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 »


The Price of Flexibility

24 06 2009

DAWN (Pakistan)
24 June 2009

[My commentary published in today’s DAWN.]

We have seen this movie before. Invigoration is pouring out of Islamabad these days as it tries to wrap up its Swat offensive and extend the frontline deeper into Pakistan’s northwest.

Everyone says that this time Pakistan’s crackdown is different. Islamabad, Rawalpindi, the ISI and everyone else finally gets it: jihadis do not make for good neighbours. The Pakistan Army is clearing Taliban territories; militants are fleeing from their ‘entrenched’ positions to avoid the rain of artillery shells; and Rawalpindi is gearing up for the last showdown in Waziristan. Until the next one, that is.

At a time when Islamabad is insisting louder than ever that it has always been honest and sincere in its counterterrorism efforts since 9/11, other wheels are squeaking differently. Former President Musharraf told Fareed Zakaria in May that “of course” Islamabad has contact with the Taliban. “After all,” he continued, “the KGB had contacts in CIA. CIA had contacts in KGB. That is how you have ingress into each other, and that is how you can manipulate things in your favour.” Fair enough. But if today’s state of affairs is how one might describe “in your favour”, then what does a bad day look like?

The truth is that Musharraf and most of the local Islamist groups agreed to ignore each other’s consolidation of power in their respective neighbourhoods, allowing insidious ‘rogue’ elements of the ISI to cultivate and enhance their own ‘ingress’ with the Taliban. To be sure, many believe that whether these ‘rogue’ operators are officially unofficial or unofficially official, they continue informing, arming, training and trouble-shooting for the Taliban and its various jihadi brethren—ranging from self-righteous warlords to the sophisticated Jamaatud Dawa to Al Qaeda wannabes.

Granted, the government is currently putting up quite a fight in Swat, but in the meantime, the people of Sindh are terrified that droves of Taliban IDPs are on the cusp of bringing Mingora’s fate to Karachi, while Punjabis are enduring suicide bombings because the militants there typically fighting in Kashmir decided to host and train aspiring Pakistani Taliban. Once Pakistan publicly ‘turned’ on domestic extremists, the disparate militants in Pakistan found a common enemy in Islamabad and largely abandoned the struggle in Kashmir.  So who can counter this newly congealed beast?

Now that the military has put its full weight behind this offensive, potentially for the long haul, it has a chance to reverse many of the gains the Taliban made when Washington was focused on Iraq and Musharraf was focused on himself. Most importantly, this can be done without the government incurring any more wrath than it already has incurred. 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?

How Indo-Pak Tensions Might Help the War on Terror

13 01 2009

DAWN (Pakistan)
13 January 2009

[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by DAWN]

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in late November, Pakistan’s government in Islamabad is scrambling to show grief-stricken Indians and the world that Pakistan is actually able and eager to mount successful counterterrorist operations.  In the meantime, India is still considering its military options, and the US is finding itself in the awkward position of biased mediator, but a mediator with options, nonetheless.

Indian ire in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was so unmistakable that it prompted Islamabad to sound the loudest alarm bell in its arsenal: insisting that it could only fight one war at a time, Pakistan warned Washington that a vengeful India would compel Islamabad to redeploy the 100,000 troops currently assisting the US War on Terror in northwest Pakistan to its eastern border with India, Pakistan’s greatest strategic threat.  Hearing the message loud and clear, President Bush dispatched Secretary of State Rice to Delhi to calm the Indians—much as Washington had in the past—to ensure that Pakistan has the resources and flexibility to fight al Qaeda and its various supporters on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Yet from Washington’s perspective, both the political and military implications of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan—especially the kind that involves Pakistani troop movements—open many new doors to a war on terror that appears increasingly bleak.

The View from Washington

First, India is not alone in its profuse criticism of Pakistan’s failure to fight the very terrorists it bred during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad in the 1980s.  Seven long years into the war on terror, Washington remains convinced that Pakistan is still unwilling and/or unable to make good on its counterterrorism commitments on the other side of the Durand Line.  It was difficult enough to compel Islamabad to deploy twenty percent of its roughly half-million-man army to the northwestern border during President Bush’s first term, and that contribution only led to a steadfast resurgence of the Afghan Taliban and the near-steroidal growth of the Pakistani Taliban.

Facing dim prospects, over the last 18 months the Americans have begun taking matters into their own hands, dispatching the much-resented predator drones to kill senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders with greater frequency, and deeper into Pakistan’s heartland, no less.  With President-elect Barack Obama insisting that he will allocate more American soldiers and resources to the ‘real’ war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has nowhere to go but down, especially as the Pakistani Taliban rip the country apart. It is in this context that a redeployment of Pakistani troops frightens Washington—regardless of who occupies the White House.

But according to a flood of recent press reports, if India seems likely to attack Pakistan, then both the Pakistan Army and the militants they are supposed to destroy could find themselves facing the same grave threat in India.  Various militant factions and supporters of the Taliban—all the way from South Waziristan up to the Swat Valley—would put their wars with NATO and Islamabad on hold and find their way to Kashmir or the Indian border. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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