Archive for the ‘Topics’ Category

10
Sep

I’m in Washington today to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. The timing is fortuitous, because I’m pondering a number of big questions these days and I’ll be interested to see what some of the nation’s best scholars think about them. So for what they may be worth, here are my Top 10 Foreign Policy Puzzles:

No. 1: Will there be a deal on Ukraine?

The crisis in Ukraine has been a colossal failure of analysis and of diplomacy, with plenty of blame to share on all aides. The main victims, alas, have been the unfortunate Ukrainian people. As I’ve written before, I think the United States and the West played a key role in causing the crisis, mostly by failing to anticipate that Russia was going to respond forcefully and vigorously to what its leaders regarded as a gradual attempt to incorporate Ukraine into the West. One need not approve of Russia’s response to recognize that the United States should have seen it coming and thought more carefully about our interests and objectives beforehand.

Since the collapse of the Yanukovych government, the United States and its allies have followed the usual playbook: ramping up sanctions and waiting for Moscow to cave and give us everything we want. Unfortunately, this view fails to recognize that Russia does have valid reasons to care about its border areas and still has cards to play. Sanctions are clearly hurting, but Putin probably anticipated them and has been willing to pay the price. In the meantime, sanctions aren’t helping the sputtering European economy (see below), and Ukraine itself is going from bad to worse.

So my question is: Will someone get serious about real diplomacy, and make Putin an offer he’s unlikely to refuse? Instead of building more bases in Eastern Europe, the United States and its allies should be working to craft a deal that guarantees Ukraine’s status as an independent and neutral buffer state. And that would mean making an iron-clad declaration that Ukraine will not be part of NATO. (Just because many Ukrainians want to join doesn’t mean NATO has to let them.) Recent proposals for a deal lack that essential ingredient and aren’t going to solve the crisis.

A “Finlandized” Ukraine might not be an ideal outcome, but it is better than watching the country get destroyed. Putin may reject such a solution, of course, but surely it deserves a serious attempt before things get even worse.

 No. 2: When will anyone in Israel or Palestine try something different?

The latest Gaza war was déjà vu all over again: more people were killed, vastly more damage was done to the imprisoned civilian population of Gaza, the IDF lost more than 60 soldiers (a total more than twice the number of civilian victims from Gazan rockets and mortars over the past five years), and the eventual cease-fire agreement changed nothing of significance. On the West Bank, the occupation grinds on, while Israeli politics drift rightward. Yet despite all these worrisome trends, nobody in a position of authority seems capable of rethinking their hardened positions: not Israel, not Hamas, and not the Palestinian Authority. And certainly not the United States, either. Until one of those actors adopts a different mind-set and/or a different approach, we can count on another reprise in a few months or years.

No. 3: Will Europe ever get its act together?

There was a brief flurry of optimism a year or so ago, as the eurozone achieved some modest economic growth and interest rate spreads eased, but the French economy is now in serious trouble and even Germany’s economy contracted during the last quarter. (As noted above, this may not have been the smartest moment to impose stiffer sanctions on Russia.) Scotland’s status in the U.K. is up for grabs, and so is England’s membership in the EU. Some European Jews are heading for Israel to escape fears of rising anti-Semitism, even as some Israelis are heading the other way. Remember when Euro-optimists used to crow about it becoming a different sort of world power, based on democracy, rule of law, and “civilian power”? Today, a better question is whether Europe can retain any sense of unity, regain its economic health, and avoid geopolitical irrelevance.

No. 4: Where will the borders be drawn in the greater Middle East?

There are good reasons why existing borders tend to endure, even when they don’t conform well to ethnic, cultural, or religious boundaries. One reason is simple prudence: Once you start redrawing the map, it is hard to know where the process will end, and so existing elites will have every incentive to preserve the present arrangements, however flawed they might be. Even so, it is hard to look at what is now happening in the Middle East and believe that the current borders aren’t going to look different some years from now. Libya might break up completely. The borders drawn by Sykes and Picot may end up on the ash heap of history, and be replaced by a rump Alawite state, a radical Sunni community in eastern Syria/western Iraq, and a genuinely independent Kurdistan. The Green Line separating pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank is increasingly meaningless too, but a future “Greater Israel” would catalyze a Palestinian struggle for civil rights. I don’t know if any of these things will happen or what the final end states will be, but trying to keep the pre-2009 Humpty Dumpty together is looking like a bad bet these days.

No. 5: Will a stable equilibrium emerge in East Asia?

China’s rise has shifted the balance of power in East Asia, and Beijing continues to press various territorial claims in the East China and South China seas. There have been desultory efforts to resolve these disputes but no serious progress. In the absence of multilateral agreement, these disputes are just trouble waiting to happen, especially given U.S. treaty commitments to various regional allies and to freedom of navigation more broadly. America’s “rebalance” to Asia was supposed to help address these issues, but Washington keeps getting distracted by more dramatic but ultimately less significant events elsewhere. My guess: East Asia will be even more contentious in 2016 than it is today, and these issues are going to loom large in the next president’s agenda.

Read more…

By Stephen Walt; Published on Aug. 28 in http://www.foreignpolicy.com

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

 

9
Sep

showdown in scotland

Written on September 9, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Democracy & Human Rights, Europe, Op Ed

 

GLASGOW, Scotland — All of a sudden, Scotland has gotten very interesting. That Scots would reject independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18 has been conventional wisdom from Washington to Westminster for practically every day of a two-year-long campaign on the matter. But not anymore.

On the evening of Sept. 1, the Scottish Twittersphere, febrile at the best of times, went into meltdown. A fresh poll had just been released showing the “No” camp just six points ahead of the “Yes” side. The same pollsters had put the No camp’s lead at 14 points in mid-August, and a whopping 22 points earlier the same month, excluding undecided voters. Yet the Sept. 1 poll was no outlier, as Peter Kellner, the doyen of British polling,explains. As if on cue, a Sept. 6 poll now has the Yes camp holding a 51-49 percent lead. 

The latest polls give a scientific sheen to what anyone who has spent time in Scotland in recent weeks has noticed: Support for independence is building. Looking out the window of my apartment in Glasgow, I can count half a dozen blue Yes stickers and a Scottish Saltire flag (a nationalist symbol) with the same motto across the street. Most have appeared within the last month. Across Scotland, particularly in poorer urban areas, the political landscape is shifting in the nationalists’ favor. Rumors are rife that Rupert Murdoch’s widely circulated tabloid, the Sun, will declare its support for independence in the coming week.

To be sure, a Yes outcome is still an outside bet with the bookmakers. But the odds are shortening — and fast.

***

What makes this surge all the more remarkable is that the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was widely seen as having lost a much-vaunted first debate with Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, on Aug. 5. Salmond was hotly tipped — one of his own MPs predicted a “slaughter” – but in front of a TV audience of almost 2 million (in a country of just over 5 million), Salmond struggled to answer questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use and how it would transition from the United Kingdom to separate statehood.

Despite Salmond’s televised travails, however, opinion polls rose slightly in favor of the nationalists after the debate. Then, in late August, he SNP leader wiped the floor with a lackluster Darling in the second and final live clash. Unsurprisingly, pro-United Kingdom spin doctors in the pressroom looked visibly worried.

Unionist solicitudes may have come too late. The “Better Together” campaign, as the No side is called, has maintained a relentlessly negative tone, which has earned it the nickname “Project Fear.” Just days before the latest opinion poll, a Better Together video featuring a housewifeunable to think about independence amid the clatter of family life was roundly criticized for being sexist and condescending — which is particularly damaging, as the female vote could prove decisive in just under two weeks’ time. The video went viral; even BuzzFeed picked up on the “Patronising BT Lady.”

Moreover, a parade of (mainly London-based) celebrities calling on Scotland to stay in the union was more cringe-inducing than voter-swaying. Warnings against independence from international leaders — whether Barack Obama or Tony Abbott — have also had little effect on the Scottish electorate. Read more…

Published on Sept. 8th in http://www.foreignpolicy.com/ by Peter Geoghegan

3
Sep

Hong Kong’s Democracy Dilemma

Written on September 3, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Asia, Democracy & Human Rights, Op Ed

HONG KONG — On Sunday the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress issued restrictive guidelines for the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017. Shorn of its technical details, the proposal in effect gives Beijing the means to control who could run for the top office in Hong Kong: Voters would get to cast a ballot, but only for one of just a handful of candidates pre-selected by the Chinese government.

“By endorsing this framework,” Cheung Man-kwong, a veteran politician of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, wrote, “China has in truth and in substance reneged on her promise to give Hong Kong universal suffrage.”

Three decades ago, when Beijing and the British government, which was in charge of Hong Kong then, were negotiating the terms of the territory’s handover back to China, Mr. Cheung was among those who supported “reunification” on the understanding that Hong Kong would eventually acquire a fully democratic system.

Now some officials here are urging residents to accept Beijing’s undemocratic proposal. They say its version of the one-person-one-vote proposition, however faulty, is “a bird in hand.” But other Hong Kongers rightly suspect that accepting that plan would be like drinking from a poisoned chalice. The Standing Committee’s announcement Sunday certainly came as a shock, after weeks of regular, large-scale protests by pro-democracy groups.

Beijing has made it clear that only someone who “loves the country and loves Hong Kong” is acceptable for the top post in Hong Kong and that screening candidates for that qualification is necessary for China’s national security. There are people here, according to top officials in Beijing, who still do not accept Hong Kong’s reunification with China and are conniving with foreign forces to subvert the Chinese government, using Hong Kong as a base.

It does not much matter whether Beijing really believes what it says. What matters is that what Beijing says is an excuse for its uncompromising position. And it matters that the people of Hong Kong now face a dilemma. They can either reject the framework proposed by Beijing knowing they will be offered no other. Or they can take it, and by validating with a pseudo-popular mandate Beijing’s selection of their chief executive, allow the Chinese government to assume complete control over Hong Kong’s affairs.

Once Beijing achieves complete control, there is no reason why it would allow Hong Kong’s system to democratize. The aggressive administration of the current chief executive, C.Y. Leung, has already been bypassing long-established good practices and principles without any effective checks and balances.

It is no secret that Beijing is dissatisfied with many features of the Hong Kong people’s way of life, including a free press and an independent judiciary that includes foreign judges. (Both institutions have faced political pressure.) This is largely because the Chinese government has very different ideas about the meaning of freedom and the rule of law. The premium it places on stability and national security, and the degree of stability and security it deems necessary, are poles apart from the common values of the Hong Kong community. And to Beijing, which remains imperial in habit, it is intolerable that Hong Kong’s ordinary people should put their will above that of the government.

Read more…

By Margaret Ng, published in the New York Times on Sept. 2

25
Aug

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory as they head to the front line near Mosul Dam on the outskirts of the northern city of Mosul on August 18, 2014 as fighting continued with Islamic State militants for control of the strategic site  (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

t’s a turning point. Or at least it should be. Kurdish guerrilla fighters, aided by the Iraqi Army and American airstrikes, have managed to retake the crucial Mosul Dam from Islamic State (IS) extremists. They have delivered these bloodthirsty fanatics their first major strategic setback in many months. The fundamental vulnerability of Islamic State forces has been demonstrated. And one method by which they can be defeated, particularly by an array of different forces working together, has been successfully realized.

Indeed, the initial reports were considered by many too good to be true. Doubts were fueled by the lack of video footage demonstrating that the Dam was back under the control of Kurdish and Iraqi government forces. However, when President Barack Obama interrupted his family vacation at Martha’s Vineyard on Monday to publicly confirm the development, and defend the use of American aircraft in the fighting, virtually all doubts were put to rest.

Assuming Islamic State fighters really have been routed and their hopes of controlling the Dam are permanently crushed, the momentum must be seized. It would be almost criminally negligent to allow the Islamic State to regroup, lick its wounds and prepare to fight another day. Instead, this dramatic reversal of fortunes needs to be relentlessly built on, both on the ground and at the symbolic register of narratives.

Kurdish forces were hardly ideally suited to this task. For decades they have been focused on defending the largely mountainous regions now governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. They have become exceptionally effective and adept at doing this. However, the operation at the Dam required these fighters to project their force far beyond their normal area of operation, in very different terrain and under very different circumstances than they are used to, and to take on an offensive posture.

The support they received, particularly from punishing American airstrikes, were undoubtedly crucial to their success. But it’s still striking that Islamic State militants appear to have crumbled when confronted with a concerted military opposition. Even an unlikely and jerry-rigged combination of forces demonstrated that these extremists are highly vulnerable to any robust challenge.

That fact needs to be communicated in no uncertain terms to the Islamic State’s constituency and target audience, who often seem primed to believe that its military and political success is divinely ordained. And it needs to be reinforced by a series of additional defeats, even if they are less dramatic and indeed perhaps modest, in fairly short order.

The ultimate goal of a concerted campaign against the Islamic State must be to drive it out of Iraq, if not altogether, then at least in the main. This will obviously have to be done in stages and over time. Patience is as important as determination in such a mission. However, a combination of incentives and disincentives is urgently required to isolate the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s appeal to both its core constituency and its allies of convenience such as Sunni tribesmen and former Baathists is its reputation as an effective, if not invincible, fighting force.

That mystique, precisely, is what needs to be smashed to pieces. It has just been badly cracked. Clearly, the current moment provides a crucial opportunity to inflict further damage on this mythology.

But that’s going to require all serious parties to put their differences aside and work together, or even independently, towards the same goal. Given that, for one reason or another, it’s in all of their interests, this should certainly be possible. Acting in their own interests, Kurdish groups and the United States are now leading the battle against the Islamic State. The key missing element is the Arab world.

Arab states have an obvious and urgent interest in obliterating the Islamic State. The raison d’être of the organization, after all, is not merely to become a state to rival existing ones. That would be bad enough. Instead, it is a far more serious challenge: the Islamic State sees itself as the alternative to the existing Arab state system. Its goal is to eliminate that system altogether and replace all existing states with itself writ large.

Attitudes that may have once existed towards the Islamic State in the past, whether disinterest, ambivalence or even perhaps some vague sympathy, given that they were perceived to be fighting obnoxious regimes in Syria and Iraq, should have been dispensed with long ago. At this stage, there is simply no intelligible argument for anything other than alarm among Arab states and mainstream societies.

The Islamic State threatens everyone simultaneously. Therefore the response to it should be similarly mutual.

The process of ridding Iraq of the Islamic State cancer is probably going to be complicated and protracted. Even greater patience will be required when it comes time to confront the Islamic State in its redoubt in Syria, especially since strengthening the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship must not be a byproduct of a necessary and unavoidable campaign against IS terrorists. But none of this is beyond the ability, assuming they wish to fight back, of those targeted by the Islamic State, either at present or in some aspirational future.

The Mosul Dam defeat is likely to be a defining moment for the Islamic State. Either this will set off a chain of events that ultimately leads to its collapse, even if that’s a relatively slow process, or it’s a defeat that demonstrates the limits of the ambitions, but not the inevitable defeat, of the IS.

Arab states will play a crucial role in determining whether or not this is the beginning of the end for what is by far the most fanatical and dangerous movement in modern Middle Eastern history. They must, in simple self-defense, become part of a concerted campaign to rid the Middle East of the Islamic State, or live to rue the day.

Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He tweets @Ibishblog

Published on 18/08 in https://now.mmedia.me/lb

22
Aug

On the 636th day of James Foley’s captivity, and roughly the 1,250th day of Syria’s uprising-turned-civil-war, a video surfaced online that claimed to show the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheading the American photojournalist, in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group in Iraq (the militants also threatened to kill the missing American journalist Steven Sotloff, who seems from the footage to be an ISIS captive as well). The Obama administration has confirmed the authenticity of the video, and the Foley family has paid tribute to the slain reporter.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” Foley’s mother posted on Facebook on Tuesday evening. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”

That exposure is growing fainter by the day. Foley died while working in what is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a reporter—a country where dozens of journalists have been killed and kidnapped in recent years. As the Syrian conflict has grown more indiscriminately violent; as the Syrian government has targeted journalists, censored local news coverage, and barred foreign journalists from the country; as ever-stronger extremist groups have started seizing members of the press (and not even bothering to make demands for their release), news outlets around the world have pulled their staff from the country. Many Syrian journalists and citizen-journalists have been silenced. Freelancers—empowered by the journalistic tools at their disposal, but often lacking the professional experience and institutional safety nets that are invaluable when working in conflict zones—initially helped shore up the coverage, but they too have been deterred by the deteriorating security situation and by risk-conscious news organizations that are wary of publishing their work.

As The Atlantic‘s David Rohde wrote in November, “Syria today is the scene of the single largest wave of kidnappings in modern journalism, more than in Iraq during the 2000s or Lebanon during the 1980s. A combination of criminality, jihadism, and chaos is bringing on-the-ground coverage of the war to a halt.”

The result: The Syrian civil war, which has left more than 170,000 people dead and displaced 9 million more, in perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis so far this century, is grinding on as a dwindling cohort of daring journalists bear witness to its tremendous destruction. It’s grinding on in the background of our churning news cycle. We see its deleterious effects everywhere in the Middle East. But we rarely see it.

The 40-year-old Foley, a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and a Teach for America alum from New Hampshire, was abducted in northwestern Syria in November 2012. He’d come to the country as a freelancer after embedding with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and being captured by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces while covering the 2011 Libyan revolution.

And he understood the importance of the work he was doing in countries like Syria. “It’s part of the problem with these conflicts. … We’re not close enough to it. And if reporters, if we don’t try to get really close to what these guys—men, women, American [soldiers], now, with this Arab revolution, young Arab men, young Egyptians and Libyans—are experiencing, we don’t understand the world,” he told an audience at Medill in 2011, shortly after returning from his 44-day ordeal in Libya.

He admitted that his motivations were as prosaic as they were high-minded. Asked why he’d decided to travel to the Middle East, he responded, “My brother [a member of the U.S. military] was over there, I guess some kind of romantic notion you have about yourself, too: You want to be a writer, you want to see the world, fiction didn’t work out too well, let’s try the real thing.”

“The honest fact is that when you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you. It doesn’t always repel you,” he added. “Feeling like you survived something, it has a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to.”

Published by Uri Friedman on Aug. 19 in http://www.theatlantic.com

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