News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
This post will be updated over the weekend as events require, so please check back.
To begin with, here’s the full text of the agreement reached in Geneva on Ukraine:
The Geneva meeting on the situation in Ukraine agreed on initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens.
All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.
All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.
Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.
It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.
The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.
The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.
It’s a good and promising start, and a sign that there is a diplomatic solution at the end of this particular tunnel—even if, so far, it isn’t recognized by the pro-Russian thugs who’ve taken over government buildings in several cities across eastern Ukraine—among whom, NATO says, are a number of secret Russian forces à la Crimea. There’s still a long way to go, before some sort of more final accord is reached on a compromise between Russia’s demand that Ukraine be essentially divided and broken up and Kiev’s demand—backed by the United States, so far—that Ukraine be only slightly less centralized than it has been. But, because Russia holds the high cards in military terms, and wields huge economic influence over Ukraine, Moscow can hang tough and probably get most of what it wants. The real news here is that President Obama—perhaps because of his noted caution in foreign policy and perhaps because Western Europe, closely tied economically to Russia, is far more cautious than the United States is—is apparently committed to a diplomatic resolution above all.
Even the hawkish, often neoconservative-leaning Washington Post editorial page is optimistic—a big step, since only the other day its editorial said—far, far too pessimistically—that “it’s probably too late to prevent war in Ukraine.” In its editorial today, it says:
We were among those who doubted that a meeting on Ukraine in Geneva Thursday could produce results, given the weak Western response to Russian aggression. So count us as pleasantly surprised by the “initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security” that the parties announced.
War, of course, is and always was highly unlikely over Ukraine—mostly because the stakes are so imbalanced: Ukraine is vastly important to Russia and very, very unimportant to the United States, strategically. Still, and ugly standoff there, marked by clashes, bad words and escalating aid to each side in the conflict could have poisoned relations between the United States and Russia for many years to come—and it still might.
The next problem is: how to suppress the minority, extremist pro-Russian mobs who’ve taken over institutions in the east. They’ve already rejected the Geneva accord, and they say they’re not going anywhere. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian forces are haphazardly organized, poorly armed and incompetent, and they don’t seem capable of retaking the buildings on their own—at least not with a lot of bloodshed among civilians, especially. CNN quotes a leader of the nonexistent “Donetsk People’s Republic” speaking about Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov:
“Lavrov did not sign anything for us, he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation,” Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters in the city.
According to RT, Lavrov stresses that the accord opens the door to a national dialogue and constitutional reform, and that’s where Russia will press for sweeping decentralization of Ukraine, with autonomy for the east in particular. No doubt Russia will keep eastern Ukraine on simmer, at least, until the next steps are agreed upon, and nowhere in the accord do the parties say anything about the presence of 40,000 Russian troops perched on Ukraine’s borders—nor does it address US and Western aid to Kiev, either economic or military.
A good sign is that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an East-West group, will help de-escalate things by monitoring the situation on the ground, especially in the east. Says the OSCE release:
Swiss Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Didier Burkhalter welcomed the outcome of the discussions between the Foreign Ministers of Ukraine, the United States and the Russian Federation as well as the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who met today in Geneva.
Burkhalter underlined that the OSCE was ready to take up the key role given to the Special Monitoring Mission in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of the various measures agreed in the Geneva Statement. He praised the Geneva Statement as an expression of confidence towards the OSCE as an inclusive platform for supporting de-escalation in Ukraine.
“As new tasks and responsibilities have been assigned to the OSCE, I count on the continuous international support in funding and seconding of staff to the Special Monitoring Mission,” he added.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on diplomacy and the Ukraine crisis
Unless you’re deaf, dumb and blind, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s obstreperous president, is running a major covert operation in eastern Ukraine, including the dispatch of a limited number of Russian special forces and support for pro-Russian militias there. It isn’t quite clear yet whether Putin is (a) preparing the ground for a Crimea-style takeover of part or all of Ukraine (unlikely), (b) trying to destabilize Ukraine so that it, and its Western allies, agree to the radical decentralization and federalization plan that Russia has demanded, or (c) making it clear that Ukraine ought not to link its political and economic future with the West, or else. But whichever it is, it’s a dangerous game. So how should President Obama respond?
There is, of course, a diplomatic solution—and within Ukraine itself, that means some sort of decentralization that allows eastern Ukraine some form of very limited autonomy. That would be a compromise between a strong central state in Kiev, in which the president appoints governors of regions, and the sort of neat-total autonomy that Russia favors.
The United States is very limited in its options. Militarily, there’s no real response that makes any sense whatsoever, and it appears that Obama gets that. Ukraine’s utterly disorganized armed forces are no match for the Russian army in any conceivable context, so the idea of sending either significant arms or even nonlethal military aid—“like body armor, night-vision goggles, communications gear and aviation fuel,” as proposed by Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Philip A. Karber—to Ukraine can’t possibly bolster Ukraine’s forces enough even to slow down either a Russian action to seize eastern Ukraine or a blitzkrieg into Kiev, if that’s what Putin is planning. Similarly, the idea—from a neocon-linked former American ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey—to deploy ground troops to Poland, the Baltic states and Romania would escalate the confrontation to no good end, since none of those nations are directly threatened by the Ukraine crisis and it would probably force Putin to escalate further.
So far, Obama has reportedly rejected both Gen. Clark’s recommendations and isn’t considering Jeffrey’s idea, but a further escalation by Putin would certainly force Obama to respond far more harshly than the limited array of sanctions announced so far. According to The Wall Street Journal, Obama is reviewing a range of responses, including greatly expanded economic sanctions and even the sort of military deployment that Ambassador Jeffrey calls for.
It should be pointed out that Ukraine is a sovereign country, and that whatever it does to protect its security and national integrity is its own business. In that context, the fact that CIA Director John Brennan paid a visit to Kiev—to howls of outrage from Moscow—or that Ukraine has decided to hire private contractors, including the former Blackwater, to help Kiev reassert control of cities in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militants are acting up, isn’t ground for Russian complaints. The White House has properly endorsed Ukraine’s attempts to suppress the pro-Russian gangs in cities along the Russia-Ukraine border, although those efforts are weak and badly managed, given Ukraine’s overall chaotic state and limited resources. Still, so far it appears that Ukraine isn’t willing to shed a lot of blood in suppressing the pro-Russian actions, since that would only increase the enmity toward Kiev in eastern Ukraine and inflame things further—besides giving Russia a pretext to intervene further because of Putin’s flimsy and unsubstantiated claim that Kiev “fascists” are threatening ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at The Daily Beast, the purpose of Brennan’s Kiev visit was to begin the process of sharing “real-time intelligence” with Kiev, though for what reason isn’t clear, since Ukraine can’t possibly withstand Russian military pressure. It’s possible that the United States will work more closely with Ukraine on deployments of Ukrainian forces in cities to the east affected by Russian covert ops.
But the Ukraine crisis faces Obama with an exceedingly difficult challenge. He can’t afford to issue any red lines, such as the one he issued vis-à-vis Syria, since the United States simply does not have the wherewithal to confront Russian militarily in what is essentially Russia’s backyard, nor is the American interest in Ukraine significant enough to warrant a showdown. Critics of Obama, however, are pointing to Syria—where Obama has so far opted against war—as a sign of the president’s alleged weakness, adding that the Ukraine crisis is a Russian test of Obama’s will. However, as David Ignatius puts it in The Washington Post:
As President Obama looks at the Ukraine crisis, he sees an asymmetry of interests: Simply put, the future of Ukraine means more to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it does to the United States or Europe. For Putin, this is an existential crisis; for the West, so far, it isn’t—as the limited U.S. and European response has demonstrated.
And Ignatius adds:
Obama doesn’t want to turn Ukraine into a proxy war with Russia. For this reason, he is resisting proposals to arm the Ukrainians. The White House thinks arming Kiev at this late stage would invite Russian intervention without affecting the outcome. The United States is providing limited intelligence support for Kiev, but nothing that would tilt the balance.
But the real meaning of the Ukraine crisis is that, unless the ongoing diplomacy resolves it in a compromise between Russia and the West, US-Russia relations will be in a deep freeze for many years to come, and that could affect a host of regional wars and crises, from Syria and Iraq to Iran and Afghanistan and beyond.
Read Next: Conn Hallinan on how ethnic tensions and economic crisis have strengthened Europe’s secession movements
The deadline, supposedly April 29, for a deal of some kind between Israel and the Palestinians—what Secretary of State John Kerry calls a “framework agreement”—is close, and although the talks appeared to have fallen apart earlier this month, the two sides held what The Wall Street Journal calls “a rare meeting without U.S. mediator Martin Indyk present” on Sunday. It isn’t clear what the meeting means, and it may be too late for any deal to be reached by the end of April, but at least Kerry is putting the blame for the roadblocks where it belongs: on Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
To recap: last week, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he used to chair, to howls of outrage from Israel and from its American partisans, Kerry directly blamed Israel for sabotaging the talks, by announcing the construction of 700 settlements in occupied territory outside Jerusalem. “Poof!” said Kerry, describing how the talks came to a sudden halt. “That was sort of the moment.” Israel also threw a tool-box full of monkey wrenches into the talks by refusing to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners, though they had pledged to do so as part of the Kerry-led talks. Following those actions by Israel, the Palestinians announced their intention to apply for membership, as a state, in more than a dozen United Nations organizations, and then Netanyahu escalated by declaring his intent to take more “unilateral” actions that would further throw the talks into the deep freeze. But it was clearly Israel, and its intransigent prime minister, who was chiefly to blame for wrecking the talks.
It wasn’t only Kerry who put the blame on Israel. As The New York Times reported last week:
Tzipi Livni, the justice minister and the government’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, said she believed that Uri Ariel, the housing minister, had acted deliberately to sabotage the peace effort.
Hardly a liberal peacenik, Livni is a former member of the ultraright Likud coalition. But more recently, she’s emerged as a strong advocate for a two-state solution, and the fact that she was named as Israel’s chief negotiator was thought to be a good sign, at the start of the talks in 2013. Now, Livni is engaged in political warfare with the far-right components of the ruling coalition—not only Housing Minister Ariel but Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, too, who Livni says is the representative of Israel’s fanatical settler movement, including the settlement of Yitzhar, where settlers attacked security police recently, and not of Israel itself. According to Haaretz, the Israeli daily, Livni added:
And so everything is connected. This man and his party are damaging Israel’s security. They’re the ones trying to make sure that there’s no peace agreement—that the young men of Yitzhar become official Israel. I won’t let this happen.
Bennett, the leader of the hardline Jewish Home party, closely affiliated with the settler movement, and other extremists inside Netanyahu’s coalition, are the ones sabotaging the talks, says Livni. Reports The Times of Israel:
She also accused the hard-line “Jewish Home,” a pro-settler party, of trying to thwart her efforts. She took special aim at the party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a strong supporter of Jewish settlements.
“There are people in the government who don’t want peace,” Livni said. “Bennett and Uri Ariel represent those who want to prevent a peace process.”
So far, it seems that Netanyahu is leaning toward the hardliners. But Livni’s courageous stand provides crucial cover for Kerry’s decision to blame Israel for the breakdown. And that’s important, because even a slight move by Kerry to take the Palestinian side in the talks will terrify Israeli politicians and political powers. Although it often seems as if Israel is immune to American pressure, in fact that pressure is rarely applied, and Israel is so dependent on the United States for political support—in the UN, say—and for American economic and military support that even a slight indication that the United States is reviewing its Israel policy will send chills down Israeli spines. The problem, historically, is that the United States has rarely been willing to use that influence.
Kerry, naturally, is under fire from the Israel lobby’s partisans on Capitol Hill. But they’re greatly weakened, because of their opposition to the ongoing US-Iran talks, which appear to be progressing successfully. When the Israel lobby on the Hill and its organizer, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, tried to sabotage the Iran talks by legislating yet another round of anti-Iran sanctions, President Obama’s White House in January suggested that backers of those sanctions want war with Iran, and called their bluff. As I reported back in January, a White House statement said:
If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.
That statement shocked AIPAC and its allies to the core. Right now, despite Israel’s intransigence, Obama and Kerry hold all the high cards. Let’s see if they lay them down.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on how to break the Israel-Palestine deadlock.
There’s one hope, one last hope, to revive the pretty-much-dead Israel-Palestinian peace talks that the indefatigable Secretary of State John Kerry has been pursuing since last year, and whose deadline, albeit artificially imposed, falls at the end of April. And that would be this: that the United States stop going back and forth between the intransigent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the weak, divided and powerless Palestine Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and simply say what it thinks, and offer its own, detailed outline of what a solution should look like. In the long history of American Middle East diplomacy—indeed, even going back to 1967, to the post-1973 Sinai accord, to the late 1970s Sadat-Begin accords, the Oslo agreement and the Bill Clinton–led talks at the very end of his second term—that’s never been done. Midway through the current round, there were plenty of reports that Kerry was considering doing exactly that, specifying what the United States believes the “final status” should be.
Maybe—probably not—but maybe, that’s what’s coming. In its report today on Kerry’s return to Washington, where he’s consulting with President Obama about what comes next, way down in its article The New York Times says that Kerry might release “an American peace plan”:
For all that, some experts said Mr. Kerry was so committed to his Middle East initiative that it was more likely he would push for a change in diplomatic strategy, perhaps by offering an American peace plan, instead of simply walking away from the negotiations.
Let’s first say why it’s unlikely to happen, and then why it is important that it does.
Why it’s unlikely is because there’s little or no sign that Obama, even deep into his second term, is prepared for a showdown with Israel. (That, of course, puts him in the company of every president since, well… of every president.) It isn’t even clear that Obama has done anything more than watch Kerry’s intensive, nonstop shuttle diplomacy with bemused detachment since it started last summer. Since then, even White House officials and others have taken potshots at Kerry’s efforts, enough so that the president himself had to weigh in, damning Kerry with what looked like faint praise while acknowledging the naysayers inside his administration. Said Obama:
I see a lot of senior officials quoted about Kerry and Middle East peace but I’m the most senior official, and I have nothing but admiration for how John has handled this.
Maybe Obama does support Kerry, but it isn’t clear what that means. Were Kerry to release an American plan, obviously with Obama’s support, it would henceforth be clear that the president and the secretary of state are on the same page.
The central problem in the US-initiated round of talks—which almost never involved the Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, just Kerry going back and forth—is that not once did the United States indicate that it was willing to put the squeeze on Israel to force Netanyahu to make the necessary concessions needed to get things moving. In fact, Israel holds all the high cards: it has a iron grip on the occupied West Bank and a viselike hold around Gaza, an almost impossible-to-challenge intelligence and security blanket smothering West Bank towns and villages and a military that is overwhelmingly the strongest in the region—plus, it faces a weak and divided PA, whose leaders are unelected, which reigns over an economically devastated region and which is undermined by the religious-right Hamas, both in Gaza and, to a lesser extent, in the West Bank itself. So, unless the United States is prepared to put its thumb on the scale, to use its enormous leverage over Israel—which, after all, it sustains, on virtual life support—then why would an ultra-right Israeli government make a deal that it opposes on political, security and even religious grounds?
So why is it important that the United States put forward its own plan? First, because the United States has its own national interest, independent of Israel’s and independent of Palestine’s, in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it ought to say so. Second, because anyone and everyone who’s looked at the problem knows pretty much what a deal would include: the near-total withdrawal from the West Bank by Israel, the removal of Israel’s illegal settlements, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza on land approximating the 1967 lines, the readjustment of the 1967 lines by swapping at least a little territory between the two, the division of Jerusalem to serve as the capital of both states, a long-term security plan that demilitarizes the new Palestinian state while providing US and/or other international military forces in key areas, such as the Jordan Valley, a mutually acceptable plan for Palestinian refugees (few of whom will be able to go back to Israel proper) and many billions of dollars: to finance the removal of Israel’s 500,000 settlers, to prop up Palestine economically, to compensate Palestinian refugees resettling in the new state and more. That’s pretty much the plan, so why not say so?
Here’s why it’s important: stating that forthrightly as American policy would create enormous pressure on Israel. Yes, the Palestinians will object to parts of it, and they’ll demand a lot on the issue of refugees, under the heading of the “right of return.” But, even though there’ve been polls showing that the majority of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state, the far-right coalition led by Netanyahu is exceedingly unlikely to go along with anything like the plan just outlined without some coercion. Indeed, for such a plan to be implemented, it would probably mean the collapse of Netanyahu’s coalition, the realignment of Israeli politics and the emergence of a pragmatic bloc within Israel designed to win and keep the American life-support aid flowing. Netanyahu, faced with such a plan, would either have to quietly leave politics or realign himself with centrists and pragmatists.
But note that implicit in the announcement of an American plan—and it wouldn’t have to be stated explicitly—would be that the United States would have to hold over Israel’s head the vast US economic, military and political support it provides to Israel. That doesn’t mean cutting Israel off, and don’t forget that the obstreperous US Congress, in league with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would fight any lessening of American aid. But there are plenty of things that the Obama administration can do without cutting off aid: change the way it votes at the United Nations Security Council, reduce US military cooperation with Israel, begin contacts with Hamas, reduce its special-relationship exchanges with Netanyahu’s government and simply change the language it uses about the conflict. (Recall the flap in Obama’s first term when he simply said that the United States supports a solution based on the 1967 borders, even though that’s been the American position since, well, the passage of Resolutions 242 and 338 after the 1967 war.)
In the end, after all of Kerry’s efforts, Netanyahu didn’t even bother to keep the commitments he made at the start. Instead, his government has announced the expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements and refused to release the latest group of Palestinian prisoners. (Remember, back in 2009, how Netanyahu openly defied Obama, when he flatly rejected Obama’s public urging that Israel halt settlements.)
So Kerry has one more play to make: to outline what he thinks a final status agreement would look like. It’s time to show his hand.
For Obama, there’s a political risk. Not only would he draw fire from pro-Israel hardliners and neoconservatives, but he’d risk open defiance from Netanyahu. But so what? By negotiating with Iran toward an accord over that country’s nuclear program—talks that will have another round this week—Obama is implicitly threatening an open break with Israel, which is certain to reject any deal that emerges. Might as well risk it all now.
Based on past events, it doesn’t seem likely that Obama will do anything like what I’ve suggested. It’s unlikely, though not inconceivable. But it’s the right thing to do.
Read Next: Chase Madar on why bankrolling Israel prevents peace in the Middle East
The OCD GOP yesterday held yet another hearing on the nonexistent crisis over the September 11, 2012, assault on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Yes, another one. Writing in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank called it “hearing number 1,372,569, give or take,” and it certainly seems that way. Even though a massive official report made it clear that there was no political conspiracy to hide the truth about Benghazi, even though an exhaustive investigative report in The New York Times laid out the sequence of events in a very convincing manner, and even though President Obama did indeed describe the assault as a “terror” attack immediately after it occurred, the obsessive-compulsives in the Republican party can’t let go.
This really is a big deal to the far right, who argue that in a nefarious plot, President Obama and his team covered up the fact that it was Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who attacked the compound in Benghazi (it wasn’t), that the CIA and Susan Rice, then the US ambassador to the United Nations, engaged in some sort of political shenanigans to convince Americans that it was no big deal on the eve of the presidential election (they didn’t) and that the White House and the Pentagon blithely ignored calls for help from the US personnel under attack (they didn’t). Still, on every Fox News broadcast, on the right-wing blogs, at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference and elsewhere among the hard-core GOP faithful, “Benghazi” is a code word for Obama’s alleged fecklessness and perfidy.
At yesterday’s hearing, Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, bothered to testify at a hearing convened by Representative Mike Rogers, the GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who’s about the leave Congress to become (wait for it!) a talk show host. Not surprisingly, but with some restraint, Morell patiently explained that there was no conspiracy. Saying that the CIA compiled the “talking points” on the Benghazi attack, immediately after it occurred, based on the “best available information at the time,” Morell added:
I never allowed politics to influence what I said or did—never. None of our actions were the result of political influence in the intelligence process—none.... The White House did not make any substantive changes to the talking points, nor did they ask me to.
Did he have a conversation with anyone at the White House about the nature of the talking points?
His thoughts on the false information Susan Rice gave on TV the Sunday after the attacks?
“What she said about the attacks evolving spontaneously from a protest was exactly what the talking points said.”
How about the claims that somebody in the administration told the military not to assist on the night of the attack?
“I am aware of several requests by CIA for military support that night, and those requests were honored and delivered.”
Milbank adds that Representative Peter King (R-NY) “let loose a string of insults,” Representative Michelle Bachmann said that she believes (sans evidence) “that there was an intentional misleading of the public,” and that Representative Frank LoBiondo “shouted virtually his entire statement,” in which, hilariously, he said:
We get on talking points, and we get about who said this and whether the station chief said that. And the bottom line is that we’ve got people running around who killed Americans, who are sipping mai tais or whatever they’re sipping, and we can’t do anything about it.
Mai tais? Unless the Al Qaeda people he is worried about were drinking virgin mai tais, it’s unlikely that the strict Islamists who did assault the Benghazi compound had suddenly found a decree from some drunken imam that alcohol was no longer haram.
Politico, which appears to have taken the whole thing way too seriously, in its report quotes Rogers, King and others extensively, as if they were a bunch of Sherlock Holmeses who had finally gotten to the bottom of some mystery. But Morell quietly explained that he didn’t even know that Susan Rice would be appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, and that he didn’t know she’d be using the CIA-generated talking points, which anyway were subject to changes and updates as new information became available. As to whether the attack, which was first described as a protest over the Internet-circulated video about the Prophet Mohammad, and then as a pre-planned terrorist assault, was one or the other, Morell explained to the shouting committee members:
I believed what my analysts said, that there was a protest. I also believed it to be a terrorist attack. You see, we never, we never saw those two things as mutually exclusive, and so I believed both of those at the same time.
Before yesterday's hearing, Bill O’Reilly, the noted foreign policy expert, had this to say:
Now, the big picture: President Obama was running for re-election when the terrorists hit Benghazi and his campaign was touting his effective policies on terrorism. So there could have been a political motivation to keep terrorists out of the Benghazi debacle. If the Obama administration lied, that's an abuse of power. If the CIA cooperated in the lie, that's an abuse of power. As we all know from Watergate, abuses of power can lead to very bad things.
So Benghazi is a big story whether the left wants to admit it or not. To be fair we need to hear from Mr. Morell tomorrow under oath, and people should not be making blanket accusations against the President or anyone else. But this whole thing is very suspicious. If that CIA memo counters what Ambassador Rice said, all hell should break loose, even with apathetic media.
But it’s obvious that hell, even among the apathetic media, isn’t breaking loose.
Don’t worry: to be continued. And continued.
Read Next: Tom Engelhardt on how sensational news stories distract us from real crises.
Blaming the Palestinians for the apparent breakdown in Secretary of State John Kerry’s ill-fated shuttle diplomacy is like blaming the victim of a mugging for the crime. Kerry’s diplomacy was always a long shot, and not because the problem is so intractable but because Israel’s government is so ultraconservative and so adamant about its God-given right to “Judea and Samaria” that it was never apparent that an accord could be reached.
The only hope for a deal, if one existed, would have been if Kerry had announced his own plan. It had been reported for quite a while that Kerry had a plan in his back pocket that he was going to announce, outlining the shape of a Palestinian-Israeli accord, according to the American idea. Where is the plan? So far, we haven’t seen it. Now that the talks are faltering, it might be the time for Kerry to show his cards.
The Washington Post headlines its piece, “Obama administration scrambles to rescue foundering Mideast peace talks.” In The New York Times, it’s, "Palestinians Defy U.S. and Israel, Leaving Peace Talks in Peril.” What caused the great kerfuffle is simply that the Palestinians delivered 15 letters to United Nations agencies asking, as is their right, to be admitted as members of those agencies—but not, in a gesture to Israel, to the International Criminal Court, under whose jurisdiction they could have brought war crimes charges against Israel. Until now, the Palestinians had held off on joining UN agencies, mostly a symbolic step, in order not to rile the Israelis. But after months of talks that seemed to go nowhere, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his allies had apparently had enough.
The immediate trigger for the Palestinian action was Israel’s refusal, so far, to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, as called for in an interim agreement in 2013. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had balked, and it appears that Kerry was willing to go as far as to offer the release of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel, in order to induce cooperation from Israel. Nearly everyone who’s looked at that idea has concluded that it’s a terrible one, and anyway, Pollard has nothing to do with the Israel-Palestinian conflict—so it was just an odd sort of bribe to Netanyahu.
But the flap over the latest group of Palestinian prisoners is only a smokescreen for the fact that Israel has no signs of being willing to budge on giving the Palestinians a viable state in the lands occupied by Israeli forces in 1967—which, of course, would mean returning to the 1967 borders, pulling the Jewish settlers out and giving the Palestinians access to a share of Jerusalem for their capital. Kerry, it seems, had tried to persuade Israel to go along with a formula like that, part of which involved working out arrangements for US troops to take up positions along the Jordan River, on what would be the eastern frontier of a Palestinian state, in order to assuage Israeli security concerns. Lots of other details had been worked out, including how long settlements might stay, how long Israeli and international forces might remain in what’s now the occupied West Bank, and more. And Kerry had apparently made initial steps toward amassing many billions of dollars from international sources—funds for Palestinian economic development, for resettling Palestinian refugees, for moving Jewish settlers and even for compensating Israel for the costs of accepting Jewish refugees from Middle East countries over the past decades.
Were Kerry to release his plan now, it would either (a) reveal that it was so tilted toward Israel that it was hopeless from the start, or (b) put Israel under great pressure to agree to an even-handed plan that has the full support of the United States. In the long history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United States has never once announced a plan of its own or declared its own ideas about what an accord might look like. Instead, under president after president, the United States has always said that it’s “up to the two parties.” But with Israel holding nearly all the cards, that means that any agreement would massively favor the Israeli point of view. Yesterday, a frustrated Kerry threw up his hands, canceled a planned trip to the Middle East, and said, “In the end, it is up to the parties.”
Israel has thrown a series of roadblocks up all along the way, including the most recent, new demand that the Palestinians accept Israel “as a Jewish state,” whatever that means. In Israel's view it seems to mean that Palestinians who currently live inside Israel will always be second-class citizens. In the twenty-first century, what state has the chutzpah to declare (and insist) that it is designed exclusively for a particular ethnic or religious bloc? Well, except for various ultra-Islamic countries, many of which do so in order to placate Muslim extremists within their borders, Israel is the only one. That’s fine, if that’s their choice, but why demand that the Palestinians ratify it before a deal?
Read Next: Bernard Avishai on John Judis's new book about Truman and the origins of the Arab/Israeli conflict.
Having a presidential election in Afghanistan is sort of like trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again—that is, if every piece of the eggshell were trying to kill all the other pieces. Thirteen years after the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan is no closer to being a unified country than it was back then, after a decade of war during the Soviet period, the civil war that followed and finally the conquest by the Taliban.
Nevertheless, Afghanistan votes on April 5.
The chief American concern, of course, is the election of a president who’ll sign the much-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, allowing a contingent of US forces to remain in-country past the end of 2014. President Hamid Karzai, after dithering, shocked Washington last year by saying he won’t sign it. Now, the chances that the next president will sign it are high, since every candidate says that he will. Still, once elected, that could change, and it isn’t clear what conditions the Afghans might place on the accord. Last month, President Obama warned Karzai—and, through him, the other candidates—that he ain’t fooling when he says the United States might pull every last soldier out. According to the White House, in a phone call with Karzai, Obama also said that the door is still open for Karzai’s successor to sign on the dotted line:
President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year.
But Obama couldn’t have been encouraged by the fact that Karzai said that he supports the Russian takeover of Crimea in Ukraine. Interestingly, Russia is showing great interest in Afghanistan these days, and The Washington Post recently surveyed the scene. It reports:
The Russian government has compiled a list of 140 Soviet-era projects that it would like to rehabilitate, according to the embassy. The Kabul Housebuilding Factory, the country’s largest manufacturing facility, was the first to receive assistance last fall: $25 million in new equipment. A few miles away in Kabul, the Russian government is spending $20 million to renovate the Soviet House of Science and Culture, constructed in 1982.
Whoever emerges from the rubble of the election—after the massive fraud, after the ballot-box violence and Taliban attacks, after the corrupt vote-buying and warlord-controlled ethnic-bloc votes—may not matter too much, since Afghanistan will still be basket-case poor, bitterly divided, with its regions controlled by the same warlords who’ve been fighting each other since the late 1980s. None of the candidates can afford not to sign the BSA, in the end, since along with it comes $4 billion or more in aid to the Afghan national security forces—without which they wouldn't exist for long.
Among the candidates, the three main contenders are Zalmay Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Rassoul, a Pashtun, is backed by Karzai and his powerful brothers, including Qayum Karzai, who quit the race himself to throw his support to Rassoul. He’s a French-educated doctor who once worked as the chief of the ex-king’s office in Rome before 2001, and his running mates include Ahmed Zia Massoud, the brother of the slain leader of the Northern Alliance, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda on the eve of 9/11. The presence of Massoud, a Tajik, on the ticket is designed to win Tajik votes in the north of Afghanistan.
Abdullah, who is part Pashtun and part Tajik, is closely identified with the Tajik-led Northern Alliance, too, since he was close to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the assassinated leader. Abdullah was the runner-up in the 2009 election, losing to Karzai but still winning nearly 31 percent of the vote. He’s especially backed by other Tajik warlords and tribal chieftains.
Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, got less than 3 percent of the vote in 2009. He’s a Pashtun, too, but from a different subgroup of Pashtuns than the Karzai clan. What sets him apart this year is that his running mate is the notorious warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a general who has been blamed for countless murders. Dostum is an Uzbek, and he’s extremely powerful in the north among Uzbeks.
The New York Times, in a pre-election piece, notes that all three chief candidates are campaigning heavily in Afghanistan’s north, partly because it’s safer there. (That means that voters can get to the polls with a smaller likelihood that they’ll be killed in the process.) In 2009, the Times notes, more votes were cast in the north than anywhere else in Afghanistan, so it’s the place to be if you’re a candidate. But the problem is, most of Afghanistan is Pashtun, and most Pashtuns live in the south and the east, especially around Kandahar, the old Taliban capital. That whole part of the country is seething, and the Taliban is still very strong, in the countryside in particular. Because Pashtuns don’t always vote, since the first election in Afghanistan after 2001 the vote has always been skewed against them, in Parliament especially, where the Pashtuns have been ill-represented all along. (They’re also poorly represented among the army’s officer corps.) Partly as a result, and partly because of Taliban resistance, there’s a great deal of violence in Kandahar and environs: last week, the Taliban killed Kandahar’s governor’s chief of staff and wounded the deputy governor.
Still, Pashtuns make up about 42 percent of the Afghan population, and Tajiks just 27 percent. So, even if many Pashtuns don’t vote—or, alternately, if Pashtun tribal chiefs simply stuff ballot boxes in the south—the Rassoul-Karzai alliance seems to have the upper hand, especially if there’s a runoff vote between, say, Rassoul and Abdullah, the most likely outcome. In any case, it’s hardly a formula for national reconciliation.
The widespread violence and chaos has sent many international observers and election monitors fleeing, making the election even more suspect. The American groups, such as the National Democratic Institute, pulled up stakes after one of its people was killed in a blatant attack on a major Kabul hotel, and the International Republican Institute hasn’t even bothered to become involved. Democracy International has also reduced its role because of the violence. According to The Guardian, even the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has withdrawn its contingent.
According to the Times, the main compound of Afghanistan’s own election commission—which has been under attack—“is in total lockdown, and we have moved our staff to bunkers and safe houses,” a spokesman said.
As the US withdrawal accelerates, there’s a big problem: what to do with billions of dollars worth of military equipment that’s too expensive to ship back home? It turns out that the Pentagon has decided that the Afghan army, which might want the materiel, can’t handle it, since it’s too disorganized and underfunded. (Over the past dozen years, huge quantities of military equipment have been supplied to the Afghan armed forces—your tax dollars at work—including “more than $53 billion in equipment and support, 160 aircraft, 100,000 vehicles, 500,000 weapons and 200,000 pieces of communications and night-vision equipment.”) So, now the United States is offering it free to any country that’ll take it, presumably Russia excepted. There’s at least $7 billion worth, including 1,600 MRAPs, those mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that weigh 40 tons each. It’s been reported that the United States might hand them over to Pakistan, a report since denied. If the US does give them to Pakistan, it could mean that Pakistan will hand them over to Taliban commanders, who’ll be riding them back into the Afghan fight next year. Given how the United States has bungled the war since 2001, that would be a fitting, if ironic, coda.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss considers whether Iran, Syria and Egypt will take their cues from Russia.
Yesterday, a very high-level Western envoy met with Vladimir Putin. No, it wasn’t the American secretary of state or the British prime minister. And it wasn’t President Obama, who was quietly extolling the virtues of NATO in a speech in Brussels. Instead, it was someone who really matters: Joe Kaeser, the CEO of the giant German firm Siemens, whose company all by itself had nearly $3 billion in sales to Russia last year. It might look like the important diplomacy is taking place amid talks between the US delegation in Brussels with its European counterparts, but the visit to Moscow by Kaeser and parallel actions by many of his German colleagues is where the action is.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Kaeser met Putin, and he had this to say:
Siemens has been present in Russia since 1853—a presence that has survived many highs and lows. We want to maintain the conversation even in today's politically difficult times. For us, dialogue is a crucial part of a long-term relationship.
And 1853 was just before the Crimean War, I do believe. The Journal goes on to report:
German industry has been hard at work under the radar of official avenues to establish an informal diplomatic channel, shuttling between Berlin and Moscow to prevent an all-out economic war. In the days ahead of the Crimean vote to secede from Ukraine, officials from lobbying group Ostausschuss—which represents German companies with investments in Eastern Europe—held meetings with senior Russian, Ukrainian and German officials in an attempt to find a compromise that could ward off tit-for-tat sanctions.
And the paper added this tidbit:
In Berlin, a small circle of politicians and industry lobbyists that include Mr. Cordes and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have met regularly throughout the crisis at the Russian Embassy with Ambassador Vladimir Grinin, a person familiar with the gathering said. Since leaving office in 2005, Mr. Schröder, who has close ties to Mr. Putin, has worked as an adviser to Gazprom. Messrs. Grinin and Schröder couldn't be reached to comment.
As reported in my blog not long ago, it will be capitalism, not politics, that prevents a new Cold War.
In fact, the Germans—with deep economic ties to Russia that create a German national interest in which business supersedes any concern about Crimea—want to normalize things again with Russia, and fast. The Russian news outlet RT, that faithful propagandist for Mother Russia, approvingly cites yet another former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, writing in Die Zeit, who said that Russia’s land grab in Crimea was “completely understandable” and that that economic sanctions against Russia are a “stupid idea.”
Commenting on the response so far by the current German leader, Angela Merkel, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian writes:
In contrast to the posturing and empty rhetoric in London and Washington is the calm voice of Germany's Angela Merkel.… Merkel grew up in East Germany under the KGB's lash and has tried to see Putin through Russian eyes. She sees the absurdity of Barack Obama preaching international law at Russia, of punishing it over Crimea while scheming to bring Ukraine into the western camp. She sees the 1914 danger, of vague ultimatums, unenforceable red lines and ill-considered alliances.
In contrast, President Obama’s speech in Brussels, which wandered this way and that but which focused on the theme of NATO’s role in defending freedom, contained this empty phrase:
Today, NATO planes patrol the skies over the Baltics, and we’ve reinforced our presence in Poland. And we’re prepared to do more. Going forward, every NATO member state must step up and carry its share of the burden by showing the political will to invest in our collective defense, and by developing the capabilities to serve as a source of international peace and security.
And, weirdly, describing the current West vs. Russia divide, Obama said: “The contest of ideas continues.” As if the current crisis were the result of competing ideologies, and not power politics, Putin’s vainglory and the price of natural gas.
If Ukraine does complete its move away from Russia and toward the European Union, the EU’s $15 billion aid package, plus another $14 to $18 billion from the International Monetary Fund, is what will do the trick, and not the outmoded, useless and underfunded NATO.
The New York Times, writing about the downward spiral of NATO and the withdrawal of US forces from Europe, reports today:
The United States, by far the most powerful NATO member, has drastically cut back its European forces from a decade ago. European countries, which have always lagged far behind the United States in military might, have struggled and largely failed to come up with additional military spending at a time of economic anemia and budget cuts.
And it notes that US forces have declined from 400,000 at the height of the Cold War to about 67,000 today. Hawks in Europe and the United States would love to reverse the trend, stepping up the US military presence in eastern Europe and prodding European governments to spend more on their militaries.
But Defense News, hardheaded as always, notes that Russia would not have been deterred even by a stronger NATO. Its source is the British defense minister:
"I think my own judgment is that it is unlikely that any realistic change in level of defense spending in Europe would have made a difference to Putin’s calculus over these events,” Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told a small group of reporters during a meeting at the British Embassy in Washington.
Read Next: Dustin Christensen on Ukrainians debating Russia and revolution in New York’s Borscht Belt.
There’s a major flaw in the view of the United States held by Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia and now the proud owner of Crimea. And that is, that Vladimir Vladimirovich conflates the Cold War, the Bill Clinton administration, the George W. Bush administration, and President Obama’s own policies—with no recognition that, at least since 2009, the United States has tried, imperfectly, to improve relations with Russia.
Looking back on U.S.-Russian relations since the fall of the USSR, there’s a lot of blame that falls on the United States: a big U.S. military buildup since the late 1990s, unilateral overseas adventures by Clinton and Bush in Kosovo and Iraq, the expansion of NATO to include various Eastern European nations (and efforts to have Ukraine and Georgia join, too), and more. Perhaps US-Russian relations reached a low point—at least before the turmoil in Ukraine and Russia’s seizure of Crimea—in 2008, when the two nations quarreled over Russia's military action in Georgia.
To be fair, however, under Obama the United States sought to “reset” relations with Moscow, appealing to Russia’s capitalist class to mesh with Western Europe, the European Union, the United States and various international economic bodies. As Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia until a few weeks ago, wrote in the New York Times today:
In my first years in government, I witnessed [then-] President Medvedev cooperating with President Obama on issues of mutual benefit—a new Start treaty, new sanctions against Iran, new supply routes through Russia to our soldiers in Afghanistan and Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. These results of the “reset” advanced several American vital national interests. The American post-Cold War policy of engagement and integration, practiced by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, appeared to be working again.
Indeed, the United States believed that it could bypass Putin, in a way, and court Medvedev. A French diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks under Medvedev’s presidency suggested “cultivating relations with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, in the hope that he can become a leader independent of Vladimir Putin.” If that was the plan, it was based on faulty intelligence, since Medvedev had no real political base and was, it appears, all along a cats’-paw for Putin—who, as prime minister under President Medvedev, planned to retake the presidency once again. And the more hawkish elements of the Obama administration, including then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were far more skeptical of Putin than was President Obama, who seems sincerely to have believed that the United States and Russia, even under Putin, could find common ground.
The U.S.-NATO military campaign against Libya certainly irked Putin, but Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was hardly a major ally of Moscow’s, and the Russians always viewed Qaddafi suspiciously, as did the USSR in the 1970s and ‘80s. But by putting NATO expansion to Ukraine an Georgia on hold, by backing off on missile defense systems in eastern Europe, by seeking to conclude new strategic arms accords with Russia, by working with Russia on a UN-backed plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, by cooperating with Russia in ongoing talks between Iran and the P5+1, the United States under Obama could hardly be compared to George W. Bush’s neoconservative, go-it-alone, you're-with-us-or-you're-against-us policies abroad. By removing the last of American troops from Iraq, by pledging to remove all or nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, by making major cuts in the Pentagon’s budget, and by announcing a “pivot” to Asia—which, if anything, is focused on containing China, not Russia—Obama was sending signal after signal to Russia that Washington was willing to play ball.
Obama’s moderation vis-à-vis Russia continues even after the takeover of Crimea. Despite fierce pressure from hawks—for the latest, see the open letter to Obama from virtually the entire neoconservative movement calling on the president to “strengthen Ukraine, isolate Russia, and strengthen NATO”—Obama has responded judiciously to the Russia-Crimea action so far, imposing a very limited set of sanctions and avoiding anthing like Cold War rhetoric. Hopefully, that means that the White House is still committed to diplomacy with Russia, and to continuing business-as-usual over Iran, Syria, and other hot spots.
But all bets are off if Russia moves into eastern Ukraine and/or Moldova, or acts elsewhere along its periphery in supposed defense of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking cities of the former USSR. In that case, the hawks will almost certainly get what they want.
In the wake of 9/11, just about everyone hawkish, authoritarian, and police- and surveillance minded politician, agency and authority in the United States hauled out their wish list and used the 9/11 attacks to justify getting what they wanted: more money for the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence agencies, an expanded FBI counterintelligence division, new domestic powers through the Patriot Act and other laws, more money for police intelligence units, and so on. So today are the same folks using the Crimea events to appeal to Obama for their own, updated laundry lists: more money for defense, expanding NATO, reinstalling missiles in eastern Europe, more military aid to Poland, the Baltic countries, and other former USSR nations, boosting military spending in Europe, and even semi-irrelevant issues such as accelerating U.S. exports of natural gas to compete with Russia in Europe and approving the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
For now, Obama can resist most or all of that pressure. But if Putin moves beyond Crimea militarily, he’ll cave in to the hawks on most of what they want—and the world will be launched into, well, not a Cold War exactly, but a prolonged, hostile relationship with Moscow that will probably only end when Putin is toppled by a domestic, democratic movement.
Read Next: The Editors on "How to Avert a New Cold War Over Crimea."
One of the ugly consequences of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean land grab and the subsequent reaction in the United States and Western Europe is that the chilled relations across the divide could have a dramatic impact on conflicts and controversies in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In the United States, it may seem that Russia’s actions will make Putin and Co. pariahs in the rest of the world, but among the strongmen and tough guys of the Middle East, that might not be the case. A Middle East diplomat told The Nation recently that during a visit last summer to Russia by the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi spy chief, told Putin that Saudi Arabia would consider financing arms purchases by Egypt from Russia. Then, in February, Egypt’s ruler and all-but-assured next president, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the defense chief who seized power in a coup d’etat last July, reportedly secured a $3 billion arms deal with Russia that could be the first step toward easing the United States out of Egypt’s military market.
In Syria, meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed government is no doubt embolded by Russia’s muscle-flexing, and it’s likely that Russia will double down on supporting Assad’s military, which has already been making major gains in the civil war against a rag-tag, mostly Islamist opposition. Reported The Washington Post last week:
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his reelection for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.
And now, Iran. The latest round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, including the United States and Russia, concluded this week. But the Russians are now hinting that they might hold the talks hostage if the United States reacts too strongly to Russia’s Ukraine policy. Listen to Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and delegate to the P5+1 talks with Iran:
We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington. But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well. The historic importance of what happened in the last weeks and days regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.
Some analysts say that Russia has its own national interest in trying to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, but the fact is that Iran is nowhere near getting a bomb. Still, the United States does need Russia to help diplomatically with Iran, and it needs both Iran and Russia vis-à-vis Syria. Among other things, Russia could easily shatter the sanctions consensus on Iran, reopening trade ties with its neighbor to the south. And, in the extreme, Russia could start delivering anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense systems to Iran, including an advanced type that would terrify Israel and perhaps lead hawkish Israelis to demand air strikes on Iran before the missiles could be put in place.
As Al Monitor reported in February, commenting on improving Russia-Iran ties:
Iranian-Russian strategic cooperation could also help Moscow maintain security in Russia’s southern regions, especially managing the growing threat from terrorism. Furthermore, Moscow and Tehran could try to align their positions on the Caspian Sea legal regime and on the utilization of its resources. It might also pave the way for the participation of Russian companies in Iranian energy, infrastructure and industrial projects, especially if Western governments drag their feet in removing sanctions against Iran.
Read Next: The Editors on how to avert a new Cold War over Crimea