PARIS ATTACKS AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS: HAS ANYTHING REALLY CHANGE AND IF SO WHAT?

Datelined London

Photo: The Guardian

By
Harry C. Blaney III

Last night Friday on a TV screen in London we watched in real time the horrific unfolding of the terrorism acts which at this report time cost the lives of some 129 persons and many more wounded as the total is likely to grow over time. The analysis is that it was an organized series of such attacks which were designed to cause major fear not only in Paris but in France and beyond. It has had already reverberations throughout Europe and even in America.

Friday night UK time, President Obama said while the events were still active, that this was an attack on all humanity and this view was echoed by statements by President Holland and Prime Minister Cameron and others.

This attack has had many implications for both France’s own security and the possible impacts on its politics, economy, and not least the relationship with Muslims in France that constitute, by some estimates, 4.7% of the population, the largest in Europe.

ISIS almost immediately took “credit” for these acts of brutality. ISIS said this was a retaliation for France’s acts of bombing against it. President Holland in the immediate aftermath said that this was “war” and promised swift action and France will be “merciless against the terrorists.” These were acts of war Holland stated on Saturday that the attacks were planned abroad. Two people were arrested in Belgium and two attackers were said to come from Syria and Egypt. An American student and a British London School of Economics student were killed at last reports.

This act has been called a massacre – the worst attack in France’s recent history. Paris is in shock but the reactions take a wide range of anger, horror, revulsion, fear, and a determination to both carry on and to respond against the terrorists. But people in Paris are clearly very uncertain and cautious. Holland has taken a hard stance, which is understandable given the brutality of the attack. Holland has called a state of emergency and the French Prime Minister has said on Saturday that France will enhance its attacks on ISIS and will not be deterred by threats.

If ISIS thought the attacks would frighten France and other countries to stop their attacks it looks that this has likely backfired. But the other danger is that the attacks increased polarization and racist and right wing groups may use these attacks to instigate hatred for migrants, the domestic Islamic community, and citizens and create even more fear for political reasons. This could backfire and increase the sense of alienation which has already led to disaffected and angry Muslim youth joining ISIS. Thus national authorities need to find a fine line between cracking down on likely terrorists but at the same time assuring regular Muslim citizens that they live in a welcoming and safe environment.

The reaction from other countries was with statements of sympathy and solidarity. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron promised to be of help in any way they can. Here in London tonight there was a large vigil and gathering of citizens showing solidarity with Paris and France, with the tricolor lights of the French flag projected against the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square which I and my wife went to. I could not be but aware of the irony that a few weeks earlier there were many statements related to Britain leaving the EU by the Tory leaders, including Cameron, about how UK was different from the Continental Europeans. That party’s majority MPs desires to separate from countries like France that they wish little ties with that are seeking for more European unity.

One interesting element which some have commented on is that at the moment when ISIS is under siege at their home base in Syria/Iraq, they have carried out their most successful major and effective massive attack in Paris and created a sense of fear throughout Europe and beyond. This brutality gives ISIS major international profile and forced focus on their presence abroad while at the same time facing increased military action against them. This pressure is due to American bombing and more effective moderate reinforcements on the ground of allied groups fighting in their home bases.

As for Paris, one concern is that if this can happen in Paris, it could happen again and anywhere. Thus the international dimension has now been established and it is clear that the G-20 meeting in Turkey this week attended in advance by Secretary Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister with President Obama soon arriving, will strongly focus on what can be done on an international level to deal with such horrific and massive attacks and what are the implication of these more professional and devastating attacks on citizens and how to prevent or mitigate them. But also how to solve the basic problem of how to put an end to ISIS and get rid of Assad and create a more safe and stable region.

What does all this mean? As noted, one danger is a backlash over Europe against Muslims and this anger being exploited by right-wing racists parties like UKIP and the Le Pen party in France.

The other question is where does the Western nations and their Islamic allies go next against ISIS both in their Syria/Iraq stronghold and to counter their international reach. This is not a new question but the Paris attacks gives it new urgency and profile to these questions. What has been said and I think still stands is that what is most needed is a viable diplomatic solution likely backed up by some sort of military action also.

Many are saying too little is being done while others think American engagement in the region is too much. Will the attacks in France change any of this? Will changes on the ground change anything also? The Question for the major powers and many members of the G-20 and also Muslim nations in the region is can there be a way of putting the necessary elements together to achieve sooner rather than later a dismemberment of ISIS and a political structure on the ground to replace the present chaos and brutality. This will take major decisions by all, that enough is enough and all are in peril if this ISIS and other Jihadis forces remain powerful and dominant and attract each day new and committed recruits.

The key must be in the long term to return the region to some sense of normality and hope for security and some decent economy and employment of youth. But also at the heart of any solution must be a mitigation of the religious and political conflict between the Sunni and Shia sects which really means Shia Iran, its allies, and Sunni Saudi Arabia and Gulf States and others. It may also mean bringing peace to the Israeli and Palestinian situation via a two state solution and now the sooner the better. On seeking security and security for the region here American power and European and regional allies and perhaps even Russia and Iran might just find some common ground. This is probably asking too much now, but if not now when? If one waits, will not all be caught by a maelstrom of disaster and destruction from which none will survive intact.

More in time on these issues and related events from Europe.

We welcome your comments!

THE PLAYING FIELD OF THE MIDDLE EAST JUST WENT BALLISTIC!  (THE REMAKING OF THE MIDDLE EAST WITH CONFLICTING FORCES AT WORK)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party scored a resounding victory in the country's election.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party scored a resounding victory in the country’s election.

By Harry C. Blaney III

This month will bring together a number of critical events and actions which could determine whether we can see a clear path towards a measure of progress that can start the process of healing and mitigating the hate and carnage that we see today and lessen the chance of a total cataclysm. What is required is a high level of creativity, resources, and focus by all sides looking at their long-term interests. But frankly, recent events, not least the Israeli elections, do not bode well for lasting peace and building the mutual confidence and sense of common interest that must be the foundation of long-term security for all in the region and beyond.

The first critical event is the elections in Israel. Clearly, given the outcome Israeli society remains divided between a constant “war” strategy and a long-term peace strategy. This time the “war hawks” won out but not by that much. This contradictory bitter split should be recognizable to Americans in our current corrosive political environment. The question is whether there can be, in this divisive environment, any growing consensus that develops into some kind of momentum towards returning to honest negotiations with the Palestinians to build a stable two state outcome that provides security for all sides. What then is the alternative?

 Incredibly, there was even post-election speculation that Bibi might go back to the two state solution, but after his victory based on anti-Palestinian policies and even promising thousands of more settlements, it is hard to envision at this moment. The question is when will the realities of the increasingly precarious situation of Israel set in and be the lever for a move towards a peace deal.

The history of the reign of Netanyahu has been a series of acts, that in its totality, were against any reasonable settlement with the Palestinians. After mouthing from time to time the idea of a “two state” solution, he revealed just a day before the elections his true motivation all along, in trying to grab the West Bank and possibly displace people from their land or perhaps even confine them to unlivable, frankly, semi-concentration camps, looked over by their Israeli guards.

The sad result of Bibi in his firm opposition to a two state solution, and saying there will be no Palestinian state under his rule, plus his attack after his election victory on the Arab citizens of Israel because, according to the NY Times, they had voted! His statement was even characterized by the New York Times editorial as a “racist rant.” Increasingly, there is a new authoritarian bent by Netanyahu and his Likud party; and a rigidity and myopic militancy that bodes badly for peace in the region and Israel’s own long-term security. There is a real danger that he will lead a democratic Israel down a path to self-destruction both externally and internally. What other option now can be possible other than a deliberate policy of impoverishment and degradation of the Islamic and Christian Arab West Bank population, and its own Arab citizens?

He has already poisoned the key US-Israeli bi-partisan relationship as we have noted previously. The question that must be asked: what policy and direction should America and Europe take now that the very basis of any lasting peace agreement has been destroyed by Bibi’s actions? Having served in the White House I have no doubt that the lights there will be burning late to provide an answer.

One key question is what should the U.S. do with its allies and other actors in the region to put back the building blocks of a lasting agreement that provide peace, security, and even a measure of prosperity for the people in the region. For the Israelis who are experiencing serious economic hardships including inflation that is robbing ordinary people of their livelihood and sense of self-worth; and who also desire a future free from conflict, they now face a very uncertain future, increased insecurity and new added risks.

While coalition building still must take place and is currently unknown, a reassessment of American policy towards the Middle East and Israel is required. Already, there is a movement in Europe to recognize a Palestinian state. Bibi unfortunately leaves little scope for a constructive American role in seeking a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority especially given the desire by Bibi to get America to preemptively attack Iran or contribute to new illegal settlements and to act as a supporter of dangerous actions that will only exacerbate the existing unrest and conflict in the region. Further, Bibi by playing a partisan and self-interested divisive role in American politics may have defeated any hope for the kind of constructive cooperative efforts by the U.S. to bring true peace to his people.  Evolving events in the region may play the decisive role that may call for a basic reassessment of Israel’s security as noted by the statements of a group of senior security leaders who pointed to dangerous trends and poor policies by Bibi.  

The second event shaping the region is the beginning of serious “end state” negotiations on the Iran nuclear long-term “deal” that could put a stop on Iran getting a nuclear weapon at least for the next decade. If in the end a “good” deal is agreed with the proper verification elements, one of the truly disruptive (in the real meaning of this word, not the Silicon Valley robber baron meaning) elements fundamentally creating widespread conflict and insecurity might change the landscape of new nuclear danger to the region. It could also create an opening to larger political and military problem solving and deal with the upward trajectory of Shia-Sunni conflict.

Already, Secretary John Kerry has been working to find a consensus among the Middle East states, both largely Shia and Sunni to form some common ground especially in light of the common threat of ISIS. This is frankly an effort against the odds. But there is a small opening now for a rethinking of old hatreds and a new assessment of existential risks of the ISIS ascendancy and the spread of terrorist extremism aimed at both traditional Sunni and Shia governments and people. In the end, this opening will have to be recognized by governments that too often have been dominated by prejudice and narrow interests.

What might be needed is perhaps a new regional compact that creates a wider Middle East security structure that encompasses both Sunni and Shia nations and might include support and reinforcement by America and our European and Asian allies that have a large stake in stability and peace in the region. While Arab nations would naturally be a part of this, also non-Arab nations like Iran and Turkey should be part of such a regional compact of mutual security.        

It is clear that without some major political, economic, and military changes both in Israel and in the wider Middle East the trajectory towards chaos and destruction will overwhelm the fabric of cooperation and modest restraint and upheavals and civil strife will destroy the lives of all citizens and bring only perpetual war and killing as the norm.

Our problem is that the acts by Bibi, the shortsighted viewpoints by some Middle East leaders, and our partisans in our Congress has undermined America’s role as the “indispensable nation.” They have deliberately sabotaged every key tool and effort to bring a measure of peace to our globe by President Obama and Secretary Kerry. There is a strong Republican desire to see Obama fail no matter what the cost in lives and security including that of Israel. More war and putting American troops at risk is their only option. Their new crazy right-wing budget and proposed heedless sanction and laws on Iran undermines the authority and the needed resources for a strong American capability to create a more stable, peaceful, secure and prosperous world.  Without support at home by all of our parties, the chances of creating a more secure Middle East and beyond would be hindered. Disorder, humanitarian needs, and added wars will be the order of the day.

We welcome your comments!

SYRIA UP-DATE: AFTER GENEVA II, THEN WHAT?

SYRIA UP-DATE: AFTER GENEVA II, THEN WHAT?

by

Harry C. Blaney III

 

President Obama in Washington during the visit of France’s president Hollande, has said that he was fairly pessimistic about progress in gaining peace and a transitional government in Syria. There are indications that the administration is engaged somewhat in new thinking about the Syrian conflict problem. But Obama indicated that use of military force was not at the top of options.

Meeting in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande criticized Russian aims to block the resolution. Hollande said, “Why would you prevent the vote of a resolution if, in good faith, it is all about saving human lives?”

Obama said the U.S. isn’t moving closer to taking military action in Syria even with the stalemate in the fighting and concerns about missed deadlines on chemical weapons destruction. Specifically, he noted at a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande in the East Room of the White House: “We still have a horrendous situation on the ground in Syria.” He added that the state of Syria is “crumbling” and “extremists have moved into the vacuum in a way that could threaten us over the long term.”

 

While saying he reserves the right to use military force, Obama said that “right now we don’t think that there’s a military solution, per se, to the problem.” At the news conference Obama called Russia a “holdout” and accused it of complicity in the Syrian regime’s policy of starving cities. “They cannot say that they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when they are starving civilians, and that it is not just the Syrians that are responsible, the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution,” Obama said.

 

On the diplomatic front, The U.S. supports the new draft UN Security Council resolution because it is clear that prior efforts aren’t yielding the needed progress.

 

Yet, the reality is that the U.S. and also France, Britain, and other key involved allied states are in a odd of state of denial of on the ground realities but also in a true conundrum about what is possible, likely outcomes and risks of using either military resources or a concerted series of “sticks” like new sanctions and denial to the Assad regime of access to funds and military imports.

 

Some insight into administration thinking was revealed in a White House briefing at the time of the Holland visit. The briefing was by a “Senior Administration Official” but the views are authoritative: He said, “Well, on Syria, I think what we have sought to do is work on a number of lines of effort with countries like France that share a common view of the situation with us. One is how can we increase humanitarian assistance that can reach the Syrian people? And the U.S. is the single largest donor of humanitarian aid, but we also work with other countries to make sure that we are meeting humanitarian requirements articulated by the U.N., and that different countries are providing different types of assistance that meet the greatest needs inside of Syria.

 

“We’ve also been talking with the French and others about steps that the U.N. Security Council can continue to take to promote humanitarian access inside of Syria.  I’m sure that will be an area of discussion.

 

“We’ve also worked with the French to coordinate our support for the moderate opposition within Syria.  And we obviously provide a range of support, as well as a number of other countries that have worked together over the course of the last year or so.  And so, I think discussing how we can work together to strengthen a more moderate opposition, both to be a counterpoint, obviously, to the Assad regime, but also to isolate extremist elements inside of Syria that could ultimately pose a threat to France and the United States as well.  So I’m sure we’ll discuss how do we continue to support that moderate opposition.

 

“That’s directly relevant to the Geneva II process, because that opposition has come to the table quite constructively in Geneva II.  And as we work through that process towards a transitional governing authority, the more we are speaking with one voice in support of an outcome that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people I think the stronger that opposition will be at the table.  So we’ll want to discuss that issue as well.

 

“On Lebanon, we do regularly talk to the French about the situation in Lebanon.  The United States has taken some steps in recent months to increase our assistance to the Lebanese armed forces and to continue to speak up for the unity of Lebanon and for a peaceful resolution of political differences within Lebanon.

 

“Given France’s history, I’m sure it is quite likely that Lebanon may come up as a topic.  And, frankly, it comes up in the context of Syria, because many of the challenges we see in Lebanon are spillover from Syria, both because of the significant refugee population inside of Lebanon because of the role of Lebanese Hezbollah in supporting the Assad regime, which has been obviously quite destabilizing and concerning to us, and also because some of the violence that has found its way into Lebanon. So we will I think be addressing the situation in Lebanon as related to the ongoing crisis in Syria.”

 

Let me be a bit blunt, much of this briefing is opaque in terms of the reality, and otherwise fairly well known about ongoing actions. What is missing is a clear statement and agreed strategy for path toward a realistic and definitive solution to the ongoing killings and establishing some sense of security and stability and a measure of peace in the Syria and nearby neighborhood. There is a clear debate going on, and there is now more recognition by the White House, State and DOD that other tools including possible military action may be needed. This includes an added supply of weapons, and less likely but key for security of the populations, creation of some kind of “no fly zone(s) and secure areas” for the displaced population, and as I have suggested, the insertion at some point of multilateral peacekeeping forces to ensure security and stability.

 

Yet, the end game must include diplomacy. This means uniting the moderate opposition forces, getting Assad to step down, and assuring the Shia that they will be secure and be part of the new transitional government. It also means facing the Russians and getting them to accept the new order. But that can only be done in a context where Assad and the Russian realize their goals can’t be realized. And that can only take place in reality on the ground in Syria.  

 

In addition to this White House briefing the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said in an e-mailed statement. “The Security Council needs to speak with one voice in the interest of the innocent men, women and children of Syria whose lives are hanging in the balance……. Every day the Council remains silent, we let down the Syrian people, and we fail to uphold our role as guardians of international peace and security.” A fine statement but, again, with no effective path to stop the killing or to get to the humanitarian needs.

 

On Wednesday February 12th, Russia said it would veto a U.N. resolution on humanitarian aid access in Syria if it remains in its current form. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said about the draft that its “aim is to create grounds for future military action against the Syrian government.” Thus, an impasse seems to be developing which may have to lead to new thinking on next steps. These next steps can be both diplomatic and economic but also taken through the use of limited but significant coercive action by a multilateral coalition of those nations supporting the opposition. The question remains do the key states have the political will and resources to act with a high level of assurance that they can be assured of success?

 

Frankly, it remains somewhat unclear whether and when any new strategy will emerge. However, the humanitarian crisis seems to be getting worse each day. Any promises by Assad are hollow given their detention of people leaving Homs and possible killings of civilians under supposed Syrian Red Cross and UN protection. The use of “barrel” bombs on civilians is Assad’s answer to the diplomacy tract at the moment.

 

The most recent development has been the dismissal of the commander of the Free Syrian Army and his replacement by another commander by the U.S. backed Supreme Military Council. It is reported that this has split the various commands on the ground, some of which still support the previous head. The new commander Abdul -Ilah al-Bahir is said to be backed by Saudi Arabia and may of the confidence of the U.S. But this act only highlights the many splits in the opposition and the difficulties of getting assistance to the opposition forces on the ground. Further, America appears directly looking at delivery of arms to filed commanders, but so far none have been reported by those commanders.

 

The situation on the ground is having more impact at the moment than the diplomacy in Geneva. For the moment, Assad’s forces and air force are pounding opposition centers and trying to close the borders against movement of opposition forces and refugees.

  

In sum, we need to keep the diplomatic tract open but also to think better of ways to exert real leverage over both Assad and even Russia. Those who are critical, including myself, need to keep in mind the high level of complexity, many risks of various actions, and the uncertainty of a good outcome. Yet from this writer’s perspective, we do have more tools than we are using. But such efforts require a high level of cooperation among the allies and opposition, good will, and resources than have been realized so far.

SYRIA TOO MUCH POSTURING AND TOO LITTLE REAL DIPLOMACY AND REAL PRESSURE

syria genevaSYRIA TOO MUCH POSTURING AND TOO LITTLE REAL DIPLOMACY AND REAL PRESSURE

by

Harry C. Blaney III

Once again there is continued unspeakable bloodletting in Syria. Now the guns have been turned on the convoys of humanitarian aid and relief and those escorting civilians out of the killing fields of Homs in Syria. Already, the conflict has left more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced and as refugees. It is high time that we had less posturing by all sides and a bit more serious diplomacy backed up by elements of sticks and perhaps a few carrots.

Despite the news that some more chemical weapons stocks have been placed on ships, this action has not stopped the brutal killing of Syrian civilians by the Assad regime. These deliveries have been delayed, and one has to wonder if this is not a deliberate ploy by the Assad regime to buy time for more killing.

Yesterday (2/11/14), there were two key items in the New York Times. One was an editorial “The Message From Homs” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/opinion/the-message-from-homs.html?ref=todayspaper) which decried the horror of what is taking place in Homs and in other Syrian regions. It calls for diplomatic action and hopes for a Security Council vote to “improve on the pause and extend it to other populations centers.” Unfortunately, its suggestions all have the serious fault of needing Russia and Assad’s agreement, which is, frankly, next to impossible given how long they have supported butchery without end.

 The other article was an op-ed by Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi: “Use Force to Save Starving Syrians” (2/11/14) (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/opinion/use-force-to-save-starving-syrians.html?ref=todayspaper), which calls for honoring the goal that was part of the UN resolution for “responsibility to protect” once more, and it argues for the use of multi-lateral force if necessary.  It stated that before any multi-lateral operation, which would include providing air support, “Mr. Assad and the rebel groups should be put on notice that they have hours to lift the sieges.” They call for us to “confront” Russia with a choice to convince Assad to lift the sieges or “be left behind by an international community that is prepared to act.”

For two years, this blog has advocated using a robust international peacemaking /peacekeeping force to provide security zones and to protect civilians in Syria. America and countries like Britain, France, the Arab league, and hopefully Turkey, should participate. The time has indeed come to act, and there is little doubt in my mind that diplomacy needs to be backed up with a bit of “sticks” to change minds and perceptions of the ultimate outcomes.  There are a number of ways that international actions can be taken with NATO and the EU— recognition of a new Syrian government of moderate groups, and agreeing to intervene based on their invitation via a willing coalition that is strong enough and wide enough to gain common acceptance. This is already being done in Africa and has been done elsewhere. 

The Geneva II session will resume this coming Monday between the Syrian regime and a coalition of rebel groups with participation of the key powers, including the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and some Arab League countries. The United Nations is hosting the meeting. The first session made little progress except getting the two warring sides into the same room. There was no real cease fire, given the attacks on the convoys and civilians, and no agreement on a true transition to a new government without Assad in charge.

 At the moment, eyes are turning to a possible but increasing less likely resolution in the UN Security Council demanding humanitarian access and help to some 25,000 civilians in various pockets who are threatened by the Syrian government bombings and mass killings. As noted above, success of this effort will probably only result from clear threats that multi-lateral intervention by some kind of force will follow.

It seem neither the British, who first proposed the resolution, nor America and France, now engaged according to yesterday’s joint press conference in Washington with President Obama, have the will to put it on the table for an actual vote, but the trend is moving in that direction. A negative vote may give more support for direct international action. In any case, it is likely the Russians, acting to protect their genocide allies in Syria, and the Chinese, who do not want effort to save innocents killed by their government to set a precedent for the future, will veto such efforts. This inaction is due to cowardice or perhaps calculated prudence and fear by all sides.

One of the lessons of the Syrian tragedy is that the international community needs new tools, powers, and capacity to act under the UN agreed “responsibility to protect” mandate that can overcome the deliberate efforts of authoritarian regimes like Russia and China to prevent mass killings, “ethnic cleansing,” genocide, and massive humanitarian crises. This is a decades long project, and the question is whether there is some precedent that can now be set that will move the international community towards this objective.

Perhaps the time has come to establish new institutions for such action, based perhaps on a super-majority vote in the U.N. General Assembly and a majority vote of the entire Security Council without a veto. Otherwise, other options might be acting through old or new institutions like NATO, and/or the EU, or perhaps an offshoot of an United Nations agency, with its own decision making capacity, backed up by “coalition of the willing” of responsible powers with multi-lateral military force supplied by organizations like NATO and others that might join. In the end, teeth need to be applied to a world where brutality will only respond to countervailing force. However, even here the initial path should be via diplomacy.

We welcome your comments!

THE STATE OF THE UNION AND THE STATE OF THE WORLD: PRESIDENT POSTURES FOREIGN POLICY AFFAIRS PERSPECTIVE AND THE WAY FORWARD

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THE STATE OF THE UNION AND THE STATE OF THE WORLD: PRESIDENT POSTURES FOREIGN POLICY AFFAIRS PERSPECTIVE AND THE WAY FORWARD

by Harry C. Blaney III

Most of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was focused on domestic issues, especially the need for America to move forward in dealing with glaring inequality and the need for good paying jobs, but not least improving education and investment in science and technology in our decaying infrastructure. These are, in fact, intertwined with America’s leadership capabilities in an increasingly high risk and complex world. He called last night for a more robust diplomacy and an end to “endless wars” that sap the strength of America and its larger purpose in our world. The speech was both idealistic and realistic, a trait that characterizes much of President Obama’s stance on dealing with many challenges he has had to face.

 

Given the bitter opposition by the right wing Republicans throughout his tenure, he focused in large part on what could be accomplished at home and abroad on his own. Not to the exclusion of finding some common ground on some issues, but clearly he has been chastened by single-minded and merciless obstruction.

 

While the president has real limits on what he can do at home, he has more freedom to act abroad. That was shown in the last part of his speech when he clearly set forth his large and ambitious but difficult agenda for the coming year and, perhaps, years. He and his Secretary of State John Kerry have decided, against great odds, to go for the “hail Mary” in football terms. The list is ambitious as it is long. Likely not all of it will end in success, as is often the case in messy and contentious foreign affairs challenges. Perhaps some will, but in any case, it is worth the effort since in many cases, the alternatives are very large disasters for us and others. What is the purpose of his presidency if it is not to address our larger global threats and challenges? He said it well in, “America does not stand still, and neither will I.”

 

Let’s look at that list and how Obama addressed the international issues to the American people, as that was his main audience since some half of the Congressional audience was in a dead brain coma. Just look at Speaker John Boehner during the speech, and you will know that syndrome.

 

The president made one of the most difficult tasks ahead in American diplomacy a key priority, namely finding a lasting peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary Kerry is moving as swiftly as possible towards a plan that would smoke out both sides in this long-running dispute that threatens the stability of the entire Middle East. The time has indeed come, perhaps at a difficult juncture because Prime Minister Netanyahu has done just about everything he could to destroy any chance of peace and a fair agreement. On the other side, the Palestinian leadership has been weak, but some of that weakness has been created by the illegal Israeli settlements in Arab land and new settlements that can only be aimed at trying to get the other side to pull out of negotiations. Yet, what is on offer is a so-called “Kerry Plan,” which of necessity must not fully please anyone but give enough that all can and should live with it. The president gave his full backing to this effort and the two state solution in his State of the Union and in quite promises to support Israel’s long-term security under any fair accord. He said: “As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel—a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.”

 

On the other difficult negotiation, namely sanctions dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as Obama stated, America has made real progress, and he made clear that new legislation that has been proposed by a group of anti-Obama Republicans and some Neo-Con war hawks will get his veto if passed before the conclusion of the present talks dealing with the long-term issues.

 

He made his argument thus:

 

“And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

 

“But these negotiations do not rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

 

“The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.

 

“Finally, let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe – to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want. And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.”

 

One key part of his SOU speech was his clear and decisive direction on ending the long-term wars America has been engaged in over the last decade. Again, in his own words:

 

“Tonight, because of the extraordinary troops and civilians who risk and lay down their lives to keep us free, the United States is more secure. When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over.”

 

It is the almost impossible challenge of trying to get the warring factions of Syria and their external backers to bring a measure of security and peace to this major civil war that threatens a major regional inter-communal conflict.

 

The problem of Syria was touched on, and this may be his weakest component in the international section. Apart from support for the existing diplomacy, he only briefly mentioned support of the moderate opposition forces, but did not set out any larger vision or new ideas of how to put an end of this horrific killing fields. He said, “In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks… American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated, and we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.” Perhaps the statement was short because hard new decisions remain under debate in the administration and awaits the final outcome of Geneva II. It could also be the almost impossible challenge of trying to get the warring factions of Syria and their external backers to bring a measure of security and peace to this major civil war that threatens a serious regional inter-communal conflict. 

 

What was also left out was addressing our challenges in Asia, especially the China-Japan clash, the rise of China, dealing with Putin’s Russia, North Korean nuclear efforts, and a fully defined vision on how to deal with climate change, global health needs, poverty and inequality, and strengthening international institutions. However, the speech, for good reasons, mainly addressed domestic policies. One can hope before too long Obama will set forth his fuller vision for all the other international issues that need America’s attention.

 

Obama clearly sees as his lasting legacy the ending of not only the headless Iraq war, but also finally, the active fighting by Americans and the allied forces in Afghanistan. He has seen the price of these wars to Americans and the blood and resources they cost. On his watch, America will see the end of large scale warfare in a distant land which sadly had little understanding of consequences and mission.

 

But the larger message of this speech was Obama’s diplomatic and international ambition of a new vision for America and the world that does not heed the erroneous militaristic and stupid turn our nation took with the start of the Bush II administration. He outlined his hope for an America that will again be a constructive and thoughtful world leader using all the tools of “soft power,” while holding the use of military force only when absolutely necessary and when objectives and risks are clear.

 

I thought there was one statement which set forth succinctly and clearly President Obama’s perspective. “Finally, let’s remember that our leadership is defined not only just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe—to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want. And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.”

 

We welcome your comments.

THE STRUGGLE FOR A SETTLEMENT ON IRAN AND SECURITY FOR THE REGION

 

obama 2

THE STRUGGLE FOR A SETTLEMENT ON IRAN AND SECURITY FOR THE REGION

by

Harry C. Blaney III

 

America under President Obama and Secretary John Kerry is clearly embarked on a difficult and comprehensive set of diplomatic initiatives to try to change the serious global “risk ratios” for America and the international community. But frankly the stakes are high and the rewards are elusive but possible. The problem is that they have been thwarted both by opponents abroad and from partisan opposition at home. The idea of a bipartisan foreign policy is no more a reality than a domestic love fest on domestic issues. These myopic and obstinate obstructions have both stalled progress on a host of domestic issues and on achieving progress towards greater global prosperity and a more peaceful world.

 

Tonight the President will make his State of the Union address and the prediction is that it will focus on inequality and unemployment, but it will likely also note the challenges America faces abroad.  For one thing, Obama was handed a raw deal when he came into office, including a global recession bordering on depression, nuclear dangers looming in Iran, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and not least disastrous, costly, and mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of that, a global existential threat to mankind by climate change and the growth of inequality on a global scale.  He was opposed on almost every policy when he tried to deal with these issues. In his first term, the Republicans in Congress made clear that his reelection was their first and only goal — which they did not achieve. Now in his second term, malevolent opposition and obstruction are their main tools to prevent progress at home and abroad.

 

Iran is just such an example. While we are engaged today on a broad set of interrelated diplomatic efforts to contain malevolent forces especially in the Middle East and beyond, the Congress led by mostly, but not exclusively, Republicans are trying to scuttle the negotiations between the G-5 plus 1 Group and the EU and IAEA with Iran. They are doing this by now threatening to add unneeded sanctions to scuttle the path to a possible peaceful agreement and to entice the Iranians back out of any deal and move America towards an added war against Iran in which American lives are to be put at risk for no benefit and much cost to us and the rest of the world.

 

The sad part is that under Obama America has added key, strong, and comprehensive international sanctions of unparalleled harshness. These have cut Iran’s oil exports by nearly two thirds and imposed new bans on Iran’s banking sector. Together they have deeply impaired and impacted Iran financially. The Iranian Rial has lost about 80 percent of its value. Inflation and unemployment surged, and as a result, they have come to the table based on Obama reaching out to find a peaceful solution that can rid Iran of any nuclear weapons program. But any agreement must also have some benefit to Iran, especially to its economy. Both sides have to have a stake in the outcome.

 

Recently in the New York Times (1/27/14), Senators Carl Levin and Angus King argued that “There are only two ways to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon: negotiations or military action.” They stated the essential truth and the inevitable conclusion is that those who argue for new sanctions before the results of the negotiations are known want us to go to war. We need to ask why and at what cost to us and our allies who have backed the previous sanctions we proposed, thinking that they would lead to talks and not war.

 

The two Senators argue that: “The increasingly stringent economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran over the last three decades have worked. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, came to office last year promising an improved economy, and he seems to have quickly realized that the only way to deliver on this promise is by achieving relief from the sanctions.”

 

They added:

“For us to impose additional sanctions under these circumstances (or threaten to impose additional sanctions) could be an “I told you so” moment for these [Iranian] hard-liners, providing the very excuse they’re looking for to kill the negotiations and, with them, what is probably the best chance we have of resolving this incredibly dangerous situation without resorting to military action. From our vantage point as senators serving on the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, the risk analysis is quite straightforward.

 

“The potential upside of legislating further sanctions is the hope that increased pressure might elicit more concessions or push Iran to conclude a more favorable deal. But this is unlikely. The potential downside is more likely and more dangerous: Iran’s decision makers could conclude that the United States government was not negotiating in good faith — a view that Iranian hard-liners already espouse. This could prompt Iran to walk away from the negotiations or counter with a new set of unrealistic demands while redoubling its efforts to produce nuclear weapons.

 

“Instead of slowing Iran’s nuclear program, such legislation could actually accelerate its quest for atomic weapons, leaving a stark choice: Either accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military force to stop it.

 

“Worse still, it could alienate our international partners. The sanctions have been effective largely because of the active participation of many countries, including China and Russia. When the United States alone doesn’t buy Iranian oil, it has little effect on Iran’s economy, but when the European Union stops, and other major oil customers of Iran such as China, Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey significantly reduce their purchases (which they have), Iran is in trouble (which it is).”

 

Their bottom line was “We don’t know whether Iran can be persuaded to peacefully give up its nuclear weapons ambitions — but it is very much in our interest to give this diplomatic process every chance to succeed.” I would add that the Iranians have said they do not want nuclear weapons and they too are working against the wishes of their hardliners to try and make a “deal” which they know in advance would require concessions on their overall nuclear ambitions and especially enrichment at and above 20%.

 

Iran’s intentions remain a bit of a puzzle and remain murky. The want to be the voice of Shiites throughout the region, they want to be a “great” regional, if not global power.  They see the Sunni countries as a threat to their regional standing, but also likely want now an economy that is growing, with lower inflation and to create jobs and exports.

 

They many also want to be seen as an accepted leadership nation in the larger global context. They know they are more seen now as a kind of rogue state. They know they will get none of these goals without the lifting of sanctions. That alone is reason to continue to negotiate and to even seek, overtime, a larger range of cooperation and rapprochement. The reality is that nuclear weapons in the hand of Iranians is more a danger to them than a useful tool. How could they use it or even threaten it without themselves bringing upon them self-destruction?

 

The Iranian debate in Congress and among right-wing war hawks writers and media shows us again the difficulties for America today as it undertakes difficult and complex foreign policy initiatives, when regardless of the goals and desirability of an effort, they will mindlessly oppose what Obama tries no matter the advantage to our nation. Think immediately of North Korea, think climate change, think Syria, think the Middle East negotiations, and then realize that it is these Tea Party/Neo-Cons, and right wing Republican hawks beholding not to American interests but to myopic and greedy paymasters, that are endangering our nation’s effective role in a high risk world.

 

We welcome your comments.

Syria Still a Killing field and Diplomacy Fragile: New Developments

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss issues related to Syria in Paris.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss issues related to Syria in Paris.

Secretary Kerry: “[It] is our hope that we will come out of here with greater clarity about some of the issues that need to be worked on in the days ahead. We agreed that representatives of both of our governments, from the foreign ministry in Russia and the State Department in the United States, will meet as soon as possible in order to work through a number of these issues regarding how this conference could best be prepared for the possibility of success, not failure.”

Foreign Minister Lavrov: “I would like to express my gratitude to John Kerry for suggesting that we meet on this occasion, because the situation is not getting better on the ground and we all want to do everything in our efforts to stop the bloodshed and to reduce the sufferings of the Syrian people. And therefore we took stock today of where we are with the implementation of the Russian-American initiative which was launched when John visited Moscow on the 7th of May.”

-Remarks from Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov after their meeting in Paris on May 27

We are approaching a moment of truth with the Syrian civil war.  The battles are becoming more ferocious, in a conflict more dangerous and diverse that already extends the fighting beyond Syria’s borders.

The involvement of Russian support and arms, Iranian arms and fighters, and not least Hezbollah, all bode badly for a peaceful solution. Yet the diplomatic path is still the best option of all the other bad options. Secretary John Kerry is working on both a Syrian peace and also a Middle East peace process at the same time. The two are interconnected as the region will not find a solid measure of security and prosperity until both Syrian conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian problems are solved.

Secretary Kerry has been bolder, more determined, and more focused than any Secretary of State in the last decade or more. He is also playing the long odds in an area filled with failure and risks.  But, here the U.S. is doing the right things rather than the wrong ones despite carping from the right wing Republicans and neo-cons.  In this connection Senator McCain visited Syria and talked to various factions of the Syrian opposition and in particular General Idris, the leader of a more “moderate” fighting group who asked for lethal weapons, no fly zones, and airstrikes to degrade Syria’s air force.  Sen. McCain continued his crusade for American armed intervention but still says it will not be our “boots on the ground.” He would do well to support Kerry’s diplomacy.

Russia seems to be playing more and more a double game of helping intensify the conflict and possibly arming Assad with S-300s and other weapons while opposing the EU action to let the ban on sending weapons to Syrian opposition groups end. The duplicitous strategy and statements are not the first time Russia has taken “both sides,” as its relations with Iran show. Yet there seems growing recognition that a continued war in Syria may not be to Russia’s advantage, and without America, the cooperation of NATO powers, and the Arab League, there will be no peace. Yet here Russia may have to make a decision to either seek real peace or further its isolation from a productive long-term partnership with the West.

The key to success is not only the Geneva Conference scheduled in mid-June but back-up options should that fail. These by definition would be more risky and costly but it is becoming clearer and clearer that some added intervention will be required to rid Syria of Assad and also ensure a new broad based government and peace.

I am happy to report that Tom Friedman of the New York Times has finally come out in support of the intervention of an international peacekeeping force in Syria – I assume after some kind of agreement has been reached either in Geneva or through alternative “solutions” and a “Friends of Syria” consensus that this is the best post-Assad mechanism for stability in Syria and will help in preventing further communal killing.

Now is the time for not only the Geneva Conference but also a decision by the “Friends of Syria” to act to form a multilateral peacekeeping force with a robust mandate to keep the peace and help with reconciliation of the groups in Syria.