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The Middle East

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Turkey Fan Club Grows

Regular readers of he blog will know that I've had my eye on Turkish foreign policy for a while. For one thing, Turkey's emergence as a regional mediator demonstrates the power of maintaining good relations across the faultlines of conflicts (its so-called "zero problems" policy). For another, it serves as a model of what I've called "Middle Power Mojo," or the use of regional middle powers to lighten America's footprint while at the same time advancing its interests.

Now a flurry of posts responding to Turkey's offer to mediate between the U.S. and Iran -- from Democracy Arsenal (Patrick Barry here, Shadi Hamid here) and Ezra Klein -- suggests the makings of a Turkey appreciation fan club. What I hadn't realized was that Middle Power Mojo has also been proposed by the Center for a New American Security's Pheonix Initiative under the formal name of "Strategic Leadership," whereby, as Ezra Klein puts it, "America begins thinking more about its interests than its preeminence." It's always reassuring to know that brighter bulbs than mine have been shining light on a subject of interest (although I still think Middle Power Mojo is catchier than Strategic Leadership).

In addition to its mediation role in indirect talks between Israel and Syria, Turkish initiatives include an effort to mend its relations with Armenia (accompanied by a mediation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute over the separatist Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh), as well as offering to host talks between the Afghan and Pakistani governments. Perhaps the biggest problem that remains is the Cyprus issue, which continues to poison much needed EU-NATO cooperation. The EU's shifting position on Turkish accession also presents a longterm challenge.

One thing that American observers should understand, though, is that while we tend to think of Turkey as a crossroads or bridge between East and West (or Europe and the Arab world), Turkey has been increasingly assuming an identity of a central power, as much a part of the equation in the Caucasus and Central Asia as in the Middle East. This essay (.pdf), which I summarized here in June, by Ahmet Davutoglu -- foreign policy guru to Turkish PM Racep Tayyip Erdogan who I once saw referred to as "Turkey's Kissinger" --  describes the evolution in Turkey's posture and articulates its strategic objectives, both within the Middle East and beyond.

The difference -- that between object and subject -- is significant, and underlines the fact that whether you call it Strategic Leadership or Middle Power Mojo, the U.S. and Europe can not expect to simply instrumentalize strategic regional allies, but rather must listen to them as well.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   The Middle East   

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Friday, May 30, 2008

The Middle East, Sort Of

For an optimistic take on how recent events in the Middle East might advance American interests, there's Bob Kenner in The National Review, and Scott Peterson in the Christian Science Monitor. Kenner explains how popular resentment over Hizbollah turning its weapons against fellow Lebanese, as opposed to Israeli occupiers, might turn their battlefield success into a Pyrrhic victory. Peterson discusses how an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, admittedly a longshot, might if not drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, at least accentuate the differences in their parallel but not common regional interests. (For an even more thorough examination of where Damascus and Tehran diverge, see the Sami Moubayed Asia Times Online piece which I flagged yesterday.) For a more pessimistic take, there's Eric Trager at Commentary, who keenly observes that it's all France's fault, or something to that effect.

My own feeling is that we might be approaching some sort of epistemological limit of what we can actually know what's happening, and we've certainly moved well beyond any ability to predict future events. Our efforts to "manage" the Middle East have brought me back to a recurring image of the Democratic primary campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Think of how much ink has been spilled (and pixels formatted) in an effort to explain the dynamics of that race, and we still don't have a firm understanding of what really transpired or how it will end. Now toss in a couple armed militias in each state, and no guarantee that either candidate will respect the party bylaws come the Convention, and imagine that some policy wonk in Tehran is trying to arrange all the moving pieces to make sure their horse wins, and you've got something that resembles our Middle East policy.

What leaves me most pessimistic is the feeling that not only don't we have too many good options, we insist on pursuing bad ones. Parag Khanna argues in a new WPR piece that propping up "moderate" Shiites as an alternative to Hezbollah and Iran is not the answer, and Johnathan Steele at the Guardian makes the case that it's foolish to believe we can stabilize Iraq and the Middle East without accomodating Iran. Nevertheless, we continue our search for "moderate" Shiites, and refuse to even consider the idea of trying to find a negotiated regional settlement with Iran. Which means our only real hope for success is if our adversaries overreach and falter, like Hizbollah and al-Qaida, before we do.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Friday, May 23, 2008

The Iran Fallacy

In case you haven't noticed the front page, WPR has got a pretty solid one-two punch of must read articles today. The first, by Charles Crain, discusses the ways in which the Obama-McCain dust up over negotiating with enemies like Iran is divorced from the reality that we already are negotiating with enemies like Iran. The second, by Brian Burton, dissects the ways in which the consensus view of Iran as the source of all the Middle East's problems is divorced from the reality that the Middle East is the source of all the Middle East's problems.

I'd been meaning to make Crain's point for the last few days, so I'm glad he saved me the trouble. And I've been guilty of what Burton is talking about, using the shorthand of "symptom" when referring to Hamas, Hizbollah and Syria and "disease" to refer to Iran. There is the not insignificant detail of Iranian funding, supplies and training, but Burton is spot on in his argument that Hamas and Hizbollah -- and the popular discontent they represent -- would exist independently of Iranian influence. Burton's policy correctives read almost like a diplomatic version of the U.S. Army's new COIN tactics writ large:

The best way to counter expanding extremism and Iranian influence is not through more conventional state-to-state military action or diplomacy. It is by beating Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Sadrists at their own game: Standing up for repressed populations of the region, addressing their local grievances, demonstrating care for their concerns, offering aid and a clear vision of a better future. Extremist groups like these will not fade away until their constituencies have a more attractive alternative, and America should be ashamed if it cannot do a better job than Iran at providing that alternative.

You might remember the discussion we had here on the blog a few weeks back about Barack Obama's foreign policy "crusade." I think that underneath Obama's transformational rhetoric is really just an ambition to put what Burton describes into practice.

My point at the time was that presenting the case in transformational terms risks raising expectations too high. Hamas and Hizbollah didn't just suddenly appear as their constituencies' best hope to get their political grievances redressed. They are the product of over forty years of failed policy, and in many ways their rise reflects a level of desperation which will be difficult to move past. But regardless of whether we actually do end up transforming the Middle East or the world, what Burton (and Obama) is proposing is the right thing to do.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Easy Targets

Odd convergence when the news wires carry stories of President Bush and Osama bin Laden both chastising Arab leaders on the same day. Here's Bush:

After basking in a showy celebration of America’s close ties with Israel, President Bush criticized other Middle East leaders on Sunday, prodding them to expand their economies, offer equal opportunity to women and embrace democracy if they want peace to become reality.

Here's bin Laden:

Osama bin Laden released a new message on Sunday denouncing Arab leaders for sacrificing the Palestinians and saying the head of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah did not really have the strength to take on Israel.

What's striking, besides the accuracy of both criticisms ("exploiting the Palestinians" would be closer to the truth), is the hostility they're bound to meet from the Arab leaders in question, suggesting that the only thing we've got going for us in terms of our Middle East policy these days is the lack of serious competition. 

President Bush went on to declare that peace in the Middle East was possible by the end of the year, but that it requires "tough sacrifices." For a more serious analysis of the situation, I recommend Jon Alterman's WPR piece on Bush's failed Middle East policy, but make sure to put on your welding goggles, because the thing's got sparks shooting off of it. Among the list of faulty assumptions Alterman identifies as having contributed to the failure, this one has probably gotten the least attention:

. . .[T]he conviction that among the most powerful tools that the U.S. government could use against its foes was withholding recognition and refusing dialogue. It is hard to find a single instance in which such boycotts were effective.

In a region where American support is a double-edged sword, that one should have been predictable. But accepting reality is apparently not among the "tough sacrifices" President Bush is willing to make.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   The Middle East   

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Playing the Petraeus Card

It looks like I'm the only one who's underwhelmed by the Petraeus appointment to CENTCOM commander, but what the heck. In for a penny, in for pound. So here's another thorny question that I've yet to see directly addressed. (Hampton, make sure you've had your morning cup of Joe before reading any further.)

I mentioned that by using his direct lines of communication with the Oval Office to leapfrog Adm. Fallon, Petraeus had already been serving as de facto CENTCOM commander. But in thinking about it, the leapfrog actually went much further than that, because President Bush made it clear that he would follow Petraeus' lead in Iraq, and not the other way around. 

Now, if you're a cynic like me, you might think that was a political ploy to use the persuasive authority of the Iraq theater commander to implement military tactics in Baghdad that serve Bush's political purposes in Washington. (All the better if they've been responsible for the improved security situation, but the causal connection remains disputable, and subject to developments on the ground.) But if you're not, it means that Petraeus was exercising a command that far exceeded the bailiwick of MNF-I or CENTCOM, for that matter. Petraeus was calling the shots for the Commander-in-Chief, and not the other way around.

Of course, so long as Petraeus' strategic vision is consistent with President Bush's political agenda, there's little reason to believe the relationship will suffer from his assumption of CENTCOM duties. But what happens when Petreaus decides that Bush's political line jeopardizes our regional strategic position? Well, it turns out we have a recent example of what happens to a CENTCOM commander who isn't in lockstep with the Bush administration's Middle East policy. It's called early retirement.

Now call me cynical, call me cranky, call me contrarian (just, please, don't call me punctilious). But to my eyes this looks like the latest installment of the Bush administration's politicization of the officer corps, and I suspect that anyone who expects Petraeus to suddenly start thinking differently about the big regional picture than he did about the Iraq theater is in for a disappointment. Petraeus will ask Bush for what Bush wants to give him, and Bush will then give it to him under the pretense that it's what his military commander asked for. And if Petraeus upsets the apple cart between now and January 20, 2009, he'll be joining Fox Fallon on the motivational speaking tour.

The problem isn't that the President calls the shots in time of war. That's how it should be. The problem is that the Petraeus-Bush relationship is a closed feedback loop, hermetically impervious to disproof and driven by a political agenda whose ideological foundation Bush has pragmatically sidelined but never explicitly renounced. And it's about to go regional.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A West Bank Appliance Run

This short essay by Gershom Gorenberg speaks more eloquently than anything else I've read recently to all that's most awful about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to the ways in which all that's most hopeful about it just might still prevail.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fallon Gets Bashful

Apparently Centcom commander Admiral William Fallon has distanced himself from Thomas Barnett's glowing Esquire profile. Too bad, because Fallon really does seem to have a folk wisdom about how to handle some of the region's trouble spots that in its simplicity offers more substance than some of the more soaring diplomatic initiatives I've seen proposed elsewhere. Here he is on Iran:

"Tehran's feeling pretty cocky right now because they've been able to inflict pain on us in Iraq and Afghanistan." So the trick, in Fallon's mind, is "to try to figure out what it is they really want and then, maybe--not that we're going to play Santa Claus here or the Good Humor Man--but the fact is that everyone needs something in this world, and so most countries that are functional and are contributing to the world have found a way to trade off their strengths for other strengths to help them out. These guys are trying to go it alone in this respect, and it's a bad gene pool right now. It's not one with much longevity. So they play that card pretty regularly, and at some point you just kind of run out of games, it seems to me. You've got to play a real card."

Compare that view of engagement with this one offered by former ambassador (and former Iran hostage) John Limbert, or this one by Thomas Pickering & Co. and you'll see what I mean.

Fallon has been widely portrayed as pushing back against elements in the Bush administration who are itching for war with Tehran, and the article locates his appointment as part of a broader Bob Gates effort to that effect. But his strategic cost-to-benefit analysis shouldn't be confused with being afraid of the Iranians:

And if it comes to war?

"Get serious," the admiral says. "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them."

If there's one thing that startled me about the piece, it was the extent to which American diplomacy seems to be conducted out of the DoD these days. The article describes Fallon as meeting with heads of state in Pakistan, Egypt, the 'Stans and elsewhere, and basically coordinating a diplomatic initiative that seems like a macro regional version of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. But given that his strategic vision for the region seems more dialed in than that of the diplomats, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising.

Via FP Passport. Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Gaza Outsourcing

To get a sense of what's going on in Gaza right now, just go read Laura Rozen. She's got all the essential links and analysis. One thing, though, that I haven't seen mentioned yet among all the talk of possible local brushfires (Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, etc.) is the impact Hamas-Israel and Hezbollah-Israel conflicts might have on Iran's activity in Iraq. The Iranians have already demonstrated how much they can contribute to improving the security situation there. A three-front war between Israel, Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah would seem like the kind of scenario they would use to demonstrate how much they can contribute to worsening it.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   The Middle East   

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Engaging Hamas

Laura Rozen has a must read interview with former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy over at Mother Jones. Among other reasons why Halevy argues that Israel and the US should engage Hamas, this struck me as noteworthy:

[Hamas has] pulled off three "feats" in recent years in conditions of great adversity. They won the general elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006; they preempted a Fatah design to wrest control of Gaza from them in 2007; and they broke out of a virtual siege that Israel imposed upon them in January 2008. In each case, they affected a strategic surprise upon all other players in the region and upon the United States, and in each case, no effective counter strategy mounted by the US and Israel proved effective... (Emphasis added.)

It strikes me as particularly significant that in a region where some sort of sea change will be necessary to move things forward, it is Hamas and not the US or Israel that is coming up with the strategic surprises. Ariel Sharon seemed to be heading down that road, but from what Halevy suggests, unilateral disengagement was the wrong direction.

As for who is behind the consensus to isolate Hamas and recognize Fatah, Halevy had this to say:

I don't know whether it is Abu Mazen who is pushing Washington and Israel not to deal with Hamas, or Abu Mazen who is acquiescing to them, or some combination of both. I don't know who the stronger element in this policy is.

There is a triangle of forces: Israel, the Abu Mazen–led group in Ramallah, and the [Bush] administration. They have become mutually interdependent on this policy and one cannot rule without the other two. That's the way it is at the moment.

There was a moment where I wondered if Olmert, Abbas and Bush might actually be counter-intuitively better-placed to achieve a breakthrough given that all three are so permanently weakened as to be effectively (and in Bush's case actually) de-coupled from the political necessity of electoral popularity. In retrospect, that would have depended on how much courage the three were willing to demonstrate and how many risks they were willing to take. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they are.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

French Touch

Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias have both flagged the news that France has just signed an agreement with the UAE to establish a permanent military base just across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. Kevin cites Marc Lynch, who writes:

Early spin has suggested that this will allow France to better cooperate with the US against Iran, but this seems shortsighted. A long-term French strategic position in the Gulf challenges American exclusivity, and potentially undermines the fundamental architecture of the hegemonic American position in the Gulf. (Link included from original.)

Matthew suggests that the latter might be a good thing, in that it will re-balance the dysfunctional relationship between American military commitments and European strategic interests.

The fact is, there's a bit of all three going on. The base in question is for the moment largely symbolic given its limited size and the fact that it won't be operational for a year at least. But its location at the bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz and very close to Iran does in fact constitute a pressure point on Tehran. That France happens to be the most forceful and most credible advocate right now for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear fuel enrichment capacity is significant. Their position is not so much in alignment with ours on Iran so much as it is an ideal version of what ours should have been from the start: Clear-sighted, non-hysterical, with firm demands and rewarding incentives.

On the other hand, as I argued on the very first day of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, he has a very ambitious vision for France's role in the world, and he's pretty savvy about getting what he wants. As for the French presence he's establishing, it's not limited to the military and it's not limited to the Gulf. Sarkozy has been using a nuclear energy foreign policy to establish France's strategic position throughout the Arab world. In the eight months since he took office, he has already signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with Morocco, Libya, Algeria, and the UAE, while offering assistance to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Significantly, this is in direct opposition to the American line of discouraging the proliferation of civil nuclear capacity in the Middle East, especially in the circumstances now surrounding the Iranian standoff.

So while Matthew is correct in suggesting that Europe in general and France in particular having the capacity to put their military money where their mouth is will balance the trans-Atlantic relationship, that will in effect be a development that lessens America's strategic leverage in the world. In other words, good-by to the world's reluctant policeman, hello to the long-announced French vision of the multi-polar world. This isn't going to happen overnight, but it is definitely the way Sarkozy would like to see things develop.

That it's ineluctable does not necessarily mean that it will be advantageous to the US. The alternative, however, of an America that serves as the military firewall to all the world's brushfires, is no longer sustainable.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Downtown Beirut

A bombing targetting American embassy personnel in Beirut is pretty bad news. One that takes place in the context of a series of Syrian-linked bombings dating back a couple years is even worse. And when it all goes down with the country's lingering presidential stalemate as the backdrop, well, then things look pretty bad.

People have been warning about the danger that the presidential standoff poses for a while now. In essence, it represents the potential failure of the Lebanese power-sharing arrangement that put an end to the decades-long Civil War. But with the exception of the assassination of the Lebanese Army's second-in-command (admittedly a pretty big exception), there hasn't been very much violence.

Hopefully that won't change, but the idea of declaring open season on American embassy personnel seems pretty brazen. Keep your eyes on who claims responsibility for this attack. If it's an Islamic extremist group like the one that tried to take over a Palestinian refugee camp this past summer, this will probably blow over. But if there's any link to a pro-Syrian group, all hell could break loose.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Engagement's Off

Nicolas Sarkozy raised eyebrows last month when he dispatched two top advisors to Damascus in an effort to engage Syria on resolving the Lebanese presidential standoff. Sarkozy claimed at the time that he'd gotten Washington's tacit approval on the initiative. The move was at best a gamble and at worst an act of desperation, trading off the enhanced prestige it would lend to Syria for a face-saving outcome to France's months-long effort to mediate the crisis.

In the end, the continued failure to arrive at an agreement -- which this week led to a tit-for-tat series of declarations from Paris and Damascus announcing the suspension of cooperation -- amounts to a confirmation that Syria's influence in the region can't be wished away. On the other hand, those who have criticized the Bush administration for failing to engage Syria (and I count myself among that group) need to acknowledge that engagement is a tactic, not a strategy, and that for it to work, there needs to be willingness on both sides of the table to reach an agreement.

Meanwhile Lebanon remains without a President.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who Is Rattling The Sabre?

When Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner made comments a few months back that were portrayed as suggesting that France would support a war to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capacity, Sarkozy was accused of aligning himself with the hawkish elements of the Bush administration. My own feeling is that the remarks were misrepresented, and were made merely to correct any lasting misperception of France's position -- which has consistently been in very firm opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity -- that may have been caused by Jacques Chirac's off-the-cuff statement last spring that a nuclear Iran could be deterred. So it's interesting to see Sarkozy, in an interview with the Nouvel Obs, give his version of what was really at stake:

Everyone agrees that what the Iranians are doing has no civilian explanation. The only debate is whether they'll achieve a military capacity in one year or five years. The problem for us isn't so much the risk that the Americans launch a military intervention, but rather that the Israelis consider their security to be truly threatened. The danger of a war exists. If Iran lets the IAEA conduct its inspections, I'll be willing to go to Tehran and explore a civilian nuclear cooperation. I've got the trust of the Israelis and the Americans on this question. The Americans aren't, in this case, warmongers. (Translated from the French.)

Something tells me we're going to be hearing more about that Israeli strike on a Syrian "nuclear" facility in the very near future. I've already seen some speculation linking the strike to the same intelligence source that allowed for updating the Iran NIE. Call it a Debka Files moment, but I've got a gut feeling that whatever threat was targeted in that strike, whether real or fabricated, has still got a role to play in the Iran debate.

(Via French Politics.)

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bad News Out Of Beirut

Gen. Francois El-Hajj, widely expected to succeed Gen. Michel Sleiman as Army chief should Sleiman ever assume the office of President, was killed along with his bodyguard in a car bombing on the outskirts of the city. El-Hajj gained prominence during the operation that liberated a Palestinian refugee camp from a Muslim extremist group this past summer. So there's a possibility his assassination has nothing to do with the political infighting going on right now to hammer out a deal on the still vacant Presidency. (Yesterday's parliamentary session to elect Gen. Sleiman was postponed, the eighth postponement since the beginning of the crisis.) But with Beirut already jumpy as it is, any loud noises -- and especially loud noises where people wind up dead because of them -- can only make things worse.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Son Of NIE

Egypt, which announced in October that it would dust off plans to build several civilian nuclear reactors, just announced that it would sign no further agreements to expand its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What that means is that it will not submit to intrusive, short-notice IAEA inspections under a voluntary Additional Protocol even after it has mastered the nuclear fuel-enrichment cycle. These inspections remain the principle means to ensure that a country is not secretly developing a weapons component with dual-use technology, by allowing the IAEA to inspect not only declared nuclear activity, but to verify there is no undeclared activity going on as well.

Now the title of this post is perhaps a bit inflammatory, but I don't think the timing of Egypt's announcement is a coincidence. And it won't be the last announcement of its kind should Iran be allowed to backslide across the nuclear finish line without ever fully complying with its NPT obligations (including an Additional Protocol that it signed). Remember, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Libya are already queued up and waiting for clearance on the nuclear runway, with others sure to follow.

As for Kevin Drum's and Matthew Yglesias' speculation that the third round of UN sanctions might have been facilitated by the release of the NIE, in the course of researching an article today I spoke with someone in a position to know who left no doubt that whatever watered-down sanctions they manage to wrangle out of the Russians and Chinese, it will be very much in spite of, and not thanks to, the NIE. China, for instance, just came up with two billion reasons to be less than enthusiastic about putting any more trade restrictions on Iran, so the case for sanctions was already a tough one to make before the NIE significantly downgraded the threat level.

Once more, I'll reiterate my belief that a unilateral strike against Iran would have been disastrous. While the NIE seems to have ruled out such a disaster, it has made another one -- a non-NPT-compliant nuclear Iran and the impact it will have on the region -- more difficult to head off.

On the other hand, one thing the NIE does do is give everyone some time to really think through their options. After all, Iran's nuclear program can still be brought into compliance, and Egypt's is at least 15-20 years off. What's more, given the lame duck status of the Bush administration and the need for clarification in Tehran's internal factional divisions, for any resolution to be durable it will have to be reached in the early years of the next Presidential term. It's essential to take advantage of that window of opportunity to develop a coherent and unifying approach, not just to Iran's nuclear ambitions, but to those of the entire region.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

France, Lebanon & The NIE

Last week it seemed like all sides in Beirut had found a way out of the Lebanese presidential impasse: change the constitution to allow the head of the Lebanese army, Michel Suleiman, to hold the office. This week, things don't look that certain anymore. Everyone still agrees that Suleiman is the man for the job. But the Lebanese minority, which includes pro-Syrian factions and Hezbollah, is insisting on altering government power-sharing formulas as a pre-condition to clearing the way for Suleiman's election. As Le Monde put it:

The silence and drawn features of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, said it all...about the impasse in his mediation of the negotiations...

If the crisis remains unresolved, it will have been a pretty tough week for French foreign policy. Lebanon is supposed to be one of the cards that France delivers in the Middle East. So a failure to do so weakens its offer in any sort of regional bargaining going on with the Bush administration.

At the same time, this week's Iran NIE report poses some problems for Nicolas Sarkozy. Rightly or wrongly, his recent stance on the Iran nuclear standoff was interpreted by many to signal that he'd been tipped off to an eventual American military intervention and was positioning himself to be on the right side of the Bush administration when it went down. According to this view, the report itself leaves him out in the cold with his good friend George, throwing a war to which no one shows up.

I'm not sure I agree with that interpretation. For me, Sarkozy's and Kouchner's recent declarations were, a) more a corrective to Jacques Chirac's slip of the tongue downplaying the significance of an Iranian bomb this past spring than a change in policy, and b) wildly distorted to sound more bellicose than they actually were. (Admittedly, using the word "war" in the same sentence as Iran, even without actually advocating for it, was clearly provocative.)

As for the underlying strategy, I felt it was a way to make the hardliners in the Bush administration more comfortable with the EU negotiation track by convincing them that he, too, understood how high the stakes were. But he was determined to bring the hawks back to the negotiation track because the very stakes involved demand that any resolution to the crisis be legitimized by a multi-lateral approach. The NIE itself, as Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation points out, validates the EU approach and firmly places the initiative in the engagement camp. The danger now being that the wildly exagerrated rhetoric out of Washington has de-legitimized any sense of alarm about the underlying crisis and reduced Russia and China's willingness to go along with sanctions.

That would be unfortunate, because it seemed like the latest round of diplomatic wrangling was clearly moving towards sanctions designed to raise the pressure on Iran to fully comply with its NPT obligations. Which makes the timing of the NIE's release all the more curious. Counterintuitively, if the NIE ends up derailing what looked like promising diplomatic initiatives to a negotiated resolution of the conflict, it might end up making the military option that much more likely.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Illogic Of Peace

I was willing to suspend disbelief in the aftermath of Annapolis, if only because it seemed too easy to dismiss the entire affair as an intricately staged excercise in futility. But when a week later the Israeli government announces plans to build over 300 homes in a contested East Jerusalem settlement, I have to admit that the disbelief starts kicking back in.

It's possible that Olmert felt the need to toss a bone to the rightwing parties of his governing coalition whose members were unhappy with his participation in the conference. But the fact that he wasn't willing to postpone this announcement, let alone cancel it, seems like a slap in the face to just about everyone who made the effort to show up at Annapolis.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Did The Quartet Turn Into A Soloist?

As The Middle East Times points out, this weeks Annapolis conference signalled more than just America's return to the Middle East peace process. By not mentioning Russia, the UN, or the EU once (other than an oblique reference to the "road map" issued by "the Quartet"), the conference's joint declaration also signalled a unilateral American role in monitoring the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, as well as judging the resulting agreement.

That might come with some downside, given the fact that it's primarily EU funding that has financed the Palestinian Authority's development efforts, and that Russia has been very vigorously pursuing its own interests in the Middle East. Everyone's going to have to be on board for the outcome to be durable, which makes it curious that they're already left out from the very start.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007


By the way, am I the only one who saw the irony in Dick Cheney's pacemaker needing a jump start on the same day that there was finally some good news on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? They better get the defibrillators (spellcheck thanks to GS) ready if Olmert and Abbas actually do manage to sign a final status agreeement by the end of next year.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Scratch That

In the midst of doing some background searches for a post about how the standoff over selecting Lebanon's next President looked likely to continue past Friday, and how factional violence has already started breaking out in the north, I came across this AP dispatch reporting that Saad Hariri's majority party has removed its objection to selecting Lebanon's army chief as President. Since the General in question, Michel Suleiman, is apparently respected for his impartiality by Hezbollah, all that's left to do is to revise the constitution to allow an active military man to sit as president.

Last week, I'd read in the French press that if Lebanon doesn't slide into chaos as a result of its presidential impasse, it will be because the army is widely respected and pretty solidly on top of things. Looks like they were pretty much spot on.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

If This Is Success

The last thing I heard before going to bed last night was a French news report on the Annapolis summit stating that the Israelis and Palestinians couldn't even agree on a joint statement to read at summit's end. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they did at least manage to hammer one out over the course of the day, allowing President Bush to get his "handshake photo op".

Be that as it may, the actual content of the statement doesn't seem to actually warrant an international conference, much less anything approaching high expectations. Which might be why Eli Yoshai, the head of Israel's ultra-orthodox rightwing Shas party, told Haaretz that:

...The speeches at the Annapolis conference [were] "dreams" and out of touch with a reality where Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is incapable of fighting terror or establishing control.

Yishai added that the Shas party has no intention of leaving the government in protest to the joint Israeli-Palestinian statement reached at the conference, saying that there is no reason to do so as the agreements have no possibility of being carried out.

Of course, Yishai's refusal to remove Shas from the government coalition might have more to do with the fact that it will be better placed to saboutage any negotiations from within Olmert's majority than from the outside. But that's just another reason not to get one's hopes too high, and a reminder of how disproportionate an influence extremists have on both sides of the conflict.

On the other hand, maybe there's something to the counterintuitive idea that two leaders as weak as Olmert and Abbas are can hammer out a peace treaty, since it's about the only thing either of them can do to satisfy public opinion, which supports peace on both sides of the conflict. The problem, as always, is in the details. And in the fact that Hamas doesn't recognize Abbas' authority to negotiate. And in the fact that the Likoud is never more than a suicide bombing away from regaining power in Israel. And so on ad nauseum.

I'd like nothing more than to be pleasantly surprised by what follows. But it's not a good sign when a supposedly successful peace summit leaves you feeling this despondent about the actual chances for peace.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

License To IL

Laura Rozen directs our attention to this Yossi Melman Haaretz piece, which adds yet another veil of uncertainty onto the Israeli airstrike in Syria two months ago. Melman cites an Israeli professor who, after analyzing satellite photos, claims the Syrian site was not a reactor after all, but a nuclear bomb-assembling plant. The explicit assumption is that Syria was already in possession of the fissionable material necessary for constructing the bomb, and the implicit assumption is that it came from the only place on Earth where fissionable material is not held very accountable to the international community's standards of non-proliferation. Which gives me the perfect excuse to unload this photo, which I've titled "The Mack" and have been holding onto for just such an occasion.

This story had lain dormant for long enough that I was beginning to wonder whether or not it would re-surface. Of course, given the lack of any meaningful attempt to actually reveal what took place, as well as the epistemological challenges involved in using "intelligence" to convince anyone of anything anymore, there are two possibilities about the latest theory, namely 1) the phony reactor meme had been conclusively debunked, so it was necessary to find a new phony meme to alarm people about the threat posed by North Korea; or 2) the phony reactor meme doesn't even come close to doing justice to how seriously IL Kim Jong really is.

I've always dismissed the worst-case scenario that has one country (usually Pakistan, North Korea and lately Russia) just handing over a bomb to another country (usually Iran and lately Syria) in a fit of pique over an American unilateral military intervention, mainly because it seems farfetched, but also because it seems implausible to assume that any of those countries would assume the risks of actually transporting a nuclear device. Anything approaching appropriate security measures would almost guarantee attracting surveillance attention, and any attempt to sneak the thing in would leave it too vulnerable to interception.

But if the Melman story is true (and that's a big if), Kim Jong-il decided it just ain't no thang to sling some plutonium on The Corner of All Corners, the Middle East. And that's ill.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   Media Coverage   The Middle East   

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Friday, November 23, 2007

The Witching Hour

At midnight tonight, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term in office will come to an end, and barring a miracle, the country will enter into a constitutional crisis, as no one has been selected to succeed him. The possible consequences of the standoff range from destabilizing to catastrophic, and the Lebanese military is already in a state of alert in the capital.

Besides Lebanon itself, the big loser in the entire affair is France, which has been engaging in a diplomatic effort since July to encourage all the parties to reach a compromise solution. In the past few weeks, President Nicolas Sarkozy has dispatched top advisors to Damascus to offer a broad deal to the Syrians (a progressive normalization of diplomatic relations with the West in return for facilitating a compromise), and yesterday placed a direct call to Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss the impasse. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has been in Beirut all week trying unsuccessfully to hammer out a deal. Here's how Le Figaro assesses the failure of Sarkozy's diplomatic intitiative:

A happy ending would have...marked the success of Elysee's strategy to reposition France in the region.

The cancellation of the presidential election, on the other hand, is a humiliating blow, even if Paris only played the role of facilitator in this affair. It will also, to some degree, be interpreted abroad as a sign of the powerlessness of French diplomacy which, despite all its efforts, was unable to weigh in on the events in Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East where she is still supposed to exercise a strong influence.

Lebanon has long been a chessboard on which regional powers play out their strategic rivalries, and the current constitutional impasse is no exception. Specifically, it sheds some light on some recent evolutions in France's regional diplomacy, and in particular its increasingly hard line on Iran. As Le Fig points out, Lebanon is supposed to be France's hole card in Middle Eastern politics. But an increasingly influential Iran, through its support of Hizbollah, diminishes France's ability to deliver the goods, as seen by today's failure.

What's more, should the situation in Lebanon result in violence or longterm instability, the heat on Iran, who will almost surely be scapegoated for it, will likely go up a few notches.

Update: According to Nouvel Obs, the parliamentary session to elect the president has been postponed until next Friday. Nevertheless, President Lahoud is still expected to leave office at midnight tonight, leaving the country with no one exercising the consitutional responsibilities of president for a week.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ready To Go Nuclear

This strikes me as pretty poor timing:

On November 19, Iran voiced its readiness to cooperate with Syria in the field of peaceful nuclear activities should Syria be interested, Iranian Ambassador to Syria Mohammad Hassan Akhtari said. During a press conference in the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, he explained that such cooperation does not exist at the present time...

"Our relations with Syria are significant and special. If Syria is ready to go nuclear, we are ready to cooperate with her," said Akhtari.

I don't think those are the kinds of gestures Mohamed ElBaradei had in mind when he called on Iran to show some confidence-building measures in his IAEA report earlier this week. On the other hand, as long as Israel is going to the trouble of bombing Syria's nuclear sites, the least the Iranians can do is make sure they're really nuclear.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Going Long Gone

The superficial parallels between Lebanon and Iraq are striking. Both countries have experienced or are in the midst of multi-factional, multi-sectarian civil wars. Both have a neighbor (Syria in Lebanon's case, Iran in Iraq's) intent on integrating the country into its sphere of influence. Both have another neighbor (Israel in Lebanon's case, Turkey in Iraq's) that reserves the right to conduct cross-border military operations in response to terrorist attacks.

So anyone who buys into the "going long" strategy in Iraq, whereby a massive American occupation over twenty years would eventually lead to a stable power-sharing agreement in Baghdad, would do well to take a look at what's going on in Lebanon these days: seventeen years post-conflict, and that country's complicated power-sharing mechanism is deadlocked, with the very real threat of armed conflict as a result.

There's still a few days left to avoid a constitutional crisis, and there's no guarantee that the worst-case scenarios will play out. But what's significant is how persistent the factional, sectarian and political rivalries that tore the country apart remain, how fragile their resolution is proving to be, and how easily manipulated they are by regional rivals (Syria, Iran, the US and Israel) who don't hesitate to interfere in Lebanon's domestic affairs to advance their strategic interests.

Something to think about when considering the costs of stabilizing Iraq.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   The Middle East   

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Line Starts Here

This one slipped under my radar yesterday, but add Turkey to the list of countries in/near the Middle East pursuing a civil nuclear program. They're looking to get three reactors up and running by 2015. Unlike some of the other countries queued up already, Turkey actually has limited energy resources. But the whole move towards civil nuclear programs in the region seems to have reached a tipping point. The question pretty soon won't be whose got one, but who doesn't.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   Turkey   

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tangled Web

Common wisdom has it that Syrian agents were responsible for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005. Hariri was a close personal friend of Jacques Chirac, so France's relations with Syria grew cold, as in just this side of permafrost, as a result. So it raised some eyebrows last week when Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched two close advisors to Damascus to discuss ways to resolve the deadlock in choosing Lebanon's next president.

Today, Le Monde offers something of an explanation (for French readers, anyway). One of Syria's principal allies is Qatar, whose Emir advocates ending its regional isolation and defends its interests at the UN. (His position is conspicuously at odds with that of the Saudis, who consider Bashar Assad untrustworthy.) The same Emir of Qatar was influential in helping Sarkozy obtain the release of the Bulgarian nurses from Libya's Muammar Khaddafi (although the promise of weapons and a civil nuclear reactor probably helped also). And Qatar has not only placed orders for 80 Airbus A380's, they've also been extraordinarily understanding about the repeated production and delivery delays that have cost the French industrial giant quite a few contracts. (Both UPS and FedEx eventually cancelled their orders for the freight version.)

Sarkozy himself has forcefully condemned the use of violence to interfere in Lebanese internal affairs, even if he has refrained from directly accusing Syria of being behind the assassinations. But it's worth watching how France's posture towards Syria evolves. French influence in Lebanon is something Paris has to offer in its dealings with Washington. And if it does manage to thaw relations with Damascus, it could wind up serving as a backchannel for American diplomatic overtures.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Conflating Two Threats

Matthew Yglesias is correct to point out the relationship between American support for anti-democratic regimes and anti-American sentiment, and it's true that we pay a much greater cost for a hands-off policy towards an authoritarian country we're friendly with than one we're hostile towards.

But I think causally linking the resulting anti-American backlash to extremist violence is only possible if you conflate the two distinct oppositions faced by regimes such as Iran under the Shah, and Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia today.

The Islamic extremists setting off bomb belts in crowded plazas aren't motivated by a yearning for democracy. To the contrary. They'd still be setting them off if Pakistan were ruled by a democratically elected civilian government. They don't target these regimes because they don't resemble America enough. They target them because they resemble America too closely.

On the other hand, the lawyers protesting martial law in Pakistan, who serve as a bulwark against Islamic militants and represent in principle the constituency most likely to be sympathetic to America, are much more likely to resent the hell out of us if we don't take a tougher line against Musharraf. And while they probably won't embrace extremist violence and terrorism as a result of our abandonment, they probably won't be very inclined to align themselves with us when they eventually do achieve democratic rule.

So it really does seem obvious that we should be doing everything we can to support them, while at the same time trying to find solutions to the broader faultlines that fuel the Islamic militants.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Pakistan   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Police Blotter, Tehran Edition

A lot of people, myself included, were impressed by the Iranian student protests last month that publicly humiliated President Ahmadinejad. The Iranian regime, it seems, was less impressed and has been gradually arresting the student leaders.

Also, an Iranian appeals court upheld a sentence of three years in prison against Delaram Ali, a young woman who took part in a demonstration for women's rights last year. (The ten lashes that had been included in her sentence were dropped.) The demonstration was violently broken up by Iranian police and Ali suffered a broken arm at the time. Five other women involved in the protest have also been sentenced to prison terms. The women had been organizing a petition drive, called One Million Signatures, designed to pressure the Iranian government to change laws that discriminate against women.

The two stories highlight a recurring thought I've been having, that all the crises we're now facing in the Middle East are really just longterm repercussions of the region's (incomplete) post-colonial transition to modernism. Of course, secular education and equal civil rights for women are two cornerstones of any such transition. So the condition of students and women is a barometer of a country's modernism, as much if not more so than their technical expertise or military hardware.

On the other hand, relations between (post-)modern and semi-modern states have greatly changed since the post-colonial era, due mainly to the widespread diffusion of technical expertise and military hardware to semi-modern states. Modernism can no longer be imposed from without at the hands of an occupying power, nor from within at the hands of a crusading national liberator. And with the exception of Turkey, wherever it still manages to resist the reactionary backlash of fundamentalism (Syria and Egypt come to mind), it is through the brutal methods of authoritarian dictators.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to offer much hope for Iran's students and women. Or for finding longterm solutions, consistent with the ideals of democracy and equal rights, to the region's conflicts. Pessimistic, I know. But twenty-four year old women getting tossed in jail for demanding a fair shake does that to me.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Wishful Thinking?

Far be it from me to second guess Steve Clemons on foreign policy. But I admit I'm puzzled to see him link the situation in Pakistan to the lack of a final status settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not because I think a final settlement isn't necessary or even essential to re-establishing American integrity in the region. In fact, I think Israel's best hope for longterm stability is in a very generous peace, along the lines of a regional common market like the EU leading to an eventual quasi-federal arrangement with the Palestinian state.

It's just that I don't expect even the most generous agreement, let alone one that stands a realistic chance of being adopted, to have much impact on the Islamic radicalism that threatens the Arab and Muslim world. Iran, Hizbollah, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their copycat splinter groups aren't calling for a two-state solution to the conflict. In fact, a Palestinian state that reached such a settlement would become a principle target for these groups. And while the plight of the Palestinians exacerbates the alienation that leads to Islamic radicalsim, it is far from being its exclusive cause.

A fair final status agreement for the Palestinians is necessary for a variety of reasons. I just wonder if it's reasonable to expect it to have such a wide impact. And to assume that that impact will operate exclusively in our favor.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   The Middle East   

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Two Generations On Alert

You might have seen that retired Gen. John Abizaid, the former Centcom commander who oversaw Iraq operations, predicted that American troops would be deployed in the Middle East for the next 25 to 50 years. Here's the direct quote:

Over time, we will have to shift the burden of the military fight from our forces directly to regional forces, and we will have to play an indirect role, but we shouldn’t assume for even a minute that in the next 25 to 50 years, the American military might be able to come home, relax and take it easy, because the strategic situation in the region doesn’t seem to show that as being possible.

Which got me to thinking about how things used to look in the Middle East -- before 9/11, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in short, before it became a foregone conclusion that American forces belonged there. That thought, after a few google searches, led me to this Heritage Foundation report on year-by-year American troop deployments by country. The actual data, fom 1950-2005, is here, in an Excel file.

There are some surprises. For instance, I was unaware that through the 1970's, the primary American deployment in the Middle East was in Morocco, with a peak of 15,000 troops in 1954, followed by a sharp drop which steadily tapers off before all but disappearing in the Eighties. But after that, with the exception of the brief spike of the First Gulf War, we basically had no deployment to speak of for most of the Nineties.

That starts to change towards the end of the Clinton years. By 2000, we had roughly 11,000 troops deployed between Saudi Arabia (7k) and Kuwait (4k). A number that actually decreases in 2001, before eventually going off the charts in 2002 and 2003.

In other words, we managed to navigate the height of the Cold War, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the aftermath of the First Gulf War with basically no significant force deployment in the Middle East. Now as a result of one successful terrorist attack and a failed war, we're being told that two generations of American soldiers will be deployed on high alert in the region. And anyone who challenges that orthodoxy is accused of being soft on national security. 

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Atoms For Peace

According to an article appearing in Le Figaro, the Saudi nuclear energy program, which was announced late last year, will depend heavily on Pakistani know-how. Even more alarming, given the Pakistanis' proliferation track record, is the close ties the article claims already exist between the Saudis and the Pakistani nuclear effort:

...Prince Khaled Ben Sultan, vice-Minister of Defense, who is in charge of this sensitive dossier in Riyad, was at the last Pakistani nuclear weapons test in October 2005. The Saudis are suspected of having financed Islamabad's nuclear and ballistic missile capacity, and some sources even claim that "the Saudi bomb is already waiting in Pakistan". Be that as it may, Riyad doesn't have any ballistic missiles with a long enough range (more than 1500 km.) to make use of any eventual nuclear warheads.

It was reassuring to see Joe Biden include Pakistan in the debate last night. But if this article is any indication, a stable Pakistan presents just as many problems as an unstable Pakistan.

The other question raised by the entire region's headlong rush towards nuclear energy is, If Iran's civil nuclear program is a transparent effort to build a nuclear bomb, is the same true of Saudi Arabia's? Egypt's? Libya's and Algeria's?

It would seem like some sort of regional non-proliferation regime would be warranted, something above and beyond the NPT that governs the rest of the world. Now would be a good time to start formulating just what that would look like. Because this genie is about to get out of the bottle.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Monday, October 29, 2007

And They're Off

Egypt has announced it will dust off its long-dormant plans for a nuclear energy program and seek investment to construct several nuclear reactors by 2020. They stressed that they have no intention of developing a fuel enrichment capacity, and will maintain transparency vis a vis the IAEA. They join Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the United Arab Emirates on the nuclear energy waiting list. Toss in the recent deal Sarkozy just signed with Morocco to develop their nuclear energy program, Iran's controversial program, and Israel's weapons capacity and it's clear that the face of the Middle East is radically transforming before our eyes.

The region seemed volatile enough when it was just sitting on fields of combustible fuel. What's it going to be like when they've got meltdown capacity?

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Turkey And The Mullahs

A short while ago, in a post about the damage we've done to our strategic alliance with Turkey, I made the mistake of suggesting that one of the dangers of alienating Turkey might be to see that country slide into theocracy. A reader left a comment to the effect that there's little likelihood of that happening. This Dissent interview with Seyla Benhabib, a Turkish political scientist, confirms that analysis:

...I don’t think that the AK Party wants a theocracy. They are carrying out an incredible experiment and it is unusual for some one who is a democratic socialist like myself to be supporting, and watching very carefully, a party like them. But we are all watching carefully because they also represent a kind of pluralism in civil society which is absolutely essential for Turkey.

So I don’t fear an Islamic theocracy in Turkey. I don’t think that the Turkish people want an Islamic theocracy and I don’t think that the AK party wants an Islamic theocracy. There have always been some elements who may have dreamed of this but I can’t see it happening...

Benhabib also briefly addresses the extent to which Turkey might serve as a model for other Arab Islamic states. Remember that the failure of the secular Arab nationalist movement, of which Turkey was an early example, directly led to the emergence of the Iranian-style Islamic revolution throughout the Arab world. And it's against the backdrop of this latter movement's inability to free the Middle East of Western influence that Osama Bin Laden's brand of Qutbism has taken root.

So inasmuch as Turkey -- as a healthy, secular democracy with a modernized economy -- represents the alternative to what the jihadists offer, the question is an important one. Benhabib is optimistic, specifically as regards Syria, whose improved relations with Turkey could serve as an incentive for Bashir Assad to open his country up a bit to the world.

In other words, while Andrew Sullivan is correct that a Turkey-Iran-Syria re-alignment would certainly deal a blow to American regional interests, it wouldn't necessarily result in a three-headed theocratic hydra. In fact, the opposite assumtion, that Turkey could function as a moderating influence on both Syria and Iran, is entirely plausible.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   Turkey   

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Virtual Apology

Ehud Olmert offered an apology to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting last week in London for any inadvertant violation of Turkish airspace during the Sept. 6 airstrike on Syria, and any "affront" that may have resulted. Aside from being Olmert's first public coments on the raid, the apology doesn't really advance the story at all. The Times of India story does include this quote fom the IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei, though:

To bomb first and to ask questions later I think it undermines the system and it doesn't lead to any solution.

Can't find much to argue with there.

To my mind, ElBaradei is one of the the most compelling public figures of our time. By all rights, the guy should be poring through technical reports and chairing meetings of degree-laden geeks. Instead he's been thrust into an unlikely and prominent role smack dab in the middle of three crises that will mark history -- North Korea, Iraq and Iran. And at every turn, he's refused to back down when people on every side of the issue exerted heavy pressure to try to instrumentalize him and his agency.

The non-proliferation system might be in its death throes. But there's something noble about the way ElBaradei's gone about defending its integrity.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   Turkey   

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Syria Snapshots

Now that administration hawks have established (in the popular imagination) a Syrian-North Korean proliferation link, it looks like the "Rice-Gates-Keep Cheney Away From The Launch Codes" faction has decided to push back. The NY Times is reporting the release of another satellite image of the alleged Syrian nuclear site, this one dating back to 2003, showing that the building believed to be a nuclear reactor was already under construction back then:

A dispute has broken out between conservatives and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the administration’s pursuit of diplomacy with North Korea in the face of intelligence that North Korea might have helped Syria design a nuclear reactor.

The new image may give ammunition to those in the administration, including Ms. Rice, who call for diplomacy. If North Korea started its Syrian aid long ago, the officials could argue that the assistance was historical, not current, and that diplomacy should move ahead.

For whatever it's worth, the outfit that released the image, GeoEye, is based in Dulles, Va, a stone's throw from CIA headquarters in Langley. Its Board of Directors includes a former career CIA operative, and a Reagan-era Lt. General who worked on the SDI program. Not unusual for the private sector satellite imagery racket, I'm sure, but enough to make me wonder whether there aren't any backroom agendas being played out here. Hmmm... You think?

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   The Middle East   

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Nuclear Fingerprints

Via Jeffrey Lewis over at Arms Control Wonk comes this NY Times article on the pressure the Bush administration is feeling from the right over its North Korean deal. Here's the key graf:

One senior administration official, who has seen the intelligence about the Syrian site and advocates a tougher line against North Korea, said he was frustrated that even in light of possible North Korean help on a Syrian nuclear program, “we are shaking hands with the North Koreans because they have once again told us they are going to disarm.”

From the moment North Korea was mentioned in connection to whatever Syria was doing out in the desert that warranted an Israeli airstrike, it was clear that there was more at stake here than just regional nuclear politics. Lewis goes through the recent satellite imagery and finds it inconclusive, whether as proof that the structure was a nuclear facility or that it was based on North Korean designs. (The fact that Syria has apparently swept the site clean probably means we'll never know for sure.) He also points out that the intelligence we've heard about so far has been leaked by the Bush administration insiders who lost the internal debate, that is those who argue for a tougher stance on North Korea and by extension Iran (ie. Cheney et al).

That's not to say that the intelligence is false. But keep this in mind as more of it gets leaked.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   Foreign Policy   The Middle East   

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Off Their Meds

The slow trickle of satellite imagery and intelligence leaks about the Syrian site bombed by Israel last month is either increasingly incriminating or increasingly misleading. For the time being, I don't think there's any way for those of us without access to classified source material to know which. Should the claims of a nascent Syrian nuclear program prove true, though, it doesn't really matter how far off the actual threat was. The fact that they would even think of going down the nuclear road demonstrates just how unhinged the entire region has gotten, all the more so in light of the ease with which the facility was detected and destroyed.

It would also seem to make the case that the threat of loose Russian nukes winding up in the hands of rogue states, the scenario so dear to Hollywood's heart, is largely overblown. Because no one in their right mind would go through all the effort of building a warhead, let alone a warhead that stands absolutely no chance of ever seeing the light of day, if all they had to do was mail order one from a down-on-his-luck Russian nuclear scientist.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   The Middle East   

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Reality-Based Community

When I first stumbled across this brief item titled "Anti-Syrian Propaganda Unmasked" over at the Arab Monitor, I thought it was a fascinating example of disinformation made up out of whole cloth:

From the Israeli media, the legend of the existence of a Syrian nuclear facility spread to Western news outlets. Today, the United Nations' General Assemby's First Committe was forced to admit that the legend of the alleged Syrian nuclear facility was the fruit of an error committed by the UN translation office.

So of course I googled "israel strike un translation office" and -- lo and behold! -- it turns out it's disinformation made up out of half-cloth:

The United Nations on Wednesday blamed an interpreter's error for an erroneous report that Syria said an Israeli airstrike hit a Syrian nuclear facility, a mistake that made headlines in the Middle East and heightened concerns over Damascus' nuclear ambitions...

The incident started Tuesday night with a UN press summary of the disarmament committee which paraphrased an unnamed Syrian representative as saying that Israel was the fourth largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction and a violator of other nations' airspace, and it had taken action against nuclear facilities, including the 6 July attack in Syria.

Israel Air Force warplanes carried out a strike in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey on September 6, not July 6.

The target remains unknown but widespread reports say it may have been a nascent nuclear facility, a claim Syria has denied.

Not quite enough to justify the Monitor's conspiracy theory, especially since Western media have been reporting the target as a nuclear facility since well before Tuesday. But at least there's a kernel of factual truth buried in there.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   The Middle East   

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Distant Cousins

With all the discussion about John Mearsheimer's and Stephen Walt's "The Israel Lobby", it's interesting to note, as does this Haaretz video feature, that while political clout and representation among American Jews is rising, the percentage of American Jews who feel a strong connection to Israel is in decline. 70% of Jewish senior citizens feel a close bond to the Jewish state, compared to only 56% of Jews in their thirties. The video identifies the secular nature of American Jews, combined with Israel's attitude towards reform Jews as contributing factors. I'm not sure if there's any polling data to back this up, but I'd speculate that Israel's military approach to the Occupied Territories probably doesn't appeal much to the younger generation either.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   The Middle East   

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

And Iran, Iran So Far Away?

Kevin Drum links to another NY Times story "clarifying" the Israeli airstrike against Syria last month. According to the emerging consensus on intelligence reports (or the latest leaker's agenda, take your pick), the target was an unfinished nuclear reactor resembling one used by North Korea in its weapons program. Questions remain as to whether the North Koreans were involved in either providing the plans or directing the construction. Opinion on how to respond was divided within the Bush administration, with the usual suspects (Rice, Gates) against an airstrike and the world's most feared quail hunter in favor of one. Kevin goes on to add:

The Times' sources also confirmed that the Syrian reactor was several years away from completion. The raid, according to one Israeli official, was meant primarily to "re-establish the credibility of our deterrent power."

Think about that for a second. A regional power whose image of military invincibility has recently taken a hit suggests bombing a nuclear program several years from completion in order to re-establish the credibility of its deterrent power. Cheney argues for, Rice & Gates argue against. Cheney wins. The bombs drop.

Sound like a dress rehearsal for anything?

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Nothing New, Update At Eleven

Here's the full text of an interview Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave the BBC ten days ago. The interviewer presses him pretty insistantly to provide some details about last month's mysterious Israeli airstrike, but he simply described the target as an unfinished, unmanned, undefended military construction site of little significance. Here's what he had to say about suggestions of a North Korean link:

We have a relation with North Korea and this is not something in secret. We have a relation with them but to have a construction, if you have, like they say you mean the nuclear, we are not interested in any nuclear activity. So far even peaceful reactor we do not even mention peaceful reactor for electricity or for any peaceful use in Syria. Talking about a strategic project like this, you do not have any protection, any air-defence, any people and then the aircraft attack that reactor and there is no radiations, no emergency plans. This is impossible. This is only a building, a construction, and they attacked this construction, nothing happened. So, it is not nuclear at all; these are only false claims.

To add to the already thick fog of confusion around the strike, a NY Times headline is announcing that Syria is now denying that the raid took place, while the accompanying story only reports an effort to deny an Israeli journalist's claims that a desert research center had suffered damage during the attack.

So for everyone keeping score at home, we effectively know very little more -- and possibly less -- than we did before, which was already close to zero. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Friday, October 5, 2007

The Radical Transformation Of Self

I just got back from a brilliant lecture at the Université Paris Descartes titled "Islamism Today". The speaker was Hamit Bozarslan, who gave a brief history of the Islamist movement from the Muslim Brotherhood through Osama Bin Laden. He avoided stereotypes and clichés, instead focusing on the historic continuities -- and discontinuities -- in the evolution of this movement. In the process, he completely changed the way I understand the current expression of radical Islam and its violent confrontation with the West.

According to Bozarslan, the initial phase of radical Islamism (which arose in the late-Seventies in response to the failure of leftist/nationalist Arab liberation movements) had run out of steam and was largely in decline by the year 2000. Unable to re-generate itself, and finding its violent methods rejected by mainstream Muslim opinion, Islamism was in retreat before authoritarian states that represented order and stability for an increasingly cosmopolitan Arab world.

But at roughly the same time that Islamic scholars were anticipating the disappearance of jihad, a new form of Islamism appeared that, in Bozarslan's words, introduced a new "subjectivity": That is, a new way of understanding the self in the world. This new subjectivity centers around the body and its singular role as locus of both corruption and salvation: Corruption through its participation in an imperfect world; salvation through its sacrifice in jihad.

To illustrate this dramatic shift, Bozarslan compared Yasser Arafat's body with that of Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The one, portly, corporal, pugnacious. The other, feeble, paralysed, almost blind. When the goal is national autonomy, the physical body is an end in itself. When the goal is spiritual salvation through martyrdom, the body is a only a means to an end.

The new wave of Islamism advocated by Yassin and Osama Bin Laden represents a rupture: with worldly society, with classical Islamism, with the Western tradition. Its struggle is an eschatological battle between good and evil, with little attachment to the physical body or the material world. The individual becomes responsible for both the decline of Islam and the deliverance of the world, and self-martyrdom becomes the central if not determinant act of devotion.

I've had an intuition for a while now that suicide bombings, if not radical Islam itself, will eventually just peter out on their own, if only we just do our best to prevent them from happening and carry on with our lives as normally as possible. And Bozarslan's lecture just convinces me that there's something to that intuition. Because the metaphysical subjectivity he describes is just not that appealing. Especially in the long run. But it's one that is reinforced by frontal engagement with its bi-polar imagination: The more its enemy attacks it as evil, the more convinced it becomes of its saintliness.

It's often been said that Levi's and rock 'n roll played as big a role in the fall of the Soviet Union as any military or political measures taken during the Cold War. Because the West, with all of its shortcomings and contradictions, was able to combine the elements that led to the emergence of a new subjectivity (modern, liberated, expressive) that ultimately proved more appealing than that proposed by Communist society.

The same goes for the current struggle with radical Islam. Our most potent weapon isn't a better bomb. It's a better alternative.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   The Middle East   

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Dreams And Nightmares

I admit that for a while now, I've taken Hugo Chavez seriously. Ever since the price of oil started skyrocketing, to be exact, and neo-Bolivarian candidates won elections in Ecuador and Bolivia, to be even more exact. I also admit that for a while now, I've felt like something of an idiot for taking Hugo Chavez seriously. Because, for me, Hugo Chavez represents everything that, in an ideal world, ought not be taken seriously.

So I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed, or both, to learn that Max Manwaring, in a National War College monograph, takes Hugo Chavez very seriously:

President Chavez is pursuing a Super Insurgency with a confrontational, defensive, populist, and nationalistic agenda that is intended eventually to liberate Latin America from U.S. economic dependency and political domination. That is a Herculean task, but he appears to be prepared to take his time, let his enemies become accustomed to a given purposeful action, and then slowly move toward new stages of the revolution in a deliberate, slow, and phased manner. Thus, by staying under his opponents’ “threshold of concern,” Chavez says that he expects to “put his enemies to sleep—to later wake up dead.”

This is not the rhetoric of a “nut case.” It is, importantly, the rhetoric of an individual who is performing the traditional and universal Leninist Maoist function of providing a strategic vision and the operational plan for gaining revolutionary power. (pp. 32-33)

Not good. Fortunately, Manwaring (as I) believes that Chavez is unlikely to succeed in his effort to unify all of Latin America into a grand counterweight to the United States. But that's not the point. The point is that Chavez is willing to de-stabilize targeted governments in order to do so. In fact, it's part of his grand strategy. And failed states, as breeding grounds of violence, crime and non-state bad actors, might be even worse than a grand Latin American counterweight to the United States:

However, if misguided political dreams were to come true, Osama bin Laden would see the artificial boundaries of the Muslim Middle East and North Africa turn into caliphates reminiscent of the glory days of the 12th and 13th centuries. And Hugo Chavez would witness the metamorphosis of 15 or 20 Latin American republics into one great American nation. Experience demonstrates, however, that most of these political dreams never come true. Ultimately, the international community must pay the indirect social, economic, and political costs of state failure. Accordingly, the current threat environment in the Western Hemisphere is not a traditional security problem, but it is no less dangerous. (p. 8)

The comparison between Chavez and Bin Laden is no coincidence, because Manwaring sees them as two sides of the same asymmetrical warfare coin: Osama goes in for the high-profile attack; Hugo's more of a stealth provocateur. But they've both got pan-nationalistic goals, they've both identified the limitations of conventional conceptions of power, and they've both developed their strategic visions accordingly.

That's more than Manwaring can say for America, which is still locked into obsolete concepts and stultified organizational structures that hinder our ability to respond to tactical challenges to the full extent of our abilities.

Take deterrence, for instance. With the advent of 4th generation warfare (4GW), the battlefield is no longer (exclusively) a physical space where armies meet. War now takes place anywhere and everywhere that the conflict's center of gravity -- public opinion and leadership -- can be influenced: In the media, in the marketplace, and in the halls of the UN, to name but a few. Freed from the restrictive role of threatening a largely obsolete use of force, deterrence could be re-invented more broadly as prevention:

Deterrence is not necessarily military—although that is important. It is not necessarily negative or directly coercive, although that, too, is important. Deterrence is much broader than any of these elements. Deterrence can be direct and/or indirect, political-diplomatic, socioeconomic, psychological-moral, and/or militarily coercive. In its various forms and combinations of forms, it is an attempt to influence how and what an enemy or potential enemy thinks and does. That is, deterrence is the creation of a state of mind that either discourages one thing or encourages something else. Motive and culture, thus, become crucial. In this context, political-military communication and preventive diplomacy become a vital part of the deterrence equation. (pp.42-43)

But as our missile-rattling handling of the Iranian crisis shows, this multi-hued approach to deterrence has yet to emerge from its cocoon.

Manwaring's analysis does more than just rehabilitate Chavez from a certified loony to a legitimate psychopath, though. It calls into question the very nature of the security challenges America faces in the 21st century. In mobilizing America for an unnecessary war against Iraq, President Bush reduced the threat we face to a "War Against Terrorism", later re-labelled as a "War Against Islamo-Fascism".

But the real threat to American global interests is much broader than that. It lies in the limitations of conventional power in the face of asymmetric conflict, and the resulting vulnerability of already-fragile nation-states to non-conventional methods of de-stabilization. Neither of which are to be found exclusively in the Islamo-Fascist hinterlands of the Middle East.

It should come as no surprise that a world confronted with a solitary super-power should attempt to re-configure itself in ways that might counterbalance such immense unilateral power. Osama Bin Laden's dream of a Caliphate and Chavez's dream of a unified Latin American state are not very different from China's dream of a peaceful rise, or Russia's dream of a return to form, even if the methods differ.

By squandering our military strength and international influence where the enemy wasn't, instead of articulating a broad strategy that can help us outsmart them where they increasingly are, President Bush has brought all of those dreams one step closer to coming true.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   International Relations   Las Americas   The Middle East   

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Did Dick Sign Off On This?

Let's imagine for a moment that the Israeli air raid on Syria earlier this month really did target a Syrian nuclear facility. And that the equipment at the site really was provided by the North Koreans. And that the Israelis provided unequivocal proof of that to the Bush administration in July.

If that's what actually happened in northeastern Syria, do you really think we'd go ahead and free up the $25 million in energy assistance for the North Korean government that we'd promised as part of the six-party agreement signed in February?

I've seen it suggested that America wanted to avoid any open confrontation about proliferation violations until after the North Korean nuclear facilities are cemented up and their bombs dismantled. But when it comes to negotiations, this administration is obsessed with leverage. And I don't see how we maintain much leverage if we let the North Koreans know that they can pretty much violate the agreement and get away with it.

Which leads me to believe that whatever actually happened in northeastern Syria, it did not involve North Korean-supplied nuclear materials.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Say It Ain't So

This demonstrates an incredibly bad sense of timing:

Israel is looking to a U.S.-India nuclear deal to expand its own ties to suppliers, quietly lobbying for an exemption to non-proliferation rules so it can legally import atomic material, according to documents made available Tuesday to The Associated Press.

And this might go down as the understatement of the year: 

But Daryl Kimball, an analyst and executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that - even if unsuccessful - any attempt by Israel to move closer to nations exporting sensitive nuclear technology and material that could potentially be turned into fissile material for warheads would alarm many in the Middle East.

"There is a great deal of tensions between non-nuclear (Arab) weapons states and Israel, and the mere existence of this proposal would exacerbate ... the Middle East situation," he said from Washington.

A lot of people pointed to the US-India deal as a blow against the non-proliferation regime. But I think they were primarily worried about how rogue states might try to exploit the inconsistencies (read: hypocrisy) involved. Now with the ink hardly dry on the as yet unratified deal, Israel is willing to dramatically reduce the level of "ambiguity" in its nuclear status to jump on board the gravy train.

To paraphrase the old Chris Rock routine, I ain't sayin' Ahmadinejad should get nuclear weapons... But I unner-stan'. 

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Bad News, Good News

In one of the first definitive outcomes to emerge from the Israeli mystery airstrike over northeastern Syria last week, Syrian officials have let it be known that there's no longer any hope of getting Israeli-Syrian peace talks off the ground. Not only do the Syrians have enough on their plate handling fallout from their Lebanon meddling, but in the aftermath of such an aggression, any move on their part towards the negotiating table would be a sign of weakness.

The good news is that while it might have killed any chances for peace breaking out anytime soon, the air raid also reduced the odds of war breaking out either. You'll recall that there was some concern over the summer that despite the fact that neither Israel nor Syria wanted war, the fear of an imminent attack might lead one side to launch a pre-emptive strike. So there were quite a few backchannel messages sent, including through Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi when she visited Damascus, to defuse the tensions on the border.

Now Syria has confirmed that it will not respond militarily to the Israeli strike, partly because of a lack of Arab support, partly because of a tepid Russian response, but mainly because it knows it would get its butt whooped in any conflict with Israel. Which means that barring a regime-threatening assault by the IDF, it looks like prospects for an accidental war have dramatically decreased.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Silence Is Deafening

The web's been abuzz with speculation about what actually happened in Syria last week. So far, what's actually known is that Syria announced that it had fired on Israeli warplanes that had violated its airspace. Turkey later announced that it had recovered fuel tanks of the type Israeli fighter jets use on its border with Syria, and very mildly protested about the Israeli violation of its airspace.

The rest is really speculation, because Israel has neither denied or confirmed the raid, and the only people who have commented on it have been "unnamed American officials" who at first suggested the target had been Iranian arms shipments transiting Syria for delivery to Hezbollah, and later tried to grow legs on a Syrian-Korean nuclear link story. The latter angle was picked up by the so-called "responsible" press, suddenly unable to resist a sensational story.

But this story's significance, as Ilene Prusher of the CS Monitor points out, lies not in what happened, but in what didn't happen. Namely, a rousing condemnation of the Israeli provocation. Not only has no one forcefully reprimanded them (aside from the Syrians), there's almost been a tacit sigh of relief.

My initial reaction to the story last week, before the Syrian nuclear installation got tagged onto it, was that the Israelis were conducting a dry run to smoke out Syrian air defences for an eventual raid on Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. And this map that accompanies the CSM article seems to bear out that hypothesis. Continue along that trajectory and before long you're in Isfahan and Natanz. In other words, the heart of the Iranian nuclear program.

Whether or not that's the case, though, I think Prusher's spot on in her conclusion. Israel sent the entire region, but especially the Iranians, a message, and it was willing to jeopardize any chance of peace talks with the Syrians to do so. The message? It can do what it pleases. And it can do it with impunity.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Media Coverage   The Middle East   

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Monday, September 17, 2007

You've Come A Long Way, Baby

Just a quick reality check for anyone who really believes the Bush administration's rhetoric about spreading democracy through the Middle East: Saudi Arabian women are petitioning the king for the right, not to vote, but to drive. And the Saudis are our friends.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   The Middle East   

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Project Salam

Remember all those reports a few months back about British arms manufacturer BAE greasing Prince Bandar's palm to get the Saudis to buy BAE-manufactured Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets? Well, apparently all that negative publicity, not to mention an American investigation into the allegations, wasn't enough to derail the deal. The ink just dried, to the tune of $8.9 billion.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Dry Run?

The Syrian state news agency is reporting that Israeli warplanes penetrated into Syrian airspace, "...coming from the Mediterranean heading towards the eastern-northern region (sic)..." The planes were allegedly chased off by Syrian air defenses. Israel has refused comment on the matter.

Now if you look at this map (links removed) of the Middle East, and this map of Iranian nuclear facilities, it's clear that northeastern Syria is the quickest way for Israeli planes to reach potential targets in Iran (assuming that for political reasons, Jordan would refuse a flight path over its territory).

Is it that far a stretch to wonder if the Israeli airforce was trying to smoke out the Syrian air defenses to better plan an eventual bombing run? Or at least that they'd like the Iranians to think that?

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sanctions, The Sun And The Saudis

Le Figaro has an interview with newly-elected Israeli President Shimon Peres. Asked whether he thinks sanctions will dissuade Iran from developing its nuclear program, his analysis was as insightful as any I've yet seen:

It all depends on the severity of the sanctions. The Iranians' force depends entirely on the world's division. If Iran is confronted with a united front, it will change...

This is something that Iran hawks would do well to consider. Iran has done absolutely nothing to actually earn its dramatically improved strategic position. If Iran's influence has risen, it's because the influence of all of its principal adversaries -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the US -- has fallen. Consensus and unity are the keys to any attempts to re-contain Iran, and diplomacy is the key to building consensus and unity. Contrary to what the Cheney Gang claims, this is not a dovish pipedream. Peres identifies the four major cases where diplomacy was sufficient to turn back nuclear ambitions: Ukraine, S. Africa, Libya and N. Korea.

Another point Peres makes demonstrates the way in which the world has evolved in the past twenty years. It's no scoop, but with the triumph of neo-liberalism, the market has now replaced politics as the ultimate determinant. Here's how Peres proposes to engage with the Palestinians:

For me, economics constitutes the new credo. Politics deals with war, while economics effects relations... I propose to the Palestinians to first try to improve relations and, parallelly, to engage in negotiations... Colonialism belongs to another era.

I've long maintained that an Israeli Marshall Plan for the Palestinian territories, even in the face of terrorist attacks, would be the most effective way to isolate extremists on both sides of the "border". That seems even more the case in the aftermath of the Hamas-Fatah split, which to my mind magnifies the payoff for bold gestures.

Peres also demonstrated his well-known sense of humor. When asked whether he would use his presidency to promote a grand cause, he mentioned the fight against terrorism, but also the development of alternative energies:

We also want to develop solar energy, because we prefer to depend on the sun than on the Saudis. The sun is more permanent, more democratic... 

 (All quotes translated from the French.)

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Now, How About JFK?

It's good to be the King. When something's not right, you just order someone to fix it:

King Abdullah on Monday said he was dissatisfied with bureaucratic procedures at the Queen Alia International Airport, and ordered measures to facilitate traveller movement and comfort.

"This is not the first time I visited the airport. Every time we take measures to facilitate procedures for travellers, we return and find the same obstacles again," the King told officials at the airport during a visit...

The Monarch gave airport authorities seven days to agree on one body that will be in charge of "solving all the problems as soon as possible".

I'm not so sure I'd want to be the head of the airport, though.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bandar's Cut

Following the spate of stories this month about Tony Blair shutting down an investigation into BAE's greasing Prince Bandar's palm to the tune of $2 billion, the Justice Department has opened an investigation of its own. Ostensibly, they'll be trying to determine whether the funds that BAE pumped into a Stateside Saudi governmental account were for Bandar's personal use or for his official functions, as he claims.

But the real question is, Why all the attention now? A friend of mine here, a Dutch ex-pat who worked on the original Yamamah contract in the 1980's auditing the construction component, told me that the kickbacks in general, and for Prince Bandar in particular, were common knowledge from the very beginning, to the point of being a running joke in the accounting department. It's also not the first time that investigations into the project were opened and closed. So, again, why an investigation into a business deal between two close allies, and why now?

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Media Coverage   The Middle East   

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fool's Errand

This is what I was talking about when I said it would be stupid for Tony Blair to accept the Quartet Middle East Envoy position, but even stupider to offer it to him.

Update: This, too. 

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Blair Ditch Project

One problem with the idea of recycling Tony Blair as some sort of Middle East envoy is that, unless I've missed something, he doesn't have any credibility in that part of the world. Usually what you look for in a statesman/envoy is either an old hand with tons of diplomatic capital, or else a prominent politician coming off a winning streak. Blair doesn't qualify on either score. He's practically sneaking out of Downing Street by the back door, and he's regarded around the world as Bush's dupe. He'd be a fool to take the gig, but we'd be even more of a fool to offer it to him.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Balkanizing The Middle East

Usually, when I skim The Weekly Standard, the urge I feel to respond to their most flagrant diatribes dies down into a half-hearted, "What's the use?" before I even get done reading the thing. The more outrageous the assertions, the more quickly the urge to respond evaporates.

Oddly enough, though, an article that presents some unconvincing arguments against a policy proposal that I myself have trouble with, like Stephen Schwartz' critique of the Biden plan to partition Iraq, seems to do the trick.

Schwartz' main problems with the plan are that it's based on a rosy assessment of the partition of the former Yugoslavia, and that it rewards Sunni bad behavior by creating a moral equivalency between aggressor and victim.

I don't find his reasoning very compelling. My own problem with the plan has always been that its success depends on something that has never existed: A stable power-sharing arrangement among the three Iraqi constituencies. Whether across "soft" borders or within hard ones, if the willingness to set aside violence as a means of settling disputes isn't there, the plan won't work. And imposing a ceasefire from above will not only be near-impossible. It will further exacerbate Iraqi resentment of the occupying powers.

That said, the entire region from Pakistan to the Horn of Africa seems to be reaching a critical mass of violent instability right now, due in large part to the Bush administration's policies. If spreading the chaos was part of the neocon plan to provoke a final region-wide confrontation, they overlooked one important detail: the continued instability works more to our enemies' advantage than to our own. The porous borders and perpetual battlefields are being exploited by global jihadists to recruit and train the next generation of terrorists to broaden the conflict to North Africa and Western Europe.

Now, like it or not, the writing's on the wall: The era of inclusive solutions has come to a close. If you want a taste of things to come, just take a look at the world's response to the Palestinian civil war. And, as several people have already pointed out, there's an inherent contradiction in advocating for the partitioning of Gaza from the West Bank, while rejecting such a plan for Iraq. Or Lebanon, or Waziristan, or Somalia, et cetera ad infinitum.

None of which makes the Biden plan any more likely to succeed. Just more likely to be implemented. 

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hurricane Carter

He's certain to pay for it, but I suppose at this point Jimmy Carter is used to getting slammed every time he opens his mouth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time he's come out diametrically opposed to the developing conventional wisdom that rewarding Fatah and isolating Hamas is the only way to respond to the Palestinian civil war:

"This effort to divide Palestinians into two peoples now is a step in the wrong direction," he said. "All efforts of the international community should be to reconcile the two, but there's no effort from the outside to bring the two together."

Carter also condemned the failure of the EU and US to recognize the Hamas government, which won elections in 2006 that were monitored by the Carter Center:

Far from encouraging Hamas's move into parliamentary politics, Carter said the US and Israel, with European Union acquiescence, has sought to subvert the outcome by shunning Hamas and helping Abbas to keep the reins of political and military power.

"That action was criminal," he said in a news conference after his speech.

Of course, this comes pretty close to Daniel Levy's analysis over at Prospects for Peace. Something tells me Carter's going to take a bit more heat for it than Levy, though.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Who's Dividing Whom?

The first thing that occured to me while reading this Spiegel interview with Bahaa Balusha, the director of the Palestinian Authority's intelligence services, is that he's basically running through, word for word, the same talkingpoints that we've been hearing from American hawks for the past few months. He claims that a group of foreign jihadists helped direct Hamas' successful coup, that Hamas forces were trained in Iran, Syria and Lebanon "to eliminate political enemies using explosives and raids", and that Iran and Syria have deliberately provoked the violence in Gaza and Lebanon to make the US and Israel think twice before launching an expected attack.

Oddly enough, these are exactly the kinds of things you'd expect someone who's reaching out to the Bush administration to say. Which doesn't necessarily mean they aren't true. It just means they make for a very convenient analysis.

What struck me as more revealing, on the other hand, was his prediction that Hamas would now devolve into factional fighting and destroy itself within four months. More specifically, this:

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is practically powerless already. No one listens to him any longer. The hardliners Haniyeh had to sacrifice in order to form a unified government with Fatah will take their revenge on him for having done this.

Was the Fatah-Hamas unity government just a trap all along, forced on Haniyeh by the Saudis to destabilize an Iranian proxy? Maybe I've been following French politics too closely. But it sure made me wonder.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Out Of The Ashes?

Yesterday I expressed what seemed like a naive, desperate hope that something good might come out of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. But it looks like it wasn't so naive after all:

Because Fatah recognizes Israel and past peace agreements, a boycott of the Palestinian government imposed by Israel and the international community after Hamas' electoral successes may no longer apply to the West Bank — only Gaza.

"The fact that President Abbas has fired the Hamas government is a very positive move in our opinion, and makes it easier to deal with and help the moderates," Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Friday.

Now would be a really good time for a unilateral gesture of faith by the Israeli government. Not just because some good news from that part of the world would make a big difference right now. But also because those sorts of things pay dividends down the line.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Six-Day War

That Egyptian general who said that neither side in a Palestinian civil war could win a decisive victory seems to have been widely off the mark. At least in Gaza, anyway. According to Reuters, Hamas is basically conducting mopping up operations in the Gaza strip after routing Fatah security forces in six days of fighting. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has dissolved the Hamas-Fatah unity government and declared a state of emergency. But "it was gun law not the constitution that held sway in Gaza."

So after coming so close seven years ago to forging a two-state solution to the Arab-Palestinian tragedy, it now looks likely that there will, in fact, be a three-state nightmare: Israel surrounded by two Palestinian entities, one moderate and the other militant.

Counterintuitively, this might actually simplify the situation. The Israelis now have every incentive to deal with Abbas and turn the West Bank into a "model" of what an Israeli-Palestinian arrangement could look like, the better to isolate Hamas in Gaza. And Abbas seems to have more room to iron out a final status agreement now that he no longer needs to worry about throwing red meat to the militants.

Here's hoping, anyhow.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007


The violence that's been simmering in Gaza for the past few days broke out into fullscale battles, with the Hamas militia mounting coordinated attacks on Fatah-controlled security headquarters. PA President Mahmoud Abbas called for an immediate ceasefire, and Fatah ministers have suspended their participation in the unity government until the violence ends.

According to the Egyptian General who's been trying to negotiate a truce, neither side has the weapons or capability to decisively win the civil war that will result if this continues to escalate. In other words, this is all just a lethal game of chicken where neither side can win, but neither will stand down.

Posted by Judah in:  
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