News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
There’s a crisis brewing in US-Israel relations, and it’s about time.
For four years, President Obama has put up with the shenanigans of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Among Netanyahu’s offenses: openly defying Obama in 2009, when the president called for Israel to halt its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and overt supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. But, in issuing a stream of political invective aimed at capsizing the emerging deal with Iran, Netanyahu is making a catastrophic miscalculation that could isolate Israel and weaken its support among the American public.
Fact is, Netanyahu can’t stop the coming deal with Iran. And despite his bluster, he can’t bomb Iran, either. Furthermore, Israel—which vastly depends on American good will, American aid and American arms—doesn’t have many friends outside the United States. Despite Netanyahu’s warm embrace of visiting French President FrançHollande this week, and despite Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Moscow to talk turkey with Vladimir Putin, really and truly Israel has nowhere else to go except Washington.
All the vaunted power of the Israel lobby, which Netanyahu has tried to mobilize against Obama this month, won’t save Israel if the United States abandons it. Not that the United States is abandoning Israel anytime soon, of course, but even a sharp look of disapproval from Washington can cause serious problems in Israel, and in Israeli politics. So Netanyahu had better be careful.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the pro-Israel think tank allied to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), issued a dire warning about the developing rupture in US-Israeli relations this week. Wrote Rob Satloff, WINEP’s executive director, in Politico, in regard to the potential US-Iran entente:
Not since Menachem Begin trashed Ronald Reagan’s 1982 peace plan has Israel so publicly criticized a major U.S. diplomatic initiative. In a rousing speech in Jerusalem on Nov. 10, Netanyahu even called on leaders of American Jewry to use their influence to stop what he called a “bad” Iran deal.
Never has a U.S. secretary of state taken to a podium in an Arab capital, proclaimed his pro-Israel bona fides and then specifically cautioned the prime minister of Israel to butt out of ongoing U.S. diplomatic efforts and save his critique for after a deal is inked. That is what John Kerry did in a remarkable Nov. 11 news conference in Abu Dhabi, standing next to the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates.
Netanyahu, in his hysterical speech at the United Nations in September, and his apoplectic responses to the diplomacy with Iran ever since, has brought this on himself. As The New York Times reports today:
Every time Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, ask for a little time and space to test the new Iranian leadership’s claims that it is ready for a new approach, and for compromise, Mr. Netanyahu responds that the proposed agreement is “a very bad deal,” “extremely dangerous,” “a mistake of historic proportions” or, as he said in an interview with CNN on Sunday, “an exceedingly bad deal.” And he has often raised the specter of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities even if a deal is signed, something the Obama administration believes would split apart the global coalition it has built to squeeze Iran.
With such absurdly exaggerated rhetoric, Netanyahu has created a crisis for himself. What happens when Iran and the P5+1 sign the deal, which could happen as early as this week? Where does Netanyahu go then? His bluster about striking Iran unilaterally is just that: bluster. Were Israel to attack Iran, either the United States would condemn it and allow Israel to suffer the world’s opprobrium all alone, or the United States would find itself (and Israel) utterly isolated as the rest of the world strikes its own deal with Iran, causing the economic sanctions to collapse.
Make no mistake: there’s more at stake here than just the talks with Iran. Israel’s entire relationship with the United States is on the line.
Dave Zirin looks back at the untimely death of basketball star Len Bias.
One of the byproducts of recent events in the Middle East is the return of Russia to a prominent role across the region. Not that Russia ever left, but it has been a principal goal of successive US administrations to push first the Soviet Union and then Russia back. In the 1950s and 1960s that took the form of a series of political and military alliances, including NATO (which included Turkey) and the Baghdad Pact and CENTO (including variously Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan). More recently, the United States has tried to expand NATO eastward along Russia’s southwest flank, including Ukraine and Georgia. And the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya deprived Russia of important partners, in fields as varied as energy and arms sales.
Not so much anymore. Russia has come roaring back. However, although hawks and neoconservatives will make noises about President Obama’s inability to block Russia’s Middle East resurgence, it could be a good thing if it leads to greater US-Russian cooperation in conflicts such as the civil war in Syria, the Iran nuclear standoff, Afghanistan, and the war against Al Qaeda.
The latest news on the Russia–Middle East front is the visit last week of Russia’s foreign minister and defense minister to Egypt. According to AFP:
Russia is offering to sell Egypt modern helicopters and air defense systems in a landmark deal reportedly worth $2 billion that would mark a revival of large-scale military cooperation, a Russian official said Friday.
In the same visit, there were reports that Russia and Egypt spoke about setting up a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. The Russians say that Saudi Arabia is willing to finance the sale, which would be a stunning shift by Egypt, which has long depended on the United States and the West for its military. But the successive coups against former President Hosni Mubarak and then against President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt’s generals has irked Washington and made Egypt resistant to both American carrots and sticks. The new turn toward Russia recalls the dramatic shift by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-1950s, who turned to Eastern Europe and the USSR for arms when London and Washington sought to isolate him and topple his government.
That follows a brilliant diplomatic maneuver in August, when Russia got Syria’s commitment to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons and then invited the United States to co-sponsor the effort, thwarting Obama’s ill-conceived plan to bomb Syria in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of poison gas in the war against Syrian rebels. As a result, Russia—which is Assad’s chief ally, along with Iran—is back at the center of the Syrian issue, pushing for a diplomatic solution. And all of a sudden, the military forces of the Syrian government look formidable, making major gains on the ground since May, when they recaptured a strategic town on the Syria-Lebanon border and began pushing back rebels around Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs. Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone, and a Syrian delegation traveled to Moscow to discuss diplomacy involving the civil war and a planned peace conference in Syria. Russia has also invited the chief representative of the Syrian rebels to Moscow, too.
And Russia is at the center of the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, including the United States, which are on track later this week to create an interim accord of so-called “confidence-building measures” (CBMs) toward a final agreement in six months or so.
Russia’s increased role can be seen in its efforts to build closer ties to Israel and its efforts to sell weapons to Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, too. Last year, says the BBC, “Baghdad has signed major deals for Russian air defence systems and combat helicopters, beating off European competitors.” And, while plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia haven’t materialized yet, on Sunday King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Putin spoke by phone. The BBC adds that the United Arab Emirates, another Arab oil kleptocracy, is improving its Russia ties:
Over the last two decades there has been an enormous influx of Russian visitors and residents to the UAE and one very senior member of the ruling family has such a close working relationship with President Putin they go shooting together in the Russian woods.
None of this ought to be alarming, but it does mean that Obama ought to redouble efforts to work with Russia on regional problems.
Bob Dreyfuss looks into the disruptive role the French are playing in negotiations with Iran.
It remains to be seen whether President Obama’s phone call to French President Hollande yesterday will fix the glitch in the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, talks that were sabotaged by French perfidy last week—or, in the opinion of Israel, hawks and neoconservatives, by French heroism.
After returning to Tehran after the talks, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif bluntly blamed the French for wrecking the talks. What happened, it seems, is that an American draft of an accord was dismantled by the French, who opposed it and forced a rewrite, surprising Iran (and, apparently, the United States as well). So the Iranians had to back off the accord and return home for consultations before resuming talks on November 20. Tweeted Zarif:
No amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva from 6PM Thursday to 545 PM Saturday.But it can further erode confidence
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) November 11, 2013
Mr.Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of US draft Thursday night? and publicly commented against it Friday morning?
No, it was France.
Zarif was contradicting Secretary of State Kerry, who after the talks ended said that the P5+1, including the United States and France, were in agreement and that it was Iran who scuttled the negotiations.
Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, doesn’t agree, and his account tallies with Zarif’s. Reports the Associated Press:
Russia’s foreign minister says Iran had accepted a U.S.-draft proposal on a nuclear deal, but last-minute amendments blocked an accord last week in Geneva. Sergey Lavrov’s account fits with comments from Iran and world powers. But it offers additional insights into how Washington apparently led the negotiations seeking to ease Western concerns that Iran could one day produce nuclear weapons—a charge Iran denies. Lavrov did not mention which country offered the 11th hour amendments. Others, however, say France raised concerns over issues such as a planned heavy water rector that produces more byproduct plutonium.
Still, RT.com reports, Lavrov is optimistic.
What happened during the phone call between Obama and Hollande isn’t known. It’s a curious failure of American diplomacy for the United States to have gone into last week’s talks without all of its ducks in a row, those ducks being the UK, Germany and France. Did Kerry not know of the impending French wrecking ball? In any case, after their call, according to AFP, Obama and Hollande were back on the same page, publicly at least, speaking of a “unified proposal” and saying that now it’s all up to Iran:
Hollande and Obama “confirmed their full support for the text agreed” by the P5+1 group of world powers at this weekend’s talks, which they said forms “the basis for a serious, solid and credible agreement”.
“Now it is up to Iran to give a positive answer,” the statement said.
By all accounts, Obama and his team are committed to a positive result from the talks in Geneva. They’ve pushed hard to get the Senate to hold off on new Iran sanctions, and they’ve told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shut up, essentially. Let’s hope that Obama convinced Hollande that a deal is in the works, and that the United States won’t stand for any more interference by the French.
Bob Dreyfuss looks into AIPAC’s role in the negoatiations with Iran.
The New York Times today reports, in an odd turn of phrase, that the Obama administration’s second-biggest enemy in its search for a deal with Iran is, well, the US Congress. Says the Times, the administration “is gingerly weighing a threat to the talks potentially more troublesome than the opaque leadership in Tehran: Congress.” That’s because the Senate is considering the passage of yet another round of anti-Iran sanctions, following the passage last summer of a similar bill by the House. Making explicit the fact that he understands perfectly that yet more superfluous economic sanctions now, in the midst of delicate talks with Iran, could upset the whole thing, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said: “I understand the problem that this creates at the negotiating table.”
In other words, he understands it—and he wants to do it anyway.
Today the leaders of the US negotiating team are on Capitol Hill, trying to dissuade senators from that sort of outright sabotage. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Wendy Sherman, are meeting with members of the Senate Banking Committee and others to beg, plead and cajole the Capitol Hill busybodies, many of whom are strongly influenced by the Israel lobby and its chief arm, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. So far, it appears that the Democratic-controlled Senate, despite its AIPAC ties, is willing to go along with White House requests to avoid interfering in the talks. Reports The Wall Street Journal:
Proponents of tougher sanctions could seek avenues beside the Banking Committee to move a measure.… Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is likely to oppose such a move, however. Mr. Reid on Tuesday warned against attempts to force “extraneous issues” into the debate over the defense bill.
Obama administration officials have been reaching out to a number of lawmakers in recent days to tamp down any momentum for new sanctions. Mr. Kerry has personally spoken with key senators while traveling in recent days, and was to speak to top Senate Democrats on Wednesday.
As for AIPAC itself, it issued a statement saying that it won’t accept any delays in sending a wrecking ball aimed at the talks. “AIPAC continues to support congressional action to adopt legislation to further strengthen sanctions, and there will absolutely be no pause, delay or moratorium in our efforts.”
The comment on “pause, delay or moratorium” follows an effort by the White House, which recently met with American Jewish organizations, to seek exactly that: a moratorium on new anti-Iran sanctions while the talks are underway. As the AP reported on October 29:
The White House has updated Jewish and pro-Israel groups about its talks with Iran amid concerns by some of the groups about the U.S. easing sanctions pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, attended the meeting along with the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The White House’s National Security Council says senior officials told Jewish leaders that the U.S. will not let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon but wants to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomacy.
The Obama administration is asking Congress to hold off on new sanctions while it pursues diplomacy. But Israel and AIPAC are pressing the administration to retain harsh economic sanctions.
That’s tricky for AIPAC, and for Israel. Because if they defy the White House and push aggressively for new sanctions and fail, it will be a major, even unprecedented defeat for AIPAC—plus, it makes outright enemies of the Obama administration and the president himself. Scuttlebutt after the White House meeting suggested that the Jewish groups (AIPAC, the ADL and the AJC) had quietly agreed to allow the negotiations to unfold without the added interference of new sanctions.
Laura Rozen, reporting for Al-Monitor, penned a detailed report on the talks between the White House and the Jewish groups, at which Sherman was joined by Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, and two top White House aides, Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes.
Following the talks, there was conflicting information about whether or not the Jewish groups (which, collectively, make up the bosses of the Israel lobby) had agreed to a “pause” in their lobbying efforts. According to Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, the four groups did indeed agree to a moratorium:
Though they refrained from describing it as “a deal” or a quid pro quo, sources familiar with the meeting said they had agreed to a limited “grace period” only after hearing assurances from the Administration that it had no intention of easing sanctions or of releasing Iranian funds that have been “frozen” in banks around the world.
That was later denied by the same groups, according to The Jerusalem Post:
A report published in Haaretz on Friday claiming that US Jewish leaders have agreed to halt their lobbying efforts in support of a new sanctions bill against Iran has been roundly denied by their organizations.
“No one has given any commitment to make some public moratorium,” said sources with an organization represented at the meeting, “categorically denying” that any such commitment was given.
However, in an on-the-record interview with Haaretz, the ADL’s Abraham Foxman (who attended the White House gathering on October 29) confirmed the cease-fire:
ADL National Director Abe Foxman has confirmed that leaders of major Jewish organizations have agreed on a limited “time out” during which they will not push for stronger sanctions on Iran.
“That means that we are not lobbying for additional sanctions and we are not lobbying for less sanctions,” Foxman told Haaretz, as well as US media outlets.
Foxman was responding to a report in Haaretz on Friday that cited understandings reached among the leaders of four major Jewish organizations who participated in a Monday meeting at the White House with a group of senior White House officials led by National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Foxman was specific, too:
Foxman made clear, however, that the hiatus is only tactical in nature. “We still believe that sanctions have worked and that additional sanctions would also work,” Foxman said, “but the Administration feels otherwise. They believe that further sanctions at this time would harm prospects for a diplomatic solution.”
“We didn’t change our positions and they didn’t change their positions. But we’re not going to be out there before the end of the next two meetings of the P5+1 with Iran.”
The risk for the Israel lobby is enormous. If it tries to wreck the talks and fails, because members of Congress—especially Democrats in the Senate—sanely agree to postpone a new round of sanctions, it will look powerless and ineffective. So it has to tread carefully, all while being pushed, hard, by Netanyahu and Co. in Israel.
According to Politico, Senate Democrats are willing to give the White House room to negotiate:
Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said his panel will not draft new economic penalties toward Iran until the Senate has fully digested that briefing. Even then, Johnson said he will defer to his leadership and the White House to give him the green light. …
Two members of Democratic leadership, Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Chuck Schumer of New York, both said they remain undecided on pursuing new sanctions and will continue to talk to top administration brass.
Read Dave Zirin's take on a recent incident of locker-room racism in the NFL.
Despite outrage from Israel, loud complaints from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies, and bitter skepticism from members of Congress, it appears as if the United States and Iran, backed by the P5+1 world powers, are on the verge of an historic first step toward a deal over Iran’s nuclear program. That the interim accord wasn’t reached during the round of talks that concluded on Saturday doesn’t make that accord less likely, perhaps as soon as the talks resume later this month.
There were, it appears, a number of stumbling blocks that prevented the preliminary accord from being reached, including disagreements over how to finesse the dispute over Iran’s “right to enrich” under the Nonproliferation Treaty’s opaque language, what to do about Iran’s heavy water reactor now under construction in Arak, and how to handle the disposition of Iran’s stockpile of medium-enriched uranium at 20 percent purity.
But, the outlines of an accord have been clear for quite some time, only waiting for the United States and Iran to move forward, and according to The Wall Street Journal—in an important background piece by Jay Solomon and Carol Lee—the United States has been quietly talking to and meeting with Iranians for a long time to explore whether Tehran was amenable to talks.
It’s significant that not only Western media but Iranian newspapers and news agencies, too, are predicting an accord. Why is that important? Because the new government of President Hassan Rouhani has to prepare Iranian public opinion to expect a deal with the country that Iran has long referred to, sometimes half-seriously and sometimes not, as the “Great Satan.” A report by the usually hardline Fars News Agency says that the Geneva talks could be “the first confidence-building step towards ending over a decade-long nuclear standoff between Iran and the West.” And the Tehran Times, an English-language daily paper in Tehran, Iran’s capital, writes, “Negotiators from Iran and world powers were about to draft a nuclear agreement on Friday.” The Tehran Times continued to give the news from Geneva a positive spin since the talks were suspended on Saturday, positively quoting Secretary of State Kerry’s comments and trumpeting an agreement, in parallel talks, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over a “road map” on inspecting Iran’s facilities.
That agreement didn’t quite happen, of course, in part apparently because France—seeking to curry favor with Israel and the arms-purchasing big spenders of the gulf states—raised last-minute objections (drawing sharp criticism from Iran’s Supreme Leader) and in part because Iran’s negotiators wanted to run the details by the powers-that-be at home.
But the reports from Iran’s media about the talks in Geneva are crucial because, just as President Obama has to face down hardliners among Congress, neoconservatives,= and the Israel lobby, Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have their own hawks to deal with, including a relatively small contingent that rallied in front of the old American embassy in Tehran chanting “Death to America!”
In a hilarious comment, Zarif dismissed the Iranian hawks as Iran’s own, home-grown version of a tea party. He said: “You said we don’t have a tea party? I wish you were right.” Added the Christian Science Monitor:
Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, a hard-line group of Iranians have scored points against political rivals, sometimes putting at risk broader national policies for their gain. In some Iranians’ eyes, that makes them a perfect comparison for the American “tea party” that recently spearheaded a US government shutdown.
And the paper quoted a US official who refused to be alarmed about Iran’s anti-American hawks: “Iran is a culture with many elements in it, as is ours. We have hardliners in our culture—probably not hardliners like Iranian hardliners, but a different variety.”
The deal that almost happened in Geneva would have given Iran access to some of the $50 billion in oil revenue that it has abroad but has been unable to repatriate because of banking and finance sanctions and eased pressure from the United States and the West on Iran’s oil customers (read: China, Japan, India), in exchange for Iran’s agreement to freeze some of its nuclear work, perhaps for six months. It is designed to create a climate in which a final deal could be reached with six months.
The New York Times, in its report the other day, asked a series of questions about how to move an accord forward:
So the rigor of the initial understanding will turn on an array of thorny questions. How many and what type of centrifuges would Iran be able to retain to enrich uranium? Would Iran be barred from making additional centrifuges even if it did not immediately use them?
What would happen to the stockpile of uranium Iran has already enriched to 20 percent, which can be rapidly enriched to weapons grade? What sort of verification would be provided for?
Would Tehran be willing to suspend construction of a heavy-water plant that would produce plutonium? Such a step is important, experts say, because a military strike against the plant, should it come to that, could result in the dispersal of highly radioactive material if the plant was functioning.
All good questions—but the central question is: Will the United States accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium under the Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed? Most countries, including Iran, say that the NPT certifies that right, but the United States formally disagrees. Yet Iran says that retaining that right is a red line that it won’t cross.
Indeed, in a speech to parliament yesterday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani made explicit Iran’s commitment to retaining its NPT-guaranteed right-to-enrich:
“We have said to the negotiating sides that we will not answer to any threat, sanction, humiliation or discrimination. The Islamic Republic has not and will not bow its head to threats from any authority.… For us there are red lines that cannot be crossed. National interests are our red lines that include our rights under the framework of international regulations and enrichment in Iran.”
American diplomats, who explicitly and repeatedly have stated that Iran does not have a right to enrich, believe that they can finesse that gap by weasel-worded diplomatic language. The key to that maneuver will be an explicit acceptance by the United States that Iran can continue to enrich uranium up to the low-enriched 3.5 percent level.
As Roger Cohen writes in today’s New York Times:
According to people who have spent many hours with them, Rouhani and Zarif are prepared to limit enrichment to 3.5 percent (well short of weapons grade); curtail the number of centrifuges and facilities and place them under enhanced international monitoring; deal with Iran’s 20 percent enriched stockpile by converting it under international supervision into fuel pads for the Tehran research reactor; and find a solution on the heavy-water plant it is building at Arak that could produce plutonium. In return, as these steps are progressively taken, they want sanctions relief and recognition of the right to enrichment.
Robert Scheer looks at John Kerry's homage last week to the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian regimes.
The most important news in the world today isn’t about the civil war in Syria or the talks with Iran, but—if it holds up—the end of the seemingly endless conflict in central Africa, along the Congo-Rwanda border and the surrounding region. That’s where as many as 5 million have died since the mid-1990s (not counting the 800,000 who perished in Rwanda’s genocide in 1994).
Not only are millions dead, but as The Guardian reports, half of the region’s adults suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and one-fifth have considered suicide.
There’s still a long way to go, and there are plenty of armed groups still active in the area. But the apparent defeat and surrender of the M23 group is a major breakthrough and a step toward finally ending that incredibly destructive, interlocking series of wars. (A good account of the early and middle phases of the war, from 1996 through 2010, can be found in the wonderfully written but chilling book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, by Jason K. Stearns.)
Russ Feingold, the former senator from Wisconsin who’s the US representative for the wars in central Africa, allowed himself to say: “This is a critical and exciting step in the right direction [in] one of the toughest problems in the world.” He added:
“This is a test case—it has great promise. It has enormous potential to add great credibility to UN peacekeeping operations (in other conflict zones). It has great promise and significance.”
A big reason M23 was able to sustain its senseless rampage is that it had the support of Rwanda, which had for years used proxies to intervene in the eastern Congo. Last year, a special report by a United Nations team of investigators pointed directly at Rwanda’s defense minister as responsible for M23:
The Government of Rwanda continues to violate the arms embargo by providing direct military support to the M23 rebels, facilitating recruitment, encouraging and facilitating desertions from the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and providing arms, ammunition, intelligence and political advice. The de facto chain of command of M23 includes Gen. Bosco Ntaganda and culminates with the Minister of Defense of Rwanda, Gen. James Kabarebe.
And the report added:
Senior officials of the Government of Uganda have also provided support to M23 in the form of direct troop reinforcements in Congolese territory, weapons deliveries, technical assistance, joint planning, political advice and facilitation of external relations.
Part of the reason why M23 decided to lay down its arms is because troops from the Congo more effectively battled there since the fall of a strategic city to M23, but perhaps more important is the fact that the UN and the African Union have engaged in the region and that world powers—including, rather late, pressure from the United States—have placed major pressure on Rwanda to halt it support for the group. As The New York Times reports:
On the diplomatic front, the United States, the European Union, Britain and other nations had already begun cutting aid to Rwanda—which has been accused of helping arm, coordinate and recruit fighters for the insurrection—in a move that appears to have shorn the rebels of badly needed support.
Last week, Jason Stearns reported in his blog what turned out to be the prelude to M23’s apparent stand-down:
The new round of fighting between Congolese government forces and the M23 rebels is reaching a dramatic climax. With the Congolese army having swept through all of the major towns that the M23 held—Kibumba, Rumangabo, Rutshuru, Kiwanja, and since this afternoon Bunagana—the M23 may be nearing its end. This would be historic—it would be the first time the Congolese government had defeated a major rebellion, and it would be the first time since 1996 that an armed group allied to Rwanda is not present in the eastern Congo. It is, however, too soon, to declare an end to the M23, as the rebels reportedly still occupy the hills along the Rwandan border between Runyoni and Tshanzu.
Stearns notes that the UN actions were critical:
[A] second factor was the United Nations. Observers on the front lines reported that the Congolese soldiers were being issued military rations by the UN, and that UN officers were jointly planning operations with the Congolese army. UN attack helicopters have been providing support, although the bulk of the fighting has been carried out by the [Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo].
As the Times report notes, the UN presence isn’t small:
The United Nations force consists of nearly 19,000 military personnel. The annual cost has risen to close to $1.5 billion. But it was the arrival of the new, offensive-minded intervention brigade and its tough new Brazilian commander that changed the tenor of the mission.
But Stearns emphasizes the importance of the pressure on Rwanda:
But it may be the third factor that was the determining one—the absence of support from Rwanda. According to several reports from the frontlines, despite indications of some cross-border support in the Kibumba area, the M23 was largely left to its own devices. “The Rwandans just wouldn’t pick up their phone calls,” one source close to the M23 leadership told me. This is a drastic change from August, when many sources—the UN, Human Rights Watch, and foreign diplomats—all reported hefty support coming across the border. The fact that the M23 did not put up much of a fight in Kiwanja and Rumangabo was another indication that they knew they stood no chance against the superior firepower of the UN and the FARDC. According to several diplomats, the US Secretary of State John Kerry as well as a senior British diplomat called President Paul Kagame last Friday to impress how important it was for Rwanda to sit this out. While similar pressure has been applied before—President Obama called his Rwandan counterpart with a similar message last December—this time it may have just been the final straw for the Rwandan leaders.
Last year, Susan Rice—now President Obama’s national security adviser—came under sharp criticism for her long-running support for Rwanda:
Support for Mr. Kagame and the Rwandan government has been a matter of American foreign policy since he led the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front to victory over the incumbent government in July 1994, effectively ending the Rwandan genocide. But according to rights organizations and diplomats at the United Nations, Ms. Rice has been at the forefront of trying to shield the Rwandan government, and Mr. Kagame in particular, from international censure, even as several United Nations reports have laid the blame for the violence in Congo at Mr. Kagame’s door.
Added the Times, in its account of Rice’s too-close relationship with Kagame:
Aides to Ms. Rice acknowledge that she is close to Mr. Kagame and that Mr. Kagame’s government was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington. Ms. Rice, who served as the State Department’s top African affairs expert in the Clinton administration, worked at the firm with several other former Clinton administration officials, including David J. Rothkopf, who was an acting under secretary in the Commerce Department; Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton’s national security adviser; and John M. Deutch, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
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It’s easy to dismiss the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, via drone attack as simply more of the same, but in fact it’s a complicated story.
There’s a great deal of spy-vs.-spy in this event, since it emerged last week that (1) Pakistan was seeking to make a deal with the Pakistani Taliban aimed at winding down the conflict, and (2) Afghanistan was trying to make a secret pact with the Pakistani Taliban designed to give Pakistan a taste of its own medicine, since Kabul blames Islamabad for supporting, arming and sustaining the Afghan Taliban against it.
In the midst of this dance, which undoubtedly contains quite a few moves behind the curtain that we can’t see, and may never know about, the United States makes a couple of moves of its own. First, a Special Forces raid hits a convoy carrying a top leader of the Pakistani Taliban traveling through eastern Afghanistan on his way to Kabul to meet with President Karzai and/or his top security and intelligence officials. And second, a drone zaps Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in his redoubt inside Pakistan.
What’s going on, exactly? I haven’t the foggiest. But we can make some guesses. First, let’s review events.
The first event in this odd chain of events was reported by The Washington Post on October 10:
The United States recently seized a senior Pakistani Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan, snatching him from the custody of Afghan intelligence operatives who had spent months trying to recruit him as an interlocutor for peace talks, Afghan government officials charged Thursday.
At first, it appeared as if it were just one more American raid designed to suppress both the Afghan and Pakistani branches of the Taliban. But then, weirder reports surfaced that the Afghan government’s intelligence service was trying to recruit Latif Mehsud—not related to Hakimullah Mehsud, his boss—as a spy and double agent who’d work for Afghanistan inside Pakistan. The New York Times reported that Afghanistan’s spies were engaged in “a bungled attempt by the Afghan government to cultivate a shadowy alliance with Islamist militants.” It added:
The disrupted plan involved Afghan intelligence trying to work with the Pakistan Taliban, allies of Al Qaeda, in order to find a trump card in a baroque regional power game.
And it wasn’t really part of any “peace talks.” As the Times went on:
Publicly, the Afghan government has described Mr. Mehsud as an insurgent peace emissary. But according to Afghan officials, the ultimate plan was to take revenge on the Pakistani military.
Just as all this was taking place, Hakimullah Mehsud—who was blown to pieces by the US drone strike on November 1—said that he was interested in peace talks with Pakistan. Was Hakimullah aware that one of his top deputies was seeking to strike a secret deal with Afghanistan? Presumably so, since the only value for an Afghanistan project to use the Pakistani Taliban against Pakistan would be if its entire leadership, or most of it, was willing to go along. In any case, Hakimullah told the BBC on October 9:
“We believe in serious talks but the government has taken no steps to approach us. The government needs to sit with us, then we will present our conditions.”
Indeed, Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban did begin yet another effort to strike an accord that would presumably end the violence against the government and give the Pakistani Taliban some freedom to operate in their strongholds. After the killing, the Pakistani interiot minister complained that the American drone strike was designed to disrupt the talks. Said the Times:
The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, described the American action as a calculated blow against the fledgling peace process.
Meanwhile, also in October, the United States resumed the supply of $1.5 billion in economic aid to Pakistan and a few days later Pakistan’s new leader, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, came to Washington for a tête-à-tête with President Obama. Though they agreed to disagree on the American campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan’s territory, and although the strikes (in public at least) are routinely condemned by Pakistan’s leaders, on October 31—after Prime Minister Sharif had returned home, having pocketed the $1.5 billion—the Pakistani government issued a report on civilian casualties in drone strikes that greatly minimized the number of civilians allegedly killed since 2008. The report said that only sixty-seven civilians have died in drone strikes during the five-year period, far fewer than the 400 reported killed according to a UN report. Was this report a gift to the United States by Sharif?
Nobody, of course, has precise knowledge of how many civilians, and how many Al Qaeda and Taliban officials and rank-and-filers, have actually been killed.
There’s no doubt that the Pakistani Taliban is an organization that has killed countless thousands of innocents, including—by all accounts—former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who died soon after returning to Pakistan after the fall of the Musharraf dictatorship. Whether or not Hakimullah Mehsud would have reached an accord with the government, which is somewhat unlikely—previous pacts have fallen apart or been abused by the Taliban—few in Pakistan would or should mourn his death. But the fact that he was killed by a drone, even though apparently no civilians died in the attack, is a major irritant in Pakistani society. And even though the government of Pakistan secretly endorses the raids, and even cooperates in them, they are so unpopular that no government in Islamabad can admit that fact.
Meanwhile, what did the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud accomplish? Leaving aside the question of whether or not it disrupted or destroyed peace talks, there are plenty of reports that the Pakistani Taliban is quickly working to anoint a new leader.
Such spy-vs.-spy shenanigans are unworthy, though typical, of the United States. The deadline for the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan in 2014 is fast approaching, and there’s precious little sign that Washington has geared up for a real peace process involving both Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with the Taliban and other oppositionists, along with interested parties such as India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Working through the United Nations, that ought to be the Obama administration’s priority for the next twelve months. Time’s a wastin’.
Check out Bob Dreyfuss's take on the potential of continued US involvement in Iraq.
After the United States spent $1 trillion fighting an illegal war in Iraq, leaving 4,500 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, one can make a plausible case that the carnage now plaguing the dysfunctional New Iraq is America’s responsibility. But it’s not. The United States is no longer responsible for Iraq, and for all the devastation that George W. Bush wreaked in that battered country, the United States ought to stay out.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in Washington this week to argue the opposite, begging for arms from the United States—without a lot of success, it seems—and pretending that he’s not a Shiite-sectarian autocrat who is more or less allied with Iran.
As I’ve documented repeatedly here since April, the return of Iraq’s Sunni-led insurgency, partly linked to Al Qaeda and its affiliate in Syria, has led to an enormous upsurge in violence. In the past six months, about 7,000 Iraqis have died as the result of a wave of coordinated car bombings, suicide bombs, assassinations and other actions. (Compare that to Syria, where about 100,000 people have died in two and half years of civil war, and you’ll notice that the pace of killings in Iraq isn’t far behind. And, as The Washington Post reported: “Killings in Iraq are now on pace to match the levels of 2008, the year that sectarian violence bordering on a civil war began to abate.”)
The conflict in Iraq has drawn the attention of General Lloyd Austin, head of the US Central Command, who said:
“If left unchecked, we could find ourselves in a regional sectarian struggle that could last a decade. What we are very worried about is a continued downward spiral that takes you to a civil war. It could easily get worse.”
It could, indeed, get worse. But it not America’s job—and certainly not General Austin’s job—to fix it. And certainly, the United States shouldn’t be arming Iraq, which is what Maliki wants.
It’s not likely that President Obama wants get involved in Iraq again, and sentiment in Congress seems dead-set against giving weapons to Maliki’s government. But it’s hard for the president—any president—to resist the momentum of the military-industrial complex and the US arms export industry, and so it does seem that the United States will soon be shipping advanced weapons to Baghdad. Iraq has already deposited $650 million as a down payment for a delivery of 36 F-16 jet fighters. In addition, Iraq wants (but may not get, just yet), despite the fact that Baghdad is being ably assisted by the Podesta Group, the Democratic Party–connected lobbying firm in Washington. As The New York Times reports, Maliki wants “Apache helicopter gunships [including Hellfire missiles], more American intelligence and other forms of counterterrorism support like reconnaissance drones that would be operated by Americans.”
The Times also suggests that the Al Qaeda presence in western Iraq, especially in Anbar Province, “makes them an inviting target for American drone strikes.” So far, though, that isn’t happening.
Maliki is ringing the terrorist alarm bell loudly, warning that spillover from the war in Syria is what’s behind the increased violence—and, no doubt, Islamist extremists in both Syria and Iraq and cooperating and crossing the border with impunity. (Al Qaeda in Iraq has reorganized itself into ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.) But if Maliki is looking for a prime source of the rebellion—which was mostly peaceful, inspired by the Arab Spring, until Maliki’s forces clobbered protesters in Anbar in April—he only needs to look in the mirror. Not only has he been an authoritarian leader since taking office, favoring Shiites and excluding Sunnis and Kurds from positions of power, but he appears to be setting himself up as yet another president-for-life, announcing in Washington this week that he’s mulling over the idea of running for a third term as president in 2014.
In an op-ed at Foreign Policy, the Senate’s two leading Republican hawks, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, blame everything on Obama, and they call for the United States to roll up its sleeves and get involved:
The Obama administration inherited a policy in Iraq that was succeeding in driving down levels of violence, significantly degrading al Qaeda in Iraq, and building a constitutional order in which differences could be resolved peacefully and politically. Five years later, Iraq is beset by escalating levels of violence, growing political polarization, and a resurgent al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria that now possesses a base of operations in the heart of the Middle East. The current failure in Iraq has unfolded on the Obama administration’s watch, and it is the president’s responsibility to devise a strategy to address these serious national security challenges.”
McCain and Graham say that Obama failed to capitalize on the vaunted success of the Bush-era surge of 2007–08, and they blame Obama for failing to maintain a contingent of American troops in Iraq since then. They add:
Today, Iraq is nearing a breaking point as the combination of internal tensions and external pressures generated by the conflict in Syria threaten Iraq’s stability. There is still a chance for Iraqis to halt their country’s downward spiral, and Prime Minister Maliki’s visit to Washington is an important opportunity for the Obama administration to affirm that Iraq is a top priority.
But Iraq isn’t a top priority. In 2003, it wasn’t any of America’s business to invade Iraq; destroy its government, its military and its police and its entire economic infrastructure; privatize its industries and trigger a Sunni-Shiite civil war. And in 2013, it isn’t America’s job to solve Iraq’s bitter conflicts.
Like the civil war in Syria, and the longer-running conflict inside Lebanon, the war in Iraq is a regional problem. It is, very much so, still part of the proxy war being waged in the shadows—and sometimes in the open—between Iran and Saudi Arabia for power and influence in this oil-rich part of the world. The best thing that Obama can do to help Iraq is to strike a deal with Iran that eases the political conflict throughout the region, find a political deal in Syria that lowers the level of struggle there, and nudge Saudi Arabia toward an accommodation in the Sunni vs. Shiite conflict.
Read Bob Dreyfuss’s take on attempts to thwart the US-Iran peace talks.
The Obama administration is working hard to head off a wrecking ball from Congress and the Israel lobby aimed at sabotaging negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. The talks, which resume in November, also include direct talks between the United States and Iran. The key issue: members of the House and Senate are trying to force-feed the administration yet another round of anti-Iran sanctions, at the very worst possible moment.
On Tuesday, the White House organized a meeting with representatives of the American Jewish community and, according to The Jerusalem Post, there were “forceful exchanges between the two sides on the merits of the sanctions package.” In the meeting were Susan Rice, the national security adviser, and her deputies, Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken—the latter a long-time aide to Vice President Biden—along with Wendy Sherman, who’s leading the American team in the talks with Iran.
The House, which passed another package of sanctions designed to cut off all of Iran’s oil exports over the summer, is demanding that the Senate pass a similar bill, and even liberals such as Representative Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.) are pounding the table. Said Waxman:
“The Senate should act,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a Jewish Democrat who’s close to leadership. “We ought to pass these increased sanctions, and make sure that the Iranians don’t think that they can charm their way out of this situation. Act now.”
The White House isn’t pleased with the new push for sanctions. According to The Wall Street Journal:
The White House is pressing Congress to hold back on new sanctions against Iran, pitting the administration’s hopes for a re-energized diplomatic engagement against the growing concern of some lawmakers and foreign allies.
The Obama administration is arguing that diplomatic efforts need more time to contain Tehran’s nuclear program. But a number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers want to bring a new sanctions bill targeting Iran’s oil exports and finances to a Senate vote by the end of next week. A similar bill cleared the House of Representatives in July and is waiting to be reconciled with the Senate’s.
The pressure for new sanctions is coming from both Republicans and Democrats in both houses of Congress, often in near-hysterical and near-apocalyptic terms, as if Iran was about to explode a bomb or send a missile hurtling across the northern hemisphere, even though Iran has no uranium enriched to weapons-grade, is closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, does not yet have the capability of manufacturing a bomb even if it had the proper explosive material and has not developed the means to deliver a weapon even if it had all that. Which it doesn’t.
The Journal points out the Phil Gordon, the White House official at the national security council who heads the Middle East and Persian Gulf section, has been meeting patiently with Senate staffers to explain all this. One can only imagine what those meetings are like.
Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, uses phrases like “extremely alarming” about Iran all the time. Said Cantor:
“The report that Iran may be a month away from possessing enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb is extremely alarming. Whether a month or a year, Iran’s determined march toward possessing nuclear weapons is a direct and grave threat to the United States and our allies.”
The report that Cantor cited, of course, is a hypothetical and extreme case, in which Iran suddenly decides to take all of its medium-enriched uranium, which is maintained under strict inspections by the IAEA, and launch a crash project to refine it to weapons-grade—a very, very unlikely scenario and contrary to everything that the new administration of President Hassan Rouhani has said it is trying to do. And even if it did what Cantor is worried about, it wouldn’t have a bomb.
Robert Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, put it this way, after meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
“Our resolve to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability remains unchanged and we will not hesitate from proceeding with further sanctions and other options to protect U.S. interests and ensure regional security.”
In other words, we’d be happy to wreck the talks.
The Obama administration hasn’t focused enough on getting Congress to understand the complexity and sensitivity of the Iran talks, according to a former senior diplomat who spoke with The Nation. And, in their eagerness to show Congress how tough they are, Obama administration officials often blunder, as happened with Wendy Sherman earlier this month, when she told a congressional hearing that “deception” is part of Iran’s “DNA.” (She later apologized for the comment, which drew heavy fire in Iran.)
Dave Zirin examines why no NBA team has signed Jason Collins, the first openly gay pro athlete.
The Obama administration’s startling new admission that it can’t control events in the Middle East—that, as The New York Times reports, some things in the region “[lie] outside its reach” and that it is adopting a “more modest strategy” for the region—and that it is scaling back its mission is a stunning one. But it’s insufficient, and there’s lots more to do to extricate the United States from a regional crisis that it has helped to create itself—by invading Iraq, backing Israel’s ultra-right government, choosing to confront Iran and fomenting civil war in Syria.
The good news, however, is it appears that the White House has decided to formally eschew the aggressive, George W. Bush–style pursuit of regional democracy and to end, once and for all, the Bush-era policy of unilateral war-making in the Middle East. There’s reason to question the truth of this policy reversal, however, since President Obama’s questionable decision to pummel Syria with Tomahawk cruise missiles and other munitions certainly falls into the category of unilateral war-making, even though it was never carried out. Nevertheless, read on.
Last summer, we now know—thanks to a revealing, must-read story in The New York Times, clearly leaked by administration officials seeking to buff the Obama administration’s standing—that inside the White House Susan Rice, the national security adviser, orchestrated a secret, White House–only review of Middle East policy. “It was a tight group that included no one outside the White House,” reported the Times, and it was designed to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda.” Reported the paper:
The blueprint drawn up on those summer weekends at the White House is a model of pragmatism—eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks or weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, it does not designate the spread of democracy as a core interest.
The Times account added:
Scrawling ideas on a whiteboard and papering the walls of her office with notes, Ms. Rice’s team asked the most basic questions: What are America’s core interests in the Middle East? How has the upheaval in the Arab world changed America’s position? What can Mr. Obama realistically hope to achieve? What lies outside his reach?
The answer was a more modest approach—one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.
Rather than do everything, the Rice-orchestrated policy in the Middle East will focus on Israel-Palestine talks, diplomacy with Iran and dealing with Syria’s civil war. (In other words, let Iraq fester, don’t both trying to fix Egypt’s violent mess, and so on.)
In principle, it’s a good idea. Whether the United States can actually broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and whether the US-Iran talks with succeed, are anyone’s guess, but both are long shots. And negotiating an end to Syria’s war, through the fits-and-starts effort to stage a peace conference in Geneva, is just as iffy. But it’s the right idea: diplomacy first, military action last (or, preferably, never). We’ll see.
A recent address to the National Council on US-Arab Relations by Chas Freeman, amplifies the issue. Freeman, of course, is the iconoclastic gadfly ex-ambassador who was named by Obama to lead the US intelligence community’s analysis unit in 2009, before being unceremoniously shot down by the Israel lobby over his pronounced anti-Likud bias. Said Freeman:
I think we must begin by acknowledging that we have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there.… We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region. The practical implication of this is that we must cooperate with others—strategic competitors as well as countries with whom we are allied in other contexts—in order to serve our regional partners’ interests as well as our own….
We need to rediscover diplomacy. By this I mean something radically contrary to our recent militarism and the related concept of “coercive diplomacy” through sanctions….
Diplomacy, like the successful management of interpersonal ties, lies in the replacement of zero-sum problem definition with frameworks that promote the recognition of common interests. It presupposes empathetic, if reserved, understanding of adverse points of view. It incentivizes good behavior. It avoids vocal denial of the legitimacy of the other side’s interests. It relies on convincing the other side that its objectives can best be achieved by doing things our way, and that it’s in its own interest to change its policies and practices to do so. We seem have forgotten how to do diplomacy in this sense. At least, it’s been a long time since we tried it in the Middle East.
That’s all good advice. Is it reflected at all in Rice’s Middle East review? Perhaps—and perhaps not, if the administration’s foolish decision to bomb Syria in late August is any indication. Still, at present the United States is indeed talking to Iran. It is indeed trying to reach a diplomatic solution in Syria via the Geneva process. And it is indeed trying to broker a comprehensive, two-state accord between Israel and Palestine. So here’s two cheers for Susan Rice.
Greg Mitchell delves into the debate on the future of journalism.