The Art of Appeasement

30 07 2009

Asia Times
30 July 2009

[My two-part commentary published in today’s Asia Times.]

In the early stages of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Adlai Stevenson, JFK’s notoriously dovish UN Ambassador, suggested that the US offer Moscow a non-confrontational trade to stave off a nuclear exchange: we withdraw our missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets withdraw their missile components from Cuba.  Upon hearing his advice, President Kennedy and every member of his secretive ExComm group (assembled to troubleshoot the crisis) scolded Stevenson for recklessly forgetting the obvious lessons of Munich, when Britain and France appeased Hitler prior to the Second World War.  Only a fool, they said, would reward the aggression of tyrants like Hitler and Khrushchev with diplomacy.  But then, lo and behold, under cover of absolute secrecy, President Kennedy went ahead and made nearly the exact same ‘appeasing’ trade that Stevenson recommended.[1]

It would seem, then, that if Kennedy handled the situation well—and there is a virtual consensus that he did—then appeasement is appropriate so long as no one knows about it.  Ironically, the only party with whom we ever felt a need to be secretive was the USSR, and they were the only ones privy to the deal.  The subterfuge, then, was apparently for the sole benefit of the American people, who would have likely seen this trade as a sign of capitulation and weakness, even if it came (as it eventually did) on the heels of a forceful blockade of Cuba.  Kennedy knew that Americans were just as likely as anyone to mistake the feeling of humiliation for the presence of weakness, and proceed to throw him under the bus.  But why?

With enemies ranging from empires to nation-states to terrorist organizations, the policy of appeasement has been scorned for the last 70 years to rouse the rabble out of its comfortable apathy and confront unadulterated evil. Unsurprisingly, however, our disdain in the West for any scent of appeasement has led to a widespread and knee-jerk tendency to identify and dismiss any policy of restraint or conservation, frequently at the expense of grounded foreign policy.  Not only, then, is appeasement wildly over-diagnosed, but even when accurately identified, the policy is quickly discarded as a tool of the weak.  And with the Obama Administration making numerous overtures of reengagement with Syria, Iran and other controversial parties, a close examination of both the legitimate and delusional perils of appeasement is long overdue.  Anti-appeasement rhetoric and survival instincts run amok have clouded our judgment, and it is time to right the ship. Read the rest of this entry »

America’s Strategic Whac-a-Mole

13 04 2009

Le Monde Diplomatique (France)
13 April 2009

[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by Le Monde Diplomatique]

It’s no surprise that President Obama’s foreign policy challenges are unsavory, diverse and numerous, but what makes them most worrisome is the degree to which they overlap in the worst ways possible.  Our allies’ concerns, our enemies’ threats and our victims’ pleas are inextricably tied to one another—if not by nature, then by the hand of political leaders and institutions across the globe.  Solving one problem seems impossible without solving the rest, or at least pretending to do so.  And ‘pretending’ may be what it comes to, though it’s difficult to imagine just whom we’d fool.  The world seems to be knocking at every American door, imploring, cajoling or threatening us to do (or not do) something.  And whenever no one’s knocking, we can’t help but wonder where everyone went.

Iraq and Afghanistan seldom wonder far from our doorstep for obvious reasons, but with Obama’s focus on renewing old alliances and engendering newer convenient ones, many others are requesting an audience.  Unfortunately, it is mathematically impossible for President Obama to address each or even most of them.  And inevitably, the process of prioritizing is going to get ugly.

Here are just a few of Obama’s more important foreign policy goals:
•    Eradicating (or rendering impotent) al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
•    Securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and some modicum of democracy there.
•    Withdrawing US forces from Iraq and preventing the Iranians from filling the void.
•    Derailing and/or deterring Iran’s development of a nuclear (weapons) technology program.
•    Spreading democracy across the globe, especially in Muslim and formerly Soviet states.
•    Reaching a final settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
•    Mitigating the heavy spillover from the drug wars in Mexico into America’s southwest.
•    Limiting the social and political upheaval of a global recession.

If only these goals could be divided on a chopping block.  But instead, they are all connected in an interminable run-on sentence.  To defeat al Qaeda, we have to remove its support structure along the Afpak border.  To do that, we have to (implicitly) convince Pakistan that it does not need an Islamist buffer in Afghanistan to ensure its own survival.  To do that, we have to ensure the economic development of southern Afghanistan.

To rebuild Afghanistan, we will need supplies, and those supplies will soon be guaranteed only when transited through Russia’s backyard.  To get that access, however, Russia is insisting that we abandon our plans to install anti-ballistic missile shields in Eastern Europe.  Meanwhile, Obama seems happy to do this as long as Russia stops supplying Iran’s nuclear development.  But for that concession, Russia is also demanding that we abandon our efforts to integrate Russia’s former satellite states (Ukraine and Georgia, specifically) into NATO and other western institutions.

We might be in a position to refuse this last Russian demand if only we could know for sure that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program.  But to obtain that reassurance from Iran, Tehran itself is looking for carte-blanche in its consolidation of Shiite influence in Iraq, Iran’s greatest historical enemy.  We might be willing to make a trade—nukes for Iraq—but the US is slated to withdraw most of its forces anyway, so we have little to offer Tehran that it won’t get by merely sitting on its hands.

Perhaps, then, the gridlock will dissipate if we manage to break off Syria from its alliance with Iran, but that requires Israel’s willingness to negotiate with Syria and other enemies—a practice which Israel’s new prime minister is apparently refusing to do until after President Obama defuses Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in one way or another.

If you are confused, join the club.  No one knows where this negotiation starts or ends, who the parties really are, and what concessions they are prepared to make.  So far, the only real sacrifice President Obama has asked of the American people is economic.  He has not asked us to tolerate an Iranian Bomb; he has not suggested we send our sons and daughters into northwest Pakistan; and he has not indicated just how far he would go in a confrontation with Russia.  After all, reset buttons might inspire a respite of amnesia, but just how far back does he expect that button will take us?  To the Yeltsin days when Russia slept in every morning?  Or to the Cuban missile crisis, when no one slept at all?

The one thing that is clear is that Russia, Iran and Pakistan are at the center of nearly every obstacle we face abroad, and we lack the military, financial and political resources to address more than one of them at a time, if that.

An Honest Conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

11 03 2009

Posted at the Huffington Post & Middle East Online

Virtually nothing about this conflict was changed with Israel’s military operation in Gaza.  Nothing on the surface, nothing lurking in the shadows, nothing for the history books.  Yet the fundamentals of this conflict that have existed since 1967 are somehow becoming more obvious and less accessible every day.  As rhetoric bleeds into strategy, sobering arguments are polluted by perverse distortions and the only thing that makes sense is confusion.  As a humble remedy, perhaps, the following conversation is a synthesis of hundreds of hours of candid discussions (and screaming matches) between Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and friends.  It offers no solutions or common ground, but only pain. Until we get through the meat of this war, the bones will never heal.  Here is how these enemies think and argue.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Ahmed: Why do you humiliate us every day, with your checkpoints, your raids, and your occupation?  Why won’t you leave us alone?

Avi: Because we believe that you would continue terrorizing us even if we give up the West Bank.  If you were eager to kill Israelis long before any of us ever lived in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, how could we possibly believe that you would be satisfied by anything short of our expulsion from the region?  You can talk about peace accords, but at the end of the day, which occupation do you want to end?  The one in that started in 1967, or the one you say began in 1948 when the State of Israel was established?

Ahmed: Well, I’ll answer that question with another one: You always talk about how important it is for Palestinians to recognize Israel, but which Israel do you want us to recognize?  The Israel with pre-1967 borders?  Or an Israel that occupies the West Bank and controls our movement with nearly 500 checkpoints on any given day?  Or maybe an Israel that has been “converged” behind the “security barrier” wall/fence, which would almost guarantee a permanent separation between a Palestinian homeland and our most sacred religious sites?  But to answer your question honestly, yes, your suspicions are correct: it is the 1948 occupation that we want to end, just like the Jews would love to have the West Bank as well.  But we know Israel is here to stay, and we can tolerate you as much as you can tolerate us.  But what we cannot tolerate is your occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Avi: Look, we don’t enjoy occupying the West Bank any more than you enjoy being occupied; it puts our soldiers at risk, it’s a drain on our military and it hurts our image abroad.  We continue the occupation because we want to be safe from terrorism.

Ahmed: But you are creating more resentment and terrorism with the occupation.

Avi: That’s definitely true, but we know that if we withdraw from the West Bank, the terrorism will not stop and is likely to get worse.  After disengaging from Gaza nearly 4 years ago, the only thing we got in return was strengthened resistance in Gaza.  And now, because of the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets, we are evacuating our homes inside of Israel itself, not just in the territories.  Gaza was your test.  You proved that when given the chance to function peacefully on your own, you failed miserably.

Ahmed: Of course we failed in Gaza. You still control our airspace, our coastline, our borders and our economy.  You pretended to take the moral high road with your “test,” but you did it for strategic reasons and with no follow-through.  And it has nothing to do with Hamas.  Our economy was already dead before you made Gaza a giant outdoor prison. For years you have made Palestinians dependent on the Israeli economy so you could control us as much as possible.  Even before Hamas took over Gaza, farmers were stuck at border crossings for days, watching their vegetables rot while your soldiers closed border crossings at random just to frustrate us.Israeli Security Barrier and Settlements in the West Bank

Avi: So you take no responsibility for your inability to promote peace in Gaza?  And what difference does it make if we evacuated Gaza for strategic reasons?  You should want to prove to the world that you can function peacefully.  Granted, we set the terms for the pullout, and you can only do so much with severe sanctions and closed borders, but we gave you Gaza—we gave you something—and you failed to take advantage of it.

Ahmed: You did not “give” us anything.  You returned it.

Avi: Fine, we returned it.  It was a public relations coup for us.  We should have negotiated Gaza back to you, but we didn’t; we evacuated it, and we ruined the credibility of the moderate Palestinians.  But it was still something.  Why aren’t you openly furious with the Gazans who confirmed everyone’s suspicions when their first response to our evacuation was a whole-sale pillaging of every building in sight and an increase in rocket/mortar attacks against southern Israel?  Don’t you want to persuade us (and the rest of the world) that you are not just another group of thugs and terrorists?

Ahmed: Why should we?  Palestinians have gotten almost nothing from negotiating with Israelis, and we cannot imagine why it is we who have to prove anything to anyone.  The real question is: How can you persuade us that you are serious about peace when you took those uprooted settlers from Gaza and gave them new homes in the West Bank?  Is that what you call a “confidence-building measure”?  No, of course not—your unilateral evacuation was a public relations stunt.  Gaza is not strategically important to Israel, and Sharon knew that abandoning it could ensure an even tighter grasp of the West Bank, which is really what you wanted all along.

Avi: Look, I think it was a terrible decision to transfer any of the Gaza settlers to the West Bank, and I think the settlers should not be in the West Bank or Gaza at all.  But occupying the West Bank militarily is strategically important because it protects Israel’s dense population centers.  Heavily occupying East Jerusalem (and a few other parts of the West Bank) provides a crucial buffer zone protecting our vulnerable spots from terrorists.  So even if we stopped being hypocritical in every way you claim we are, then, as the more powerful party, we still have to be convinced that a free and shared Jerusalem will actually be a city of peace, and that the fighting will stop.  If we had any sense that you would actually stop resisting once we ended the occupation of the West Bank or even East Jerusalem, most Israelis would gladly hand it over everything except the Old City. Read the rest of this entry »

Splits in Hamas and a ‘Bi-Unilateral’ Ceasefire

18 01 2009

During an email exchange with my colleague Mark Perry at Conflicts Forum, I asked him about the incessant rumors and claims by the Israeli government that the leadership of Hamas has suddenly split along the conveniently familiar lines of “moderates” and “radicals.” According to numerous reports in the Israeli press (dutifully dispersed across the globe), the Hamas leaders in Gaza have become uncharacteristically humbled by the newly-scorched earth around them. And as a result, Hamas’ leadership in Gaza have blamed their equivalents in Damascus for refusing to renew the ceasefire in December and again for refusing Israel’s ceasefire offers this past week.

As usual, Mark Perry puts rumors like these to bed with a healthy dose of logic and insider information, as he is known for his expertise on and relationships with Hamas’ leaders in Gaza and Damascus. So why, I asked, is he the only voice insisting that Hamas is battered but hardly divided? Essentially, because the Israeli government is playing us for fools, he says. (Hyperlinks added by me).

The reason people don’t believe me is because they believe what is printed in the Israeli press. That is to say, no one seems to ask Hamas, the primary source of my material, for their position. What is interesting about this is that reporters and analysts on the telephone with me talking about the differences in “the Gaza leadership” and the “Damascus leadership” of Hamas. They tell me that the Hamas leadership in Gaza represents the moderate wing of the party and that Khalid Meshaal represents the “radical” wing of the party.

If that is true, I ask, why did Israel invade Gaza — why didn’t they try to kill Meshaal and negotiate with the “moderate” wing of the party? And if that is true, why do Israelis (like Mark Regev) describe the Hamas leadership in Gaza as nihilists? The head of the political/military bureau of Hamas is Khalid Meshaal, who has been on the telephone constantly with the senior leadership in Gaza telling them to take more practical steps with Israel.

Are there divisions in the leadership of Hamas? Certainly there are. They have disagreements, it’s not the politburo of the communist party. There are differences and debates in the Democratic Party also. Does that mean there is a split?

Israeli officials would like us to believe that they really know what they’re talking about when it comes to Hamas. In fact, they don’t have a clue. And so they repeat what they did in the 1980s: they told the world that the Tunis leadership of the PLO represented the terrorist wing of the organization, while the insiders were more moderate. It was bullshit: the inside people were much more radical — as you might expect if you live under an occupation. The Tunis leadership as it turned out was moderate: and Israel made a deal with them.

Let us suppose for just one moment that Israel is right — the moderates rule in Gaza. Let’s take it as a given — even though it is not true. What do you suppose the leadership in Gaza thinks now? Does Israel think they are even more moderate? Was the late great Said Sayyam a moderate — in comparison to say, Khalid Meshaal, Mohamed Nasser, Usamah Hamdan, or Mohammad Nizzal? Do we now, as a result of Israel’s line about a split in Hamas, suppose that their own reports that the Gaza leadership had been taken over by radicals is false, and that their new report is true?
There is one truth about a lot of media reports on Hamas in Israel. The truth is that the media gets their information from Ehud Barak and Yuval Diskin. They are fools. Their intelligence services, highly respected by the US public, are dismissed by intelligence service people here [in the US]. And for good reason.
* * * * *
On a different note, it is still unclear if the ‘bi-unilateral’ ceasefire will hold, but if Jerusalem is actually right where it wants to be (having secured vapid promises from Washington to help allies in the region crack down on smuggling), then it doesn’t seem like much has changed, nor that much was even supposed to change. All the rhetoric, tactics and strategy emanating from of Jerusalem over the last three weeks seemed to point to something much more resolute than a unilateral ceasefire. It seemed obvious that Israel had had enough with all things ‘unilateral’, like the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, which Jerusalem now condemns as a terribly weak decision.

Equally bizarre, Jerusalem’s effort–detailed by Mark–to play Hamas’ leaders and their mediators off of each other seemed to demonstrate that Israel hoped to force its enemy into making painful concessions at the negotiating table, as is frequently the custom in violent conflicts. And even if Jerusalem didn’t want to “legitimize” Hamas with negotiations, Israel seemed likely to use the conflict to bind Egypt to…well, anything. Even officials in Cairo were caught off guard by Israel’s sudden indifference to securing (even the facade of) a short-term “lull” in violence. After all, if “enough” really “is enough,” why are we seeing a resignation in Jerusalem to Hamas’ “nihilism” and the status quo? To drive the point home, the head of Shin Bet has conceded that Hamas will be rearmed in just a few months.

The answer, remarkably, is that the Israeli government is playing its own population as much as the rest of us. Losing 10 Israeli soldiers just so Jerusalem could ‘make a statement’ seems a bit pointless–though, admittedly, the statement contains more than 1300 Palestinian footnotes. But why, if Israel has now re-established its deterrence, would Jerusalem feel so hopelessly impotent as to resign to the previous state of affairs, minus a few Hamas lieutenants? With this outcome, Israel is left only with the knowledge that when Hamas wants to fire rockets/mortars in the future, the militant group will expect Israel to unleash hell in response. And if Hamas attacks anyways in three months, because the blockade is still in place? What then? How will Jerusalem re-explain this latest operation, or the next one?

Tunnel Vision beneath Gaza

12 01 2009

Asia Times
12 January 2009

No matter who is to blame for the recent escalation of violence in Gaza—no matter which side is morally righteous—it should be obvious to everyone that Hamas is now even less likely to abandon violent resistance any time soon.  Even if Operation Cast Lead will make Hamas think twice about attacking Israel in the future (doubtful), Hamas will still do whatever it takes to prepare for the day when it is ready.  And the 18-month blockade of Gaza—put in place by Egypt and Israel after Hamas’ localized coup—has only made Hamas more protective of its arsenal.

As a result, Jerusalem believes that the only way to protect Israelis is to secure the Philadelphi Corridor, the nine-mile border between Gaza and Egypt, beneath which lie an estimated 300 makeshift tunnels used by Hamas and entrepreneurial Palestinians to smuggle (among other things) foodstuffs, cigarettes, livestock, gasoline and (in the case of Hamas) enormous amounts of explosives, firearms, ammunition and well-trained teachers/students of militant resistance.  Without these tunnels, Israel insists, Hamas would not be able to stockpile and fire rockets and mortars against Israel with impunity.  And with talk of a ceasefire in the air, Jerusalem has made the permanent monitoring and destruction of these tunnels a key sticking point to ending its assault.

But what would that effort require, and would it actually make Israelis safer?

The ideas are neither new nor particularly promising, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) explored and discarded most of them throughout the years it occupied Gaza.  One suggestion was to build a moat filled with seawater that would drown any smuggler who breached it, but the proposal was abandoned due to the threat of contaminating the aquifer beneath Gaza.  An underground wall was also considered, but unless it is made of titanium, Hamas would need only a chisel and a little patience.  Another idea was to destroy all the buildings within a kilometer of the border (houses frequently conceal entrances and exits to the tunnels), but this could smell an awful lot like ethnic cleansing, and without a heavy occupation, the houses could always be rebuilt.

Read the rest of this entry »

How Propaganda Hijacked Israeli Strategy in Gaza

5 01 2009

Huffington Post
5 January 2009

Something had to be done in Gaza.  Something.  Anything, really.  So why not a Hail Mary?

Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, more than 8000 rockets and mortars have been fired into southern Israel from Gaza.  And who could blame Jerusalem for trying to put an end to it?  After all, as every single Israeli security expert reminds anyone proffering an alternative to F-16s, would any other country tolerate attacks on its civilian population with the patience and dexterity Israel has shown?  What if Houston or Atlanta were being attacked like this?

Even Israel’s President and ‘elder statesman’ Shimon Peres found himself wondering, what does Hamas hope to accomplish by constantly firing rockets? “What do they expect, that we won’t respond?”  And it’s a great question, but it’s also painfully simplistic.  This is not merely a matter of broad principle about patience in the face of incessant attack.  There’s a reason Israeli talking points this past week have focused almost exclusively on the big picture of the last seven years—because the last seven months have demonstrated a painfully inconvenient fact: whatever its demerits (and there are many), Hamas has discipline.  Period.

Far more so than the PLO ever did, when Hamas pledges to reduce tensions, it does just that.  One need not believe that the group’s leadership is virtuous or courageous simply to admit that their ranks follow orders.  In the months that followed the June 19 “lull” (tahadiya) in fighting between Israel and Hamas, the number of rocket and mortar attacks plummeted and stayed down for nearly five months—creating the very climate that the IDF now claims to seek with Operation Cast Lead.

If Hamas had no discipline, this argument wouldn’t fly and a Hail Mary like Cast Lead might be strategically worthwhile, but the best case scenario by any metric is a long-term version of the lull that put Israelis at great danger only after Israel launched an attack on Gaza on November 4th, effectively ending Hamas’ restraint.

While the explicit goal of this latest operation is to cease all rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel, senior IDF and intelligence officials have privately signaled in a disparate chorus that this goal is unrealistic anyway, even with a ground invasion.  Israelis couldn’t even prevent rocket/mortar fire when they occupied Gaza before 2005, and back then Hamas was plagued by Fatah’s rivalry and amateur rocket technology.

‘But nevermind that,’ Jerusalem insists.  ‘Details will only confuse you. Would you or would you not just sit by and do nothing in response to rocket fire on your homes?’  Apparently, it’s that simple.  It’s irrelevant that Israel was benefitting tremendously from the lull and the near-deafening silence (.pdf) it produced in the southern Negev desert.

Source: Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (Israel)

Rocket fire alone was reduced from a monthly average of 179 to less than 3—with the remainder attacks being attributed (according to Israeli intelligence) to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, no less.

Yet like any country, when Israel launches a military operation, especially a controversial one, the public relations and propaganda offensives rely on any and every rhetorical ploy to garner support, even when Israeli security officials are privately saying—usually “on background”—that the southern Negev will not be completely calm until Hamas wants it to be completely calm, and the closest Israel has ever come to that was during the above lull.

Read the rest of this entry »

Obama, Bush find common ground on foreign policy

18 12 2008

Common Ground News Service
16 December 2008

[Syndicated by the Middle East Times, Beirut’s Daily Star, Egypt’s Daily News and Al Arabiya]
[Read this column in Arabic
, Urdu, French and Indonesian]

Negotiating with our adversaries is a tricky business, and with President-elect Barack Obama on the way in, most observers of US foreign policy are confident that negotiating is about to become the predominant foreign policy approach — for better or worse. They are mistaken, however, if they think this approach will be a drastic change.

In fact, in the last two years, though it is sometimes difficult to discern from White House press releases, President George W. Bush has actually been relying more and more on the very tactics that most observers have come to associate with Obama. In fact, in terms of broad foreign policy strategy, when it comes to opening the channels of negotiation and dialogue, four more years of Bush could have been alarmingly similar to those of Obama’s upcoming ones.

Consider, for instance, that after six years of refusing to negotiate with “rogue” governments or liberally labelled “terrorist groups”, the Bush administration has, since 2006, negotiated a long-lasting alliance with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, many of whom are held responsible for killing thousands of American soldiers between the summer of 2003 and the fall of 2006. In addition, Washington led successful multilateral negotiations with North Korea to ensure a verifiable dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, which produced and successfully tested a nuclear device in 2006.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Bush administration has negotiated with Iran in order to reduce Tehran’s military and financial support of the Shi’a militias in central Iraq, and Washington has expressed increasing openness to negotiating with the non-Al Qaeda elements of the Taliban.

To claim, however, that Bush has been rectifying his disastrous policies is hardly absolution. Without a doubt, Bush has spent the last half of his second term unravelling the fabric of much of his foreign policy because his previous methods were failing at every turn.

Yet, change he has.

After all, the Bush administration is well into negotiations — on one level or another — with numerous declared “enemies” of the United States, with particular emphasis on the “axis of evil”.

Obama’s policy of pro-engagement might feel visionary and new, but only because Bush has been so quiet in his engagement with these parties, unlikely to celebrate a policy that was dead last on his initial list of priorities.

In order to provide a clean roadmap for his own foreign policy, Obama essentially ignored the seemingly pro-engagement tactics in the final two years of the Bush presidency on the campaign trail. However, it is no coincidence that Obama decided to keep Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon. For much of the last two years, Gates and Obama seemed to be virtually quoting each other’s policy speeches, especially regarding the importance of renewing US focus on Afghanistan/Pakistan in the so-called “war on terror”.

While most of us were distracted with how the presidential candidates framed their campaign objectives, Bush was busy creating the momentum for a series of negotiations that he never had the talent or political capital to finish.

If Obama, in contrast, possesses the talent and the capital to engage our adversaries effectively and with follow-through, then his best chance resides in his ability to complement, not replace, his predecessor’s recent diplomatic efforts abroad.

Reaching an appropriate balance of introducing new policy approaches and building on those of the past administration is what Obama’s transition team is supposed to ensure, but Obama’s supporters are expecting the appearance of clean breaks and fresh policies come 20 January, if only because Bush’s belated progress was inspired and stained by a failed presidency.

Obama has the benefit (and foresight) of knowing on Day 1 what his predecessor learned in Year 6, which might mean fewer political and military mistakes, especially the hubristic kind. If they do not succeed, however, he too will have to know when to change course.

There is frequently a healthy dose of wisdom that accumulates after years of defeat, and learning lessons the hard way doesn’t mean the lessons are any less valuable; it simply means they came at an exorbitant cost. Obama stands to reap the benefits of Bush’s about-face. To fully benefit from this lesson, however, Obama must acknowledge that while he was campaigning for change, change was already under way.

[View this commentary at the Common Ground News Service]

SOFA and the Likely Bombing of Iran

5 12 2008

Al Jazeera Magazine
5 December 2008

There are certain fundamentals to an international negotiation that simply cannot be massaged or altered, even with the political momentum fostered by America’s incoming president, Barack Obama.

In the last five years, Tehran and Washington have jockeyed for influence in Iraq and occasionally negotiated with each other to shape the country’s democratic Shia majority to their own advantage.

And while Tehran’s nuclear weapons program has inspired greater international concern, Washington has kept any talk of nukes on the sidelines for years, hoping that the US could tackle that problem once Iraq stabilized—much as it has in recent months.

But two immediate obstacles threaten American stakes in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  The first is President-elect Obama’s repeated pledge to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the summer of 2010, and the second is the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which was approved by Iraq’s cabinet and parliament last week after months of acrimony in Baghdad.  The SOFA timetable requires all US combat forces to be out by the end of 2011, and for Iraqi authorities to control all military bases, cities and decision-making apparatuses by this time next year.

Yet however it happens, a unilateral US withdrawal from Iraq will leave Washington with virtually nothing of substance to offer Iran in return for the verifiable termination of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Read the rest of this entry »

Decision Time on Iran

8 03 2007

Middle East Times
8 March 2007

After refusing to endorse the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations in December to negotiate with Iran and Syria about the fate of Iraq, Secretary Rice’s recent policy reversal was as startling as it was predictable. Only weeks ago, it had been staunch US policy not to submit to Iranian “extortion,” but, like it or not, there is simply no other way now to secure Iraq. If only it were that simple.

This is the moment Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been waiting for: US foreign policy will soon reflect the fact that the war in Iraq cannot be won with force, and that we will have to make concessions of some kind to salvage this failed mission. But at whose expense?

In the buildup to the US invasion of Iraq, the Israeli government quietly gave its blessing to the Bush administration, hoping, in return, that the US would extend the same courtesy to Israel when the time came to address the blossoming Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Naturally, any such implicit exchange depended entirely on the successful reconstruction of Iraq – by even the flimsiest definition of success. As many on the right and left predicted, the failure to replace the toppled Saddam Hussein with a leadership able to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions has hurt Israel far more than forgoing the invasion would have done. Read the rest of this entry »

Derailed in Damascus, and by Damascus

26 02 2007

Israel Policy Forum – Special Report
26 February 2007

There is a general tendency in the West to describe countries like Syria, and its regime in Damascus, in blanket political and (often) moral terms. Such analysis is an oversimplification in most countries but particularly so in Syria, which has an immensely complicated geopolitical position in the Middle East. To be of any use, Syria must be scrutinized.

More so than any other Arab country, Syria’s government and its power brokers are inherently secular and opportunistic, driven by good-old-fashioned survival instincts. When mixed with Syria’s distinctive geography, this opportunism has led the Syrian government to play a disproportionately large role in the numerous conflicts plaguing the entire region. Without question, Syria is at the physical and political center of Middle East politics.

To the southwest is Israel, the unwelcome Jewish neighbor who captured and annexed the Golan Heights after resisting Syrian invasions in 1967 and again in 1973.

To the west is Lebanon, serving as a Syrian playground and cash cow for nearly three decades, until Damascus over-played its hand and was dealt a very visible and painful defeat by reformists that still reverberates today.

To the east is Iraq, the hotbed of a failed US occupation—a failure, US officials say, thanks in large measure to Syria’s refusal to monitor jihadist movement across its 605km border with Iraq.

And beyond Iraq to the east is Iran, the Islamic Republic ascending to be perhaps the dominant Muslim player in Middle East politics—explicitly recruiting (and buying) the support of Syria and several extremist groups dedicated to Israel’s destruction.


It is often tempting (especially from an American and post-9/11 perspective) to dismiss the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a blatant sponsor of terror—a role that he even admits openly, though framed in a different context.

Unsurprisingly, 9/11 has led most westerners to view terrorism in black-and-white terms, but given the tremendous complexity of Assad’s precarious regime and very precise interests, it would be a grave mistake to use the understandable western disdain for terrorism to justify a refusal to view Syria in anything but Manichean terms.

In order to engage Syria with any substantive or symbolic diplomacy, it is crucial to understand the nuances of what is important to the ruling Assad family and the tenuous balancing act that Syria must (and usually does) maintain. Only then can the obstacles to Syrian interests provide texture to the behavior of the Syrian government, and its role in the wider Middle East.


Perilous Freedom: The US War in Iraq

15 12 2006

15 December 2006

There are a number of important questions that must be addressed when analyzing and attempting to resolve the current war in Iraq.  First, why now?  Why is it that this same insurgency and civil war did not happen when Saddam Hussein was in power?  Second, to whom does this war belong? And finally, what has prevented the parties from reaching a political settlement?

It is important first to note that while the Bush Administration has certainly made plenty of mistakes, even if the execution of this war and its aftermath had been flawless, it is very likely that a civil war would have erupted nonetheless at some point during the post-war reconstruction.  The power balance disrupted by the invasion was simply too fragile and volatile not to explode into chaos.  But why and how did the US invasion invite resistance to grievances that seemed no worse—and in many instances, better—than under Saddam’s iron fist?

Hussein seemed to reinforce his own reputation as a merciless and savage ruler every chance he had.  He started an 8-year war in Iran in 1980 which cost nearly a million lives.  He routinely slaughtered thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq for seeking greater political autonomy, and any Shiite he arbitrarily deemed as seditious was summarily executed unless s/he was believed to merit torturing first.  He tortured and killed anyone (and their families) who disagreed with or doubted him.  And yet despite all this, it is because the US soldiers now occupying Iraq represent an entirely democratic society that Iraqi Sunnis have opted violently to resist the far-less repressive US forces.


Syria’s Ripeness Factor

29 11 2006

Yediot Ahronoth (Israel)
29 November 2006

Israel’s conflict in the north with Hizbullah, Syria and (by extension) Iran is becoming increasingly ripe for a long-term resolution or containment, for the following reasons.

Why would Israel want to talk to any of its northern neighbors?

Hizbullah’s summer attack and continued ransom of two Israeli soldiers has led many Israelis to realize that the status quo is no longer automatically preferable to a settlement. And Israel’s inability to humiliate Hizbullah – as nothing less could be considered a victory – only reinforces the need to do something different.

How can Israel neutralize the northern threat?

Shiite and Hizbullah ministers in Lebanon are actively trying to force a collapse of the current anti-Syrian government by resigning in bulk, and possibly by killing popular anti-Syrian ministers. It is unclear if Prime Minister Fouad Siniora can weather this storm, but regardless, his government could never survive a political or military confrontation with Hizbullah.

Syria, on the other hand, is in the powerful position of being the only country (other than Israel) that shares a border with Lebanon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the wherewithal and lack of ideological constraints necessary to physically isolate Hizbullah in Lebanon. He merely lacks the motivation.

What would motivate Syria to cut off Hizbullah?

At its core, Syria is opportunistic. While Hizbullah is the ideological offspring of Iran, Syria merely serves as a channel between Iran and Hizbullah in the interest of money and power, not ideology and certainly not religion.

To ensure the operational capabilities of Hizbullah, Iran needs unimpeded access and supply lines through Syria and into southern Lebanon, which President Assad offers in order to get a free ride on Iran’s shoulders, as the popularity of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only increases. And as always, Syria longs for a return of the Golan Heights, and the vast majority of Syrians are prepared to make sacrifices to get it back.

Neither the Israelis or Syrians are willing to put their big chips on the table (land and peace, respectively) until they have reason to believe they will not regret trusting each other. To this end, Assad’s diverse insecurities would give Israel the pretext to negotiate without immediately discussing the Golan Heights.

For instance, Damascus is facing a severe water shortage and needs billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure to transport water to Damascus, either from the Mediterranean Sea or the Euphrates River.

What’s more, Assad needs money (and a surge in international commerce) to strengthen his hold on power. Widespread resentment of his Alawite regime for its perceived corruption and ineptitude comes easily to a population that is nearly 75 percent Sunni and on the border with war-torn Iraq.

For various reasons, Arab nations have withdrawn their financial and political support for Syria, forcing Assad to become increasingly dependent on Iran—militarily, politically, and financially. This trend is not irreversible, but Assad has to embrace these trends or face a coup.

Or, the United States could step in.

Why would the United States engage Syria?

Constrained by a number of factors, President Bush could only engage Syria if it would benefit the US position in Iraq or limit the reach of Iran. Syria’s porous eastern border with Iraq is likely the easiest – and most used – method for Sunni fighters to enter Iraq and join the insurgency. The border is too long for the US forces to monitor, but Assad has the power to guard it, were he so inclined.

Furthermore, leading Syria away from Iran’s periphery would strike a blow to Tehran’s overall strides toward regional dominance. In fact, such a policy would be celebrated (and potentially rewarded) by the nervous Sunnis in Saudi Arabia.

By comparison, luring Syria should seem no more difficult than President Bush’s successful engagement with Libya and its leader, Moammar Qaddafi, who for decades was isolated for sponsoring terrorism.

Why would Israel negotiate with Syria?

Without a substantive mandate to disarm Hizbullah, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon will only delay an inevitable reprise, spurned by whatever new and deadly weapons Hizbullah acquires in the meantime.

No country would be more threatened by a nuclear Iran than Israel, especially if Syria continues to act as a liaison between Iran and Hizbullah. But if handicapped by Syria, Iran could only pose a strategic nuclear threat to Israel with conventional nuclear missiles. Though far from ideal – especially in Israel – limiting Hizbullah’s technological reach is preferable to nothing at all.

Short of a nightmarish US invasion of Iran, the best Israel can hope for is to neutralize and starve Hizbullah’s supply lines and ideology out of existence. The same could be said for Hamas’ operation in Damascus – a chip that Assad would gladly hand over if it meant internal stability.

Besides, even skeptics of engagement recognize that Israel has a substantial strategic interest in preventing the overthrow of Syria’s ruling family, as their replacement or (more likely) his usurper would almost certainly do far worse than arming Hizbullah.

Admittedly, the scenario painted by this analysis is exceedingly rosy. It glosses over the nearly unthinkable Israeli decision to give up the Golan and asks for dramatic changes in policy from both Syria and the United States.

But Syria is vulnerable. Assad is allying with Iran’s fiery leader out of necessity, and he knows that Tehran will discard him as soon as he outlives his usefulness. That moment is approaching, and direct engagement with Syria is necessary to ensure Israel’s long-term security and to protect American interests in the Middle East.

[View this Op-Ed at Ynet]

Missing the Point in the Middle East

23 10 2006

Yediot Aharonot (Israel)
23 October 2006

When anyone talks about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, every argument seems to revolve around two crucial questions – one dovish and one hawkish – that neither side ever really tries to answer.

Doves essentially ask the hawks, “How do you know that the best protection against Palestinian terrorism is incessant occupation, raids, imprisonment, and assassinations?” Meanwhile, hawks ask the doves, “How do you know that the terror will stop if we give up the West Bank, the Golan, and/or Shebaa Farms?”

If either side could give even a semi-adequate response to these questions, then the other would willingly change viewpoints. The two camps have far more common ground than most will acknowledge; they simply disagree about which methods work and which don’t.

Despite their polarization, the doves are not doves because they are against killing per se; if there was any evidence that Israel’s heavy-handed counterterrorism efforts could actually reduce the long-term threat to the State of Israel, the doves would naturally migrate in droves to the right.

Likewise, if there was any indication that Palestinian militants really would finally end their resistance in exchange for pre-1967 borders, a Palestinian state, compensated refugees, and a shared Jerusalem, there would be an equally dramatic shift to the left across the board.

But there is no logical reason for either the hawks or the doves to be persuaded by one another. Every argument is fundamentally circular – only capable of persuading the already-persuaded. Read the rest of this entry »

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