with the United States. Iran’s chief of staff, IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, said in September that the “IRGC doesn’t accept talks with the enemy. The enemy, especially the U.S., thinks that talks mean the other side’s making concessions and the imposition of [American] demands, but this type of negotiations is not even worth [a] thought and the IRGC doesn’t accept it. The IRGC is vigilant and cannot be fooled.” The outright rejection of compromise with Washington on regional issues is not a bargaining ploy for the Iranians. It is policy. “Assad or we burn the country” — a slogan used by pro-government troops — could just as easily serve as Iran’s motto. America is not trusted by the IRGC, and nothing short of fully acceding to the Islamic Republic’s demands will change that”.

He ends “Iran will back down from its maximalist, all-or-nothing Syria strategy only if it feels obliged to do so. Right now it has little such incentive. Russia has buoyed the Iranian position and provided a counterbalance to U.S. pressure. Iran’s leaders also seem unconcerned with the reputational and moral cost of pursing victory. They are willing to sacrifice more for their side than their Sunni neighbors are for theirs. The question for the United States and its allies may be whether they are willing to explore the limits of Iran’s commitment. Iran has already lost more than 400 of its troops in the conflict, including some of its top IRGC commanders — more casualties lost than in any conflict since the Iran-Iraq war. The war is expensive and burdensome. Iran might be open to compromise, but only if it sees it as the best way to ensure Iranian gains. If both sides maintain maximalist positions, the war will end only when one side loses. Absent that, war and the destruction of Syria will perpetuate indefinitely. Iran could be part of the solution to the Syrian conflict and help end the suffering of millions of innocent civilians. It has earned a seat at the table. But it would also be foolish not to recognize that for now it remains unlikely to use that position to pursue a compromise”.

OPEC, unable to raise prices

20/10/2016

An article posits the end of OPEC, “Like the boy who cried wolf, 2016 might become the year of the oil producers’ cartel that cried “output cut.” If that’s right, and the U.S. shale industry becomes the oil market’s marginal producer, Middle Eastern petro-states and, above all, Saudi Arabia are in for lean and hard years ahead. In February, OPEC called for an oil production “freeze” to raise crude prices in conjunction with Russia. But this effort collapsed at a meeting in Doha, Qatar, in April when Iran refused to join any freeze in order to regain the pre-2012 production levels of close to 4 mbpd it enjoyed before U.S. and European Union nuclear sanctions were imposed, following the removal of certain sanctions after the 2015 nuclear deal. A similar proposal failed at the OPEC meeting in June, again following Iran’s refusal, despite outreach by the Qataris”.

Johnson goes on to argue “Having dashed market hopes and crude prices in February, April, and June, OPEC again called for a form of output cut on Sept. 28 at an extraordinary meeting in Algiers. Markets bit on the news, with Brent prices rising sharply by about 15 percent in the following week, from $46 to $52 per barrel. So should markets now take OPEC seriously? Can action by the cartel sustain higher crude prices over the long term? Probably not. Like a desert mirage, the image of an OPEC resurrection vanishes when approached. OPEC, which has always been dominated by Saudi Arabia, went into hibernation in the summer of 2014. The massive fall in oil prices from over $100 per barrel in early 2014 to under $30 by January 2016 was caused primarily by then-Saudi Minister of Petroleum Ali al-Naimi’s strategy to gain market share for the kingdom and hurt the U.S. tight oil (or “shale”) industry by allowing the market, not OPEC interventions, to set prices. The results have been mixed. While Riyadh has cranked up its production from mid-2014 to today by over a million barrels a day (to a peak of 10.7 mbpd in August this year), its fiscal position has taken a serious blow, with the budget deficit rising from 3 percent of GDP to 16 percent in 2015, given how about 90 percent of government revenue comes from oil”.

He adds, “As for U.S. shale, the industry has been more resilient than Saudi Arabia expected, as I suggested in my New Year’s prediction. The rig count is down, and only the most profitable new wells — for example in part of the Permian Basin in Texas — can boast of breaking even at less than $35 per barrel. However, U.S. oil production, of which shale accounts for about half, is on track to produce an average of 8.7 mbpd this year, down from a peak of 9.5 mbpd in 2015. Down, but by no means out. The resilience of U.S. shale makes the argument that OPEC has experienced a resurrection a fragile claim. The cartel can probably raise prices in the short term through an output cut, but it will only be so long, perhaps already by mid-2017, before the U.S. shale industry revives and grabs any market share conceded by OPEC in a higher price environment. This will ultimately bring prices lower again, all else being equal”.

Crucially he notes “The OPEC resurrection claim becomes more tenuous when one considers the Algiers announcement, which is only an “agreement to agree” to production cuts at the next OPEC meeting on Nov. 30. Inauspiciously, the specific cuts individual members must make haven’t been agreed upon, but kicked down the road for discussion by a “high-level committee.” Moreover, to reach a provisional agreement in Algiers, Naimi’s successor, Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, had to exempt Iran, Libya, and Nigeria from any participation in production cuts. This represents a major geopolitical concession by Riyadh to Tehran, arguably brokered by Moscow, which will not be an easy position to sustain, given Saudi-Iranian animosity. The provisional deal in Algiers leaves Saudi Arabia having to do most of the heavy lifting. While the kingdom’s production will in any case fall from 10.7 mbpd by about 300,000 barrels per day over the coming months, as seasonal production winds down, it would need to cut substantially more to balance the market. The production target OPEC named in Algiers implies a cut of at least 700,000 barrels”.

Interestingly, he contends that “Within OPEC, while other Gulf Co-Operation states, namely Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, may be prepared to make a small cut to their production, key producers like Iraq and Venezuela are in too difficult a fiscal position to agree to any major cut. They will more likely agree to a freeze, given that they are already close to maximum production (4.4 and 2.1 mbpd, respectively). Outside OPEC, Russia reached a production record of 11.1 mbpd in August, eclipsing Soviet levels. Being so close to the maximum anyway, Russia has little to lose by supporting the OPEC output cut and agreeing not to raise production further. Yet the Kremlin is unlikely to impose actual cuts on the range of oil companies that operate in the country. So why did Saudi policymakers blink and commit themselves either to sponsoring another failed OPEC deal, or having to take the hit for the vast majority of the actual production-cutting to make the deal work? In the short term, it seems Riyadh’s fiscal position was under such pressure from low oil prices that something had to give. While the kingdom has eased the fiscal pressure by starting to issue sovereign debt, the burn rate through its foreign reserves has been relentless (from about $740 billion in mid-2014 to $550 billion today) as it has attempted to defend the currency in the face of substantial capital flight from the country since the oil price crash in 2014”.

He ends “In the long term, Saudi Arabia’s energetic and ambitious young deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, appears to see beyond the immediate threat of U.S. shale to the Saudi oil industry. He is focused on the broader need for major reform of the Saudi economy. As OPEC’s first secretary-general Ahmed Zaki Yamani said in the 1970s, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” Climate change will plainly be a major problem of the 21st century, and the world is moving away from fossil fuels: game over for an unreformed Saudi Arabia.  Algiers wasn’t a sign of life in OPEC, but a sign of desperation. In truth, there’s little the cartel can do beyond the short term to generate a durable rise in prices from a supply perspective, since shale technology can’t be un-invented. Saudi Arabia will face hard years ahead as the oil market increasingly looks to U.S. shale, not OPEC, as a handrail to oil prices on the supply side. However, this might well be the jolt that Salman needs to push through painful but necessary reforms. Good luck to him.

US-Saudi relation continues to break down

18/10/2016

Congressional critics of the Saudi-led military campaign against Yemeni rebels are demanding the White House pull its support for Riyadh following an alleged weekend airstrike that killed at least 140 funeral mourners in Sanaa. The Obama administration has already said it is considering ratcheting back its aid for Saudi Arabia — a rare step that all but certainly will inflame America’s most powerful ally in the Arab world. But lawmakers said they remain unappeased by the White House threat in the face of the growing civilian death toll in Yemen’s nearly two-year war”.

Guterres as next UN Secretary-General

18/10/2016

An article reports that “Former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres is poised to be selected as the next secretary general of the United Nations when Ban Ki-moon steps down at the end of the year. Washington and Moscow rallied behind the former socialist politician and U.N refugee chief, offering a rare show of unity between two major powers who have been bitterly divided over a range of issues from Syria to Ukraine. It appears unlikely that the agreement will fundamentally reverse the downward spiral in U.S. and Russian relations or lead to an end to the Syrian war”.

The report goes on to point out “But it sets the stage for the emergence of a new U.N. leader who enjoys the trust of the key U.N. powers, including China, Britain, and France. And it shows that despite their differences, the U.S. and Russia can still find areas to agree. Guterres secured 13 votes in favour of his candidacy in a closed-door straw poll, with two countries offering no opinion over whether he should pursue the job as the world’s top diplomat. But the secret poll made it clear that the five veto-wielding powers — who cast red ballots in contrast to the white ballots cast by non-permanent members — were unanimous in their support for Guterres. Guterres emerged in the early stages of the campaign for secretary general as the front-runner, maintaining a clear edge on a slate of 13 candidates through five informal straw polls. But there were persistent questions about whether Russia would drop its insistence that the next U.N. leader be recruited from an Eastern European country”.

It ends “After the poll, Power told reporters that the selection of Guterres proved “remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial.” “I think that speaks to the fact that each of us … knows how fundamentally important this position is,” she added. “People united around a person who impressed throughout the process and has impressed on multiple axes: in his service in Portuguese politics and then of course at the helm of UNHCR.” The outcome marked the end of an international campaign to elect the first female secretary general. A late entry, Bulgarian national Kristalina Georgieva, a well-regarded European Commission official, could not build enough momentum to mount a serious challenge to Guterres”.

“An agreement to potentially cap oil production”

16/10/2016

Keith Johnson writes that OPEC is benefitting America through its limits in production, “OPEC, the dysfunctional cartel that has gifted case studies in the “prisoner’s dilemma” to business schools for years, unveiled an agreement to potentially cap oil production this year in what amounts to a last-ditch effort to shore up the price of crude after a costly two-year nosedive”.

He adds that “This week’s announcement, which for now remains little more than a promise among big producers to keep talking in November, is the first indication that the oil exporter’s club might be getting serious about reining in runaway oil production. If implemented — and all the details must still be worked out — such a cap on production could nudge crude prices higher. That would be great news for oil-dependent economies from Maracaibo to Moscow and a huge relief for the battered finances of Persian Gulf monarchies. News of the possible accord goosed markets around the world, sending crude up 6 percent Wednesday and boosting major stock markets as well. But OPEC’s hopes of successfully colluding for once to jack up the price of oil are also getting a rousing welcome in a more surprising place: the United States, still the world’s biggest consumer of crude oil”.

The article notes that “Since the OPEC oil embargo and gas lines of the early 1970s, the United States has tried to convince Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia, and other big producers to keep the taps open so that oil remains abundant and affordable. But almost a decade into a major U.S. energy boom-and-bust cycle, many parts of the United States now stand to benefit — just like Saudi sheikhs do — from rising prices at the pump. “Since we’re in a bust phase, and we’re so dependent on energy production for growth, and because it’s hurting so badly, now [a price hike] looks like just what the doctor ordered,” said Robert McNally, the founder and president of the Rapidan Group, an energy consultancy”.

Johnson writes that “This year, many major U.S. producers were crowing about the “death” of OPEC, after the oil-producing cartel seemed to have shot itself in the foot by flooding the global market with cheap oil since November 2014. Yet some of those same wildcatters, including Harold Hamm — the chief executive of Continental Resources and energy advisor to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — have spent recent weeks begging OPEC to slash production to shore up prices. That’s because the prolonged spell of cheap oil has hammered U.S. oil companies that require higher prices to stay afloat; as a result of the drop, tens of thousands of oil patch jobs have evaporated. It is a spectacular turnaround for a country historically scarred by OPEC embargoes, supply manipulation, and price spikes. The 1973-74 embargo led to long gas lines, spiking prices, and eventually Jimmy Carter’s sweaters. In 2008, as oil prices hit an all-time high, President George W. Bush implored Saudi Arabia to open the spigot and bring relief to embattled American consumers”.

Crucially Johnson argues “Today, U.S. oilmen are asking for just the opposite — proof of how fundamentally the fracking revolution has transformed the United States from a gas-guzzling importer into a major producer (and exporter) of crude oil. “It’s notable that a large part of the industry, of the U.S. oil patch, is now rooting for Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC to come together and manipulate the market and push up prices,” said Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former Obama administration energy advisor. “That’s something we used to lament.” OPEC’s plans, if consummated, could take on a political tenor during this election year. The vast majority of U.S. oil production is concentrated in states that typically vote Republican, such as Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. That’s one reason Trump’s campaign has been trying to convince global oil producers to throttle back so that oil prices can recover and jobs could return to hard-hit areas in West Texas and the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota. The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment”.

Johnson mentions how “The downside risk, though, is for the rest of the economy. Higher oil prices would mean rising prices at the pump, just as Americans are returning to the road in force with record-high demand for gasoline this summer. Bordoff noted that despite the importance of oil drilling to regional economies, cheap energy is still better, on net, for the U.S. economy as a whole. In other words, what’s good for the goose in the oil patch and parts of many red states, may not be good for the gander that is the rest of the country. To be sure, OPEC’s big announcement won’t by itself take care of the world’s oil glut, which since the summer of 2014 has knocked crude prices from about $115 a barrel to roughly $40. The big producers inside the cartel agreed in principle to cap their combined oil output at between 32.5 million and 33 million barrels a day by the end of the year. If successfully carried out, that would represent a slight decline from the all-out summertime production of recent months, which technically would make it OPEC’s first cut in almost a decade”.

Pointedly Johnson ends “even the tougher production target would do little, McNally said, to erase the overhang of crude oil sloshing around. That’s because OPEC expects the world to consume about 32.5 million barrels of OPEC crude per day anyway, meaning the market won’t start eating into the massive stockpiles of crude stored in tanks and tankers around the globe. More to the point, OPEC members have agreed only to meet again in November to try to hammer out all the painful details, such as which countries will reduce production by how much. Those are the very same shoals of self-interest that have sunk untold OPEC agreements over the last half-century. At the same time, two of OPEC’s biggest players — Saudi Arabia and Iran — are still at loggerheads, making a lasting agreement even tougher to secure. After sloughing off economic sanctions this year, Iran is racing to boost oil production and exports and regain lost market share. That makes it much less willing to stomach production cuts for the benefit of OPEC rivals, especially Riyadh. Yet even with all those uncertainties, coloured by OPEC’s own dismal track record of maintaining internal discipline, benchmark crude prices continued rising Thursday to tickle $50 a barrel”.

Trump, autocrat-in-chief

12/10/2016

Max Boot writes that Trump is not running as a democrat, “It was both fitting and chilling that the centerpiece of the second presidential debate was Donald Trump’s threat to imprison his opponent. That is the kind of act normally associated with autocrats like Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych (who jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in 2011), Myanmar’s military junta (which put opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest even before her party won the 1990 election), Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who overthrew and imprisoned President Mohamed Morsi in 2013), and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (who in 2003 arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a wealthy political adversary)”.

Boot correctly argues that “Trump’s apologists tried to claim that he wasn’t threatening to jail former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for being his political opponent but, rather, for supposed “felonies committed in office.” But this is exactly the kind of thing that dictators always say; no one ever admits to jailing the opposition for political reasons. The essence of democracy is not to criminalize political differences. That’s something that Trump does not seem to understand. It seems appropriate, then, that during the rest of the debate — while desperately trying to deflect attention from the “pussygate” scandal that has crippled his campaign — Trump alternatively expressed his admiration for dictators and emulated their “Big Lie” techniques for winning and keeping power. If we needed any more evidence, the debate showed just what an unprincipled power-seeker Trump is — how he is willing to say or do anything, to cross any line, to violate any norm of civilized behavior, in order to feed his insatiable ego. He came across as the kind of unscrupulous demagogue that has imperiled other democracies and that the United States has not seen since the heyday of Huey Long and George Wallace”.

Boot adds that “His sympathy for tyrants was most clearly evident when moderator Martha Raddatz asked him what he would do about the siege of the Syrian city of Aleppo. The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Putin are pummeling this city so relentlessly, killing countless civilians, that Secretary of State John Kerryhas called for a war crimes investigation. While admitting that Aleppo is a “disaster, humanitarian-wise,” Trump failed to offer a plan to stop the killing. Worse, he failed to offer a single word of condemnation for Assad and Putin’s brutal actions. Actually, he seemed to approve of what the two are doing: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS,” referring to the Islamic State. He went on to say, “We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved,” and, “Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS.” Not quite. There is no Islamic State presence in Aleppo. Yet this is the area where the Russian and Syrian governments are concentrating their firepower. This is part of a general pattern whereby the vast majority of their attacks are focused on more moderate rebel forces, not on the Islamic State. Trump has been entirely taken in by the disinformation line put out by Assad and Putin that they are fighting “terrorists,” a name that they apply to all opponents of Assad’s brutal regime. And Trump appears to fully approveof the war crimes they are committing — perhaps not so surprising from a candidate who has threatened to commit war crimes of his own, such as torturing terrorists, killing their relatives, bombing indiscriminately, and stealing Iraq’s oil”.

Interestingly, the article notes that “Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has a better appreciation of the horrors being perpetrated in Syria. In the vice presidential debate, hedenounced the “barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo” and said that the “provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.” He called for the establishment of “safe zones” to protect “vulnerable families” and said the United States “should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime.” On Sunday night, however, Trump disassociated himself from Pence’s view: “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree. I disagree.” (Perhaps the next debate should feature Trump vs. Pence?) Thus Trump continues his pattern of not saying a single negative thing about Vladimir Putin, an anti-American dictator he has praised for being a better leader than President Barack Obama. While freely insulting political opponents, reporters, and entire ethnic groups, Trump has never had one bad word to say about Putin, and that didn’t change Sunday when Trump was asked about the cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and other American targets. Last Friday, the U.S. intelligence communityformally charged Russia with responsibility for the hacking, stating, “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” In other words, Putin is responsible”.

Centrally, Boot argues that “The only true part of that statement was Trump’s admission that he knows nothing about Russia. He went on to claim: “I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.” But given Trump’s unwillingness to reveal his taxes or his business records, there is no reason to believe his protestations — especially when there actually is evidence, even based on the scant public record, that Trump does do business with the Russians. As a general proposition, whether talking about his business dealings or anything else, the Republican nominee does not exactly inspire confidence as a truth-teller. Politico already determined, based on analyzing all of Trump’s statements for a week in late September, that he averages “one falsehood every three minutes and 15 seconds.” He did better — or worse — than average on Sunday night by uttering, according to Daniel Dale of theToronto Star, a total of 33 false claims during his 40 minutes of speaking time”.

The piece goes on to mention how “Just as egregious are Trump’s continuing claims to have opposed the Iraq War. In fact, there are numerous statements from him favouring regime change in Iraq before the war and not a single statement on the public record opposing the war until August 2004 — i.e., 17 months after the start of the conflict, by which time it was clear that it was not going to be a “cakewalk.” A year ago, the fact-checkers at the Washington Post awarded Trump “four Pinocchios” for his unfounded claims about opposing the war. Yet here he was again on Sunday night, when challenged by Clinton on his Iraq War lie, indignantly saying: “That’s not been debunked.” To make his falsehood even more offensive, he suggested that if he had been president in 2004, Capt. Humayun Khan, the Muslim American war hero whose family he defamed, “would be alive today, because unlike her, who voted for the war without knowing what she was doing, I would not have had our people in Iraq.” Trump has the temerity to blame Clinton not just for favouring the war in Iraq but also for favouring a pullout”.

Correctly he writes that “There is a word for someone who lies as repeatedly as Trump does and continues doubling down on his lies no matter how many times he is called out on his behaviour: pathological. Trump can’t distinguish right from wrong, truth from fiction. He has shown that he will say anything that pops into his head regardless of its veracity — and he refuses to be corrected by any fact-checking. There has never been anyone remotely like him who has been a serious presidential candidate before; the only analogues are in the ranks of dictators abroad. And although it now appears that he will not win the election — “pussygate” seems to have been the coup de grâce for his disgraceful campaign — it is nevertheless terrifying that so many millions of Americans are thrilled by his irresponsible rhetoric and extremist positions”.

Boot concludes “It is particularly appalling that even now, after all his lies and gropes, his racism and sexism, his general craziness has been exposed, a substantial section of the Republican electorate continues to stand by their man. Many of the Trump die-hards are furious at the few Republican politicians who have had a sudden outbreak of conscience in recent days and have decided to unendorse him. The grass-roots fervor for Trump suggests that the Republican Party may be beyond salvation — and that the republic itself could be in peril if in the future we see some demagogue who is smoother than Trump and devoid of his debilitating personal flaws. It could happen here — and almost did”.

Trump, right on NATO?

12/10/2016

A piece argues that Trump gets some things right, “Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, criticized NATO in a number of interviews earlier this year, he waschallenging the foundations of the United States’ military strategy. His attack on Washington’s conventional wisdom has unsettled the U.S. security establishment no less than it has the foreign governments that depend on it, and has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Trump, however, is right. U.S. policy toward its allies really is “obsolete,” as Trump termed NATO. The United States remains remarkably secure and faces no serious—let alone existential—threat akin to that formerly posed by the Soviet Union, the enemy that most U.S. alliances were formed to oppose. Moreover, Washington’s Asian and European allies are prosperous and industrialized states that are more than capable of protecting themselves”.

The piece goes on to argue mistakenly “Unfortunately, U.S. strategy currently appears to endorse the idea that whatever is, must forever be. But the fact that Washington has defended countries for decades does not mean that it should continue doing so indefinitely, whatever the costs. Alliances should be a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, and in this case, that end should be to increase U.S. security. Critics of Trump have been quick to invoke the danger of reducing U.S. strategic commitments in the face of a newly assertive Moscow. For instance, Anthony Cordesman, a strategic analyst at CSIS, has warned against “giving up Europe to Russia.” No one wants this outcome. But the point is that Moscow cannot have Europe unless the European Union, which possesses a greater population and GDP than the United States (not to mention Russia), allows it to do so. The Europeans are fully capable of defending their own interests without U.S. help, and the ancillary benefits to Washington of military cooperation, such as base access, do not require the extension of security guarantees”.

The author argues, that “In his comments, Trump has mostly targeted the high cost of the United States’ overseas commitments, complaining that the country’s allies have broken their promises to spend more on their militaries and joint exercises. As he explained toThe New York Times in March, “NATO is unfair to us, to the United States. Because it really helps [our allies] more so than the United States, and we pay a disproportionate share.” Thus, he suggested charging nations dependent on the United States for their security. More is at stake than an unfair financial burden, however. In addition to funds, Washington provides a disproportionate share of NATO’s combat capability, with U.S. defense spending accounting for 73 percent of the defense expenditure of the alliance as a whole. Even when the Europeans contribute combat troops to a NATO mission, as in Afghanistan, they use caveats to restrict when those forces can fight”.

He does fairly point out that “NATO officials recognize that members routinely violate their commitments to increase outlays on defense. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was pleased, therefore, when he proclaimed in January that the alliance was moving in the “right direction.” Yet the movement was barely noticeable. Last year, outlays by NATO’s European members dropped slightly, by 0.3 percent. This year, there has been a tiny uptick. No one expects sustained, substantial increases. But the Obama administration is proposing to more than quadruple U.S. military spending in Europe to $3.4 billion next year as part of the “European Reassurance Initiative,” along with the deployment of an armored brigade. Despite evidence that the United States is overpaying, Trump’s critics claim that strategic commitments are cheap, since allies help pay U.S. deployment costs, which total about $10 billion annually. Such foreign “host nation support” covers roughly half of that expense. For instance, Japan sets the gold standard by paying $1.7 billion annually, according to Brad Glosserman of the Pacific Forum CSIS. Other major allies, such as South Korea and Germany, contribute less than one billion dollars per year”.

He does point out that “The price of any particular commitment is difficult to determine. Still, it should be obvious that defending much of Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East requires a substantially larger military than would otherwise be the case. My Cato Institute colleague, Benjamin R. Friedman, projects that Washington could save up to $150 billion a year by adopting a less activist stance. As he explains, the United States’ desire for primacy “requires a large U.S. military, with units permanently deployed in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, and with the capability to quickly strike anywhere with air, naval, and ground forces. It sees threats everywhere and prescribes U.S. forces everywhere.” Doing less—focusing on the genuine defense of the United States—would significantly reduce the forces required. As he so frequently does, Trump got the policy details wrong when he criticized Washington’s stance toward its allies. But he raised important issues long ignored by his most vociferous critics”.

He ends naively, “That is the wrong message to send. Washington had little choice but to protect allied countries after World War II. But that justification disappeared long ago. Instead of turning the U.S. military into a mercenary force by charging for its services, as proposed by Trump, Washington should drop the commitments no longer necessary for U.S. security. Doing so would not only save the United States money, but make it safer as well”

 

Ban’s last UN speech

08/10/2016

An article notes the last speech by the leader of the UN, “Ban Ki-moon delivered a full-throated, and thinly veiled, broadside against a host of world leaders from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to South Sudan’s Salva Kiir Mayardit during his tenth and final speech at the U.N. General Assembly. “In too many places, we see leaders rewriting constitutions, manipulating elections and taking other desperate steps to cling to power,” he said. “My message to all is clear: serve your people. Do not subvert democracy; do not pilfer your country’s resources; do not imprison and torture your critics.” Ban charged South Sudan’s leaders, which includes Kiir, with having “betrayed their people” by pursuing a violent path to power. He blasted Syria’s Assad for prosecuting a brutal military campaign to cling to power at the expense of millions of brutalized victims of war”.

The piece goes on to note “Ban excoriated the outside powers that have supported the warring parties on both sides of the conflict. While Ban didn’t name names the list of regional or global powers — from Russia and Iran to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France and the United States — that supported the combatants — is long. “Powerful patrons that keep feeding the war machine also have blood on their hands,” he said. “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all side.” In what appeared to be an implicit criticism of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and nationalist, anti-immigrant leaders in Europe, Ban criticized politicians for scapegoating foreign migrants, especially Muslims, and engaging in “cynical and dangerous political math.” “Muslims in particular are being targeted by stereotyping and suspicion that have echoes of the dark past,” he said”.

The report adds that “Ban also voiced particular frustration that efforts to welcome an independent Palestinian state during his tenure have foundered. “It pains me that this past decade has been lost to peace. Ten years lost to illegal settlement expansion. Ten years lost to intra-Palestinian divide, growing polarization and hopelessness.” “This is madness. Replacing a two-state solution with a one-state construct would spell doom: denying Palestinians their freedom and rightful future, and pushing Israel further from its vision of a Jewish democracy towards greater global isolation.” Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, fired back shortly after the speech. “The real madness belong to the U.N.,” he said in a statement. “Instead of focusing on Palestinian terror and incitement, and instead of compelling Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table, the secretary general chose to criticize Israel once again. This is an obsession with Israel and it must end.” He also expressed remorse over two internal scandals that have roiled his tenure at the U.N., the exploitation of women and children in the Central African Republic by U.N. peacekeepers and the outbreak of cholera in Haiti, which was introduced into the country be Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers”.

“An impassioned plea for an open world order”

06/10/2016

In this the 4,700th post, an article discusses Obama’s last UN speech, “Barack Obama used the pulpit of his last speech before the United Nations to make an impassioned plea for an open world order, even as walls rise against refugees, protectionism makes a comeback, and the West faces the prospect of a simmering cold war with Russia and other authoritarian states. The address represented a rallying cry for beleaguered democratic, pro-trade governments to promote the values of human rights and free markets. Obama also explicitly rejected the politics of isolationism, demagoguery, and nationalism that have gained political traction from the American heartland to Moscow. There appears to be a growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism right now, and I want everybody to understand — I am not neutral in that contest. I believe in a liberal political order,” Obama said. “So those of us who believe in democracy, we need to speak out forcefully.”

It goes onto point out that “The U.S. president took aim at plenty of targets during his speech but trained a sharp burst of rhetorical fire on a country that has, in the course of his own administration, become Washington’s international nemesis and, at best, awkward diplomatic dance partner — Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He specifically rebuked Russia for intimidating its neighbours and using military might to shape the future of its growing sphere of influence. Obama argued that Russia’s military interventions — from Syria, where it is shoring up President Bashar al-Assad’s government, to Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels seized control of Crimea and continue to challenge a Western-backed government in Kiev — are unsustainable over the long haul”.

Interestingly the writer notes how “Obama also took a swipe at China, which has erected an archipelago of military installations on disputed islands in the South China Sea. He said a “peaceful resolution” of China’s territorial dispute “will mean far greater stability than … militarization” in the region. Obama also challenged China to ensure that its troublesome client, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, pays a price for his recent test of a nuclear explosive, a flagrant violation of multiple Security Council resolutions that China has supported. “When North Korea tests a bomb, that endangers all of us. And any country that breaks this basic bargain must face consequences,” he said. Hours after Obama’s speech, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Turkey’s democratically elected, though increasingly authoritarian, leader — delivered his first address to the international community since a failed coup attempt in July. Erdogan implored world leaders to crack down on Fethullah Gulen”.

The report notes how “Obama’s speech also served up a blunt rejection of growing calls for sealing national borders, including Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposal for a “beautiful wall” along the U.S. southern border to keep out foreigners from Mexico and elsewhere. “Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” Obama said. “So the answer cannot be a simple rejection of global integration. Instead, we must work together to make sure the benefits of such integration are … squarely addressed.”That included a now familiar endorsement of free trade, which Obama hailed as a necessary component for a more prosperous and peaceful world. He described “trade wars,” protectionism, and tariff hikes as “failed models of the past” and reiterated his pitch for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries awaiting ratification by signatories”.

The piece goes on to note how “even in Washington’s political climate, Obama’s free trade message has become increasingly isolated. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has disowned the trade pact, despite her vocal support for it as Obama’s secretary of state; so has progressive firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who challenged her for the nomination. Trump calls the trade pact, which would link together about 40 percent of the global economy, one of the “worst deals” ever forged. Yet Obama sounded an uncharacteristically populist note in his speech, highlighting the need for the world’s wealthiest to strike a fairer bargain with the world’s workers. “A world in which 1 percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable,” the U.S. president told the gathering of foreign leaders. “A society that asks less of oligarchs than ordinary citizens will rot from within.” Although part of Obama’s speech centered on his forward-looking policy goals, he also sought to burnish his presidential legacy on the world stage. He noted that the meltdown of the global financial system, which nearly collapsed during the final years of George W. Bush’s administration, was stabilised under his watch. He cited landmark diplomatic agreements with Cuba, resulting in restored relations, and Iran, where sanctions relief was traded for the restriction of Tehran’s nuclear program. He also pointed to Washington’s role in supporting peace talks that ended Latin America’s longest civil war in Colombia”.

The report ends, “Obama struck a fatalistic note over the prospects of restoring peace in the Middle East, where leaders have demonised rival sects, persecuted political opponents, and tolerated the perversion of Islam. “[Such forces] are now at work helping to fuel both Syria’s tragic civil war and the mindless, medieval menace of ISIL,” he said, referring to the Islamic State. “If we are honest, we understand that no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to coexist for long,” Obama said. In the meantime, Obama said the United States and its coalition partners will continue to undertake a “united and relentless” military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. Beyond that, Washington will limit its action to pressing for an elusive diplomatic settlement to the conflict while working to deliver assistance to those in need. The recent breakdown in the Syrian cease-fire, however, has raised doubts over the viability of such a plan.

 

Obama’s insane foreign policy

04/10/2016

An excellent article argues that Obama’s Syria policy is the definition of insanity, “The latest diplomatic attempt to bring calm to Syria and pave a pathway toward peace appears to have failed. After a week of blocked aid deliveries and cease-fire violations, Russian aircraft on Mondayreportedly bombed a joint U.N.-Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy and warehouse outside Aleppo, killing nearly half of its staff, including a SARC regional aid director. The attack came just minutes after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime declared the cease-fire dead. Several dozen more people were then killed and wounded in heavy air and artillery strikes on the besieged rebel-held districts of Aleppo city. The remains of a Russian air-dropped OFAB-type fragmentation bomb have been discovered in the wreckage of the SARC warehouse, and U.S. investigations have concluded that Russian Sukhoi Su-24 jets were responsible. Speaking after the incident, U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said the bombing — which lasted nearly two hours — could be a “war crime.” None of this should come as a surprise, even as the consequences are potentially devastating. The Russian government, much less the Assad regime, has never been a reliable partner for peace in Syria. But even after Russia’s alleged bombing of the aid convoy, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is still plowing its energies into a deal that aims to work with the Russian government”.

The piece notes “Despite the flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stood in New York on Tuesday and maintained that the “cease-fire is not dead.” The Obama administration appears to believe that the escalating fighting elsewhere in Syria — including the targeted airstrike on a medical facility in the town of Khan Touman late Tuesday, which killed 13 people — is just a figment of the world’s imagination. On Wednesday, Kerry told the U.N. Security Council that Russia’s denial of responsibility for targeting the aid convoy was evidence that it lived in a “parallel universe,” but, even so, he proceeded to call for another go at the very same deal that failed only a week prior”.

He argues later that “The Obama administration has viewed the Syrian crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. But diplomatic failures such as this one continue to embolden extremist actors like al Qaeda, which has purposely presented itself as a reliable and necessary opposition ally, seemingly dedicated only to the cause of ridding Syria of the Assad regime. By so deeply embedding within Syrian revolutionary dynamics and claiming to fill the vacuum left behind by insufficient foreign support or protection, al Qaeda’s narrative is constantly strengthened by perceptions of American inadequacy. Thus, U.S. failures do not exist in a vacuum — our adversaries quickly translate them into their own victories. It is long past time for the United States to reassess its shameful approach to the Syrian crisis. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda are symptoms of the conflict, and the conflict itself is a symptom of fundamentally failed governance. In choosing to treat the symptoms, Washington continues to reduce its chances of resolving the larger issues at play in Syria”.

The piece mentions how “It should now be patently clear that contrary to the hopes of some, the Russian government is not the key to controlling the Assad regime’s heinous behaviours. For a week straight, the Syrian government consistently ignored Moscow’s demands and destroyed a cease-fire deal that had been largely of Russia’s making. The regime also reinforced its troop positions around Aleppo and amassed forces opposite the strategic northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, and its aircraft were blamed for bombings around Aleppo, north of the city of Homs, and in parts of southern Daraa governorate. And after the Assad government declared the cease-fire over, Russia ferociously destroyed an aid convoy intended for 78,000 civilians. The Syrian regime’s decision to scuttle the latest diplomatic effort should drive home one simple point: Bashar al-Assad does not intend to step down from power, and he will use any means at his disposal to prevent that from happening. From industrialised arrest, torture, chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and incendiary and cluster weapons to medieval-style sieges — no method is too severe if it helps him pursue his goal. Beyond feeble public appeals and a 2013 agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which appears to have left some behind and ignored the regime’s chlorine gas attacks, the United States has never chosen to challenge such brazen brutality. And that’s why these tactics remain decidedly in use by the Assad regime”.

He notes that “The United States can no longer continue its meek attempts to contain the Syrian crisis’s effects. Five years ago, Syria was a local problem; today it is an international one. U.S. indecision, risk aversion, a total divergence between rhetoric and policy, and a failure to uphold clearly stated “red lines” have all combined into what can best be described as a cold-hearted, hypocritical approach. At worst, Washington has indirectly abetted the wholesale destruction of a nation-state, in direct contradiction to its fundamental national security interests and its most tightly held values. These failures began in the early days of the Syrian uprising. Though the Obama administration first proclaimed that Assad had lost his legitimacy in July 2011, it took more than a year after that to develop a meaningful policy to assist the opposition. Even then, U.S. support consisted only of providing food and nonlethal equipment. Later, the CIA’s vet, train, and equip program to the Free Syrian Army found some minimal success, but U.S. commitment remained negligible when compared with our often uncoordinated regional allies, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. It seems U.S. officials wanted Assad out but wanted others — whom administration officials would say in private they did not trust — to do it for them. The result? Nearly half a million people dead, more than 1 million people living under siege, and 11 million people displaced. Catastrophic refugee flows have led to an anti-immigrant backlash in Europe and the rise of far-right politics while Syria is now home to perhaps the greatest concentration of jihadi militants in any single country ever. Put aside the threat posed by the Islamic State for a second: Syria now hosts a thriving de facto al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — formerly the Nusra Front — the most capable, politically savvy, and militarily powerful al Qaeda movement in history. Al Qaeda’s central leadership has also revitalized itself inside Syria, with the international terrorist organisation’s newly named deputy leaderalmost certainly residing in the country. The correlation is simple: U.S. shortcomings equal al Qaeda’s success in Syria”.

He goes on to mention “After several years of ignoring this threat, U.S. policymakers finally turned their attention to al Qaeda this year. It was too late. Washington’s repeated failures had already given the jihadis the time and space to shape the dynamics of the war such that any attack by the United States or Russia would only further undermine U.S. influence and empower al Qaeda. Unfortunately, it is indisputably true that most Syrians living in opposition areas now view al Qaeda as a more trustworthy and capable protector of their lives than the United States. If there were ever a sign of policy failure, this would be it. Faced with this situation, the United States must consider addressing its Syria policy shortcomings, beginning with five key points. First, Assad is not and can never be the solution for Syria. There is simply no scenario in which any meaningful portion of opposition society will ever give in to his rule. The longer Assad remains in power, the more extremists will benefit. Second, there will be no purely military solution to Syria’s conflict — a negotiated settlement is the only feasible path toward stability. However, Assad will never treat a political process with any level of seriousness until placed under meaningful pressure, which the United States has thus far done everything in its power not to do”.

The third point he raises is that “A partition would not only fail to solve Syria’s conflict, but it would also likely exacerbate the existing drivers and create new ones. Opposition to partition is arguably the single issue that unites communities supportive of and opposed to Assad. Fourth, combating al Qaeda in Syria cannot be done solely with bullets and bombs. Defeating it is instead an issue of providing a more attractive and sustainable alternative to the jihadi group’s narrative. Given its successful efforts to embed within the opposition and build popular acceptance as a military (not a political) ally, al Qaeda does not represent a conventional counterterrorist problem. Adopting conventional means such as airstrikes will fail to defeat the group, and instead we must out-compete it”.

He ends “although the Islamic State may be an adversary the United States can fight largely in isolation from the broader Syrian crisis, it remains an asymmetric and opportunistic terrorist movement. By its very nature, it can be counted on to exploit the continued conflict in Syria for its own ends. If Assad remains in place indefinitely and the conflict continues or worsens, the Islamic State will undoubtedly live to fight another day. When questioned on the failure of the current U.S. policy in Syria, senior members of the Obama administration — and indeed the president himself — have repeatedly and cynically proclaimed: “What’s the alternative?” as if to say there are none. In fact, there are alternatives, and they all require a more determined use of U.S. hard and soft power. Civilian protection should remain the core focus of any broad-based strategy, but it must be backed up by real and discernible consequences for violators. Given the five-year U.S. track record, the Assad regime knows all too well Washington’s hesitancy to threaten the use of anything close to force, and Damascus has repeatedly reaped the rewards of that impotent stance. If the United States hopes to develop an effective Syria policy, that has to change quickly”.

 

“The Obama administration abandoned efforts to cooperate with Russia”

04/10/2016

An article in the Washington Post reports today that “U.S.-Russia relations fell to a new post-Cold War low Monday as the Obama administration abandoned efforts to cooperate with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war and forming a common front against terrorists there, and Moscow suspended a landmark nuclear agreement. The latter move, scuttling a deal the two countries signed in 2000 to dispose of their stocks of weapons-grade plutonium, was largely symbolic. But it provided the Kremlin with an opportunity to cite a series of what it called “unfriendly actions” toward Russia — from Ukraine-related and human rights sanctions to the deployment of NATO forces in the Baltics”.

It adds that “The United States, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, has “done all it could to destroy the atmosphere encouraging cooperation.” Of far more immediate concern, the end of the Syria deal left the administration with no apparent diplomatic options remaining to stop the carnage in Aleppo and beyond after the collapse of a short-lived cease-fire deal negotiated last month. The State Department announced that it was withdrawing U.S. personnel who have been meeting in Geneva over the past several weeks with Russian counterparts to plan coordinated airstrikes against al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists in Syria. The coordination was to start as soon as a cease-fire, begun Sept. 12, took hold and humanitarian aid began to flow to besieged communities where civilians have borne the brunt of Russian-backed President Bashar al-Assad’s response to a five-year effort to oust him. The Syria agreement was part of a year-long effort spearheaded by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to persuade Russia to help bring a negotiated political end to the war. In exchange for using its leverage with Assad to ground his air force and allow aid to flow, the United States said it would work to separate U.S.-backed opposition groups from terrorist forces with which they have become increasingly intertwined. Instead, after just a few days of a fitful truce, both Syria and Russia stepped up their bombing attacks in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country, including the destruction of an aid convoy. Russia, while denying the convoy attack, has justified its airstrikes by saying that the cease-fire — along with U.S. failure to disengage the opposition from the Front for the Conquest of Syria, the al-Qaeda group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — allowed the terrorists to rearm and expand their territory”.

The report adds that “Russia’s version of the sequence of events mandated by the deal is “explicitly not true,” a senior administration official said. “Separation was not step one,” but was supposed to occur after seven days without major violence. The Russians, the official said, have “constantly tried to move the goal posts.” The Damascus government officially declared the truce over on Sept. 19. Since then, Syrian and Russian aircraft have carried out a massive barrage from the air over Aleppo, including what a U.S. intelligence official said were “barrel bombs, thermobaric bombs, incendiary munitions, cluster bombs and bunker busters.” Unrelenting strikes, many of them targeting hospitals and medical facilities, have “killed hundreds of children in a week’s time,” said the intelligence official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity under administration-imposed rules to discuss the Syrian conflict. Kerry said last week that the United States was “on the verge” of suspending the Syria agreement. “The decision today came after a long, deliberate period of trying to give them every benefit of the doubt,” the senior administration official said. “But when they’re targeting hospitals, and using these kinds of weapons, that’s not a misunderstanding.”

Pointedly the piece adds that “the administration has found no alternative that has not already been considered, and previously discarded as unworkable or too risky in terms of broadening the Syrian conflict. President Obama is said to be no more willing to involve U.S. forces, air or ground, in the conflict than he was when it began five years ago. The prospect of flooding the opposition with more, and better, arms is still seen as hazardous. “Anything we do in the near term could lead to additional” expansion of the war, a second senior administration official said. “There are consequences” to a military approach, the official said, and we “want to make sure we are clear-eyed about them.” At the same time, this official said, the United States will continue to protect its interests against terrorist expansion. The official cited a recent U.S. airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province — an area of frequent Russian and Syrian strikes that targeted Front leader Ahmed Salama Mabrouk. The Pentagon confirmed the strike but did not confirm the Front’s announcement that Mabrouk had been killed. Officials said they considered Syria and the plutonium suspension distinct issues, although both are “part of a piece of a troubled and difficult relationship,” one senior official said”.

It goes on to note “In a decree released by the Kremlin, Russian President Vladi­mir Putin said Moscow would consider a resumption of the nuclear accord only if Washington agreed to several conditions, including canceling all sanctions and compensating Moscow for losses resulting from them. The plutonium agreement was once hailed as an example of successful U.S.-Russian cooperation. Signed in 2000 and updated in 2010, it required both countries to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons, according to the State Department. Russia had soured on the deal over differences with the United States on how to dispose of the plutonium. Moscow said it has opened a plant that converts the weapons-grade material into fuel know as MOX, which can be used in commercial reactors; construction of a similar U.S. plant in South Carolina has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. The U.S. side has been split between those who want to build a plant as a way to encourage the Russians, and those who think it safer and cheaper to dilute the plutonium into less harmful material and dispose of it, said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace”

“Suspended all convoys in Syria on Tuesday following deadly airstrikes”

29/09/2016

The U.N. humanitarian aid agency suspended all convoys in Syria on Tuesday following deadly airstrikes on aid trucks the previous night that activists said killed at least 12 people, mostly truck drivers and Red Crescent workers. The attack plunged Syria’s U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire further into doubt. The Syrian military, just hours earlier, had declared the week-long truce had failed. The United States said it was prepared to extend the truce deal and Russia — after blaming rebels for the violations — suggested it could still be salvaged. In Geneva, spokesman Jens Laerke of OCHA said further aid delivery would hold pending a review of the security situation in Syria in the aftermath of the airstrike. Laerke called it “a very, very dark day… for humanitarians across the world.” The U.N. aid coordinator said the Syria government had granted needed authorizations in recent days to allow for aid convoys to proceed inside Syria. Humanitarian U.N. aid deliveries had stalled in recent weeks amid continued fighting, and the truce had not paved the way for expanded convoys as initially expected. It was not clear who was behind the attack late on Monday, which sent a red fireball into the sky in the dead of night over a rural area in Aleppo province. Both Syrian and Russian aircraft operate over Syria, as well as the U.S.-led coalition that is targeting the Islamic State group.

“A convoy transporting aid to the hard-hit city had been attacked”

27/09/2016

A Syrian human rights group said today that at least 32 people had been killed and dozens injured in Aleppo, Syria, and its western suburbs in the hours after Syria’s military declared the U.S.-Russian brokered cease-fire over. After the Syrian military blamed rebels for not observing the truce, which was in its seventh day, the United Nations said a convoy transporting aid to the hard-hit city had been attacked, with 18 of the convoy’s 31 trucks initially believed to have been hit. The rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that 12 people had been killed when the convoy was struck. Farhan Haq, a deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told ABC News that he could not confirm any information on potential casualties or the cause of the attack. He said that the United Nations’ initial understanding was that a warehouse operated by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had also been hit along with the convoy, before the trucks could distribute any aid to 78,000 people whom international groups had hoped to reach. The fighting came amid signs the cease-fire was falling apart, with Russia casting doubt on it and the Syrian military declaring its conclusion.

“Australia has said its warplanes took part in US-led airstrikes”

27/09/2016

Australia has said its warplanes took part in US-led airstrikes in eastern Syria that mistakenly killed Syrian army troops in an incident threatening to wreck an already tenuous ceasefire before it is a week old. Russia’s military said it was told by the Syrian army that at least 62 soldiers were killed in the attack on a government position near Deir ez-Zour, with more than 100 wounded. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 90 soldiers were killed. The first airstrikes on Aleppo since the ceasefire began on Monday evening were reported on Sunday. An Australian defence department statement said its jets had targeted what had been thought to be Islamic State (Isis) fighters. “Overnight, coalition aircraft were conducting airstrikes in eastern Syria against what was believed to be a Daesh [Isis] fighting position that the coalition had been tracking for some time,” the statement said”.

“Keep U.S. policy on LGBT rights out of the local media spotlight”

25/09/2016

An article discusses how the United States gay rights policy has negative consequences.

It opens “For decades, the United States has championed human rights abroad as part of its foreign policy. Yet Washington’s attempts to balance promoting human rights with realpolitik has often been messy and inconsistent, especially when dealing with rights-violating regimes that remain important geostrategic actors. During her famous 1995 “Human Rights are Women’s Rights” speech, First Lady Hillary Clinton riled a key economic partner, China, when she harshly criticized its treatment of women. By contrast, in 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rebuked the U.S. ambassador to Chile, David Popper, for raising the issue of torture with Chilean officials. Kissinger suggested that Popper “cut out the political science lectures.” Yet it remains an open question to this day as to how aggressively the State Department should promote democratic principles, an act that often infuriates foreign countries or leads to a backlash. Today, the inclusion of LGBT equality in Washington’s worldwide human rights-promotion package is highlighting precisely this dilemma”.

The author writes that “Despite its checkered past on gay rights—the State Department expelled gay employees in the 1950s—the United States under President Barack Obama has dramatically changed its policy. In February 2015, the State Department appointed Randy Berry as the first U.S. special envoy for LGBT rights. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of “defending and promoting” the rights of LGBT individuals to American diplomacy. More recently, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji marched in the Stockholm Pride Parade, and in India, the U.S. Embassy lit up its facade in rainbow colors after the June shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Yet in much of the Arab Middle East, where populations overwhelmingly oppose homosexuality (including 95 percent of Egyptians and 97 percent of Jordanians), LGBT-rights promotion is more complicated. There, widespread hostility to gay rights puts the United States in a difficult position. One might argue that just as Washington has aggressively advocated for women’s rights and the welfare of religious minorities across the globe, so too should it consistently and publicly back gay rights, even if that means rebuffing foreign governments. Such a forceful approach, however, contradicts the wishes of many LGBT people actually living in the Arab Middle East. In 2015, for instance, the U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Alice Wells, attended a small event in Amman organized by members of the local LGBT community. Many Jordanians were outraged, and after her public appearance a number of LGBT individuals were violently harassed, according to a Jordanian blogger who went by the pseudonym Ahmad. One popular local news program devoted an astonishing 70 minutes to bashing Wells, comparing her actions to visiting an Islamic State gathering on the grounds that both would be a violation of Jordan’s sovereignty and local laws”.

The writer argues that the support of Wells was seen as evidence that “gay rights are part of a “foreign agenda.” Ahmad explained that the ambassador stigmatized the local LGBT cause by associating it with the West and spoiled its chance of being regarded as an authentic Jordanian phenomenon. Ahmad compared the dynamics between the conservative elements of his society and the LGBT community to a high school brawl—just as a student engaged in a fistfight wouldn’t want someone else to jump in on his or her behalf, neither does a local activist want the United States to interfere with a campaign”.

The piece goes on to mention that “For the LGBT community in Jordan, any association with foreigners is tricky. Yet the situation is especially difficult when it comes to the United States. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, points to the high levels of anti-Americanism in many Arab countries and the widespread perception in the region that the United States is an imperialistic power, especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hamid explains that for people “as misunderstood” as the Arab LGBT community, association with the U.S. government can be problematic”.

He goes on to make the point that “When it comes to geopolitics, the United States has critical strategic interests in Amman and it should be wary of antagonizing its ally. Jordan has played an important role throughout the war against the Islamic State, such as heavily bombarding ISIS targets inside Syria. Amman also hosts, unofficially, thousands of U.S. military personnel, according to a report from Vice. The Jordanian government is less likely to cooperate with Washington if it feels that the latter’s diplomats are insulting and undermining it by publicly raising the issue of LGBT rights. If the United States truly feels it must take part in LGBT activism in Jordan or other Arab countries that have high levels of homophobia, community members have suggested discrete steps that U.S. diplomats can take. One activist, Nadine, recommended offering emergency relocation and job training for LGBT individuals who may be physically at risk. Neela Ghosal, a senior gay-rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, emphasized that private discussions with foreign governments through, for instance, health and justice ministries, can be a productive way for Washington to reiterate its concerns on the issue”.

It ends “Ghosal urged the United States to consult with local LGBT organizations before taking any action, to ensure that whatever it intends to do actually helps civil society. Most importantly, Washington should keep U.S. policy on LGBT rights out of the local media spotlight. (In what may be a sign of progress, both U.S. LGBT Special Envoy Randy Berry and Ambassador to Jordan Alice Wells repeatedly declined to be interviewed about the United States’ support for LGBT rights in the Arab world.) Promoting LGBT rights is a cornerstone of the State Department’s human rights agenda. But, in Jordan at least, this promotion has had a damaging effect—delegitimizing the local LGBT community and putting it at even greater risk. Perhaps, when it comes to LGBT rights, Washington should ensure first of all that its policies do no harm”.