News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Vladimir Putin may or may not have blinked on Ukraine. His promise, thrice made, to withdraw Russian troops along the border has yet to be carried out, it appears—but the Russians seems resigned to the idea that Ukraine will hold its presidential election this Sunday, May 25. And the pro-Russian separatists who’ve declared various “people’s republics” here and there in Ukraine’s east are losing steam, thanks in part to the work of a local billionaire who’s apparently decided that his coal and steel empire prefers Western outlets and credit lines, rather than Russian ones. In any case, if Russia is serious about wanting a negotiated, diplomatic solution in Ukraine, then the election of a president and the creation of a government that has some more legitimacy will give Moscow someone with authority to talk to.
But, please, Mr. Putin, stop with the talk about Ukraine being run by “Nazis” and “fascists”—at least as long as you’re in league with actual pro-fascist parties in Europe.
This isn’t exactly new, and of course Russia’s alliance with Europe’s Nazi-like far right takes second place to Moscow’s enormous business ties with Europe’s oil and gas consumers and Germany’s corporate elite. Still, it’s getting new attention lately, and it’s more than troubling that Moscow is in bed with Hungary’s Jobbik party, Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and other anti-European Union extremists.
Part of it is pragmatic. That is, Russia wants to exploit the anti-EU sentiment of Europe’s anti-immigrant, fascist-leaning right wing. And the rightists in Europe, who include traditional, pro-family, pro-religion types and would-be strongmen and mini-Mussolinis, are attracted to Putin’s penchant for putting down dissent, suppressing the Internet, building up the Orthodox Church and its rightist priesthood and inflaming Russia’s own “exceptionalist,” nationalist constituents.
Writing last month in Foreign Affairs, Mitchell Orenstein detailed much of Russia’s support for Europe’s far right, in a piece called “Putin’s Western Allies.” In it, he says:
In Hungary, for example, Putin has taken the Jobbik party under his wing. The third-largest party in the country, Jobbik has supporters who dress in Nazi-type uniforms, spout anti-Semitic rhetoric, and express concern about Israeli “colonization” of Hungary. The party has capitalized on rising support for nationalist economic policies, which are seen as an antidote for unpopular austerity policies and for Hungary’s economic liberalization in recent years. Russia is bent on tapping into that sentiment. In May 2013, Kremlin-connected right-wing Russian nationalists at the prestigious Moscow State University invited Jobbik party president Gabor Vona to speak. Vona also met with Russia Duma leaders including Ivan Grachev, chairman of the State Duma Committee for Energy and Vasily Tarasyuk, deputy chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources and Utilization, among others. On the Jobbik website, the visit is characterized as “a major breakthrough” which made “clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner.” In fact, there have been persistent rumors that Jobbik’s enthusiasm is paid for with Russian rubles.
And he adds:
The Kremlin’s ties to France’s extreme-right National Front have also been growing stronger. Marine Le Pen, the party leader, visited Moscow in June 2013 at the invitation of State Duma leader Sergei Naryshkin, a close associate of Putin’s. She also met with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and discussed issues of common concern, such as Syria, EU enlargement, and gay marriage. France’s ProRussia TV, which is funded by the Kremlin, is staffed by editors with close ties to the National Front who use the station to espouse views close to National Front’s own perspective on domestic and international politics.
One doesn’t have to go to the establishment American press and pundit class to learn about Russia’s showering of favors on Europe’s far right. In a recent interview on RT, the Russian media outlet, there’s a long interview by a fawning RT reporter with Geert Wilders of the fascist, anti-immigrant Dutch party. Among the softball questions to Wilders, whose Euroskepticism (i.e., his anti-EU diatribes) is well known, the RT interviewer “asks”:
I want to talk about the rising Euroscepticism. Prominent US politician and author Pat Buchanan, I’m sure you know who he is, he recently said that nationalism is on the rise, while globalization is a the thing of the past. Do you share his point of view?
Of course, Wilders agrees. Later on the RT interviewer favorably cites Wilders anti-EU, anti-immigrant allies in the UK, Switzerland and France, in another “question”:
But you’re not the only one actually voicing this concern—there is France that is being actually very worried about the immigration problems. Switzerland is tightening its borders, also Britain is sounding alarm. Do you think it’s something that’s going to pass, or is it something that is going to escalate into something bigger?
Or Pravda. In a recent, shocking editorial, Pravda pretty much openly acknowledged Russia’s support for the fascists in the European Parliament, which holds continent-wide elections this month. The editorial, entitled “European Parliament May Stop Acting Like USA’s Lap Dog,” says:
The extreme right have the largest influence in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Great Britain, Finland, Greece and Denmark. They have two main slogans—to refuse from the European Union [sic] as a supranational body that enslaved national sovereignty, and revise migration policy towards its extreme tightening. The only countries, where deputies of extreme right parties are not represented in the election, are Portugal, Spain and Germany. To Russia, this trend is interesting from the point of view of the fact that these forces support Russia in its position on the Crimea and Ukraine. Thus, the leader of the French National Front, Marine Le Pen, said that she shared “common values” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Marine Le Pen believes that good relations with Russia make the minimum necessary for peace in Europe. In her opinion, the EU actions against Russia come contrary to the interests of the Europeans. “I want to stand at the head of a non-aligned state, which does not subordinate to either the U.S. or Russia, and conduct equitable negotiations with both powers,” AFP quoted Le Pen as saying.
The New York Times, in a European survey piece, reports extensively on Russia’s ties to Europe’s far right. Reports the Times:
Some of Russia’s European fans, particularly those with a religious bent, are attracted by Mr. Putin’s image as a muscular foe of homosexuality and decadent Western ways. Others, like Aymeric Chauprade, a foreign policy adviser to the National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen, are motivated more by geopolitical calculations that emphasize Russia’s role as a counterweight to American power.
Russia has added to its allure through the financing, mostly with corporate money, of media, research groups and other European organizations that promote Moscow’s take on the world. The United States also supports foreign groups that agree with it, but Russia’s boosters in Europe, unlike its leftist fans during the Cold War, now mostly veer to the far right and sometimes even fascism, the cause Moscow claims to be fighting in Ukraine.
Naturally, the neoconservatives, The New Republic, and other outlets for American nationalism are having fun with Russia’s support for the far right in Europe. But US conservatives had better be careful—after all, it wasn’t too long ago that various right-wing American politicians (such as Ted Cruz) were contrasting Obama to Putin, and unfavorably—as satirized by John Stewart in a segment called “Big Vladdy.”
Read Next: Pepe Escobar on the geopolitical earthquakes reshaping Eurasia’s economy.
Reading through the comments of various State Department officials leading the US delegation in the P5+1 talks with Iran—the latest round concluding last week and the next one scheduled for June 16–20—it’s hard not to detect a creeping pessimism. But it’s wrong to conclude that the talks—which last week included a three-hour bilateral meeting between the United States and Iran—won’t be successful, if not by the self-imposed deadline of July 20 then after the six-month extension that has been built into the framework of the negotiations. What’s needed most of all is patience, along with efforts to beat back the naysayers, the hawks and neoconservatives, the Israel lobby and its allies, and others, including the wrecking balls in Congress.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, after the latest round: “Agreement is possible. But illusions need to go. Opportunity shouldn’t be missed again.”
Laura Rozen, writing in Al Monitor, outlined the State Department’s view of the just-concluded talks this way:
“This was the ‘sticker shock’ meeting,” a former senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday.
“Significant differences remain on how many centrifuges Iran should be permitted to have to meet ‘practical needs’ for nuclear energy and research, as well as significant differences on the length of the agreement and the pace and scope of sanctions relief accompanying a final deal,” the former U.S. official said. “Other areas, like the possible military dimensions of past Iranian nuclear research, are also tricky.”
“So, instead of papering over these differences in a post-meeting statement, the negotiators apparently felt that they had to return to their capitals to consult with national leaders about how they might overcome them,” the former US official suggested. “It remains to be seen if that is possible, but both sides still appear committed to overcoming the nuclear crisis.”
Speaking to reporters last week via teleconference, a senior State Department official (who wouldn’t allow her name to be used) said:
The discussions this week have been useful, but they’ve also been at times difficult, which they knew—we knew they would be. We’ve said this repeatedly throughout this process, that this would be difficult. We are just at the beginning of the drafting process, and we have a significant way to go. There are significant gaps. These are complicated issues. As we’ve said, if this were easy to solve, it would have been done a long time ago.
This has, candidly, been a very slow and difficult process, and we are concerned with the short amount of time that is left. But let me be very clear: We believe we can still get it done. It’s important to remember that we’re at the beginning, and the parties are all at the table talking in a serious way. But we do not know yet, as we’ve always said, if we will be able at the end of this to conclude a comprehensive agreement.
In any negotiation there are good days and bad days, and there are ups and downs. This has been a moment of great difficulty, but one that was not entirely unexpected.
Until now, there was plenty of optimism about the current round of talks, and it still seems likely that a deal will be struck, despite the difficulties outlined by the American delegation. They’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of the particulars, attempting to write—paragraph by paragraph—a detailed accord that deals with a wide range of issues. And both sides agree that there will be no deal until every issue, big and small, is settled—in other words, there won’t be any partial agreements. The biggest sticking point appears to be exactly how big Iran’s enrichment program will be as part of a final accord; that is, how many centrifuges Iran will be able to spin, and what kind, and producing how much low-enriched (i.e., not weapons grade or anything close) uranium, for civilian purposes. (There are plenty of other issues, too, of course, including Iran’s heavy-water Arak reactor, its missile and related military programs, and plenty more.) The American side seems fixed on the idea of preventing Iran from quickly moving toward “breakout,” that is, an ability to produce a nuclear weapon quickly, or relatively quickly—it could still take years!—after an accord is reached. But as Jim Walsh, an MIT professor and arms control expert who’s long been involved in the Iran issue, said in response to last week’s talks:
I think most discussion in the U.S. of the size—what’s required, what’s the minimum and maximum size, number of centrifuges, separated work units, however you measure it—much of that debate has been framed by the question of breakout. And I’ve been rather troubled by our discussion of it. Breakout is an important issue, every agreement should be assessed in terms of looking at the risk of breakout, but breakout is only one issue in many issues, and much of the discussion of breakout seems pretty flawed and ahistorical.
As Walsh points out, “breakout” means—at least in the US view—the ability of Iran to cobble together enough highly enriched material for a single bomb, leaving aside whether or not Iran could manufacture a weapon and the means to deliver it, both challenging projects. (So far, Iran has none of that: no weapons-grade uranium, no warhead, no ability to deliver one.) As Walsh puts it:
Breakout is extremely rare in the international system and it’s a definition that itself is flawed. There’s no country that I know of, as someone who studies nuclear decision-making, there’s no country in the history of the nuclear age that has broken out with the purpose of developing one bomb’s worth of material. … Does Iran look like a good candidate for breakout, when you look at its past deceptions and the history of the program, does it look like a good candidate? And I think the answer is: not really.
The hawkish Washington Post, in an editorial, luxuriates in its pessimism. The Post seemed almost gleeful in proclaiming that President Hassan Rouhani of Iran needs a deal desperately, suggesting that President Obama can afford to delay the talks, even adding another six months onto the negotiations, in order to up the pressure on Rouhani. Says the Post:
Whether that discrepancy can be used to leverage the major concessions Iran must make for a workable agreement is anyone’s guess—though this week’s talks were a bad omen. A senior U.S. official said “we do not know if Iran will be able to make the tough decisions they must.” Chief among those is steps that would make it impossible to produce the material for a bomb in less than “six months to a year,” a time frame mentioned by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in recent testimony to Congress.
And the Post adds that members of Congress opposed to a deal can work alongside the influence of the hardline Revolutionary Guard in Iran to block an agreement:
In the end there will be a strong check on any concessions made by the Obama administration: If Congress or Israel are dissatisfied, they may be able to scuttle the deal. Iranian hardliners will have a say, as well. Considering the challenge of constructing a compromise that satisfies the Revolutionary Guard and Republican senators, it’s no wonder that optimism seems out of place.
That’s a kind of brinkmanship that’s inappropriate in international diplomacy, and the Post almost seems eager for the talks to fail.
Another sticking point is the web of economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. Supporters of sanctions labor under the illusion that the hardships they impose on Iran’s economy will compel Iran to make a deal that erases its basic national interests, including what Tehran says is its fundamental right to enrich uranium on its own soil. Yes, the sanctions create an incentive for Iran to talk—but they won’t force Iran to make a deal that goes against that bottom line, and in any case no Iranian leader could surrender that and survive politically. Unfortunately, in its public pronouncements so far the United States has been unwilling to say much about how the sanctions might be reduced, waived and eventually lifted as part of a deal—or how long it might take.
As Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), put it in a teleconference last week:
On the Iranian side, Rouhani has essentially—I don’t want to use the word gambled—but the negotiations over the nuclear issue are the core issue of his entire presidency. If this fails, and if it fails because there is a perception in the international community that Iran cannot live up to the agreement, that it wasn’t flexible enough, then that will be the end of Rouhani’s presidency as a capable and influential president.…
And this is where I think one of the problems with sanctions relief is coming in, in the sense that so far the Iranians have either not received the sanctions relief in practical terms that they were promised or it’s essentially come way too late, which is largely an issue of the function of the fact that the sanctions regime has intimidated banks from partaking in any transactions with Iran, even permissible transactions.… If this psychological sanctions war is not starting to fall apart or be reduced to the degree and at the pace that the administration would like, and the Iranians are not receiving the benefits of a deal faster than they are right now, then I would start getting worried that the political insulation of the negotiations that has existed on the Iranian side would start to disintegrate, and that could be very bad. It would essentially mean that the U.S. side would no longer know that they are negotiating with a team that can deliver.
The Iranian side, too, expressed disappointment with the latest round of talks, according to AFP:
A source close to the Iranian delegation in Vienna was quoted by the IRNA news agency as saying that “the West has to abandon its excessive demands.”
“We had expected the Western side to become more realistic but this doesn’t appear to be the case yet,” the source added.
Read Next: Phyllis Bennis outlines five concrete steps the United States can take to help end the Syria crisis.
Who is Narendra Modi, and why should we be afraid?
Modi, of course, is the leader of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, a rightist, Hindu nationalist party, which won big in India’s weeks-long national election, and Modi will become India’s next prime minister now that 550 million ballots have been counted. In ousting the Congress party, the BJP will drag India much farther than it has ever been into a sectarian and even militant view of the role of Hindus in India and beyond, and it’s very possible that relations between India and Pakistan will get a lot worse under Modi. Because Modi is, above all, a pro-business advocate, he’ll be careful not to rush into a confrontation with either Pakistan or China. But those relationships, already not good, are certainly not likely to improve under the BJP. (Markets were sharply higher in India after Modi’s win was confirmed.)
Not only would worsening ties between India and Pakistan threaten to revive those two countries’ proxy war in Afghanistan, but if they lead to tensions in Kashmir (beyond the long-simmering crisis that plagues that divided region), then they could even threaten to spark a war between New Delhi and Islamabad—and both countries are nuclear-armed. And Modi’s involvement in horrific sectarian, anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat signal that Modi may not be welcomed by India’s vast Muslim minority.
There’s also a danger that the United States, where some neoconservatives and other hawks see India as a counterweight to China, might seek to build military ties with the new BJP government as part of Washington’s “pivot” toward Asia.
The BJP is the political heir of the 1970s-era Janata party, which ruled India for a few years under Morarji Desai. Aside from, and parallel to, the role of the BJP and Modi in sectarian strife putting Hindus against Muslims in India, the BJP and its allied organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have forces within them that believe that India under the Congress party and the Gandhis has lost sight of India’s glorious role as defender of Hindu interests. The RSS—whose name translates as “National Volunteer Organization”—is a right-wing, paramilitary group founded in 1925, which has long been involved in anti-Muslim violence and which has been banned several times in India’s history, including after one of its adherents assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. And though the leaders of the BJP have, lately, been careful to keep the RSS at arm’s length, the RSS jumped into the fray during the election with strong support for the BJP.
The BBC, in its profile of Modi, says in regard to the RSS:
Analysts say the reason Mr Modi remains unscathed is the strong support he enjoys among senior leaders in the right-wing Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS, founded in the 1920s with a clear objective to make India a Hindu nation, functions as an ideological fountainhead to a host of hardline Hindu groups—including Mr Modi’s BJP with which it has close ties. The RSS has a particularly strong base in Gujarat, and Mr Modi’s ties to it were seen as a strength the organisation could tap into when he joined the state unit of the BJP in the 1980s.
Recently, a rising tide of Hindu nationalism in India has led to worrying developments, especially for Muslims and secularists, including the banning in India of a recent book by Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Indian journalists who’ve reported on the role of Modi, the BJP and the RSS in recent sectarian violence have been threatened. And critics have felt the violent wrath of BJP supporters.
BJP supporters, of course, were blamed for Hindu-vs.-Muslim sectarian violence of 1992 and 2002 in Gujarat—where the population is about one-seventh Muslim—in which thousands died. In an interview with The New York Times after the riots, in which Hindus rampaged against Muslims, destroying thousands of homes and businesses, Modi—then Gujarat’s chief state minister—was brazenly unapologetic. In 2005, the United States banned Modi from traveling to the United States, though in February—having figured out that Modi and the BJP were likely to win the election in May—the US embassy reached out to Modi once again. (Modi also had reconciliation meetings with Britain, the former colonial power, and with the European Union.)
Writing in The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria edges dangerously close to the notion that the United States can now rebuild ties with India under Modi, who is likely to reject, according to Zakaria, India’s “old, Third World, anti-colonial impulses” for the “obvious requirements of a new Asia in which China is emerging as the dominant power.”
And making little of Modi’s Hindu nationalism and the RSS, Fortune magazine was bullish about the new government:
[It] offers an opportunity for the U.S. to shore up a central part of the relationship that has frayed over the last two years. An Indian government more focused on trade and investment would provide a welcome opening, and U.S. corporations are eager to get back to business. Washington can respond with convening long-delayed trade meetings, and championing Indian interest in deeper economic partnership throughout Asia, including a path to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and inclusion in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.
The issue of relations with Pakistan wasn’t a major factor in the election, but it’s now being raised as a major question for Modi. As the BBC reports:
Mr. Modi’s reputation as a no-nonsense leader standing for muscular nationalism has led to suggestions that India would be more assertive diplomatically under his rule. In its election manifesto, the BJP says it believes political stability, progress and peace are “essential for South Asia’s growth and development.” But the party’s leader has also hinted at a tough stance on talks with Pakistan, saying “the sound of dialogue is drowned by the noise of bombs and guns.”
And the BBC adds:
Mr. Modi’s status as an international pariah—cut off by the US and UK after the 2002 riots—came to an end in the last two years. He must now convince India’s Muslims—the country’s biggest minority community—and others that his Hindu nationalist party will not pursue an overtly majoritarian political and social ideology. He has reassured Muslims that they will be protected under his leadership, but some Hindu nationalist leaders reportedly made anti-Muslim speeches while campaigning for the election.
Read Next: Shubh Mathur and Foreign Policy In Focus on terror and impunity in Kashmir.
John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator who apparently has never met a country he didn’t want to invade, now wants to invade Nigeria—and he’s not alone. Plenty of other neoconservative adventurists are demanding the same thing, and in the meantime they’re using the tragedy of the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian girls to portray both President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as weak-kneed, lily-livered and bumbling.
Thanks to Josh Rogin over at The Daily Beast, we learn that McCain had this to say about the girls missing in Nigeria:
If they knew where they were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country.… I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan.… I would not be involved in the niceties of getting the Nigerian government to agree, because if we did rescue these people, there would be nothing but gratitude from the Nigerian government, such as it is.
Of course, the “some guy” that McCain refers to is the president of Nigeria.
Bill Kristol, the neoconservative bombardier who runs The Weekly Standard, apparently agrees with McCain:
It would be nice to learn that the administration has ordered the U.S. Marine Corps and various U.S. special operations forces to plan a rescue mission. It would be nice to learn the Obama administration has ordered the military to plan to destroy or cripple Boko Haram. It would be nice to see Hillary Clinton make the case for this.
The mention of Clinton is important, for Kristol and other neoconservatives, because they have gotten their knickers in an uproar over the fact that Clinton’s State Department didn’t designate Boko Haram, the group behind the kidnappings, as an official “terrorist organization” back in 2011—as if that would have made any difference to anyone. Back then, the FBI, the CIA and various intelligence and counterterrorism officials wanted to “designate” Boko Haram, but The New York Times quoted Johnnie Carson, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs between 2009 and 2013, saying that the State Department refused “for six or seven different reasons.” Among those reasons: it would give the group additional publicity, perhaps turning them into heroes of the jihadist movement, and it would have aligned the United States with a clumsy, brutal and heavy-handed crackdown on the group by the Nigerian military, which slaughtered hundreds in its effort to reassert control in the troubled region of the northeast.
Abubakar Shekau…is really a lunatic. If one were to compare him to somebody else in Africa, we would look at Joseph Kony, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who actually in setting precedent took a whole school of young girls from their boarding school some years ago in northern Uganda.
As The Wall Street Journal reports, Shekau makes use of YouTube to proclaim his near-insanity, laughing and cackling about the kidnapped girls, promising to sell them off to be married, and worse—including threatening to hold them as sex slaves. But there’s obvious method to his madness, and lately he’s been portraying himself as a willing combatant against American troops, proving Clinton and Carson right that what Boko Haram wants most is publicity and notoriety. Said a shouting Shekau:
We don’t fear any American troops.… Let even the Pharaoh himself be sent down here! We will deal with him squarely!
So far at least, President Obama seems to have handled the matter judiciously, offering surveillance assistance and other limited help to the Nigerian government and insisting that “ransom payments and other concessions” are unthinkable. But there’s a danger of a kind of “creeping interventionism” that Obama must resist.
Obama did address the limits of power for the United States in situations such as that in Nigeria, in comments that made a lot of sense to sensible people but which outraged the neocons. Said the president:
I have this remarkable title right now—president of the United States. And yet every day when I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria—when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids—and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment?
Obama offered limited help, including law enforcement experts and hostage negotiations experts:
In a sign of deepening global concern, on [May 5] the United States offered to provide a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists, to assist the Nigerians in recovering the girls, an offer that the government here accepted. American officials said “military resources” would not be included, but President Obama weighed in, vowing to “do everything we can.”
However, The Washington Post added that the United States is conducting surveillance flights and might employ surveillance drones, too:
The Obama administration is conducting surveillance flights over Nigeria in the search for more than 250 abducted schoolgirls and is considering the deployment of drones to the region to bolster the effort, officials said Monday.
And does that mean that the United States ought to get even more deeply involved, training the Nigerian military? That’s the next step, it seems, and it’s one step closer to the sort of intervention that McCain wants, though there’s no sign of US combat troops yet—an option rejected by most members of Congress—and certainly not without Nigeria’s permission. Still, according to Defense News, trainers are on the way:
In a quiet escalation of its mission, US Army’s Africa is preparing to send soldiers and special operations forces to Nigeria to train that nation’s forces for combat operations, a first for the command that traditionally has trained local forces for only peacekeeping missions.
A story posted on the US Army’s official website on Friday said the team will arrive in Nigeria to train a newly formed 650-man Ranger battalion by the end of the month with an eye toward fighting the Boko Haram militant group.
Obama may be frustrated by the crisis in Nigeria, along with the one in Ukraine, but he has to resist the idea that the United States and its military can solve it.
Read Next: Zoe Blumenfeld on standing up for girls’ education in Nigeria
With a self-imposed deadline of July 20 to conclude a final agreement, the P5+1 and Iran meet once again this week in Vienna in the latest round of their negotiations toward an accord that would resolve the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. All sides, it appears, are optimistic—and perhaps the best indication that things are going well is that those opposed to deal, including hardliners in Iran, hawks in the United States, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are all worried.
Make no mistake: if a deal is reached, it will be the signature foreign policy accomplishment of President Obama’s presidency. The result of a deal will be a vast improvement in US-Iran relations, with consequences for the entire Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It would provide a touchstone for better US-Russia relations, critically important in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. It would remove the threat of war in the Persian Gulf. And much more, including creating new opportunities to shift Israel’s focus from Iran back to where it belongs, namely, on Israeli-Arab relations and a deal over Palestine.
To prepare regional opponents of the Iran deal for what’s likely to emerge, last week Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, visited Israel to brief the government there, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's visit this week to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel > on the same mission will include key talks with Saudi Arabian officials and the rest of the Persian Gulf states, who fear that a US-Iran rapprochement would occur at their expense.
Gary Sick, a professor at Columbia University who served as President Jimmy Carter’s adviser on Iran, writes in The Iran Primer that the United States is simultaneously conducting four separate dialogues: with Iran, with its P5+1 allies, with Congress and with those obstreperous regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Last week, in New York, there was a quiet round of technical talks among the parties in advance of this week’s meeting in Vienna, and, as The Guardian reported last week, the talks are getting close to the “tipping point.” Says the paper: “There is growing optimism that the huge, sprawling compromises required, considered fanciful not long ago, are perhaps within reach.” Reportedly, the parties are now actually writing the language of the final accord, though nothing is yet agreed, and much of the remaining work to be done is very technical, involving exactly how to create limits on Iran’s program acceptable to the P5+1 yet something that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif can sell back at home. Among the key issues to be resolved is how to reduce and gradually eliminate economic sanctions on Iran, step by step, in parallel with steps taken by Iran to scale back its program and increase transparency.
In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, the establishment foreign policy journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations, an article by Zarif (“What Iran Really Wants”) provides a detailed roadmap for reintegration of Iran into global and regional affairs as a cooperative partner, as a deal is reached. The nuclear “crisis,” says Zarif, is “in Iran’s view, is wholly manufactured and therefore reversible,” and he adds that Iran “has no interest in nuclear weapons and is convinced that such weapons would not enhance its security.” And he says:
As a responsible regional power, Iran will actively participate in combating and containing extremism and violence through bilateral, regional, and multilateral cooperation with countries in the region and beyond. Moreover, Iran will prudently manage its relations with the United States by containing existing disagreements and preventing further tensions from emerging unnecessarily, thereby gradually easing tensions. Iran will also engage with European countries and other Western states with the goal of reinvigorating and further expanding relations.
Such words should be seen in the context of Iran’s own domestic politics, where hardliners, militant clerics and holdovers from the era of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are resisting talk of compromise. Last November, at the start of the current round of talks, Zarif noted with some humor that he and Rouhani are facing their own Tea Party. “You said we don’t have a tea party? I wish you were right,” Zarif said then. Indeed, on May 3, an ad hoc coalition met in Tehran to slam the emerging accord, under the banner, “We’re Worried.” Led, according to Al Monitor, by ultra-conservative members of parliament, hardline clerics and ex-Ahmadinejad officials, the conference—in what was undoubtedly an unintended echo of Netanyahu’s words—called the accord a “bad deal.” (According to Haaretz, Netanyahu used exactly those words, “bad deal,” after meeting with Rice during her visit to Israel.) But Al Monitor noted that media outlets in Iran sharply attacked the conference and in fact did draw parallels between the hardliners in Iran and Israel’s Netanyahu:
Iran Newspaper, which is associated with the administration, ran the headline “The destruction of Geneva at the conference of the worried.” Ensaf News, in a critical and somewhat mocking take, remarked that those opposed to the nuclear deal in Iran “have concerns similar to those of the prime minister of the Zionist regime, Benjamin Netanyahu.”
And RFE/RL, which also reported on the “We’re Worried” conference, said that it was held on the grounds of the former US embassy in Tehran, the infamous location of the 1979-1981 hostage taking by hardline supporters of Iran’s former leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But RFE/RL made it clear that the backers of the conference do not represent a majority view inside Iran and that most Iranians support the efforts of Rouhani and Zarif to strike a deal.
Zarif also won a vote in parliament last week when hardliners sought to attack him over recent comments that he made about the reality of the Holocaust. (During the Ahmadinejad era, of course, it was routine for Ahmadinejad and other officials to say that the Holocaust was fiction.) Although seventy-five “Islamic hardliners” in parliament attacked Zarif, the foreign minister defeated an effort to censure him. And, just as some Iranians ridiculed the "We’re Worried" conference by comparing its hardliners to Netanyahu, so did Zarif ju-jitsu the critics by citing Netanyahu’s jeremiads on the issue. Said Zarif:
Netanyahu shamelessly claims Iran denies the Holocaust, that we are after a nuclear bomb to create another Holocaust. As long as I am foreign minister, I will not allow the Holocaust to be exploited to ruin our national image and dignity.
Russia, too—despite Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine—is also waxing positive on the prospects of an Iran deal. According to Reuters, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last week that negotiators “could agree parts of a text of an agreement on Tehran's nuclear program when they meet for a new round of negotiations in Vienna next week.” And The Associated Press reported last week that another Russian official, Mikhail Uliyanov, an arms control specialist, “gave the upbeat assessment” about the prospects of an accord. Reports the AP:
Iran’s unprecedented cooperation with the UN’s nuclear watchdog and six world powers raises hope that an agreement can be reached to limit Iran’s ability to build nuclear arms before the July 20 deadline, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official said ahead of a new round of talks next week.
Plenty of obstacles remain, of course. But it’s very, very unlikely that either Congress or domestic American hawks can upend the emerging agreement. (Last week, in an op-ed in Roll Call, Representative Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat, warned his Capitol Hill colleagues to leave diplomacy to the diplomats.) As readers of this blog know, the Israel lobby and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) suffered a huge defeat earlier this year, when the White House strongly fought back against efforts in Congress to pass an AIPAC-sponsored bill imposing new sanctions against Iran, since the bill would have wrecked the talks. (The language in last November’s interim agreement explicitly forbids new economic sanctions.) It appears that President Obama and his team are totally committed to getting a deal done, despite criticism from neoconservatives and others.
Even Israel’s hardliners are under assault back home. As Trita Parsi writes in The National Interest, key Israelis are pointing out that Iran is far less of a threat than Netanyahu claims. And as Al Jazeera America reports, the former head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission had this to say:
The Iranian nuclear program will only be operational in another 10 years. Even so, I am not sure that Iran wants the bomb.… Netanyahu is using the Iranian threat to achieve a variety of political objectives.… These declarations are unnecessarily scaring Israel's citizens, given Israel is not party to the negotiations to determine whether Iran will or will not dismantle its nuclear program.
Plenty of Israelis, including those with years of experience in Israel’s national security establishment, are critical of Netanyahu’s fear-mongering. If the diplomats do their work properly in the next two months, there will be a deal by July 20.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on if Obama's foreign policy approach is really the same as Bush's.
Has Vladimir Putin blinked? If so, there’s a much greater chance today than yesterday that a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Ukraine can be found. And it’s a sign that President Obama’s steady-as-she-goes, centrist foreign policy could all at once calm the Ukraine storm, prevent a new Cold War and get back to cooperating with Russia on things that matter to the United States, such as the Iran talks, Syria’s civil war and Afghanistan. And, reports RT, Putin plans to meet President Obama and other Western leaders in a few weeks at a celebration in June of the 1944 Normandy landing.
And no doubt, the European and Russian business classes, who feared that the standoff over Ukraine could upset their profitable ties, are calming down. (At least, the ruble and the Russian stock exchange are up sharply.)
Putin says that he’s ready for a “roundtable dialogue” with the United States, Ukraine and Western Europe. One issue is that Putin has been insisting that the eastern Ukraine pro-Russian rebels have a seat at that table, something that neither Kiev or Washington is likely to accept. On the other hand, now it seems that Putin might be willing to accept a second, parallel set of talks between Kiev and the rebels, without the participation of Kiev’s backers in the West or the rebels’ backers in Moscow, which just might work. And something like that is being put together by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, it appears.
Putin spoke at a news conference with the chief of the OSCE, the Cold War–era diplomatic group, whose leader says that he’s already working to plan a “roadmap” to end the Ukraine crisis.
But it’s unlikely that the crisis is over just yet. Perhaps Putin is indeed looking for a diplomatic way out of the mess he’s created, one that would entail Russian support and recognition for the May 25 elections in Ukraine in exchange for promises by Kiev (and by the West) that Ukraine will reconstitute itself, giving rather more autonomy to the regions—without, of course, going so far as to accede to Moscow’s unreasonable demand that Ukraine’s regions get nearly full autonomy, near to independence. And perhaps underpinning such a negotiation would be an agreement not to bring Ukraine into NATO.
But if Putin’s initiative yesterday is a feint, meant only to provide a sort of plausible deniability in regard to Russia’s support of the anti-Kiev rebellion in the east, then things could get worse fast.
The pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine—“separatists” being the euphemism for the band of Russian covert operation-sponsored “little green men” who took over various buildings in cities in the east—haven’t all responded well to Putin’s call on Wednesday for them to cease-and-desist in their plan to hold a referendum on, well, something (joining Russia, declaring independence, creating some sort of “People’s Republic”) in Ukraine’s east, scheduled for Sunday. Of course, there isn’t a chance that they could orchestrate any sort of referendum at all, given that they have no machinery to organize a vote and that they control only a few government buildings here and there. Still, even a phony vote—and one separatist leader was overheard via surveillance suggesting a rigged, 89 percent vote in support of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”—could lead to intensified violence and trigger a more overt Russian intervention. The United States and Europe are keeping their eye—meaning, their spy satellites—on Russian troop movements near Ukraine, and it isn’t clear yet that those troops are moving away from Ukraine, as Putin promised. (Meanwhile, according to RT, the Russians chose this moment to hold massive military exercises, including try-outs of their “nuclear deterrence” systems, “led by Russian President Vladimir Putin,” including “strategic bomber aircraft and underwater missile carriers of the Pacific and Northern fleets.” )
Via RT, here are the relevant quotes from Putin’s remarks yesterday:
Russia believes that the crisis, which originated in Ukraine and is now actively developing in accordance with the worst-case scenario, is to be blamed on those who organized the coup in Kiev on 22-23 February and still do not care to disarm the right-wing and nationalist elements.…
We are calling for southeast Ukraine representatives, supporters of federalization of the country, to postpone the May 11 referendum to create the necessary conditions for dialogue.…
We have been told that our troops by the Ukrainian border are a concern—we have withdrawn them. They are now not near the border, but at locations where they conduct regular drills at ranges.
On Thursday, back in Moscow at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization—the “mini-NATO” that includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia—Putin added:
Concrete steps have been planned to augment efforts by the OSCE to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, primarily through arranging a direct, equitable dialogue between the present Ukrainian authorities and representatives of southeastern regions of Ukraine.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on how the GOP is playing games with nuclear safety to get back at Russia
The deluge of attacks against President Obama by hawks, neoconservatives and various single-issue hardliners is a sign that the Obama administration is doing something right. Not everything, of course: from progressives, there is—and should be—criticism of Obama’s domestic surveillance program, the drone wars, the too-slow pullout from Afghanistan, the White House’s refusal to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the slow-motion effort to surround China with US military alliances in the vaunted “pivot” to Asia. But what’s got the right wing in an uproar is what Obama has done right. He’s close to a workable deal with Iran; he’s avoided war in Syria; he’s handled the Ukraine crisis cautiously and without seeking to provoke President Vladimir Putin; he’s getting out of Afghanistan; and he’s making some significant cuts in the US military budget.
Perhaps Obama gave the hawks an opening when, in speaking in the Philippines, he used a baseball metaphor to describe how he approaches foreign policy. Emphasizing his confrontation-avoiding, incremental approach to foreign affairs, Obama said:
That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.
Trigger the outrage. It came from every direction, ad infinitum, from those determined to portray Obama as weak, confused and lily-livered, as someone who won’t stand up for America and its “exceptionalism.” It came from Charles Krauthammer, from Commentary, from the Washington Post editorial board, from The Wall Street Journal and the Baltimore Sun, and lots of other outlets. And, of course, it provided further fuel on the fire of the Republican party’s quixotic and misguided effort to investigate, yet again, the non-scandal of Benghazi.
David Ignatius, a more thoughtful foreign policy critic, who says that he “sympathizes with many of Obama’s foreign policy goals,” still manages to complain about Obama’s “measured” view:
It’s painful watching the YouTube video of President Obama in Manila last week, talking about hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy. Everything he says is measured, and most of it is correct. But he acts as if he’s talking to a rational world, as opposed to one inhabited by leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In the realm of power politics, U.S. presidents get points not for being right but for being (or appearing) strong. Presidents either say they’re going to knock the ball out of the park, or they say nothing. The intangible factors of strength and credibility (so easy to mock) are, in fact, the glue of a rules-based international system.
So let me add my measure of praise for Obama’s baseball metaphor. The United States doesn’t need a president who hits home runs in foreign affairs, whatever that means. (Indeed, to extend the baseball analogy, before Obama we had a president who led the United Nations in errors, miscues and strikeouts.) In the spectrum of American foreign policy, which runs from hard-core neocons on the right, through traditional hawks, conservatives, realists and centrists, to liberal interventionists, to peace-minded liberals and progressives, Obama is just about dead-center. But in five and half years in office, he’s ended two wars and (except for the Libya misadventure) he hasn’t started any new ones.
In this space, I’ve been sharply critical of how Obama has approached the Arab Spring and its aftermath, in particular his bungling of the civil war in Syria—where the president first encouraged the revolt by calling for President Assad’s overthrow and then drew unenforceable red lines that almost led him to go along with Secretary of State John Kerry and other hawks who supported a bombing campaign against Damascus. And I’ve criticized the administration across a wide range of other issues. Still, to say—as many progressives seem reflexively wont to do—that there’s no difference between Obama and George W. Bush or that the Obama administration is still guided and influenced by the neocons is simply ignorant and ill-informed.
In that context, via the Associated Press, take a look at some of Obama’s comments during the stopover in the Philippines last week:
—“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”
—“My job as commander in chief is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely. And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.”
—“I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops.’ Well, what do you mean? ‘Well, you should be assisting the opposition.’ Well, we’re assisting the opposition. What else do you mean? ‘Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria.’ Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike. So what else are you talking about? And at that point it kind of trails off.”
—“Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?”
—“The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.”
—“But we can continue to speak out clearly about what we believe. Where we can make a difference using all the tools we’ve got in the toolkit, well, we should do so. And if there are occasions where targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them. We don’t do them because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think it would look strong.”
So, two cheers for President Obama.
Read Next: Walden Bello on Washington extracting rent-free basing from the Philippines.
A web of hydrocarbon ties between Russia and Germany will heat the planet, but cool the conflict over Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s “soft invasion” of Ukraine is moving steadily ahead, perhaps on the route to fulfilling Putin’s newly discovered dream of incorporating “New Russia” (Novorossiya) into the motherland. (If you haven’t been following this new angle, Novorossiya is a huge swath of land stretching from southwestern Ukraine along the Black Sea, and including Odessa and Crimea, to parts of eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed gangs have seized control of some government buildings.) On April 17, Putin mentioned the concept, an eighteenth-century, ex-Ottoman Empire artifact, saying:
I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya back in the tsarist days—Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa—were not part of Ukraine back then. The center of that territory was Novorossiysk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained.
Needless to say, there is no such place, but in Putin’s mind it may serve as justification to expand the massive covert operation Moscow is running in eastern Ukraine to places such as Odessa, where new violence has erupted.
It remains to be seen whether or not Ukraine can survive in its present form, but if it doesn’t—that is, if Ukraine breaks apart, Yugoslavia-style—one thing is fairly certain: the hydrocarbon bonds linking Russia to Western Europe, especially Germany, will remain unbroken. Sanctions or no sanctions, NATO or no NATO, the vastly powerful Gazprom empire will sustain itself, supplying gas to the lamps of Europe.
President Obama can huff and puff, and demand sanctions on Russia, but it’s fairly clear that Germany, the powerhouse of the European economy, won’t go along. So if a Cold War–style chill does descend on US-Russian relations—itself not too evident, since Russia is still cooperating nicely with the United States on Syria’s chemical weapons, Iran’s nuclear program and Afghanistan—the Europeans will be modest and reluctant collaborators at best, while preserving their ties to Gazprom.
Putin himself has noted that Gazprom has great influence over Europe’s views of the Ukraine crisis. According to the Voice of Russia, he said:
European countries take around 34%-35% of their gas balances from Russia. Can they stop purchasing Russian gas? In my view, it’s impossible.… Can we stop deliveries? In my opinion, this is completely unrealistic. Only by harming yourself, through blood is this possible, but I can’t even imagine this.
An op-ed in The New York Times today by the former editor of Germany’s Die Welt notes that a pair of former German chancellors, Gerhard Schroder and Helmut Schmidt, have been leading efforts in Germany to ensure that Berlin prefers a diplomatic approach to the Ukraine crisis. (Another former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, has also emerged as a dove on Ukraine, saying in March that the West had displayed a “lack of sensitivity in the dealings with our Russian neighbor, especially President Putin.”) And even though Obama sought to portray the United States and Germany as in sync on Russia when Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington in early May, no one is really buying it. As The Wall Street Journal headlined on May 1, as Merkel arrived in Washington, “German Businesses Urge Halt on Sanctions Against Russia.” (The Journal has been engaged in a nonstop campaign of reporting on how Europe’s ties with Russia will block the emergence of a cold war.) It reported:
As the Ukraine crisis has worsened, German officials have faced a barrage of telephone calls from senior corporate executives, urging them not to take steps that would damage business interests in Russia, people familiar with the matter say.… “If there’s a single message we have as business leaders, then it’s this: sit down at the negotiating table and resolve these matters peacefully,” Eckhard Cordes, a former Daimler AG executive who now heads the Ostauschuss, German industry’s lobbying arm for Eastern Europe, told a recent conference in Berlin.
Schroder, who’s emerged as a leading defender of Putin, also happens to be on Putin’s payroll, pretty much. He receives 250,000 euros per year as “board chairman for a pipeline venture with Russian gas monopoly Gazprom.” As The Wall Street Journal reported at length on April 29, Schroder celebrated his birthday with Putin in St. Petersburg, at the very height of the Ukraine crisis, where he was photographed giving Putin a bear hug.
In all of this, there’s an important piece in The New York Times today that analyzes the problem of getting gas to Ukraine in reverse-flow delivery from Slovakia. As the Times reports, here’s the problem: the gas that Slovakia receives, via a pipeline through Ukraine, comes from Russia’s Gazprom. Once there, in theory, Slovakia is free to re-sell the gas to Ukraine and to deliver by reverse-flow in that same pipeline. Because Russia has sharply raised the price of gas that Gazprom sells to Ukraine itself, the delivery from Slovakia would make sense, it seems, giving Ukraine access to less costly has from a neighbor. However, it appears that Slovakia’s own energy firm, Eustream, which recently changed hands, has some sort of secret annex in its deal with Gazprom which prevents it from selling gas back to Ukraine, or so Slovakia says. Reports the Times:
“We have been struggling for a long time to convince them to find a solution,” said [Andriy] Kobolev, the Ukrainian gas chief. “We have now identified the problem, which was obvious from the beginning—restrictions placed by Gazprom.” Ukraine’s energy minister, Yuri Prodan, dismissed Gazprom’s legal and technical arguments as a red herring. “I think the problem is political. We don’t see any real objective obstacles to what we have been proposing,” he said.
And the Times adds:
Eustream executives declined repeated requests for interviews. Vahram Chuguryan, the company’s spokesman, declined to comment on the apparent change of heart or on whether it was related to an ownership shuffle in early 2013, when a group of wealthy Czech and Slovak businesspeople purchased a 49 percent stake in Eustream. At the time, Czech news media speculated that they were acting as a stalking horse for Gazprom.
Back in the bad old days of the real Cold War, the Reagan administration went ballistic when the Western Europe first considered a major new pipeline connecting it to Russia. Thirty years later, and long after the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, there’s a mighty web of carbon-spewing, climate change-inducing, pollution-mongering oil and gas ties between Europe and Germany. That’s not good for the environment, but it might be good for Ukraine. Perhaps it’s time to let the officials of Gazprom and gas companies in Slovakia, Germany and Ukraine take over from Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. That is, before Putin founds Novorossiya.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen write that the White House has declared a new Cold War on Russia without debate.
There’s a phony war in Ukraine, and a real, live one in Syria, where up to 150,000 people have been killed since 2011. (Iraq, however, is on track to match Syria before long.) In brutal fighting that often verges on massacres and outright mass slaughter, lately the government of President Bashar al-Assad has upped the ante. On Thursday, “barrel bombs” and missiles rained down on what The New York Times described as a “bustling market” in Aleppo, blowing thirty-three people apart and leaving scenes that were videotaped as a record of the carnage. (Don’t watch if you don’t have a strong stomach.)
And just the day before, Syrian airstrikes hit an elementary school in Aleppo, killing twenty—including seventeen children. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of people have been killed in barrel-bomb attacks, which are powerful and indiscriminate, and HRW says that they’ve been used at least eighty-five times in Aleppo since February.
What can the United States, or anyone, do? Not a lot. Diplomacy is faltering, except in regard to Syria’s chemical weapons. In Syria’s civil war, Assad—who’s announced plans to run for re-election in June—is winning. Backed by Russia (which has even more reason now, after Ukraine, to give the United States a black eye in Syria) and Iran (which, on the other hand, may be willing to compromise on Syria as it moves toward a deal with the United States over its nuclear program), Assad is steadily gaining ground in a war in which there are no “good guys.” The Islamist-extremist anti-Assad forces, led especially by allies of Al Qaeda and radicals even more extreme, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have committed atrocities of their own. And inside Syria, more and more it’s looking like Assad will stick around, at least in the medium term, with many Syrians fearful that the Islamists might be a lot worse than the government.
That said, the hawks and neoconservatives who’ve been itching to get more deeply involved in Syria’s civil war say that they’ve found a group worth supporting, finally: it’s called Harakat Hazm, which means “Steadfastness Movement.” And it’s being promoted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which is singing its virtues:
Harakat Hazm formed in January 2014 via the merger of twenty-two separate rebel units. According to its founding documents, it is a “revolutionary political organization with a military wing…working to bring down the regime in Syria and seeking to restore the freedom and dignity of the Syrian people.” There is very little Islamist content in these documents or the group’s various Internet postings. In general, the movement appears more interested in warfighting against the regime than the infighting that has long plagued the political and military opposition.
After describing Harakat Hazm’s alleged moderation, professionalism and sophisticated weaponry, WINEP concludes:
In short, Harakat Hazm appears to be a model for the type of group the United States and its allies can support with meaningful, lethal military assistance. It seems to meet several important military and political criteria, and how it rates on others can be determined by contact with the organization and intelligence collection. That process already appears to be under way for this group and, perhaps, other rebel factions on the more secular/less Islamist side of the spectrum. In addition to providing more weapons, an assistance program could improve the skills of individual fighters and whole units, making them more effective on the battlefield. Efforts to enhance command and control and establish sound logistics would have similar benefits.
The Washington Post, ever hawkish on Syria and no doubt prompted by WINEP in its coverage, reported earlier this week on Harakat Hazm’s work in Syria, noting with satisfaction that it has been “entrusted with the first American missiles to be delivered to the Syrian war.” Says the Post:
But the arrival at the base last month of U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles, the first advanced American weaponry to be dispatched to Syria since the conflict began, has reignited long-abandoned hopes among the rebels that the Obama administration is preparing to soften its resistance to the provision of significant military aid and, perhaps, help move the battlefield equation back in their favor.
According to the Post, HH has 5,000 fighters, which seems exaggerated, at the least—but one of its leaders did give the Post a walking tour of one of its bases. The antitank missiles that HH possesses were delivered not the United States but by the so-called “Friends of Syria.” Yet only one willfully blind wouldn’t say that the United States is behind it. Although the Post didn’t notice any CIA people around HH’s base, NPR, thanks to Tom Bowman and Alice Fordham, tells us:
The U.S. is providing more arms and training to the moderate rebels in Syria, under a growing secret program run by the CIA in Jordan. Sources tell NPR that secret program could be supplemented by a more public effort in the coming months involving American military trainers. …
Sources briefed on the covert effort say that the intelligence community will continue to lead this “robust” program of increased arms and training. The White House will see how this effort develops before deciding on whether the Pentagon would play a more public role.
This first covert shipment of TOW missiles is a test, said a member of the Syrian opposition briefed on the negotiations. The Harakat Hazm rebels, considered a moderate group, say they have received 50.
If that’s true, it’s a further tilt by the Obama administration toward an escalation of the war in Syria. In fact, that war is lost, and the United States ought to admit it and pull up stakes rather than continue the futile conflict. Inside the Obama administration there has long been a divide between the White House, which resisted deeper involvement, and hawks at the CIA and State Department (including Secretary of State John Kerry), who wanted to bomb Syria and provide lethal aid to the anti-Assad rebels.
Could it be that the worsening of the US-Russia standoff on Ukraine will push the White House to try to get back at Moscow through Syria? Let’s hope not.
That’s precisely the policy advocated by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the aptly named foreign policy expert and former State Department official, whom I’ve criticized before. In an op-ed for CNBC, called “Stopping Russia Starts in Syria,” Slaughter calls for bombing Syria to get back at Putin:
It is time to change Putin’s calculations, and Syria is the place to do it.… A US strike against the Syrian government now would change the entire dynamic. It would either force the regime back to the negotiating table with a genuine intention of reaching a settlement, or at least make it clear that Assad will not have a free hand in re-establishing his rule.… Equally important, shots fired by the US in Syria will echo loudly in Russia.
And her incredibly reckless conclusion: “Striking Syria might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.”
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen on how the White House is declaring a new Cold War on Russia
Iraqis went to the polls today. At least, that’s the official story. But how can a country have an election when it’s embroiled in virtual civil war conditions, run by a gangster politician enforcing a Shiite, sectarian agenda, with some of its major cities besieged by a rough alliance of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and thousands of angry, disaffected Sunnis? Plus, with its Kurdish north careening toward breakaway, independent status?
The tragedy of Iraq continues. Nearly 9,000 Iraqis died last year in violent attacks, suicide and car bombings, and civil war–style violence, and that’s probably an underestimate. In 2014, about a thousand a month are being killed—not quite Syrian levels, but far worse than, say, in Afghanistan. (See the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq for month-by-month details, which understate the deaths.) And since the criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative allies—along with its liberal-interventionist co-thinkers, such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—Iraq has been plunged into a never-ending nightmare, its body politic ripped asunder, its civil and industrial infrastructure destroyed and its population reduced by at least several hundred thousands who died. Countless millions more suffer from grotesque injuries, psychological trauma and PTSD—especially children.
It’s a testament to the strength and determination of Iraqis that they can have an election at all. But the result isn’t likely to improve Iraq’s pitiful situation, especially since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—the would-be dictator and president-for-life—is almost certain to remain in power, provided that he can cobble together another parliamentary coalition that rests chiefly on his fundamentalist, Shiite-sectarian base. His popularity has been declining in recent years, but now his thundering war against Sunni “terrorists” in Ramadi, Fallujah and the rest of Anbar province, along with somewhat less intense crusades in Salahuddin province, in Mosul and elsewhere, may have managed to stir up enough Shiite sectarian excitement that he can pull off a sizable plurality of the vote. Back in 2010, when an opposition party led by Ayad Allawi—a wily, nonsectarian, secular Shiite politician with a largely Sunni base—won the biggest share of the vote, both the United States and Iran weighed in to prop up Maliki and ensure that he was able to form a government that eventually excluded Allawi. A year later, in 2011, the remaining American troops departed, and within days Maliki went to war against Sunni politicians, the Sunni establishment and others who opposed his authoritarian style. Maliki used spurious charges of terrorism against top politicos, including the Sunni vice president of Iraq, who was forced to flee for his life. Following that, Maliki cracked down viciously on peaceful, Arab Spring–style protests in Anbar, killing hundreds and detaining thousands.
And Maliki has seized control of the levers of influence in Iraq: the media, the armed forces, the intelligence service, the election commission and more. As Matt Bradley reports in The Wall Street Journal, Iraqiyya, the state broadcast service, is deployed at Maliki’s service, “among more than a half-dozen other once-independent institutions that Mr. Maliki has come to dominate and is now using to catapult himself to a third term, say his political opponents, critics and analysts.”
So, it’s no wonder that the Iraqi insurgency that erupted after 2003 is back. This time, it’s enhanced by the chaos in Syria, where a largely Sunni army of Islamist fanatics and rag-tag rebels tied to Al Qaeda and ISIS are battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah have turned into strongholds of the insurgency, and the anti-Maliki radicals have deployed waves of suicide bombers and car bomb experts to slaughter thousands of Shiite civilians in markets, public squares and other soft targets. They’ve also carried out a lethal pattern of assassinations of moderate and establishment Sunnis outside Baghdad.
As reported in depth in a must-read piece in The New Yorker by Dexter Filkins, Maliki—a paranoid, secretive thug who was long one of the leaders of the Shiite-fundamentalist Dawa party—has fallen back on the help of several Shiite paramilitary militia closely tied to Iran, using them to smash Sunni political opposition and to undermine the forces of the independent minded Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. As Filkins relates, the leaders of two of the groups—Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of the Party of God Brigade and Qais al-Khazali of Asa’ib al-Haq—live close to Maliki’s home in the Little Venice area of the old Green Zone. Adds Filkins:
According to Iraqi and American officials, Maliki has begun to deploy both militias against his opponents, mainly the followers of Sadr. “Maliki is using Asa’ib to take out his enemies,” the senior Iraqi lawmaker told me.… Several American and Iraqi officials told me that Muhandis is Maliki’s principal connection to the Iranian regime, acting as the personal representative of Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force. (Maliki responded, “I do have a good relationship with Iran, but I do not have any links with Muhandis.”)
It was, of course, the United States who catapulted Maliki into power. Even before the 2003 war, the Bush administration—and its principal overseer of Iraqi politics, Zalmay Khalilzad, a neoconservative Afghan-American—built an alliance with Iraq’s Shiites, especially its religious parties, including Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Both Dawa and SCIRI, along with Ahmad Chalabi—the Shiite charlatan who conned the neocons—had close ties to Tehran. (Indeed, SCIRI was a founded as a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.) And in 2006 it was Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, who elevated Maliki to the post of prime minister, with behind-the-scenes maneuvering. That’s why it’s sad but not surprising that Khalilzad, even today, is blathering on about how the United States ought to use its soft power to help Maliki today. In a piece for The National Interest, titled “Iraq’s Elections: What Washington Must Do,” he writes:
Vital American interests are at stake.… Navigating Iraqi politics in the coming months will require a level of deftness, balance, and steadfastness that has eluded the Obama Administration’s Iraq policy to date. However, given the strong relationships that Washington has with key Iraqi leaders and factions, the United States still possesses sufficient leverage in Iraq for securing a government that is beneficial for Iraqis and friendly with the United States.
It’s too late, Zal. The United States has little or no influence in Iraq anymore, just as it has little or no influence over the civil war in Syria, the undemocratic actions of the government in Egypt and the scattered militias of chaotic Libya. Iraq, torn between its Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and pulled this way and that by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will make its own way—and its own mistakes. And it will take several generations for Iraq to recover from the effects of its destruction in 2003.
Read Next: Anand Gopal on how the US created the Afghan War—and then lost it