Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

US Halts Aid to Anti-Assad Rebels

A man inspects a site hit by missiles.

A man inspects a site hit by what activists said were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. (Reuters)

It’s read-’em-and-weep for supporters of the Syrian opposition. The whole enterprise has been on a slippery slope for quite some time, and now it’s tumbled straight down into oblivion. The “official” opposition, the so-called moderates who’ve been halfheartedly backed by the Obama administration since 2011, have been overwhelmed, it seems, by radicals, ultra-radicals and Al Qaeda types. As a result, the administration has officially suspended the supply of nonlethal aid to the Syrian rebels because, well, it’s going to the wrong guys.

This week, the top rebel commander backed by the United States, General Salim Idris of the tattered Free Syrian Army and its parent group, the Supreme Military Council, was forced to flee from Syria for his life when more radical elements affiliated with the so-called Islamic Front muscled in to his territory. (The Islamic Front is a concoction of radical-right Islamists, formed last month, who are, nevertheless, separate and distinct from the pro–Al Qaeda Nusra Front and the even more radical, Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams, or ISIS. Still, the Islamic Front says its goal is to turn Syria into an “Islamic state.”) As The Wall Street Journal put it, succinctly:

Gen. Idris flew to the Qatari capital of Doha on Sunday after fleeing to Turkey, U.S. officials said Wednesday. “He fled as a result of the Islamic Front taking over his headquarters,” a senior U.S. official said.

Oh, and the Islamists also seized control of the warehouses that stock all the goodies that the Obama administration has been supplying to the anti-Assad fighters, including trucks and tanks. Added the Journal:

The Islamists also took over key warehouses holding U.S. military gear for moderate fighters in northern Syria over the weekend. The takeover and flight of Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army shocked the U.S., which along with Britain immediately froze delivery of nonlethal military aid to rebels in northern Syria.… Two senior officials said the warehouses taken over by the Islamic Front appeared to contain a range of lethal and nonlethal equipment.

Somewhat pathetically, the United States has been holding talks with the Islamic Front. Perhaps the best spin to be put on those talks is that Obama administration wants as many rebels as possible to come to Geneva in January to participate in the peace conference jointly sponsored by Washington and Moscow. The government of President Bashar al-Assad has already said that it will attend, and the rebels are all over the place. In any case, however, the United States has decided to suspend the delivery to support to the rebels until the situation clarifies itself. As The New York Times reports:

Just a month before a peace conference that will seek an end to the grinding civil war in Syria, the Obama administration’s decision to suspend the delivery of nonlethal aid to the moderate opposition demonstrated again the frustrations of trying to cultivate a viable alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.… With rebels feuding with one another instead of concentrating on fighting Mr. Assad…the United States [is] still groping for a reliable partner in Syria.

It’s pretty much a complete and total collapse of the American efforts to back opposition to Assad, whose own forces have put together a string of military victories since the spring, retaking important strongholds and using aid from Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group, Hezbollah, to do so.

Tony Blinken, the top White House foreign policy official and former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, told a conference that the radicalization of the conflict and the strength of the Islamists might convince everyone involved from the outside to seek a peace accord. But a closer reading of Blinken’s comments seemed to indicate that he was suggesting that Russia would feel compelled to lessen its support for Assad because it fears that the Islamist rebels—who include a number of extremist Chechen fighters who’ll try to wreak havoc in Russia when they return. Reports Foreign Policy:

Speaking at Transformational Trends, a conference co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department, Blinken said that the radicalization of the conflict may create a shared interest among world powers to bring the war to an end. The growing prominence of radical groups has “begun to concentrate the minds of critical actors outside of Syria” and may strip the Bashar al-Assad regime of the key international backing that has so far helped to keep him in power.

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“The Russians have a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria, a haven for extremist groups,” Blinken said. “Many of Syria’s neighbors have the same incentive, and of course we have a strong reason to want to avoid that future.”

Really, Mr. Blinken. Fact is, the United States and Russia have a joint interest in suppressing and eliminating the Islamist rebels. And that’s it. One danger is that Saudi Arabia, which is apoplectic about the impending US-Iran accord and which is equally angry about the US-Russia diplomacy over Syria, may be pouring funds into the non–Al Qaeda Islamist radicals, such as the Islamist Front, just to give the United States a black eye. If so, Washington had better read the riot act to Riyadh.


Read next: Omar Ghabra's personal account of Syria under Bashar al-Assad.

The Danger in Ukraine

Protests in Kiev

Ukrainian protesters blockaded the main government building on Monday, seeking to force President Viktor Yanukovich from office. (Reuters)

The last thing that President Obama needs right now, as he struggles to finalize an accord with Iran and get the peace conference on Syria up and running next month, is a showdown over Ukraine. But he might just get one. The three-week-old crisis there is teetering on the brink of something far worse, as protesters vow to expand their demonstrations and security forces threaten a general, violent crackdown. Despite signs that the government in Kiev may be trying to negotiate a resolution to the standoff, and despite nationally televised talks between Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich and his three predecessors, there’s enormous potential for uncontrolled violence.

The right in the United States, especially the neoconservative anti-Russia lobby, is in a lather, perhaps intoxicated by the toppling of a statue of V.I. Lenin in Kiev by anti-government protesters. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, urges the United States and the Europeans to expand the confrontation from Ukraine to Russia itself. If Ukraine “falls into Russia’s grip,” he warns, “Europe’s own security will also be endangered.” Complaining angrily that the West has allowed Russia to threaten Ukraine, Lucas says:

The best way Europe or America can help Ukraine—and Georgia and Moldova—is to take a much tougher stance with Russia. The EU may not want to play geopolitics. But geopolitics is being played in Europe, and EU interests and members are at stake.

The EU should freeze Russia’s request for visa-free travel for holders of “official” passports. America and EU countries should also freeze Russia’s application to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based good-governance club. The EU should intensify its scrutiny of Gazprom’s behavior in the European gas market, and pursue its upcoming antitrust “complaint” (in effect a prosecution) against the Russian state-owned giant with the greatest vigor possible.

It is time to show Mr. Putin that his hunting license in Russia’s neighborhood is now canceled.

But Lucas isn’t confident that anything like that will happen. “Don’t hold your breath,” he concludes.

But everyone ought to be holding their breath—and avoiding sharp public comments such as Secretary of State John Kerry’s unfortunate remark that he was “disgusted” by the Ukraine government’s decision to clear part of Independence Square, where the protests are centered, by force yesterday. (This is the same Kerry who seem quite solicitous of Egypt’s military, which has used vastly stronger violence, killing hundreds, in suppressing protests there since the July coup d’état.) Said Kerry:

“The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.”

And Kerry couldn’t resist getting in a plug for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, which is rallying the protesters: “As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kyiv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine.”

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After days of playing down the crisis in Ukraine, the United States has lately upped its involvement, with Vice President Biden calling Yanukovich and Victoria Nuland, a quasi-neocon who serves as assistant secretary of state, dropping in on Kiev to contribute her two cents.

The crisis began when Yanukovich, under severe pressure from Russia, opted not to sign an agreement with the European Union and instead signaled his decision to join an economic pact linking Russia and a handful of former Soviet states. Earlier this year, Russia threatened to bring Ukraine to its knees via a trade embargo and other measures, taking advantage of the fact that Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russia economically, and it is near bankruptcy, needing an infusion of something like $18 billion to stabilize itself. The accord with the EU, accompanied by the usual demands from the International Monetary Fund, would force Ukraine to accept stringent economic austerity measures to qualify for aid, and the EU also wants Yanukovich to free political prisoners, including an imprisoned former prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko. Russia, on the other hand, won’t come to Ukraine’s aid until and unless it gets assurances that Ukraine won’t become part of an EU-NATO alliance against Moscow. So, as long as Ukraine is caught between east and west, Cold War–style, it’s unlikely that either side will come to Ukraine’s aid economically.

Maybe Yanukovich can play both sides against each other. As The New York Times reports:

Russia has indicated some willingness to help, potentially with a combination of lower gas prices, the refinancing of existing debt and, perhaps, a small bridge loan, but not until the political turmoil has been resolved. … The possibility that Ukraine could be tipped back into Russia’s orbit has set Western officials scrambling, in part to put together a more palatable aid package that perhaps would persuade Mr. Yanukovich to reconsider signing the accords.

President Obama and Kerry ought to urge the EU to rejigger the offer to Ukraine, tell Russia that they are willing to meet them halfway, and work out a Solomon-like solution that gives everyone a win-win.

But, on the right, there is strong pressure on Obama to turn this into a good-vs.-evil struggle of titanic, Manichean proportions. Take, for example, the near-hysterical words of George Wiegel, writing in National Review:

For while there are many factors impelling Ukrainians into the streets these days, the most basic question at issue in the confrontation between the protesters and the government of Viktor Yanukovych is this: Will conscience, tethered to moral truth and ordered to the common good, be permitted a place in the Ukraine of the 21st century? Or is Ukraine condemned by history, by geography, and by the toxic aftereffects on its culture of seven decades of Communism to be an outlier or exile in the contemporary drama of freedom, governed by brute force detached from any notion of moral responsibility?

Before this becomes Axis of Evil Revisited, Obama needs to reign in Kerry and Nuland and calm things down.


Read next: Stephen F. Cohen’s thoughts on the New York Times coverage of the protests in the Ukraine.

America’s Persian Gulf Empire?

Hasan Rouhani delivers a speech

President Hasan Rouhani delivers a speech after his swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo)

Here’s a worrying counterpoint to the progress in US-Iran talks: the United States is seeking a major buildup of its armed presence in the Persian Gulf, including stepped-up arms sales to the countries of the Saudi Arabia–led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC is essentially an anti-Iran alliance of the Arab kleptocracies of the gulf, including the flashpoint nation of Bahrain, where a Shiite majority population has been challenging the ruling Sunni monarchy—and where the US fleet in the Persian Gulf is based.

The American strategy might not work too well, however, if Iran continues to reach out to the Sunni Arab states of the gulf seeking détente. Recently, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif toured several of those countries—but not Saudi Arabia, still sullenly hostile to Iran—seeking to improve relation with Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. (Iran already has good ties to Oman, another GCC member, and in fact Oman happily hosted secret talks between Iran and the United States in the period before the interim accord was reached in November between Iran and the P5+1.) In an important sign that Iran is genuinely seeking to better relations with the Arab states of the gulf, according to Defense News Iran has moved a squadron of air force and Revolutionary Guard warplanes off the disputed island of Abu Musa in the middle of the Persian Gulf. The island, occupied by Iran since the Shah seized it in 1971, has long been a point of contention between Iran and the UAE, and during his swing through the gulf recently Zarif told the UAE that Iran was willing to talk about resolving the standoff.

Also touring the Gulf, this weekend, however, is US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who seemed intent on bolstering the American military role in Iran’s backyard. Reported The Washington Post:

Speaking to American sailors standing at attention on the deck of the USS Ponce, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed on Friday that the United States would keep a robust military presence in the Persian Gulf and build stronger ties with the region’s Arab states, even as it pursues negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

Hagel visited Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia’s armed forces violently suppressed a pro-democracy movement in 2011, and as the Post noted without irony: “Hagel appeared more interested in mollifying the monarchs than the protesters.”

In a speech that provided a detailed summary of the American military footprint in the all-important region, Hagel told the assembly of GCC defense poohbahs in what’s called the Manama Dialogue—Manama is the capital of the island nation of Bahrain—that the United States upping the ante:

“We have a ground, air and naval presence of more than 35,000 military personnel in and immediately around the gulf. Going forward, the Defense Department will place even more emphasis on building the capacity of our partners in order to complement our strong military presence in the region.”

There’s plenty of money to be made for America’s military-industrial complex in the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and the other kleptocracies have ordered tens of billions of dollars worth of US military hardware.

According to The New York Times, despite the fact that the United States and Iran’s naval forces have had several eyeball-to-eyeball engagements in the Gulf lately, the U.S. military role in the region is ramping up:

As part of that longer-term effort, the number of coastal patrol ships based in Bahrain to conduct maritime security missions is set to double, to 10 ships, by next spring, from five vessels two years ago. Six Coast Guard vessels perform similar duties. Ship crews are now assigned one- and two-year tours, instead of rotating every six months.

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Meanwhile, says another Defense News report, Hagel encouraged the GCC states to form a NATO-style alliance that can happily purchase integrated US-manufactured weapons systems:

Speaking at the Manama Dialogue international security conference here, Hagel encouraged GCC members to create a military alliance and said he’d like to better integrate the US missile defense systems with those of the GCC to enhance collective capabilities.

And Hagel added, in what can only be interpreted as a threat to Iran:

“The DoD will continue to maintain a strong military posture in the region. As we have withdrawn U.S. forces from Iraq, are drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, and rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific, we have honored our commitment to Gulf security by enhancing our military capabilities in the region. We’ve deployed our most advanced fighter aircraft throughout the region, including F-22s [fighters], to ensure that we can quickly respond to contingencies. Coupled with our unique munitions, no target is beyond our reach.”

To be sure, the Obama administration is moving forward in search of a permanent accord with Iran, and President Obama himself said over the weekend that such a deal is within reach. But rattling sabers in the Persian Gulf won’t make the accord any easier.

Read Bob Dreyfuss on the US-Iran deal

Will US-Iran Talks Unlock the Entire Middle East?

John Kerry, Catherine Ashton, Javad Zarif

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton (C) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd R) speak together. (Reuters)

There’s plenty of carping, still, about the interim nuclear deal reached last month between Iran and the United States, along with the world powers of the so-called P5+1. However, the deal carries with it the possibility not only of solving the problem of Iran’s nuclear program but of transforming the entire Middle East and creating a working détente between Tehran and Washington that could help stabilize civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. There are even hints that President Obama might visit Tehran before the end of his stint in the White House.)

Most of all, the US-Iran accord signals a potentially vital turn by the Obama administration away from war, military confrontation and economic sanctions as its primary foreign policy tool toward, yes, diplomacy. Not only is the Iran deal advancing, with Tehran announcing that implementation of the deal would begin as soon as late December or early January in practical terms, but the parallel diplomacy on Syria is moving ahead, too. There, the movement to collect, account for, ship and destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons is moving quickly, and there are plans for a January 22 peace conference in Geneva that could bring together the Assad government with important elements of the moderate opposition—plus the United States, Russia and possibly Iran.

Not too long ago, it seemed like the best that might be accomplished in US-Iran talks was an agreement that could avoid war, with President Obama vaguely repeating the mantra that all “options” were constantly on the proverbial table. Now, that table is covered with negotiations papers, and things look much less gloomy. Even George Will, the Washington Post’s conservative columnist, wrote today that the crisis over Iran has devolved into a choice between war or “containment,” with the current talks seeming to lock the United States into a permanent acceptance that Iran will forever have nuclear technology—and the possibility, however remote, of “breakout” toward a weapon—while creating a situation both sides can live with. Says Will, casting aspersions on hawks why cry “Appeasement!” all the time:

Some advocates of war seem gripped by Thirties Envy, a longing for the clarity of the 1930s, when appeasement failed to slake the dictators’ thirst for territorial expansion. But the incantation “Appeasement!” is not an argument. And the word “appeasement” does not usefully describe a sober decision that war is an imprudent and even ultimately ineffective response to the failure of diplomatic and economic pressures to alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders.

And Will approvingly quotes Ken Pollack, the Brookings Institution analyst and former CIA officer: “Going to war with Iran to try to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear arsenal would be a worse course of action than containing Iran, even a nuclear Iran.” (That’s a quote from Pollack’s recent book, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, from a center-right thinker who in 2002 eagerly promoted the war in Iraq but who’s climbed down, more calmly lately, from war cries.)

But the talks with Iran go far beyond merely preventing war involving Iran, Israel and the United States. There’s enormous potential for a regional transformation, and Iran is hardly sitting still. This week, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif of Iran, Tehran’s chief representative in the nuclear talks, is traveling through the Sunni Arab littoral states of the Persian Gulf, to Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, trying to calm tensions in the regional Sunni-Shiite struggle that is inflaming conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. So far, he’s not welcome in Saudi Arabia, the central player in the anti-Iranian, Sunni bloc opposition to a deal, but if things go right Saudi Arabia, too, will slowly reconcile with Iran.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Shireen Hunter, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University, suggests that the US-Iran talks might lead to broader regional stability. She says:

Continuing on this path could have positive outcomes not only for the U.S. and Iran but also for the entire region of the Middle East and South-West Asia. Under proper conditions, it might even lead to a change of paradigm in international and regional relations and eventually to the establishment of a new security structure in these regions.

Hunter adds:

This stalemate in the region and internationally offers the best opportunity to try reordering the region according to a new paradigm of avoiding maximalist goals and recognizing the principal security concerns of all countries in the region, of course including Israel. This would include Iran’s ending its excessive hostility toward Israel and trying to help the Palestinians’ aspirations through dialogue as well as recognizing the limits of its influence in the Sunni Arab World.

Meanwhile, this reordering would mean that Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf Arab states must accept the legitimacy of a role for Iran in the Persian Gulf and the rest of the Middle East and South-West Asia, and for both Iran and Saudi Arabia to recognize that each has natural constituencies in these regions which both should respect. Such a Saudi-Iranian understanding would go a long way toward easing sectarian tensions and fostering broader regional understandings which would contribute to regional stability.

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Nor is such a Saudi-Iranian reconciliation a far-fetched idea. This happened in the past during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies and it can happen again. Already, Ayatullah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is widely respected and trusted by the Saudi leadership, especially by King Abdullah, has indicated that he is willing to undertake a process of reconciliation with the Kingdom and, for this purpose, to travel to Riyadh. But even were this reconciliation to take place, it would not mean the establishment of a Saudi-Iranian condominium in the Middle East; such a scheme would be bound to fail. But it would eliminate a major cause of tension in the Middle East and South-West Asia and make it much easier to resolve conflicts from Lebanon to Afghanistan and enhance stability.

Eventually, if such developments take place, they could prepare the ground for development of a region-wide security system.

It’s true that, of all the conflicts in the region, the one pitting Iran against the United States is the most fundamental, and its resolution could unlock doors from North Africa to Central Asia. No wonder the hawks and neoconservatives are worried.

Read our coverage of the Islamic feminist movement.

Rubio’s Foreign Policy: Not Ready for Prime Time

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center,speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference. (AP Photo)

Marco Rubio’s foreign policy isn’t quite ready for prime time. A pair of recent speeches by the Florida Republican, who’s widely considered to be preparing a presidential bid for 2016, reveals a less-than-stirring approach to global affairs, indicating that Rubio hasn’t quite decided how far he’ll go this way and that in the Republican civil war, as least as far as it applies overseas.

Just as the GOP is divided on domestic policy between Tea Party radicals and more centrist, pro–Big Business and Chamber of Commerce types, on foreign policy it’s split between interventionist, neoconservative hawks and non-interventionist, libertarian Ron Paul types, with plenty of establishment centrists in the mix, too. Rubio, speaking first at the American Enterprise Institute in November and then, yesterday, at the august venue of London’s Chatham House, is tilting, at least a little, toward the interventionists and hawks. During his November 20 speech to AEI, for instance, Rubio painted a picture of conflicts overseas that seem complex and which resist American involvement, adding, in regard to the isolationist, non-interventionist wing of the GOP:

And they have created an opening for voices that have long desired to disengage and isolate America from the world. Their rhetoric is more careful than the isolationists of the past. But their actions speak clearly. On issue after issue, these voices have used the increasing uncertainty abroad and the economic insecurity at home to argue that it’s best for America to stay on the sidelines.

Still, Rubio hedged his bets, implying that he’s neither hawk nor dove himself:

Meanwhile, at home, foreign policy is too often covered in simplistic terms. Many only recognize two points of view: “doves”, who seek to isolate us from the world, participating in global events only when there is a direct physical threat to the safety of our homeland; and “hawks”, who believe we should use our mighty military strength to intervene in response to practically every crisis.

In the rest of the speech, Rubio threw in some token criticisms of the Obama administration, suggesting that the White House is presiding over a global decline in American power and influence around the world. Instead, Rubio held up the United States as—what else?—the exceptional nation without whose global leadership the forces of “darkness” will prevail. He concluded:

And so I ask you: if America stops leading, who will fill the vacuum we leave behind? Is there a candidate nation for this role that can offer the security and benevolence that America can? Is there any other nation we can trust to spread the values of liberty and peace and democracy? There is not.

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In contrast, Rubio’s widely publicized Chatham House speech was far less political, far more modest in scope, and mostly filled with pabulum about the eternal important of Anglo-American relations. He threw in references to GOP icons such as Churchill and Thatcher, naturally. But he was oddly concerned about explaining to the British establishment audience why exactly the United States seemed so reluctant to get involved now in world and regional conflicts. He said:

We send billions of dollars in aid to people around the world, and in turn we watch as they celebrate our tragedies and burn our flag. And we mourn the murder of four of our diplomats in Benghazi, the very city in which we intervened to prevent mass murder.

Yet, in the rest of the speech, Rubio rarely took a stand on anything of importance, at least if it smelled of controversy. The one exception: he reiterated his opposition to and suspicion of the US-Iran deal that’s being negotiated:

I am personally skeptical of the interim agreement that the P5+1 have concluded with Iran. I am convinced that Iran’s ultimate goal for these negotiations has been to achieve relief from the pressure of international sanctions, while retaining the option of developing a nuclear weapon. This model has been used by others in the past, such as North Korea, to successfully exploit talks to create the time and space to go nuclear.

Rubio did venture into a few foreign-policy minefields, calling on the West to take stronger measures to bring Ukraine into the Western camp and out of Russia’s orbit, and he called for NATO to intensify its collective engagement with the rest of the world, citing NATO-led wars in Afghanistan, Libya, and Kosovo. On NATO, Rubio said:

We need to explore ways that NATO can prepare for its future missions. For instance, despite the sacrifices borne by many allies in Afghanistan, our militaries gained valuable experience in coalition warfare. We should determine how these capabilities can continue to be relevant in the future.

And on Ukraine:

In particular, the United States needs to continue to work closely with the EU to bring Ukraine into the Western fold. We should all be concerned about the Ukrainian government’s recent decision to bow to Russian pressure and not sign an association agreement or free trade pact with the EU. Our thoughts are with the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have taken to the streets to express concern about the future of their country.

And, of course, Rubio threw in some lines about the need for more defense spending.

But overall Rubio has yet to draw a sharp contrast between his vision for foreign policy and that of either the Obama administration or the rest of the Republican field.

Read Eric Alterman on why American foreign policy can be so difficult to understand.

Crisis in Ukraine: Satellite of Moscow or Squeeze by the IMF?

Kiev protests

People supporting EU integration attend a rally in Kiev, December 2, 2013. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

It’s really no contest: for Ukrainians, choosing between an economic association with the European Union, on one hand, or aligning themselves economically with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus is a no-brainer. Not that linking up with the EU is a bed of roses, since what’s likely to follow as things progress is pressure to impose austerity on an already weakened economy (see: Greece). But the hundreds of thousands in the streets of Kiev—according to one report, more than a million people—have created a crisis that isn’t likely to end soon. Let’s hope that the Obama administration stays out of it, that it doesn’t accelerate its push to jam Ukraine into NATO and that Secretary of State John Kerry keeps his eye on the ball, namely, working with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia on the interrelated issues of the Iran nuclear program and Syria’s civil war.

On both Iran and Syria, the United States and Russia seem to be working well together, and it would be a shame if the unrest in Ukraine becomes a major irritant in Washington-Moscow relations.

In an eruption that echoes the 2004 Orange Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people have filled the main square in Kiev and blockaded the government’s buildings there, demanding the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich and the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. What sparked the outbreak, which is turning into general strikes across western Ukraine (which is generally pro-European, and anti-Russian), is the sudden decision of the government to reject an “associate agreement” with the EU, a decision apparently taken under pressure from Russia. The pact was under negotiation for 5 years, but it was abandoned after Yanukovich with the President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

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Attached umbilically to stronger ties with the West come unfortunate demands from the International Monetary Fund for more austerity, and Yanukovich has highlighted such issues in rejecting the EU agreement, while also demanding hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies from the EU to finance the switch. Still, most Ukrainians aren’t happy to sit still under Russia’s influence, despite Moscow’s power in eastern Ukraine. There’s politics galore in this struggle, especially inside Ukraine’s thoroughly corrupt establishment. But even big players in Ukraine’s oligarchy are moving away from Russia toward the EU.

The current crisis began on November 21, when, under threats of a trade embargo from Russia, Yanukovich suspended movement toward the EU agreement. Within days, there were tens of thousands in the streets of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and sporadic clashes with the police. At a meeting of EU heads of state in Vilnius, Lithuania, last week, Yanukovich was the odd man out, and there is widespread skepticism that he can rescue the accord with the EU now. So, either he drifts solidly into Russia’s camp, or he is ousted by the revolt that’s brewing. Or both.

So far, Kerry and President Obama have stayed out of the tug-of-war over Ukraine, and European leaders are privately complaining about the lack of attention that Ukraine and the EU are getting from the State Department. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Read about Russia's leading opposition newspaper here

US Must Step Lightly in East China Sea Dispute

US and China flags

U.S. and Chinese national flags are hung outside a hotel during the U.S. Presidential election event. (AP Images)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water—or, in the case of the East China Sea, fly over the water—a new conflict is brewing in Asia that pits the United States against China. Vice President Joe Biden is packing his bags for a visit to the region, including China and Japan, but if he thought he’d be able to talk up the Transpacific Partnership, he’d better think again.

If this is part of the “pivot” to Asia, President Obama ought to pivot right back to the Middle East, where he is having some diplomatic successes. So far, in regard to the East China Sea dispute, U.S. policy is all about shows of force.

The problem started a few days ago, on November 23, when China’s Ministry of Defense announced the definition of what it calls an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over stretches of the sea between China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It is not an exclusion zone or a no-fly zone, but the Chinese say that it requires aircraft passing through the area to identify themselves:

The ministry also issued the Aircraft Identification Rules for the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which states aircraft flying in the zone must abide by these rules and provide identification, including flight plans, radio contact, transponders and logos.

Underscoring that it means business, according to Xinhua the Defense Ministry added:

Aircraft flying in the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone should follow the instructions of the administrative organ of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone or the unit authorized by the organ. China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions.

So, of course, the United States promptly said: “No way.” The Pentagon sent pair of B-52 bombers cruising through the new ADIZ, without identifying themselves. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the flights were routine. But they were not routine at all, and China reacted as expected, though rather quietly. “We will make corresponding responses according to different situations and how big the threat is,” a Chinese defense official told the New York Times.

The Chinese action, which comes in the midst of a dispute between China and Japan over some islands in the East China Sea—over which Beijing and Tokyo have been rattling sabers lately—is small potatoes, but both the United States and Japan seem to be treating like it were a mini-crisis. Meanwhile, the right wing in the United States, the neoconservatives and hawks, are beating the war drums. One of the interchangeable scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, which drummed up the war in Iraq in 2003, Michael Auslin, wrote in Politico:

The Obama administration needs to make daily shows of force, flying fighters, more bombers, cargo and reconnaissance planes ostentatiously through the skies that China now claims. It should invite all nations in Asia to join with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy in regular aerial transits, simply for the right of it. U.S. planes should be on alert to come to the aid of any planes, military or civilian, that are threatened by China. And President Barack Obama, or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, should publicly urge all Asian nations to reject China’s demands and announce that any of them will be protected by U.S. fighter jets.


If the White House shrinks from taking these steps, the Chinese will have won a victory that will change the perception of the balance of power in Asia.

Good grief! Daily shows of force? And by the way, Michael Austin, the balance of power in Asia is already shifting, and not in the favor of the United States. There will be ebbs and flows, as China begins to assert itself politically and militarily, catching up to its economic self-assertion that has already had an enormous effect throughout the region. But the last thing the United States ought to do is try to contain China militarily. Indeed, China is not likely to try to enforce the ADIZ militarily. Instead, Beijing is just laying down markers, in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and elsewhere, letting other countries know that it’s not your uncle’s China anymore—especially if your uncle is Uncle Sam.

helpful bulletin from the Foreign Policy Initiative, the neocon outfit founded by Bill Kristol and his comrades, tries to paint these events—along with the China-Japan dispute over the islands that Japan calls the Senkaku islands and China calls the Diaoyu islands—as some great test of America’s manhood, that is, as a “ critical test of U.S. credibility in the face of Beijing’s expansionist agenda throughout the East China Sea and the South China Sea.” But it’s way less than that, and hopefully Biden will keep his cool during talks in Tokyo and Beijing.

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It is a complicated issue, and there is a lot of back story to it. Whether one wants to go back as far as Japan’s brutal, mass-murdering invasion of China in the 1930s, or not quite that far, there is more than meets the eye. As a reporter noted at today’s State Department briefing:

QUESTION: As we know that—from 1970s, we know that Japan has extended its Air Defense Identification Zone several times, and there is a report that Japan extends ADIZ into Taiwan space. Does the U.S. Government worry about this issue? Are you going to communicate it with Japan regarding this?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more for you on that, unfortunately.

She will get right back to you on that.

Read more of Bob Dreyfuss's writing on U.S. and China's foreign policy debacle here.

The Iran-US Accord: A Transformative Event

Hasan Rouhani

Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani delivers a speech in Tehran in August. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

President Obama yesterday rightly slammed opposition to the US-Iran deal that was reached over the weekend. The critics, unfortunately given far too much time by the media, are in a frenzy to stop the deal. They’re using extreme and overblown rhetoric and throwing everything that they can into the mix. It’s Munich! Iranian suitcase bombs will be blowing up in New York! We can’t negotiate with terrorists! What about human rights?! And so on.

But the accord is a done deal, and its effects are already being felt. The Iranian currency, the rial, is strengthening, and oil prices are falling. The Europeans are already talking about meeting in January to ease sanctions on Iran further. And for the rest of the world it’s sinking in: for the first time in thirty-four years, there’s a chance that the United States and Iran might do more than strike a limited deal to wind down Iran’s nuclear program. It’s possible that the two countries could reach a détente, and work together on problems from Syria and Afghanistan to terrorism, world energy problems, and—believe it not!—even Palestine.

Of course, it’s early—but there’s no going back now. The US-Iran accord has the potential to be a transformational event. Let’s count the ways.

First, it can vastly change the world oil market, and that’s a big part of the reason why Saudi Arabia is so worried. Iran’s oil output, at about 1 million barrels a day now, could almost instantly rise to 2.5 million b/d, and from there it could go up significantly, to as much as 4 million b/d or more. Already, world oil companies are quietly jockeying to take advantage of an opening in Iran, which needs hundreds of billions of dollars in investments to rebuild its production facilities, pipelines, export facilities and refineries. That’ll be good news for China, India, Japan and other consumers in East Asia, and along with rising output in recovering Iraq and Libya, it’ll add a lot to world production. Prices will fall, and among OPEC countries it’s Saudi Arabia that will have to absorb the shock. Saudi Arabia will be faced with the choice of getting far less for its exports, per barrel, or cutting back on its own production to keep prices stable. So, if you thought that Saudi opposition to the Iran deal was only about the Sunni-Shiite struggle for power in the Middle East, well, there’s more to it.

The accord is transformational in other ways, too. It changes the ground rules of the whole region. If Iran winds down its nuclear program, it will reap vast rewards in terms of expanded trade, investment and business with the rest of the world. That will help moderates in Iran—including the business class, led nominally by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the billionaire mullah and former president—to gain momentum over the remaining ideological radicals who seek confrontation and who are still animated by the extreme-Shiite ideology that was put forward by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Every dollar, mark and yen that flows into Iran will bolster Iranian moderation and help Iran back away from its less-than-reasoned confrontational stance. So in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Bahrain, Afghanistan and elsewhere, where Iran has a role to play, Tehran could become a force for a peaceful, negotiated solution in partnership with the United States and the rest of the world. It’s already partially evident in Syria, where Iran could play an important role in the upcoming peace conference in January.

The elimination of Iran as a regional bogeyman could kick the props out from under the huge American military buildup in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Indian Ocean and the eastern Mediterranean. Why ships tens of billions of dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf kleptocrats and maintain bases in Bahrain, Qatar and elsewhere when there’s no regional military threat? It will be harder for the US military-industrial complex to justify those sales, and for the Pentagon to justify its bases, when Iran is a cooperating actor.

Despite the bluster in Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nervous breakdown over the accord, eventually the normalization of Iran’s role in the region will make it a lot harder for future Israeli voters to justify their own armed-camp approach to the region. It will be much easier for Israel to think about a just settlement of the Palestinian issue if and when Iran is no longer a threat.

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As for Russia, well, the US-Iran deal will be a concern, too. For decades, Moscow has taken advantage of the breakdown in US-Iran relations by building economic and military ties to Iran and using the churning regional crisis to its advantage. Now Russia will have to recalculate. And not just on political and military issues: if Iran re-enters the world community, it will compete with Russian gas sales worldwide, directly challenging Russia for the in the European and Asian gas markets. One way Russia can use the accord for its advantage, though, has already emerged: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that now that Iran won’t be a nuclear threat, the United States and NATO can forget about putting an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, since the last remaining, thin rationale for that was to deal with supposed missile threat from Iran.

This only begins to cover the possible transformation stemming from the accord. It has huge implications for domestic politics, too, since American neoconservatives have puffed up Iran into a global bogeyman to justify all sorts of shenanigans, and they are about to lose that “big time,” as Dick Cheney might say. Watch for neocons to make their own “pivot” to Asia, warning about the rise of China and the need for the United States to confront the Chinese worldwide.

Katrina vanden Heuvel says the Republicans are waging war on the poor.

Historic US-Iran Deal Is First Step Toward Peace


Representatives of the P5+1 negotiate in Geneva. (REUTERS/Jean-Christophe Bott)

The United States and Iran, in conjunction with the P5+1 world powers, have struck a historic accord that paves the way for a final settlement of the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. On the fourth day of the most recent round of talks, in bargaining that lasted until 3 am, the P5+1 and Iran concluded an interim agreement, as widely expected, to freeze Iran’s nuclear program at roughly its current state. In exchange, the United States and the P5+1 have agreed on a modest but significant relaxation of economic sanctions on Iran. The next step, which the parties expect to take up to six months, is to complete a deal in which an end to sanctions is exchanged for a continued freeze and partial rollback of Iran’s program, in a way—guaranteed by more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—that provides clear assurances that Iran is not on the path toward nuclear weapons.

The substance of the accord reached in Geneva is a breakthrough, but the politics of the agreement is equally important. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry signed the deal in explicit, full-frontal defiance of American hawks, neoconservatives and hardliners, the Israel lobby, and anti-Iran partisans in Congress. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his team, backed by President Hassan Rouhani—elected in June with a mandate to do exactly this—have similarly defied their own country’s hardliners and skeptics, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and by what Zarif calls Iran’s own Tea Party. And the United States struck the deal despite outright hostility, bordering on hysteria, from its two chief allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

According to the terms of the agreement, Iran has agreed to halt all uranium enrichment above the range of 3.5 to 5 percent purity, which is low-enriched, fuel-grade uranium. Its stockpile of medium-enriched, 20 percent purity uranium will be neutralized by conversion into a product that cannot be used for weapons. It will not produce any new centrifuges except those needed to replace ones that break down, and it will not start spinning those now in place, including advanced centrifuges, that aren’t currently in use. It will not add to its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium, either, although it can continue to refine uranium to 5 percent purity as long as some of it is converted to fuel rods and other, nonmilitary product. Its heavy water reactor at Arak, which could produce material to process into plutonium, will be frozen. And Iran has agreed to far more intrusive IAEA inspections, including daily inspections at Natanz and at the underground facility at Fordow.

Both President Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, have endorsed the accord, in part because for the first time the United States and the P5+1 have tacitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium under the terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, by agreeing to permit Iran’s continuing enrichment to 5 percent. Rouhani said that the deal seals Iran’s “nuclear rights,” and, according to Al Arabiya, Khamenei said: “The nuclear negotiating team should be thanked and appreciated for this achievement. God’s grace and the support of the Iranian nation were the reasons behind this success.”

Obama, speaking from the White House early Sunday, said:

While today’s announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back. Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment, and neutralizing part of its stockpile. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges—which are used for enriching uranium. Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.

Interestingly, a statement from the White House early today explicitly rules out the imposition of additional sanctions, which is a direct message to leaders of the US Senate, including majority leader Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who’d hinted that they’d move ahead with yet another round of sanctions in December. The accord, says the White House, commits the parties of the P5+1, including the United States, to “not impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months, if Iran abides by its commitments under this deal, to the extent permissible within their political systems.”

But the White House, trying to sell the accord to domestic skeptics, including the hawks, risks sounding a little triumphant by touting the sanctions relief provided to Iran as “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible.” That’s all true—but, of course, Iran’s commitments are equally “reversible.” In fact, the sanctions relief is important in its own right, but it also provides the first movement in the opposition direction in regard to economic sanctions on Iran since the mid-1990s. Under the terms of the accord, Iran will gain access to billions of dollars in frozen accounts over the next six months; it will gain specific relief for its suffering auto and aviation sectors; and the accord will “allow purchases of Iranian oil to remain at their currently significantly reduced levels.” That last phrase means that although the onerous oil and banking sanctions will remain in place, there will be no more pressure to reduce Iran’s oil exports further.

Israel’s reaction is, predictably, apoplectic. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economic minister, said, “If five years from now a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning.” But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have trouble playing that card for long, since Israel is drastically isolated from the rest of the world and risks an open break with Washington. Already, some Israel leaders, such as President Shimon Peres and the newly installed leader of the Israeli Labor Party, have issued mild to moderate statements that undermine Netanyahu’s bluster. And, ironically, though, the harsh reaction from Israel will help Rouhani and Zarif sell the deal in Iran, since they can point to Israel’s criticism of the deal as a sign that it was, indeed, a victory for Iran’s “nuclear rights.”

In a background briefing, a senior US official laid out the sanctions relief that Iran will get via the accord. It’s an impressive list:

The components are as follows: We will pause efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales. This means Iran’s oil exports will remain steady at their current level of around 1 million barrels per day, which is down 60 percent since our oil sanctions took effect in late 2011. And with one exception, the revenue that Iran earns from these sales over the next six months will continue to be restricted by our sanctions, meaning that those funds will not be available to Iran for repatriation or cross-border transfer.

The one exception is that we will allow Iran to transfer $4.2 billion in revenue from these sales in installments over the six-month period.

We will suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports. This could allow Iran to generate some revenue, which we estimate to be a maximum of a billion dollars in new revenue over the six-month period. We will suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran’s trade in gold and precious metals. There is no economic value to Iran from this provision because Iran will have to spend its limited unrestricted foreign currency for any gold purchases. Iran cannot use restricted oil earnings to buy gold.

We will suspend U.S. sanctions on exports to Iran’s auto industry. This could provide Iran some marginal benefit on the order of about $500 million if Iran is able to resume its prior levels of production and revitalizes its auto exports. However, Iran’s auto industry suffers from many problems beyond sanctions, many of which would have to be solved for Iran to benefit from this provision. Moreover, Iran would need to use some of its limited foreign currency to pay for car kits it would import from abroad.

We will allow $400 million in governmental tuition assistance to be transferred from restricted Iranian funds overseas directly to recognized educational institutions in third countries to defray the tuition costs of Iranian students. We will license safety-related repairs and inspections inside Iran for certain Iranian airlines, and we will establish a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade in food, agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices for Iran’s domestic needs. Humanitarian transactions have been explicitly exempted from sanctions by Congress, so this channel will not provide Iran access to any new source of funds.

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Finally, to the extent permissible within our political system, we have committed to refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions. That does not prevent us from implementing and enforcing our existing nuclear-related sanctions, which, of course, we will do, or from imposing new sanctions targeting Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism or its abysmal human rights record.

Greg Mitchell dissects the media's response to the historic Iran deal. 

Afghanistan: The Occupation, Part II


Meet the new occupation: same as the old occupation! Or pretty much: not as many troops, not as many dead and wounded every week, but still. In the new US-Afghanistan accord—which may or may not be ratified early next week by President Hamid Karzai’s Loya Jirga, and which may or may not be signed until some in mid-2014—the United States will be able to maintain as many as nine military bases in Afghanistan. In addition, American troops and US contractors can go in and out of Afghanistan without visas. And neither the troops nor the contractors will be subject to Afghan law.

In a hilarious statement of his priorities, Karzai said: “We want the Americans to respect our sovereignty and laws and be an honest partner. And bring a lot of money.” The delegates to the Loya Jirga laughed, said The New York Times.

The Afghan foreign ministry released draft text of the accord, which (among other things) codifies that the United States must continue to finance Afghanistan’s ragtag security forces indefinitely, or at least through 2024, saying “the United States shall have an obligation to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of” the Afghan forces.

According to The Washington Post: “The United States can maintain up to nine bases, and American troops and support contractors will be able to enter Afghanistan without having to obtain a visa.” Karzai said that as many as 15,000 foreign troops could remain in Afghanistan through 2024. Of those, it’s expected that less than 10,000 would be American troops, including Special Forces units that, under the terms of the accord, will be able to conduct night raids against targets suspected of terrorism. And the bases can be used, presumably, for launching drone attacks against targets in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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The government of Afghanistan gave in on a critical US demand, that American troop and contractors not be subject to Afghan law. That was a deal-breaker in the talks with Iraq, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected a similar US demand. Says the Afghan text of the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement, in rather convoluted language:

Afghanistan, while retaining its sovereignty, recognizes the particular importance of disciplinary control, including judicial and non-judicial measures, by the United States forces authorities over members of the force and of the civilian component. Afghanistan therefore agrees that the United States shall have the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction over such persons in respect of any criminal or civil offenses committed in the territory of Afghanistan. Afghanistan authorizes the United States to hold trial in such cases, or take other disciplinary action, as appropriate, in the territory of Afghanistan.

The text adds: “Passports and visas shall not be required. Such personnel shall be exempt from Afghan law and regulations on registration and control of foreign citizens.”

Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, is pushing a proposal on Capitol Hill to require that the continued occupation of Afghanistan, even if ratified by a US-Afghan accord, be endorsed by Congress. That’s an interesting idea, but despite strong public disapproval in polls for continuing the war in Afghanistan in any form, it’s far-fetched to think that Congress would disapprove the pact.

Read Bob Dreyfuss’s take on how diplomacy with Iran is straining US-Israel relations.

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