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Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’

Netanyahu Invited to Washington? For Next Tuesday

May 26th, 2010 Comments off

Ha’aretz is reporting (exclusively, they say) that President Obama has invited Binyamin Netanyahu to come to Washington following his visit to the OECD session in Europe and a previously scheduled visit to Canada. The European visit marks Israel’s joining th4e Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Interesting since lately there’s been some pressure in the US for Obama to visit Israel: by inviting Netanyahu he may be emphasizing who’s the superpower and who’s the client.

I’m posting this tonight rather late since, if it’s true, it’ll probably be in the US press by morning.


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"End game"

May 25th, 2010 Comments off
barack_obama_attends_a_briefing_on_afghanistan_in_the_situation_room_of_the_white_house

FB Ali via SST/ here

The players involved in the conflict in Afghanistan have all concluded that neither side can achieve a military victory and that it will end in some other way, probably through a negotiated solution. Since each of them has different goals, this end game is likely to be both confusing and complicated……

The mainstream viewpoint in the US administration, espoused by Secretary Gates and the military hierarchy, accepts the inevitability of a negotiated settlement but wants one that preserves a friendly government in Kabul that continues to lean on the US for support. If Taliban participation is unavoidable, it must be as limited as possible. They believe the insurgency has not yet been weakened enough to accept this kind of a settlement, and thus further military action is necessary. Hence the forthcoming Kandahar operation, as well as renewed pressure on Pakistan to complete the military takeover of its tribal areas. President Obama is going along with this policy for now but does not appear committed to it; he could abandon it if the approach does not work as successfully as its proponents promise.

Another school of thought in the administration (possibly including VP Biden) could be termed the minimalist position: it would agree to any kind of a negotiated settlement between the Afghan parties that would enable the US to get out of there expeditiously. They would like Hamid Karzai to pursue this option as soon as possible and get the best deal he can. There is also still a maximalist position in the US, advanced by those groups who believe the US should dominate the world with its military power, and who were the original backers of the Iraq and Afghan wars. This group advocates the continuation of the war until the Taliban are defeated and al-Qaeda is eradicated from the region. Its supporters in the administration maintain a low profile since this position is unlikely to ever become administration policy. (continue/ here)

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"…That clock is ticking. The Afghan insurgents can hear it ticking. The generals do not have the time they would need to make their strategy work"

May 23rd, 2010 Comments off

Lang at SST/ here

“Some group of “Taliban” have now claimed yesterday’s attack on the airfield at Kandahar. Mortar fire, rockets and ground action around the perimeter marked the event. Evidently this went on for some hours. ….. This follows on a recent Taliban declaration of their intention to conduct a Spring offensive. In that context, there have been attacks in Kabul, and ambitious and successful ambushes of vehicular convoys. So far, the opposition is not “fixed” in the military sense of “finding, fixing and finishing” the enemy. “Fixing” here means that the enemy must be dominated and held in position while the process is brought to end. That does not seem to be happening. This is a bad portent for the future.

I keep saying that the preliminary COIN effort at Marja is a predictor of what the likely prospects are for COIN success at Kandahar and elsewhere around the country. Where is the news from Marja?

Time is short. William Hague, the new British foreign minister urges the US not to withdraw “too soon” from Afghanistan. That is easy for him to say. His government is new and not yet scarred. The horizon seems far away just now. For President Obama the horizon is close and approaching fast. We have learned now that Obama recognized during the Afghan policy debate that the generals and admirals were trying to “roll” him for what they wanted. They wanted a long COIN war in Afghanistan with an open ended commitment to that war. He called Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates to his office and summoned them to subordination. The threat behind that was obvious. In spite of that he gave them much of what they wanted, but with a caveat driven by his political need to start the end of the war before November, 2012.

That clock is ticking. The Afghan insurgents can hear it ticking. The generals do not have the time they would need to make their strategy work.

The West Point commencement speech yesterday was interesting. It becomes increasingly obvious that Obama is both a social democrat and an internationalist in the classic old mold. These are heavy political burdens for a candidate to bear these days. He will not be able to bear an additional burden in Afghanistan in 2012.”

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Taliban flex muscle amid US troop surge

May 21st, 2010 Comments off

The recent Taliban-claimed attack in Kabul that claimed the life of a Canadian Forces colonel, and which the National Post says marks a “new turn” in the war, was quickly followed by a Taliban attack on nearby Bagram airbase, a major American installment. The pair of attacks has prompted some observers to declare that the Taliban’s Spring offensive has begun.

Mustafa Qadri writes for the Guardian’s site that the Taliban are seen as freedom fighters by many Afghan Pashtuns:

Taliban: the indistinguishable enemy

MAY 16 – They may be repressive fanatics who enslave women and give sanctuary to al-Qaida, but the US-led occupation of Afghanistan has transformed the Taliban into Pashtun freedom fighters. There are two principal reasons for this.

First, despite our best attempts, the foreign troops and the state they prop up are viewed as outsiders who have come not to liberate the country but subjugate it.

Second, so long as our presence in Afghanistan is primarily military, our relationship to ordinary Afghans will be based primarily on violence. Armies, by their very nature, must intimidate and coerce the population into accepting their authority. Despite the talk of winning hearts and minds and civilian surges, much of what we do in Afghanistan creates fear and hostility. …

The problem for foreign powers in a foreign land is their limited interest in the welfare of the people whose lands they occupy. There can be no sustainable resolution of the current violence, however, unless and until the locals take the lead in looking for political solutions. (link)

Julian E. Barnes reporting for the Los Angeles Times discusses recent indications that the Taliban-led insurgency is not disappearing in the face of President Obama’s military surge. The surge, which is expected to peak in September, is in fact the fourth troops increase which the Afghanistan war has seen. All of the previous ones have resulted in heightened violence.

Afghan Taliban getting stronger, Pentagon says
A Pentagon assessment, while expressing confidence in U.S. strategy, says the movement has flourished despite repeated assaults.

WASHINGTON, April 29 (L.A. Times) – A Pentagon report presented a sobering new assessment Wednesday of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, saying that its abilities are expanding and its operations are increasing in sophistication, despite recent major offensives by U.S. forces in the militants’ heartland.

The report, requested by Congress … concludes that Afghan people support or are sympathetic to the insurgency in 92 of 121 districts identified by the U.S. military as key terrain for stabilizing the country. Popular support for Karzai’s government is strong in only 29 of those districts, it concludes. …

A senior Defense official who briefed reporters on the report said violence increased last year in part because of the additional U.S. troops. …

The report also notes that insurgents’ tactics are increasing in sophistication and the militants have also become more able to achieve broader strategic effects with successful attacks. … (link)

And an Associated Press report cites the Red Cross in shedding some light on the extent of insecurity in southern Afghanistan. Note that insurgents are not the only source of insecurity, as personal and tribal rivalries also commonly break out into armed clashes. These rivalries are often fueled by the accoutrements of the US-led war and occupation of Afghanistan.

UN refugee chief: Security worse in Afghanistan, foreign staff can’t access half of country

GENEVA, May 5 (AP) – Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated in recent months to the extent that foreign staff of the U.N.’s refugee agency are unable to travel to half of the country, its top official said Wednesday.

The agency has to rely on local staff or Afghan partner organizations to reach tens of thousands of displaced people and returning refugees it is trying to aid, said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

“There was a worsening security situation in the recent past,” he told reporters in Geneva. “Access of our international staff to the territory is now limited to about 50 percent.”

Last month the United Nations announced it had relocated several foreign employees from the southern city of Kandahar to Kabul and told more than 200 Afghan workers to stay home after security threats.

Guterres said aid workers have become targets for violence in part because the distinction between the foreign military and humanitarian groups has been blurred. … (link)

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America’s Extended Hand

May 20th, 2010 Comments off

Yesterday afternoon CNAS released another of the papers which has been keeping me away from the blog:   America’s Extended Hand:  An Assessment of the Obama Administration’s Global Engagement Strategy, written with my former Elliott School colleague and current CNAS Vice President Kristin Lord. This report started out with a meeting I convened in September with a group of high-level administration officials to talk about the follow-up to Cairo and the overall approach to public diplomacy.   Kristin and I originally planned to do a 5 page policy brief, but then it began to grow. We ended up talking to around 50 current and former government officials involved with public diplomacy and strategic communications, and greatly expanding the scope of the analysis. America’s Extended Hand presents a comprehensive overview of how the Obama administration thinks about public engagement, how it has attempted to reorganize the government to deliver on that vision, and how it has performed across a number of crucial issues (including Muslim engagement, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, China, democracy promotion, and combating violent extremism).  

We argue that the administration has succeeded in its initial goal of "re-starting" America’s relations with global publics, taking advantage of the fresh start offered by the Presidential transition, and has effectively used President Obama’s particular gifts to focus attention and global debate on issues which he has identified as key American priorities. The administration has been less successful, however, at executing engagement campaigns in support of specific tactical objectives, at adapting to changing circumstances and at meeting the high expectations generated by those speeches. With a palpable sense of the Obama bubble deflating, and a pernicious consensus emerging of a "say-do" gap in which the U.S. fails to deliver on its highly public promises, we urge the administration to do more to prepare the ground and to follow through on its engagement.  

America’s Extended Hand goes into considerable detail about the administration’s philosophy, its efforts to reshape the inter-agency process and individual government agencies (from the Defense Department and State Department to the NSC and the BBG), and its efforts across a range of issue areas.  And it makes a number of specific recommendations for how to adapt to the emerging second phase of the administration’s foreign policy.  I’m not going to rehearse all of that detail here — if you’re interested in America’s public diplomacy and strategic communications, download the paper here from the CNAS website.   This report has been a long time in the making — I look forward to feedback and debate! 

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Iran, Brazil, Turkey and the US

May 19th, 2010 Comments off

Yesterday morning I was at the UN building in New York, with a small group of journalists meeting Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. One of the issues that came up was Iran — in fact the buzz at the UN generally speaking is that Iran is the main topic of conversation at high-level meetings and the G-summits, no matter what’s officially on the agenda. Ki-Moon had just received news that the US had just gotten a tentative agreement over a new package of sanctions on Iran and shared it with us, although he didn’t have much to say about it apart some vague statement that the best way of addressing the Iran issue was through dialogue.

Shortly before Hillary Clinton announced the consensus over a new sanctions resolution, which is going to the UN Security Council soon, Brazil and Turkey had successfully inked a deal with Iran. The deal would have Tehran turn over about half of its nuclear fuel stockpile for a period of a year, a similar deal that the US had earlier said it would be amenable to. So the announcement on new sanctions came as a big f-you to not only Iran, but also Brazil and Turkey, as Gary Sick writes:

Only hours before Clinton’s announcement, the foreign minister of Turkey held his own press conference. Obviously unaware of what was about to happen, he described in some detail not only the tortuous negotiation process with Iran, but his perception that he was acting directly on behalf of the United States.
According to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, he had been in “constant contact” with Clinton herself and with national security adviser James Jones, while his prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had face-to-face encouragement from President Obama in December and April.
The objective of Turkey and Brazil was to persuade Iran to accept the terms of an agreement the United States had itself promoted only six months ago as a confidence-building measure and the precursor to more substantive talks. There were twelve visits back and forth between the Turk and his Iranian counterpart, some 40 phone conversations, and eighteen grueling hours of personal negotiations leading up to the presentation of the signed agreement on Monday.



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Did Turkey & Brazil change the Middle East picture forever?

May 18th, 2010 Comments off
“… Plan ‘B’, twenty years later…”

FP/ here

Whether the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil with Iran ultimately actually defuses the stand-off between Tehran and the international community remains to be seen. And even if it does, it seems unlikely to actually stop Ahmadinejad & Co. from continuing surreptitious efforts to cultivate nuclear weapons capability — especially given the Iranians’ decision to simultaneously announce that they will continue their enrichment program in any event. Indeed, it, like the sanctions program the United States has been engineering, seems more likely to simply hit the “pause” rather than the “reset” button, thus buying the one commodity the Iranians want most: time.

That said the effort is significant on another level. It represents the return of Plan B both to Middle Eastern and global relations. During the Cold War, international actors typically had a binary choice. They could seek the favor and advocacy of the East or the West, the Soviets or the Americans. Then, almost twenty years ago that all ended. And for a while it appeared, the choice was America or an international community that couldn’t get its act together terribly effectively.

But Turkey and Brazil working closely with Russia, India, and China, have effectively sent a message that Plan B has returned to the global equation. They have essentially said they didn’t want to go along with the American approach to solving the problem (sanctions) and were vehemently against the Israeli approach (bombs away). The Turks in particular have been vocal with their BRIC partners in expressing their skepticism of the effectiveness of sanctions and their sense they would be very counterproductive.

The Iranians in turn seem to have recognized that the Brazil-Turkey deal is a win-win for them. It makes them look like they want to be constructive and thus takes the heat off of them and buys time. They get to tip the geopolitical scales in the direction of the relevance of emerging powers, tweak the U.S. efforts, and seemingly help usher in a new era in international diplomacy.

Something else vitally important to notice has happened here. This has become the first Middle Eastern stand-off in which the most important player from outside the region was China — because China is the one country that had and has the power to determine whether or not a sanctions regime would work. The Chinese, while still internally debating just how much they want to lead on the international stage, have played this deftly so far. They have engaged in talks with the United States and with their BRIC plus one partners. They have evaluated. Behind the scenes they have been constructive and moderate with reports coming out of recent meetings among BRIC leaders that they have made the case for understanding the pressure that President Obama is under. And they have pressed the Iranians to make a deal while sharing like the others in the emerging power leadership a healthy skepticism of Iranian motives and likely compliance.

Thus this deal may seem smallish and technical from afar, but it could well signal a change in the way international diplomacy works. Certainly, it signals an intent on the part of a group of vitally important emerging powers not to be cowed by the “with us or against us” mindset that still permeates some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

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"…It will have to get much more catastrophic around the world to get a debate in the US on the pro-Israel influence…"

May 16th, 2010 Comments off

“a catastrophic political failure (for the U.S.A.)” Anna Missed, 1. This is what those of us opposed to the Bush policy were saying in 2002. But Washington wants to listen to “pro-Israel” advice and conduct “pro-Israel” foreign policy. My own view is that it will have to get considerably more catastrophic around the world to get a minimal debate going in the US on the real problem of pro-Israel influence in the US (PRECISELY!). And it is, perhaps, too late for that anyways. 2. Prince Turki’s speech to diplomats in Riyadh seems to be almost screened out of US media. Here is a report in extenso from Agence France Presse: “RIYADH (AFP) – An “inept” United States cannot fix Afghanistan’s problems and should simply focus on “chasing the terrorists” there, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal said on Saturday. The ex-ambassador to the United States also challenged Washington to produce results in just-started Middle East peace talks, and accused US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of undermining efforts to make the region nuclear-free. In a speech in Riyadh before diplomats, Turki said US-led NATO troops had irrevocably alienated the Afghan people and had no hope of rebuilding the country. “What Afghanistan needs now is a shift from nation-building to effectively countering terrorists,” Turki told the Arab News conference. US President Barack Obama “should not be misdirected into believing that he can fix Afghanistan’s ills by military means.”
“Hunt down the terrorists on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, arrest them or kill them, and get out, and let the Afghan people deal with their problems. “As long as GI boots remain on Afghan soil, they remain targets of resistance for the Afghan people and ideological mercenaries.” Turki, who has long served a central role in Saudi-Afghan relations, scolded Washington’s handling of relations with Kabul. “The inept way in which this administration has dealt with President (Hamid) Karzai beggars disbelief and amazement. “Both sides are now filled with resentment and a sour taste in their mouths,” he said. “How can they both get out of that situation? I don’t know.”
The chairman of the King Faisal Center For Research and Islamic Studies, Turki has no official position but is believed to often reflect high level thinking in the Saudi government. He is the brother of Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, and analysts speculate he could become foreign minister when Saud retires. Turki said Arab states have given Washington four months to show progress in US-guided Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. “The Arab world has given Obama until September to get things done,” said Turki. “It is not enough to talk the talk. He has to walk the walk. “If he does not succeed… then I (will) ask President Obama to do the morally decent gesture and recognise the Palestinian state that he so ardently wishes to exist. “He can then pack up and leave us in peace and let the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese negotiate directly with the Israelis. No more platitudes and good wishes and visions, please.” Turki also faulted the US and European approach in trying to halt Iran’s alleged efforts to build a nuclear weapon. “The discussions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions started off on the wrong foot. The carrot and stick approach does not work,” he said. For one, he said, the US and Europe have had double-standards in dealing with Iran on the one hand, and other nuclear countries on the other. “You cannot ask Iran to play on one level while you allow Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea to play on other levels.” Turki said a successful strategy toward Iran requires even-handedness, a “universal nuclear security umbrella” for the countries in the area, and “a good military option” against any regional country which does not cooperate. He said Clinton had undermined efforts to move toward a regional nuclear-free zone, after the UN Security Council’s five permanent members recently expressed support for the idea. “Alas… Clinton then voided the issue of its value by stating that the conditions do not yet exist for establishing the zone,” he said. “Why, then, did she join the other members of the P5 in issuing their statement?” Turki said he hoped Obama “will find the way to correct his secretary of state’s nullification of making our area free of weapons of mass destruction.” Turki also warned of rising violence in Iraq after the pullout of US troops next year, warning both internal and external groups seek to carve up the country. “Imagine what will happen once internal strife and fighting escalates” following the US pullout, he said. Without a UN Security Council effort to protect Iraq’s current borders, the consequence could be “regional conflict on a scale not seen since the Ottoman-Safavid wars of the 17th and 18th centuries,” he warned.
3. Anyone notice the Russian leader’s visit to Syria?…or Turkey’s new Hawk missile installations said to be readied against Israeli or other violations of its airspace??? Clifford Kiracofe

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US Troop Withdrawal in Iraq on Track

May 14th, 2010 Comments off

WaPo says that the Obama administration is still on track to draw down to 50,000 troops in Iraq by September 1, despite press speculation to the contrary in the past couple of days. There are now roughly 92,000 – 94,000 US troops in that country, down from 160,000 when President Obama was first elected. Another 5,000 are expected to come out in May, and the pace will pick up to 10,000 a month this summer.

What drove the speculation about a freeze of the withdrawal process? First, it seems clear that some generals have long opposed the Status of Forces Agreement and the Obama Administration’s withdrawal timetable, and my guess is that their offices occasionally float news of a halt in the process in order to to keep the pressure on for a slowdown. So far, Obama has just ignored them.

Second, it is possible that some commanders in Iraq are playing head games with the Sunni Arab guerrilla cells. You wouldn’t want them to grow so emboldened by the US drawdown that they make a concerted push to paralyze the country and overthrow the government or inflict substantial damage on it. Putting them on notice that if they go too far, they will actually interfere with one of their main goals, of getting the US out, is a way of giving them an incentive to go slow. This imperative would grow out of the bold and coordinated guerrilla attacks earlier this week that killed over 100 persons and hit targets everywhere from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south. Another bombing on Thursday killed 9 and wounded 32 at a Shiite coffeehouse in Sadr City, Shiite east Baghdad.

Third, the US left wing does not believe that Obama is committed to leaving Iraq. What, they say, of the huge permanent bases, of the need to safeguard US petroleum companies’ operations, etc.? So the left blogosphere magnifies the footdragging reports leaked by elements in the Pentagon.

But there are no such things as permanent bases. You build a base when you need a base, when you are in control or have a willing host. The US is a superpower, but generally speaking bases are bilateral agreements with the host country. When the Philippines asked the US navy to leave in 1989, it did so. The Iraqi parliament has asked the US to withdraw by the end of 2011 and Bush signed that treaty.

Obama needs the Iraq withdrawal for lots of reasons. I think he has a Christian moral vision, and he sees the Iraq war as having been immoral, and views the withdrawal as a sort of penance. He also frankly needs a successful withdrawal to campaign on in 2012. And he needs those troops now in Iraq (many of whom don’t have that much to do since independent patrols in the cities ended) for his Afghanistan escalation. The reduced expenditure in Iraq might also offset the expense of the Afghanistan war, a potentially controversial issue at a time of domestic economic bad times, as Tomdispatch points out.

The withdrawal isn’t entirely as advertised, of course, and won’t be as complete as the SOFA imagines. The 50,000 non-combat troops in Iraq as of September will actually be combat troops rebranded as trainers, and will include 4500 special operations forces actively tracking down and fighting guerrilla cells. But aside from the special operations guys, most of the US troops will not be doing active war fighting and will in fact mostly be training Iraqi troops, the quality and capabilities of which are definitely improving.

From September 2010 until December 2011, roughly 3,000 troops on average will come out each month (though that is just an average and the departures may be more bunched up at some points).

In the end, a very small force may remain, of trainers, special operations, and air force. Iraq’s air force planes and helicopters have been ordered but won’t arrive until 2013 and Iraqi pilots will need long and complicated training on them. The remaining US troops will be there, if at all, with the consent of the Iraqi government. They are unlikely to do any war fighting at all on their own. Close air support will likely be provided by the US to Iraqi infantry and armor in any pitched battles with militias from al-Udeid air force base in Qatar or from Incirlik in Turkey.

I very much doubt that any remaining troops, and their numbers will likely be tiny, would be detailed to provide security for Exxon Mobil in developing the oil fields of south Iraq. If the local Iraqis don’t want the oil majors operating there, they can easily sabotage them, and no number of US troops would likely be able to stop the sabotage. (The northern pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean has been routinely sabotaged all the time the US has been in Iraq and the US military has never seemed able to do much about it). Foreign militaries do not operate effectively at the micro level, for the most part. The Iraqi military would have to provide that security, and Iraqi authorities would be best placed to offer local clans incentives to allow the work to go ahead.

Iraq is in the US sphere of influence now, as the Philippines are, but in neither case does this modern form of great power politics require a big military presence. The Neocons’ dream of a division (25,000 – 30,000) US troops permanently in Iraq has been defeated by the Mahdi Army, the Baathists, and Sunni fundamentalists. But it was never a military necessity. In the case of the Neocons, they likely wanted that division as some sort of protection for Israel. It is an outmoded way of thinking.

Whether Iraq will remain in the US sphere of influence is not clear. It is alleged by journalists and retired officials that the US was behind the 1968 coup that brought the Baath Party to power. Yet by the late 1970s Baathist Iraq had developed much closer ties to the Soviet Union and to France than to the US. Iraq could easily drift back away from Washington over time. The new Iraqi elite will be pro-Hizbullah (this Lebanese Shiite party-militia was formed in some important part with the help of Iraqi expatriate members of the Da’wa or Islamic Mission Party in Beirut). Da’wa has since 2005 provided the prime minister for Iraq. In further Israeli-Hizbullah violence, Iraqi Shiites will side with Hizbullah

If US-Iran tensions rise, the new Iraqi political class that Bush did so much to install might well side with Iran, at least behind the scenes. It is already clear that the new Baghdad rejects Israel just as the old one did (and for Shiites ruling in the American shadow, doing so burnishes their Arab nationalist credentials).

Iraq is also clearly eager to develop strong ties with China, which will likely be a superpower by 2020. If the US is too overbearing, the Iraqis could migrate east in their political alliances.

Conservative pundit and media darling Bill Kristol thought that the time was ripe in the 21st century for a restoration of imperial governance on the British Empire model. He was wrong, in this as in everything else, because empire was ended by popular mobilization in the global South, and mobilization is actually easier now than ever before. Empire dispenses with spheres of influence, because direct rule makes the latter (and the hard diplomatic work they entail) unnecessary. But empire is gone, having foundered on the access of the world’s little people to communications technology, party organization, and firearms and munitions.

In the absence of empire, the US can only hope to remain influential in the world by being a good and trusted friend to others and being seen to abide by and champion international law. Future US-Iraqi relations will depend on what the Iraqi public thinks of the US, and will not grow out of the barrel of a gun or out of the imperatives of military bases.

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"The US must get real leverage before talking to its better-prepared and a tougher-minded adversary, Syria."

May 11th, 2010 Comments off

OxFan’s Bilal Saab in the CSM/ here

Washington’s strategy of selective engagement with Syria has not produced any tangible results. The question is: Why does Damascus continue to do the opposite of what the Obama administration wants it to?

There are two reasons:

First, Washington still lacks real leverage in its talks with Damascus. To make things worse, Syria currently enjoys a relatively comfortable position in the region, partly because of Washington’s lack of a coherent Syria policy but also because of its own efforts to develop its military alliance with Iran, enhance its political relations with Turkey and Iraq, and restore its power-broker role in Lebanese politics.

The second, and perhaps more important, reason why President Obama’s strategy has failed is because Syria is not interested in what Washington is currently selling.

Consider: The chief US goal of selective engagement is to try to take away from Syria a number of cards it holds in the region (though not all of them, given the price it would take to do so), be it Hamas, Hezbullah, or its link to militants in Iraq.

But what Washington needs to realize is that Syria’s aggregate power and influence in the Middle East is defined by these very cards. Syria will not let go of any of these, primarily because these are what keep its regime going.

Simply put, Syria will not allow the United States to pick and choose (hence the selective part of the strategy) what it wants to negotiate on, precisely because a piecemeal approach, as currently advocated by Washington, puts the Syrians in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis their adversaries, namely Israel.

Absent a comprehensive package from Washington, which would include Lebanon first and possibly peace with Israel and the return of the Golan Heights second, Syria will find it in its best interest to stall, keep its cards relatively intact, and refuse to engage in serious negotiations with the US.

Indeed, such an all-inclusive package – which Washington would be unable to (and must not) offer given its stated policy of support to Lebanon’s freedom – is the Baath regime’s only realistic long-term insurance policy.

Syria looks at its relationship with the US from a holistic perspective, while the US is currently viewing its relationship with Syria much more narrowly. Syria wants to completely overhaul the relationship and normalize it to ensure the survival of its regime, whereas the US just wants to bargain on a specific set of issues. It doesn’t take a genius to see that it simply won’t work because the two countries want different things.

One can understand why Obama is pursuing a strategy of selective engagement, given the setbacks of his predecessor’s policy of isolating Syria and the vast differences between the two countries on vital issues such as Lebanon. But US officials should keep this in mind as they talk to the Syrians: Syria will not lift a finger on any of the issues that touch US interests in the Middle East unless Washington recognizes first its hegemonic position in Lebanon and possibly its military return.

So what is the alternative? There is no easy answer, hence the very real and legitimate debate that took place on April 21 on Capitol Hill between members of Congress and US assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs Jeffrey Feltman, following his testimony on Syria. As Washington contemplates a more viable strategy for Syria, it would benefit from taking note of an old piece of advice: Get real leverage before you talk to your better-prepared and tougher-minded adversary.”

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