Archive for category Arab Spring

Responding to Kissinger’s Argument

Kissinger with current Secretary of State John Kerry - who led a veterans movement against the Vietnam war while Kissinger was Secretary of State

Kissinger with current Secretary of State John Kerry – who led a veterans movement against the Vietnam war while Kissinger was Secretary of State

In my last post I talked about Henry Kissinger’s world view, using the example of detente as indicating the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.  His focus on power politics to the neglect of emergent issues across the globe helped put us on a path to the myriad of challenges we face.  Russian and American policies helped breed corruption, militarism and dictatorship in newly independent states, thwarting accountability and rule of law.

Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa were the biggest losers of the Cold War – and suddenly they are relevant.  So how does Kissinger describe what needs to be done?

First he notes the nature of the changes taking place.  The fundamental unit of the international system, the state, is under pressure.   He very correctly notes a major weakness in our international institutions.  The world economy has become global, but the institutions that govern international affairs remain rooted in the state system.  This means we have an institutional structure not suited for 21st Century conditions.   Prosperity can only be achieved with globalization, he notes, but globalization feeds into the forces challenging international stability.

For realists like Kissinger, global poverty is a local issue - great powers are focused on stability.  But in our era they are linked - poverty increasingly is the driver of instability

For realists like Kissinger, global poverty is a local issue – great powers are focused on stability. But in our era they are linked – poverty increasingly is the driver of instability

And, true to his realist principles, he argues that diplomacy is harder now because great powers cannot consult so easily.  In the new multi-polarity there is no equivalent of a Nixon-Brezhnev summit.    Meetings that do happen are less frank and more subject to media scrutiny.  Realists would prefer the public let the experts handle foreign policy, leaders working in back rooms with media blackouts can achieve much more, Kissinger would claim, than a in a public spectacle.

Kissinger is absolutely right that the state is under immense pressure, yet he can’t let go of a vision that is based on the activities of sovereign states.  For a realist the state is the central foundation of the international system.  He sees the EU not as an alternative to the state, but a kind of confederation that has not yet achieved the status of statehood.

I think he misses the way in which the information revolution has rendered the European style sovereign state – created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – obsolete.   Only institutions that cross borders and ultimately erode or perhaps “pool” sovereignty can handle the challenges ahead.  After all, it’s hard to argue that the European style state functions well in most of the world.  It was a colonial creation based on fake and sometimes absurd borders and has not been able to establish rule of law and accountability in most of the world.   The only reason the realist state-fetish hangs on is that no one has figured out what could possibly replace it.

The Peace of Westphalia, ending the 100 years war created the sovereign state - a kind of new thinking that brought peace to Europe after the information revolution caused by the printing press led the old order to disintegrate

The Peace of Westphalia, ending the 100 years war created the sovereign state – a kind of new thinking that brought peace to Europe after the information revolution caused by the printing press led the old order to disintegrate

Accordingly, he turns to the US role as he discusses the possibility of establishing a new world order.  Kissinger’s words:

To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?

For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy. - Kissinger 

This conclusion seems vague.   It also is rooted in the notion of states and alliances, and doesn’t creatively think about new ways of political organization.   Moreover, the emphasis remains on putting out fires and trying to create stability via power politics.  One gets the sense that his genius allows him to see the situation pretty accurately, but his world view pushes him to a solution that is vague, and cannot work.  The US trying to create a world order, of working with allies to impose values and stability is bound to fail.   The Metternich system discussed in my last post collapsed into 30 years of war and depression.   This order could suffer a similar fate.

My current work is based on trying to figure out what kind of new political structures and organization can handle the vast area of technological change and the power of new media.   We live in an odd time when the old structures still have life – governments can put down rebels, silence critics, and impose their will.  But cracks are evident – no one thought Mubarak or Qaddafi could be brought down, the Arab spring was a shock.   The world is in motion.

The EU is a fascinating example of a system that has morphed into a new kind of political organization.  The states have given up (or some say pooled) their sovereignty in favor of supranational organization.  Yet they are doing so under the concept of subsidiarity – power should be exercised at the lowest level possible – local, regional, state or supranational.   Theoretically the state could lose both to the EU institutions and to local and regional governance.  Given the power of the new information and technology, local governments can handle problems that used to require national action.

Although some protests call for acceptance, it is easier for demagogues to use fear and hate to rile up the masses

Although some protests call for acceptance, it is easier for demagogues to use fear and hate to rile up the masses

What is needed is new thinking – moving away from ideology, nationalism, parochialism and “them vs us” to a recognition that globalization requires pragmatism, openness to other cultures and ideas, and “us with them,” solving problems.  The forces that oppose such new thinking range from nationalists to groups like ISIS, who want to create an Islamic caliphate that contradicts the forces of globalization and change.   Defeating them may require military action, but also requires a new vision that can speak to young Arabs and address the problems of poverty, disease, and oppression.   These are the problems Kissinger’s world view simply dismisses as secondary to the need for great leaders to craft and maintain an order.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for people in government to give up the idea of state dominance and power.   Cooperation is seen as dangerous, and xenophobes are ready to fight against anything that seems to open a state up to new cultures or people.   Kissinger’s piece thus stands as an example of the old thinking – something insufficient in dealing with a changing world.   Unfortunately the new thinking is still a work in progress – and if it doesn’t emerge and get embraced soon enough the future could get bleaker before it gets better.

 

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The Iraq Failure was Inevitable

The ISIS was founded in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

The ISIS was founded in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

The blame game is going in full force.  Pro-war enthusiasts like John McCain say that they had “won” Iraq but Obama lost it.  Others say Bush lost Iraq and there is nothing Obama can do.   But trying to blame Obama or Bush is to miss the real point: Iraq proves the limits of US power.  The US was never in a position to “win” in Iraq or reshape the Mideast.

The current crisis reflects the dramatic gains of a group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), which has seized control of most of the major Sunni regions in Iraq and threatens Baghdad.  Their goal is to create a Jihadist state out of the old Baathist countries of Syria and Iraq.  Their power is one reason the world doesn’t do more to help get rid of Assad in Syria – as bad as Assad is, his government’s survival prevents Syria from falling to extremists.   The ISIS has its roots in the US invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, shortly after the invasion began Abu Musab al-Zarqawi begin to recruit Sunni Muslims in Iraq and especially Syria to form what at first was called “al qaeda in Iraq.”  His goal was to create an Islamic state patterned after the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden.  He felt the US invasion gave his group a chance at success.   He could recruit extremists and use the Sunni’s hatred of the Shi’ites and the Americans to create a powerful force.

At first it worked brilliantly.  Al qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were two separate groups who really didn’t like each other but had a common set of enemies – the Shi’ite led government and the Americans.   By 2006 Zarqawi achieved his dream of igniting a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, throwing Iraq into utter chaos.  At that time the US public turned against the ill advised war, the Democrats took Congress, and President Bush was forced to dramatically alter policy.

Zarqawi, who founded ISIS as "al qaeda in Iraq" was killed by the US in 2006.  Unfortunately this has allowed a more effective leadership to take over.

Zarqawi, who founded ISIS as “al qaeda in Iraq” was killed by the US in 2006. Unfortunately this has allowed a more effective leadership to take over.

He did so successfully – so successfully that President Obama continued Bush’s policies designed to get the US out of Iraq.   In so doing President Bush completely redefined policy goals.   The goals had been ambitious – to spread democracy and create a stable US client state with American bases from which we could assure the Mideast developed in a manner friendly to US interests.  Instead, “peace with honor” became the new goal – stabilize Iraq enough so the US could leave.   In that, the goal was similar to President Nixon’s in leaving Vietnam.   The Vietnam war ended in defeat two years later when the Communists took the South.  Could the Iraq war ultimately end with defeat?   If so, who’s to blame?

The key to President Bush’s success was to parlay distaste Arab Sunnis had for Zarqawi’s methods – and their recognition that the Shi’ites were defeating them in the 2006 civil war – into a willingness to side with the Americans against Zarqawi’s organization.   When Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, it appeared that the US was on its way to breaking the back of the organization, unifying Iraqi Sunnis against the foreign fighters.

Bush's choice to invade Iraq was disastrous, but President Bush did an admirable job in completely altering US policy in 2006 to reject the initial goals and embrace a realistic approach

Bush’s choice to invade Iraq was disastrous, but President Bush did an admirable job in completely altering US policy in 2006 to reject the initial goals and embrace a realistic approach

So what went wrong?  Part of the success of the ISIS is the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seized the initiative when Syria fell into civil war and the eastern Syria essentially lost any effective government.  In conditions of anarchy, the strongest and most ruthless prevail.   Add to that the fact that the Iraqi government has never truly had western Iraq under control, this created the perfect opportunity to create a new organization.    With the Americans gone, Sunni distaste for Shi’ite rule grew, and with the Kurds taking much of the northern oil region, Sunni tribes found it in their interest to support ISIS – even if it is unlikely they share the same long term goal.

So what can the US do?  Very little.  Air strikes might kill some ISIS forces, but they could also inspire more anger against the government and the foreign invaders.   Ground troops are out of the question – the US would be drawn into the kind of quagmire that caused such dissent and anger back against President Bush’s war.   Focused killing of top ISIS leaders – meh.  Zarqawi was killed, but a more able leader took his place.  Focused killing also means killing civilians, these things are sanitary.  So it might just end up angering the public more and helping ISIS recruit.

Drones effectively take out dangerous terrorists - but the collateral damage often inspires anger against the US and helps groups like the ISIS recruit

Drones effectively take out dangerous terrorists – but the collateral damage often inspires anger against the US and helps groups like the ISIS recruit

The bottom line is that the US lost Iraq as soon as it invaded.  The US undertook a mission it could not accomplish – to alter the political and social landscape of a country/culture through military force and external pressure.  The US did win the Iraq war – the US won that within three weeks.  The US military is very good at winning wars – but it’s not designed for social engineering.  The idea that we could create a democratic pro-US Iraq and simply spread democracy to the region was always a fool’s pipe dream.

The fact is that the kind of military power the US has is not all that useful in the 21st Century.  We are not going to fight another major war against an advanced country, nuclear weapons would bring massive harm to the planet, including ourselves, and intervening in third world states sucks us into situations that assure failure.  We won’t be able to change the cultural realities on the ground, and the public will rebel against the cost in dollars and lives.   Moreover, as our economy continues to sputter, such foreign adventures do real harm.

The lesson from Iraq is that our power to unilaterally shape world events if far less than most American leaders realize.  Foreign policy wonks from the Cold War area are still addicted to an image of the US as managing world affairs, guaranteeing global stability and being the world leader.  That era is over.  Gone.  Kaputt.

Now we have to work with others in the messy business of diplomacy and compromise, accepting that other parts of the world will change in their own way, at their own pace.  The good news is that they are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and if we don’t butt in, we’ll not again be a target.   The real al qaeda condemns the ISIS for its brutality – without the US trying to control what happens, the different groups will fight with each other.  But that’s the bad news – change is messy and often violent.

But we can’t fix the world, or somehow turn other regions into little emerging western democracies.   That’s reality – and the sooner we accept and focus on what we can accomplish, the better it will be for us and the world.

 

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Obama’s Foreign Policy

critics

A recent meme from the right has been that President Obama has failed at foreign policy.    FOX News, Townhall, the Weekly Standard — the usual partisan suspects — say President Obama has a “non-existent” foreign policy and should take the blame when things go bad in Ukraine, Syria or Iraq.   In what President Reagan once derided as a “blame America first” tendency, the critics want to blame Obama for everything that goes wrong in the world.

In reality, his Presidency has been a foreign policy success on a number of fronts, most importantly extricating the US from two costly wars and responding to a new multi-polar international environment wherein the role of the US is different than at any time in our history.   That is what irks the critics; America’s role in the world is changing and they want to blame the President.   That is misguided and hypocritical.

The criticisms from the right (I’ll deal with the left’s critique in a later post) fall in three categories:

1.  Obama is not actively using American power.   Obama is blamed for “enticing” Putin to act in Ukraine because he perceived Obama as weak or unwilling to act.   Syria’s horrible civil war is Obama’s fault because the US has not been able to stop it.   This criticism essentially says that the global villains sense Obama’s weakness and “detachment” from foreign affairs and thus are willing to stir up trouble.

foreignpolicy

2.  Obama is siding with the wrong people.  In Libya, when Obama did use force to end a civil war, he was accused of helping Islamic extremists who were part of the anti-Qaddafi opposition.   Similarly, when the US didn’t come to the aid of Mubarak to keep him in power in Egypt, the critics said that embracing the Arab Spring would be to embrace Islamic extremism.  Better to keep corrupt dictators in power than risk these rebellions.  They point to the difficult transitions in the region as proof that it would have been better to keep the dictatorships in power.

3.  Obama isn’t as supportive of Israel as he should be; his inability to get the peace process going again is a result of weakness.  Never mind that the peace process fell apart during the Clinton Administration.   While Bush was in office violence suicide bombing and war riveted the region.  Nope, to the critics any lack of progress is all Obama’s fault.   The same group has been vocal about Iran, saying Iran is akin to Nazi Germany, and not allowing Israel to take out its nuclear sites risks a future holocaust.

Uff-da!

 

The first criticism comes primarily from neo-conservatives, people who supported the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   They do not accept that the world now is one that the US can’t simply shape at will.  That is what they thought we could do in Iraq – use US power to spread democracy and shape a region to better fit our values.    The war against Iraq was won; the effort to reshape the region failed spectacularly.   Many of these critics, such as Charles Krauthammer and the critics at the Weekly Standard, are in denial that their world view have been discredited by history.

Beyond that, the idea that somehow a “tough” President would have scared Putin away from Ukraine borders on the delusionally absurd.   Putin acted out of weakness as his Ukraine policy fell apart with the ouster of Yanukovych.   Rambo could be President and Putin would have felt compelled to take Crimea and pressure Ukraine.   He knows the US and EU have no interest in war.  Yet President Obama has worked with the EU to craft a response more likely to succeed.   Russia’s future depends on connecting with the global economy; the USSR failed because it could not.

It's important to be on the right side of history as the Arab world begins a difficult transition

It’s important to be on the right side of history as the Arab world begins a difficult transition

It’s also absurd to think the US should have tried to stop the Arab Spring or continue support for thugs like Mubarak.   When a region with 50% of the population under 23, linked through the information revolution, show disgust for corrupt obsolete dictatorships, it would be disastrous for us to side with the dictators.  That part of the world is undertaking a real transition – our best bet is to be on the right side of history.

So the critics have a very weak case against the President.   They fail to offer viable alternatives, which is telling.  Their real problem is an inability to accept that world where the US is no longer the dominant power.   Over the last twenty years globalization has altered the nature of sovereignty and global politics.   The economic crisis in the US revealed structural weaknesses thirty years in the making.   The Iraq war showed the limits of US power and soured the public on interventionism.   The world is fundamentally different than it was in 1994.

If President Bush had accomplished this, he'd have been lauded as a hero.

If President Bush had accomplished this, he’d have been lauded as a hero.

Obama’s successes – getting Iran to agree to give up its capacity to build nuclear weapons with UN oversight, extricating the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, getting a deal with Russia to destroy large numbers of nuclear missiles, killing Osama Bin Laden while weakening al qaeda, improving economic cooperation after the 2008 catastrophe, and re-orienting US foreign policy for the new multi-polar world – are profound.   Obama’s multi-lateralism, hated especially by the neo-conservatives, is working.  The US is more respected and in a better strategic position now than we have been at any time since the end of the Cold War.  Despite inheriting two wars, the President has avoided any foreign policy debacle.

So all the critics can say is that “bad things happen in the world and we blame Obama.”  *shrug*

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The Saudi Problem

US President Barack Obama speaks alongsi

President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast.   While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied:  The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that.   The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.

One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran.   The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons.  The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Both states straddle the Persian Gulf.   Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows.  With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them.  In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government.   Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!

In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government.   As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain.   And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.

First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia.   Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole.  Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda.  The reality is quite different.  Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam.   Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present.   They can’t even shop in stores which have men!   Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia!   The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men.   In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them.  We do business with them because they have oil.  Lots of oil.

Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be.    The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades.  Last year, the US took their place.   Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago.  That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened.  We can afford to have them a bit upset.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year - which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year – which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

Beyond that, they have no real alternative.  Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies.  That affects everyone, especially the Saudis!   They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat.   They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population.   When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades.  The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune.   Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have.   It will not last deep into the 21st Century.

Therein lies the dilemma for the US.   Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American.   That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79.  Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis.   So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.

Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world.   The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest.   Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.

So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously.  He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye.  If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe.  But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.

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Iran and Syria

 

Carnage and destruction continue unabated in Syria

Carnage and destruction continue unabated in Syria

Right now 30 countries are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to talk about the future of Syria.    It’s dubbed Geneva II, as it seeks to find a way to implement the path towards an end to the Syrian civil war and transfer of power outlined in the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012.   The impetus for this meeting came from increased Russian and American cooperation about Syria after the historic agreement to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, one of the major victories of Obama’s foreign policy.

100,000 have been killed in fighting that has lasted almost three years.   9.5 million people have been displaced within Syria, a country of just under 23 million.   The Syrian government and main opposition parties are taking part in the talks, though the rebels doing the fighting so far refuse.

The war is unique.   First, it appears deadlocked, neither side has a true upper hand.  The government has some nominal advantages, but the rebels are strong enough to resist.  Second, the opposition forces are themselves splintered, with extremists alongside secular forces and no obvious alternative to Assad.   It’s not clear what a democratic election could yield, many fear that the winner might be friendly to al qaeda.   In that context, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon invited Iran to join the talks.  It was hoped that the Iranians might help bring some realism to the Syrian governments stubborn refusal to hand over power.

iransyriamap

In the politics of the Mideast, one of the most important and troubling alliances has been that of Iran and Syria.  On paper they look like they should be rivals.  Syria is majority Sunni Muslim led by a former Baath party (now renamed the National Progressive Front).   The Baath party is a secular Arab socialist party, originally was aligned with the Soviets in the Cold War.   Saddam Hussein’s ruling party in Iraq was a Baath party.  Meanwhile Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government is completely opposed to Baath party ideology.   So why are the two so closely allied?

Although 74% of Syria’s 23 million people are Sunni Muslim, they do have a sizable Shi’ite minority.  This includes the Assad family, which is Alawite Shi’ite.   That’s a different Shi’ite sect than the leaders of Iran, but it’s a connection.   Still, up until 1979 Syria’s biggest ally was Egypt – indeed, the two countries merged from 1958 to 1961.   But once Egypt made amends with Israel, and Iraq’s regional ambitions grew, Syria forged an alliance with post-Revolutionary Iran.    The Syrians feared Saddam’s regional ambitions and were loathe to make peace with Israel, which still held a part of Syria, the Golan Heights.

During the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 Syria sided with Iran, earning the ire of the Saudis who supported Saddam Hussein.   The Syrians and Saudis found themselves on the same side after Iraq invaded Kuwait; both participated in President Bush’s coalition to remove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.   Meanwhile, Syria’s proximity to Lebanon made it possible for Iran to build up Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization, pressuring Israel and contributing to Lebanon’s disintegration.

Bashir Assad follows in his father's footsteps of brutality against his own people.

Bashir Assad follows in his father’s footsteps of brutality against his own people.

Bashir Assad took over leadership in Syria when his father Hafez Assad died in 2000 and the Syrian-Iranian alliance deepened. When it was done the US was the net loser, while Iran and Iraq became moderate allies – something which drew Syria even closer to Iran.   Going into 2011 the Assad regime looked stable and effective.   Then came the Arab Spring.

Mubarak resigned in Egypt, NATO assisted the rebels in Libya, but in Syria the uprising led to a drawn out and bloody civil war, full of complexities.   Early on, with Russia and Iran both siding with Syria, international pressure was limited.   After the landmark agreement between the Russians and Americans, the tide seemed to be swinging against Assad.

Inviting Iran to the talks was a masterstroke.   The Iranians, who recently agreed on a plan to limit and allow oversight to their nuclear energy program, could be further drawn into the diplomacy of the region.   In realist terms, they could be brought to become a status quo power rather than a revolutionary one, learning that there is more to gain by working with the international community than being a pariah.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon arrives in Geneva

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon arrives in Geneva

In so doing, it was hoped that Iran could help the Syrian government find a way to give up power gracefully.   Iran would be there as Syria’s ally, and could aid the negotiations.   Alas, it is not to be.    The US criticized the Secretary General, arguing that Iran should not be there unless it agrees in advance that Syria’s government must step down.   That, of course, could not be Iran’s position going into the talks; it’s certainly not the Syrian government’s position!

The reality is that there is so much anti-Iranian bile within the US government and Congress that any sop to Iran would lead to a backlash that could harm the nuclear energy agreement, or induce votes for more sanctions against Iran.  As it is, the removal of sanctions in exchange for that agreement is yielding billions of dollars of new Iranian trade with the West.   Still, Iranophobia runs deep in the US and Israel.   Moon had no choice but adhere to the wishes of the US; the Secretary General is not as powerful as permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In so doing, the job of creating a  peaceful transfer of power in Syria has become more difficult.  It would not have been easy if Iran were there, but Iranian participation created new options.  Moreover, Iran’s public is increasingly opposed to their hard line rulers, and increased trade will bring Iran closer to the West.  Right now there is a chance for a game changer in western relations with Iran, one that could save lives in Syria.   It appears, sadly, that too many in the US are far too comfortable with the image of Iran as a permanent enemy.    And the Syrian civil war drags on, with the extremists growing stronger as the fighting continues.

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An Iran Breakthrough?

Iranian President Rouhani

Iranian President Rouhani

Fresh off a diplomatic victory concerning Syria, the United States may be on the verge of making significant headway in solving the most vexing foreign policy problem of the last 34 years – what to do about Iran?   From the 1979 hostage crisis to near war over Iran’s alleged nuclear program, the ability of Iran’s clerics to plot a Machiavellian course to expand regional power has given American policy makers headaches.   President Obama, whose foreign policy successes are growing, may have another victory in reach.  If so, this will go further in turning around the narrative on Syria.   Rather than being outplayed by Putin, Obama may have one of the most significant diplomatic victories since the end of the Cold War.

Many people were surprised when Hassan Rouhani won the June 2013 Presidential election in Iran.  A moderate, he espoused closer relations with the West, more civil liberties and economic reform.   Gone are the days of bombast from former President Ahmadinejad.   No more talk about wiping Israel off the map; instead, Rouhani went to the United Nations to proclaim that no state should have nuclear weapons, and there was no room in Iran for nuclear arms.   This clears the way for a deal to end the tense stand off that’s been brewing for over a decade about Iran’s alleged arms program.

Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran's Supreme Leader, still holds most of the power

Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, still holds most of the power

That election was proof that however powerful the Iranian clerics are, Iran is still an emerging democracy.  Rouhani was not the choice of Supreme Leader Khamanei, yet he won narrowly in the first round.  If the elections were rigged, he’d have at least fallen short of the 50% to prevent a second round of voting.   Moreover, Iran’s clerics realize that they could lose power in a heartbeat if the Iranian people rebelled against their authority.   From 1979 to 2004 there was a gradual liberalization of Iranian life allowed by the clerics because they didn’t want to foment dissent.

In 2004 that all changed; conservatives gained a majority for the first time in the Majles (parliament), and conservative Ahmadinejad won the Presidency.   It appeared Iran had changed course and was on a dangerous anti-western trajectory.   In hindsight that may have been a short term boost to the conservatives by anger at the US invasion of Iraq.   As that ill fated war fades into history, the Iranians appear to be moving again towards becoming a more liberal Islamic Republic.

So what next?

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With high level talks between Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif already underway at the United Nations Security Council, the path will be a gradual easing of tensions alongside trust building agreements that could ultimately yield an agreement for Iran to not only end its nuclear program, but allow inspectors to verify its conclusion.   That has not yet happened of course, things could still go south.   Still, this is a major breakthrough and there is reason to think it’s the real thing.

If so, it’s a very good thing that the US did not choose to attack Iran back in the heyday of Ahmadinejad’s bombast.   He’s gone, Iran’s gradually changing as its large youth population ages into adulthood, and the consequences of going to war with Iran could have been catastrophic.   The Pentagon thought so – they war gamed it out, and saw considerable danger in attacking Iran.  The hawks on Iran will be proven to have been wrong.

The agreement to force Assad of Syria to give up chemical weapons is also important.  Iran saw Russia and the US work together, and recognize that despite rivalry between the two former Cold War foes, both share an interest in not allowing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.   This is far more effective than a US strike against Syria which would have probably done more to show post-Iraq impotence on the part of the Americans than anything Iran would fear.

Most important, though, is the changes taking place in Iran itself.  The country has a population with a strong pro-Western streak, well educated and modern.   The youth are demanding change.   The same dynamic is taking place in Iran as in the Arab Spring, except Iran already has an emerging democracy and more liberal population.   It’s clerical class has proven less extremist than pragmatic.

In short, a thaw in the tension with Iran may be a sign that Muslim extremism is also on the wane.    Iran is a model of an Islamic Republic, mixing religion and democracy.   A stable Iran could help the Iraqis get their democracy back on track, and ultimately be extremely important for the entire region.

We aren’t there yet, but the fruits of Obama’s foreign policy are starting to become evident.   He didn’t really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but by the time he leaves office the world will likely in much better condition.

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Gates Smacks Down Obama Critics

Gates served as Secretary of Defense under Bush when the President altered his Iraq policy

Gates served as Secretary of Defense under Bush when the President altered his Iraq policy

Gates was harsh on Republican critiques of the President, ridiculing the idea that we could have flown planes overhead so “apparently the noise” should scare them.   Not only would they be undeterred by noise, but Gates noted that given all the missing anti-aircraft weapons, it would have been a stupid decision.

Gates said that he would have made the same choices the President did, and defended former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.   There was no military alternative, he insisted; Republican critics that imagine some group could have been flown in on the fly have a “cartoonish” view of what military action is all about.

Of course.

There is no scandal around Benghazi except for the fact that some Republicans are shamelessly trying to use an attack on America to fish for some kind of partisan jab at the President.   Or perhaps they want to hurt Secretary Clinton’s chances to be elected in 2016.

We should come together to learn about what went wrong or right on a tragedy, but not turn it into a political partisan circus – something that the hearings last week obviously became.   With wild hyperbole (Sen. Jim Inholfe  R-OK, said it was worse than Watergate, Iran Contra and Clinton’s scandals) and claims of a cover up, they use noise and accusations to hide that they have nothing.   It is a fishing expedition designed for partisan purposes, nothing more.

The only claim they really have is that maybe some talking points right after the attack didn’t call it terrorism when they knew it was terrorism.  They claim it was to somehow protect Obama’s re-election campaign; but given how quickly he came out and labeled it terrorism and got the information out there, that’s a pretty lame argument.  It’s also one that has no traction.  In the early days after an event when so much is still uncertain, and when the Administration is weighing responses, there are limits to what you want to be public.

So they have that non-attack, absurd claims that the military could respond, smacked down by Secretary Gates who has served for both Obama and Bush, and who knows Obama’s character.

The bottom line is that many Republicans didn’t think Obama would be re-elected, they thought they’d have the Senate, and they don’t like how the media is focusing on how out of touch their message is right now.   As pragmatic Republicans try to wrestle power away from the extremists, many want to construct a scandal where none exists.  They hope to use that to weaken the President, take the public’s mind off both the pressing issues of the day and how dysfunctional a divided Congress has become.

It will backfire – it already has.   The story is old and despite all the hype FOX and the GOP are trying to create,  more columns are being written critical of the Republicans in Congress than the President.   It has given the late night hosts plenty to mock.   Jon Stewart skewered FOX for playing up the hype of yelling fire when there’s not even smoke!
But sadly, this circus is indicative of the political dysfunction that paralyzes the country as our problems mount.  Rather than recognizing that the attack was a tragedy that should bring us together and learn how to better defend our embassies, politicians search for partisan gain (and Democrats are not blameless, some claiming that Republican cuts to embassy security allowed the attacks).

This is why we can’t reach compromises and deal with the difficult issues facing the country.  It’s spectacle and posturing, rather than hard work and compromise.   It is a sign that our democratic institutions are starting to buckle at the hands of ideologues who don’t understand that the founders designed a system to inspire compromise.  They were divided t00 – the founders had a variety of different views, and they know that would always be true in a democracy.   They compromised, and created a system that requires compromise to function.

Thank you,  Secretary Gates for pointing out the absurdity of the charges being made.   I hope within the GOP leaders look at the lack of evidence of even a whiff of scandal and recognize that this absurd circus is hurting them, and that real issues facing the country need serious attention.

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