Posts Tagged ‘administration’

Election theatrics

July 28th, 2012 Comments off

With both President Obama and Governor Romney last week making foreign policy speeches to the same audience of veterans, international issues edged back into the political debate. As Romney undertakes an international visit to the UK, Poland and Israel, he will have the opportunity to clarify his own foreign policy views – an area in which he is less experienced than on the economy. In anticipation of calls by Romney for further support for Israel and to coincide with his there, the Administration has announced an enhanced security package for Israel. Our contacts with the Romney campaign suggest, however, that under his Administration foreign policy would still come a distant second to the economy. Overall, his approach might not be radically different from Obama’s. There would be a stronger tone toward Russia and China, but there is unlikely to be any delay in the timetable of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Caution toward direct US military intervention, notably in Syria and Iran, would continue. There might also be a new emphasis on Latin America, the “rebalancing” of US strategy toward the Asia-Pacific and Obama’s emphasis on drones and special forces in the counter-terrorism sphere would continue or even be extended. The military budget would be less under pressure.  This all lies ahead. For the present, the dominant issue is Syria and, by extension, Iran. Despite the sharply deteriorating situation there, military intervention by the US remains unlikely. There are certainly voices inside the Administration advocating a more robust approach and, as the bloodshed mounts, they will become more influential. However, Obama’s closest advisers, among them Tom Donilon, the National Security Adviser, continue to warn that intervention carries unwanted risks. Behind-the-scenes exchanges with Russia have yet to see are a meeting of minds. Romney’s Israel visit will return the spotlight to Iran as the chief regional risk. On a more reassuring note, intelligence community analysts are cautiously optimistic that tensions on the Korean Peninsular are easing. They are not yet ready to anoint the new leader Kim Jong-eun as a reformer, but they do see him as fully in control and showing some signs of rethinking some of his father’s economic tactics. They do not see any change with regard to North Korea’s nuclear program.

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‘Jeffrey Feltman leaves his bureau in disarray!’

June 6th, 2012 Comments off
MEPGS: Excerpts;

“As Jeffrey Feltman, the top Middle East official at the State Department prepares to leave for a new job at the United Nations, his Bureau’s disarray [He will be succeeded on an acting basis by Elizabeth Jones, a retired Foreign Service Officer who once held a similar position for the Department’s European Bureau], mirrors the Administration’s lack of coherence on almost the entire range of Middle East crises.  In Syria, the Adminstration has been reduced to near impotence, as the Assad regime continues, even intensifies its crackdown on the opposition, despite the presence of United Nations observers and the repeated calls by President Obama for Assad to step down.  In Egypt, the US has watched, nearly as impotently, as the recent round of elections has produced a run off between two equally objectionable candidates; one from the Moslem Brotherhood and the other, former President Mubarak’s last Prime Minister.  The most visible response the US has been able to muster is the withholding of $6 million in foreign aid assistance (voted by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week) in retaliation for the $6 million that needed to be posted as bail for the pro-Democracy Americans on trial (most of them in absentia) for “illegal” activities during the recent Parliamentary elections.
            In the Gulf, the Administration has resumed arms sales to Bahrain despite an uptick in violence there.  As one well-placed Administration official put it last week, “The opposition is using crude IED’s for the first time and attacking authorities with anything at hand including iron bars.”  The official points out that Bahrain’s Crown Prince, a darling of liberal reform minded US officials, has been relegated to the side lines, while even his more hard line father, the King, has been overshadowed by those who are intent, in his words. “…to tell the shia (oppoisition) that they are separate and apart from all the other Sunni dominated populations on the Arabian peninsula.”  Meanwhile, the two most active Sunni leaderships, those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have stepped up efforts to arm extremist Sunni elements fighting in Syria.  As one well-placed Gulf diplomat put it recently, “What we once saw as a shia `arc’ is fast becoming a shia `moon’ as rebels take over all around us from Yemen on one end to Egypt on the other.(?)
            Even in North Africa, US officials say all is far from well.  There is confusion over the honesty surrounding recent balloting in Algeria where an expected strong showing by Islamists was overwhelmed by a large turn out for the regime backed secular candidates, causing some long time foreign observers to declare outright fraud on the part of the government [private US reaction was more bewilderment, than anger].  In Morocco, US officials wish to see rapproachment with Algeria.  However, recent efforts by the UN representative, Christopher Ross, to mediate the long simmering dispute in the Southern Sahara have been rebuffed by Rabat.  Even over the one “success story”, Libya, US officials are wary of elections slated for later this month.  “[Mahmoud] Jabril [the transitional leader], who we once had high hopes for is more than a bit sleazy,” said one State Department official.  “Reminds us a lot of Ahmed Chalabi” [The widely discredited Iraqi exile leader who many say was instrumental in leading key US officials into believing an invasion of Iraq would meet with quick success].
            Perhaps the one area where Administration activism has shown results is in dealing with Iran’s nascent nuclear developments.  According to well-informed sources, Teheran’s representatives at the recent Baghdad meeting went home extremely disappointed.  Apparently, after the first, polite “get to know you” round in Istanbul, the Iranians thought that they would be greeted with increased substantive flexibility at the second session.  But that was not to be the case.  With Britain and France taking the lead and the US comfortably “leading from behind” the Iranians were met with continued strict demands regarding both intrusive inspections and the need to export all uranium  enriched beyond a modest acceptable level [far below the 20% enrichment they have achieved in limited amounts].  “Once again they were there own worst enemies,” said one official last week, who had been briefed on the talks.  “In theory they have the ability to make life difficult for us if only they would move a little ways toward the Russians.  But, it seems that the Iranian system is unable to make a concession.”
            The next meeting is scheduled to be held in Moscow later this month – on the eve of EU sanctions coming into effect.  Although most European countries have already taken major steps away from doing business with Iran, the looming July 1 deadline for the official start of the new EU sanctions regime is expected to concentrate minds in other parts of the world and perhaps even some in Teheran.  Moscow (the Russians being viewed as the potential weak link in the chain) is also seen as the ideal place for the Iranians to learn once and for all that sanctions, new and more devasting will be applied forthwith. [On the other hand, some officials fear that while it is likely Moscow will “own” this failure by Iran to make concessions, they worry that the Russians are not keen to be seen as the “bad guys” under this scenario and could therefore be more willing to compromise].
            Russian behavior over Syria illustrates what many fear motivates Moscow these days, particularly with Vladimir Putin back in power.  “They still aspire to be a great power,” says one key US official.  “And half of what they do is an attempt to poke us in the eye,” But most officials recognize that there is little the outside world can do without Russian acquiescence.   American military intervention, even absent “boots on the ground” does not seem to be an option, even after the massacre at Houla last week.  With troops out of Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan, the Administration is in no mood to take on another problem in this volatile region.  As one veteran observer put it this week, the Europeans want to do something but can’t.  The Administration doesn’t want to do ‘anything.  They hide behind excuses such as “`Who will succeed an Alawite regime?’ and What will happen to all of Syria’s CBW’?”[Chemical and  Biological weapons]
            Still, there is no escaping the fact that the Syrian situation is spinning out of control.  Violence by both sides is escalating.  There are the first reports of the use of helicopter gun ships by the regime against the rebels. Says one US analyst, “The regime controls only those areas where it stations tanks, men and security forces. Even more worrisome is the increased instability in neighboring states such as Lebanon and Jordan.  In the former, battles this week in the northern city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, while not yet spreading to the rest of Lebanon, are a harbinger of the future, fear US experts.  “Lebanon will be the first to go,” declares one well-placed US official.”

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"My administration is more attentive to Israel than to Palestinians!"

June 6th, 2012 Comments off

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‘A “serious” diplomatic process…’

May 27th, 2012 Comments off

The White House’s confidence in President Obama’s foreign policy record – about which we have been recently commenting – is now a settled part of Democratic campaign rhetoric. Governor Romney has yet to respond in kind, and senior Republican strategists are advising against making foreign policy a major issue. However, the troubled international landscape is likely to intrude and offer him a number of opportunities. Of these, IranSyria and the ongoing Euro crisis represent the most intractable problems facing the Administration. The ambiguous outcome of the May 23rd/24th P5+1 talks with Iran have unleashed a high-decibel duel in Washington between the respective advocates of diplomacy andconfrontation. With new reports from the IAEA that Iran may have enriched uranium to a higher-than-expected level, there is little doubt that Obama will feel increasing pressure to take tougher action. Following the Baghdad talks, US representatives have visited GCC and Israel to provide briefings and to affirm the Administration’s policy of not allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. However, US officials tell us that they believe that they have entered a “serious” diplomatic process. Given the new tighter sanctions scheduled to go into effect on July 1st, they calculate that Tehran will soon be ready to make the necessary concessions on not enriching uranium beyond the 3.5-5% range. The Administration continues to tell us that they reject the military option and continue to make the case for restraint to Israel. On the Euro crisis, there is deepening anxiety in Washington that an orderly solution will not be found and that there will be serious knock-on impact on the US economy. At the May 19th G-8 summit, Obama gave backing to French President Hollande’s ideas for a “growth agenda” – which parallel US actions – and added to the pressure on German Chancellor Merkel to follow a fiscally more expansive strategy. It was also agreed – albeit unannounced – that the appropriate Central Banks are ready to intervene in a crisis with substantial swap lines. Finally on Egypt, State Department strategists tell us that they are disquieted by the results of the first round of the presidential elections. As one commented to us: “The two remaining candidates represent the polar opposite of Egyptian politics. The electoral process seems to be illuminating and confirming these tensions not relieving them.” 

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The Administration’s reasoning: ‘Distract the Syrians long enough & you’ll reduce Tehran’s options for retaliation!’

March 4th, 2012 Comments off

Despite the announced agreement on North Korea, the debate over Iran continues to monopolize attention. It will reach its climax in speeches by President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to the AIPAC conference. As we anticipated last week, Obama’s rhetoric is hardening. However, the underlying US policy remains that time is working against Tehran. As sanctions exact an increasing toll on the Iranian economy and the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus continues to crumble, US officials believe that the Iranian leadership will see that its interests lie in negotiation. The open question is whether the US political climate will allow the Administration to follow this course. Based on our conversations with senior officials, our sense is that Obama feels that he can adhere to his course and take immediate action. As always, the Israeli dimension is the wild card. Top US officials from Obama down have made their views clear to their Israeli counterparts that military action is premature. They have little confidence, however, that their advice will be followed. This issue has been a staple of the Washington debate for at least three years, but the expectation that it is coming to a head has never been more palpable. Related to Iran, Administration strategists calculate that if the West and its regional partners can maintain pressure on Syria, then this will change regional dynamics by reducing Tehran’s options to retaliate against an attack. Behind the scenes, however, the assessment is that the Syrian regime will last longer than seemed likely a few weeks ago. With Vladimir Putin’s likely return to the Russian presidency in the March 4th election, the White House is bracing for even stronger Russian support for Syria. US officials tells us that they will try to reach out to Putin – assuming he is elected – but are deeply concerned that relations with Moscow are headed for, in the words of an NSC Russia analyst, “a new ice age.” Elsewhere, the continuing anti-coalition violence in Afghanistan is roiling the policy debate.Defense Secretary Panetta is promising that the policy of gradually turning over responsibility to the Afghans remains intact. More quietly, however, the implications on the safety for coalition trainers are prompting a far-ranging rethink. ‘

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Despite the continued bloodshed in Syria & Iraq, the Administration is showing little interest in becoming involved

January 8th, 2012 Comments off

As anticipated, President Obama’s January 5th announcement on defense strategy set the stage for an approximately 8% reduction in military spending over the next decade. Precise details of where the cuts will fall will be worked out in consultation with the Congress. However, with reductions in numbers for both the army and the marines, the shape of the US military is transitioning away from an expeditionary format based around overseas ground wars to a format in which the US relies on naval, air and space assets to project power. Obama confirmed the “pivot” in US strategic priorities from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region, while leaving a considerable military capability in the Middle East. He stressed that, even with these cuts, the US would still be spending as much as the next ten nations combined and that no reduction in US global supremacy would result. Indirectly, this is intended to signal to China that the US will remain a significant actor in East Asia. US officials interpret Chinese expressions of concern in the regard as indicating that they “have got the message.” Given the critical reaction by leading Republican presidential contenders to the new strategy, Obama’s policy is not the last word on this subject. However, from our contacts at the Pentagon and with the presidential campaigns, we expect the main lines to endure. The one exception may be Iran which, as we expected, is emerging as a touchstone of “toughness” in the presidential campaign rhetoric. The Administration remains, as we have reported, resolutely opposed to a military strike on Iran. Nonetheless, recent Iranian threats over shipping in the Strait of Hormuz have raised the level of alert in Washington to a possible uncontrolled escalation of events in the Gulf. Orders to the Firth Fleet are to observe restraint.  The US and Israel will hold week-long joint missile and air defense exercises in Southern Israel beginning on January 8th. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the pattern is reversed. Despite the continued bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, the Administration is showing little interest in becoming involved. In Egypt, US diplomats are extending their contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. On North Korea tension is also relaxing with State Department officials in the region expressing relief at the stable transition of leadership.

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Debunking the Iran "Terror Plot"

November 5th, 2011 Comments off

As a good friend said: “The Real Question remains: What was the Administration’s motivation?”

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STATE Official: "For decades we have counted on two rock-solid constants in Israel’s favor: good relations with Turkey & Israel. Both these are now in doubt"

September 10th, 2011 Comments off

“… The many events marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, including a keynote speech on counter-terrorism strategy by Secretary of State Clinton and the threat of a new attack on an American city, will have a lasting impact on US attitudes to the Middle East. The ideological divisions about the US reaction to 9/11 still run deep in the foreign policy community and the wider public. The US orientation to the Islamic world will undoubtedly feature – often in lurid terms – in the forthcoming election cycle. The implications are important in relation to policy toward Israel. Here, Obama has telephoned his Prime Minister Netanyahu to express sympathy over the September 10th attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Among Administration officials there is rising concern about Israel’s growing isolation in the region. As a senior State Department official explained privately to us: “For decades we have been able to count on two rock-solid constants in Israel’s favor: good relations with Turkey and Israel. Both these are now in doubt.” As a result, second thoughts are emerging about the US posture toward the reform movement in Egypt. An NSC official commented to us: “We want to keep the Israeli factor entirely separate from the Arab Spring. If public opinion starts to be inflamed on this issue, it could turn the movement in ugly directions.”  The Administration continues to work hard to deflect the potential damage from the likely vote in the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestinian statehood. Officials now see very little prospect of avoiding this, but are firm in their opposition. To compensate for its stance on this issue, US officials are, as we have noted, increasing their references to Iran as a destabilizing element. We judge this to be mainly rhetorical at this stage. Even the most hawkish opponents of Iran are not calling for military action.”

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A more confident US posture in the Arab world will face a huge setback soon: ‘Veto Palestine!’

September 5th, 2011 Comments off

In the very quiet week before the final summer holiday of Labor Day on September 5th, President Obama faces yet another crisis of his presidency. The latest employment statistics, which showed a virtual standstill in job creation, have created a challenging backdrop for his September 8th address to Congress on the economy. This renewed evidence of a faltering economy has, as we expected, dulled much of the public relations boost that the Administration was receiving for its success in Libya. Preparations for the speech are, we hear, proceeding awkwardly. Obama’s advisers are split between those who advocate bold measures designed to have national appeal and those who favor a more modest package that might gain Republican support. Either way, the policy instruments available to the Administration to stimulate the economy are few and far between. The likelihood is that Obama will enter the final election cycle against the background of a weak economy.  Even if the field of Republican challengers still strikes many observers as thin, the President will find himself in serious jeopardy. Additionally, he has angered many of his core supporters by canceling clean air measures designed by his own Administration. On foreign policy, the most significant event on the horizon is Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly on September 20th. His problem is twofold: last year he promised progress on the Middle East peace process; this year he faces a likely General Assembly vote in favor of Palestinian statehood at a time when the peace process is moribund. While the US is now feeling more confident about its posture in relation to the reform movement inside the Arab lands – with Libya adding significant component of self-confidence – it knows that a US veto of Palestinian statehood – a foregone conclusion – will set back these efforts. As we mentioned last week, two other areas that merit continued watching are renewed concern about Iran’s nuclear program and naval movements in the South China Sea, in which India, with the full support of the US, is now engaged. The Administration is not actively seeking to dramatize either issue, but officials do acknowledge that the combustible material is building.


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Clinton: ‘Western intervention against Gaddafi will send a signal to Assad to leave!

August 28th, 2011 Comments off

The successful advance of anti-Gaddafi forces into Libya has brought foreign affairs back into focus – albeit temporarily forced from the headlines by Hurricane Irene. Within the Administration, President Obama has welcomed developments as a vindication of his decision to involve the US in action in Libya, but to allow NATO to take the lead. Secretary of State Clinton has expressed the hope that the successful Western intervention against Gaddafi will send a signal to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that he too needs to leave the scene. White House officials tell us that Obama intends to maintain this balanced approach. He will also seek to strengthen international pressure against Syria, where officials are encouraged by the emerging criticism from Saudi Arabia. Initial efforts are focused on releasing blocked funds to the Transitional National Council. Whether Obama gains political credit for this operation remains doubtful. His forthcoming September 6th speech on the economy is attracting much more anticipation than future moves in Libya. His Republican challengers will seek to keep public attention firmly focused on the economy where recent statistics continue to point to a weak recovery. Of greater long-term significance is the release of the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military capabilities. While defense analysts have deliberately sought not to use alarmist language, Chinese capabilities in anti-ship technology are causing increasing concerns. Should these continue to advance, the US naval presence in the form of aircraft carrier battle groups could be called into question.  Conscious of these rising doubts about the US commitment to Asia, Vice-President Biden has forcefully sought to allay these concerns during his extended Asia trip. From our conversations with Pentagon officials, we see no sign of diminished US interest in the Pacific. In this context, the Administration is quietly encouraged by signs from North Korea that it is willing to return to the Six Party Talks. Early fears that Pyongyang might launch some destabilizing action on the Korean Peninsular over the summer are subsiding. Elsewhere, there has been a resurgence of focus in conservative foreign policy circles on Iran’s nuclear program. Despite this, we see little sign that the Administration is changing its approach of containing Iran rather than contemplating military action.

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