Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Iran Preparing a Nuclear Arsenal?

Just when you might have thought that we already had more than enough going on in the Middle East to occupy minds and sound alarms, the issue of Iran's nuclear attentions is again bubbling toward the top.  The Atlantic posts a brief report on the Obama administration's push-back on Seymour Hersh's new New Yorker piece on the issue.  (Hersh: the fears are being over-hyped, just as they were regarding Saddam's alleged WMDs in 2002; the White House: no, you're wrong.)

Adding a bit more pizzazz to the discussion:
  • the IAEA's newest report (see this NYT report), which claims that Iranian scientists are developing the components for a nuclear-bomb trigger
  • Moshe Yaalon's recent exhortation that the "civilized world" must be ready to step in and, if necessary, launch military strikes against the nefarious Persians.  Said he:
"We strongly hope that the entire civilized world will come to realize what threat this regime is posing and take joint action to avert the nuclear threat posed by Iran, even if it would be necessary to conduct a pre-emptive strike," Yaalon said. Ya'alon emphasized that not only Israel would be endangered by a nuclear-armed Iran. "An Iran possessing nuclear weapons would be a threat to the entire civilized world."
I won't go into how historically warped and orientalism-friendly it is to summon up the millennia-old canard of "civilized world" (the "West," of which Israel is surely a part) vs. "uncivilized" Persians/Iranians.  The people of Iran were creating and enjoying the benefits of "civilization" millennia before what became the tribes of Israel were starting to coalesce into something even approaching an organized polity.

But I will say that all this huffing and puffing about the Iranian nuclear peril and the mullahs' existential threat to the "civilized world" as a whole and Israel in particular is a huge waste of breath.  The Iranians will do what they will do when it comes to their nuclear program.  Countless experts and analyses have shown that a US and/or Israeli military strike would have little chance of real success, would likely be counterproductive in terms of getting the Iranians to terminate their efforts (as they would see even more reason to possess a nuclear deterrent a la North Korea, India, Pakistan . . . Israel), would enflame the entire region, and would potentially bring about the collapse of the global economy as the oil supply dropped and prices skyrocketed.

Nor, despite Yaalon's dichotomizing (which casts Iranians as uncivilized; ergo, irrational - those "mad mullahs" again), is Iran intent on attacking Israel, even were Iran to obtain nukes.  Whatever the apocalyptic yearnings of Ahmadinejad and others for the return of the Hidden Imam, the Iranian leadership will be loathe to bring destruction down upon themselves by launching such a foolish attack.  And the Iranian people are still scarred by the horrific memories (and thousands of suffering military veterans) of the long war with Iraq (1980-1988).

“America has baked Iraq like a cake, and given it to Iran to eat.”

Those words were spoken to journalist/blogger Matt Duss by an Iraqi interlocutor more than two years ago (as remembered by Ben Armbruster at Wonk Room a few days ago).  Evidently, as the US prepares to pull its last troops out of Iraq, both the Pentagon and the neocon set are taking those words to heart, trying to make the case for Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki to (pretty please) ask the US to stick around. 

Departing Sec Def Robert Gates, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute a few days ago, touted the benefits of a possible extended US military presence there as comforting to Gulf countries, but certainly not to Iraq.  (And by the way, for an informed critical take on Gates' DoD stewardship, see this incisive essay from Paul Pillar at The National Interest.)

And from that same AEI comes a meant-to-frighten report, authored by mega-hawk Fred Kagan (and heartily seconded as a must-read by Max Boot at Commentary) - a "threat assessment" of Iraq that paints the grimmest of pictures:
The Iraqi Security Forces will not be able to defend Iraq’s sovereignty, maintain its independence from Iran, or ensure Iraq’s internal stability without American assistance, including some ground forces in Iraq, for a number of years. The absence of a US strategic partnership with and military presence in Iraq will weaken the Iraqi military and could lead to the breakdown of internal security and political gains, which in turn could cause renewed communal conflict and the reemergence of militant Islamist groups. Iran’s use of proxy military groups poses the most immediate and serious threat to Iraqi security. Combined with Iran’s conventional, particularly missile, threat, the current military balance pitting Iraq by itself against Iran gives Tehran military dominance at every level of escalation.

Say they, Iraq has no chance against Iran unless the US sticks around.  Problem is, as Armbruster notes, Iran's not going anywhere, ever - which means that the US might be needed for a long time, as in, indefinitely.  It's difficult to see how the American public will buy into that, no matter how much the Israelis might like to see the US stay as an insurance policy against Iran.

In the minds of the Iraqi government, though, Iran's intentions may seem like smallish potatoes, given the other troubles heaped on its plate:
  • The Kuwaiti government is playing hardball with the Iraqis over control of Gulf trade (as it moves ahead with its new Mubarak port on Bubiyan Island), and over the issue of unpaid reparations from Saddam's occupation of Kuwait in 1990.  Kuwait has seized the assets of Iraq's airline in Jordan to force payment, and Iraq is also going to become even more vulnerable to reparations claims when the fund that the US established to help pay for reconstruction is terminated in July, at which time the US's shielding of Iraq's revenues from such claims will end.
  • Iraq is entering yet another long summer with woefully inadequate electricity-generator capacity for people to run air-conditioners and weather the heat.  As a stop-gap against public anger bubbling over uncontrollably, the government has taken action, declaring that it "will provide free fuel to power generators nationwide throughout the scorching summer. . . to try to head off another wave of protests over poor electricity supplies.  A government spokesman said $400 million had been allocated for the scheme, but officials admitted that no reliable estimates existed for how much oil would be required, and a study would have to be carried out to provide such data."  The study will be conducted, how soon?  This has failure written all over it.
  • Perhaps to put some distance between his reputation and this looming failure, Iraqi vice-president Adel Abdul Mahdi, reputed to be one of Iraq's more respected politicians, has announced his resignation.  It's perhaps important to note here that he was affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a Shii religious party that has been a long-time rival of al-Maliki's party, the Shii religious party Da'wa.  But whatever Mr. Mahdi's motives, his resignation certainly accentuates the continuing disorganized, incomplete character of Maliki's government, which, several months after coming to power, still has no permanently appointed heads for its major security ministries.  (Mr. Maliki still holds them.)
Meanwhile, bombings and assassinations are rife, as are Arab-Kurd tensions in the north and around Kirkuk.  And the division and allocation of oil revenues have yet to be worked out.

Nonetheless, the Kagans, Boots, McCains, Liebermans, and Grahams of the US establishment are almost desperate to somehow cajole Maliki into asking the US to stay beyond 2011.  In the days ahead, be ready to hear more cant about the dangers of the US losing Iraq, squandering victory, rendering vain the US's sacrifices of blood and treasure. 

But to fortify yourself, and as we usher out yet another Memorial Day weekend, during which we take time to honor America's war dead, heed these comments from Paul Pillar (again, at The National Interest):
there is a much-repeated pattern of entire populations at war treating past losses as an investment that must be stuck to in a dead-shall-not-have-died-in-vain way. This is a matter of collective psychology and reduction of national dissonance, not sober pursuit of national interests. In fact, all that “investment” consists of sunk costs. Nothing that happens in Iraq from this day forward will bring back to life the more than 4400 U.S. service members who have died there, or make whole the many thousands more who are permanently disabled either physically or emotionally, or repay the hundreds of billions of dollars that the United States has spent on the war. The proper policy perspective is to weigh whatever incremental benefit is to be gained against the additional costs—human, material, and political—from staying in Iraq.

At this juncture of Iraq's history, the incremental benefits for the US of staying in Iraq would be paltry, at best.  But at this juncture of the US's history - with roads and bridges crumbling, schools failing, medical costs skyrocketing, millions jobless or homeless - we can ill afford to sustain any additional costs whatsoever from a war that has already cost too much, and inflicted too much pain and human misery.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Likud MK Calls for Unrestricted Settlement Building in West Bank

Reporting on Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting with his Likud party, the Jerusalem Post notes that long-time "Greater Israel" proponent - and current minister-without-portfolio - Benny Begin (son of former PM - and Irgun terrorist - Menachem Begin, the godfather of the West Bank settlement movement) is now calling for unrestricted Israeli settlement construction in "Judea and Samaria" (the West Bank).  His reasoning: there's no chance of negotiations with the Palestinians, so . . . let's go for it. 

Begin and pals probably sense, of course, that those Congressional Republicans who espouse the Christian Zionist notion that "God gave" all that land to the Jews anyway would not stand in his way.  (Indeed, the report notes that some of the Likud MKs joked with Netanyahu that he ought to seek the Republican nomination for president.  His response? He's strictly bipartisan in his dealings with Congress.)

The real focus of the meeting, however, was a subject that occasioned no joking whatsoever: the upcoming September meeting of the UN General Assembly, where the Palestinian leadership hopes for a vote recognizing a Palestinian state in "Judea and Samaria."  Netanyahu believes that forming a unity government - by including the Kadima party led by Tzipi Livni - would fortify Israel against what's being referred to as the approaching "tsunami."  (Perhaps predictably, another Likud MK - the same man whose recent op-ed in the NY Times just prior to Obama's "Arab Spring" speech called for the outright annexation of the entire West Bank by Israel - recommended inviting an even harder-line, farther rightist party into the governing coalition.)

Underlying all the jocularity and political engineering is the growing realization among the Israeli leadership that even as Israel's regional isolation is growing (a development accentuated by Egypt's sharp turn away from Israel, reflected most recently in its opening of the Rafah crossing connecting Gaza with Egypt), Israel is facing the threat of international isolation in the wake of a UN vote that (as Netanyahu himself now seems to have admitted) will surely go against Israel's wishes by affording the Palestinians  internationally sanctioned legitimacy.  (It's ironic that Netanyahu chose to mock the UN General Assembly as a body that would pass a "flat earth" resolution; it was the UN General Assembly's 1947 vote in favor of partitioning mandate Palestine that gave international legitimacy to the creation of a Jewish state.)

For decades, of course, the US has had Israel's back in the UN's Security Council, vetoing virtually every resolution there that might at all have been construed as damaging to Israel's interests - even when a resolution affirmed already stated and accepted US policy (as happened in February, when the US vetoed a UNSC resolution affirming the illegality of Israel's West Bank settlements). UNSC resolutions, of course, are binding; those of the UNGA are not.  Nonetheless, the September UNGA vote promises to wreak even more havoc on Israel's image, which remains muddied by its devastation of Gaza in 2008-2009 and its later, lethal interception of a flotilla of aid-bearing ships headed to Gaza.  (That action left 9 dead, including an American citizen - over whose death Congress uttered nary a squawk.  By the way, by the end of June another flotilla - more than 1000 people, from more than 100 countries - will be en route from Turkey, whose leaders have served notice to Israel that a repeat of that intervention - some would call it a hijacking - would be ill advised.)

That the Israeli leadership seems content to circle the wagons and, in effect, dare the international community to "bring it on" seems anything but enlightened statesmanship.  Those Americans who consider themselves true friends of Israel need to be reminding Messrs. Netanyahu, Begin, et al. of that.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fount for the Arab Spring: Egypt's Second Revolution, and Saudi Oil Money

In the movie "The Right Stuff," there's a memorable line when astronaut Gus Grissom reminds NASA engineers, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."  It's a remark that I find especially apt when thinking ahead to what lies in store for the "Arab Spring," the explosions of anti-autocratic activism that since January have convulsed Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria and have inspired so much hope for the emergence of democracies there.  The protests have all featured demands for popular representation in these countries' till-now highly autocratic systems.  But, they have been rooted even more deeply in demands for "dignity," implicit in which are economic opportunity and improved standards of living in countries where access to wealth has been controlled by often corrupt political leadership.  To remedy that, these countries need much more than democracy.  Their leaders need to be able to offer the promise of better days, and a better life, ahead.

That will take hundreds of billions of dollars.  The US and other members of the G8 know that, so during their recent meetings, a major focus of discussion was funding to sustain the momentum of the Arab Spring.

Alas, as Juan Cole has noted, what they came up with is hardly a Marshall Plan for the region.  And as he also notes, compared to what was on offer from the US to Egypt and other Arab countries in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, what's being offered now is peanuts.
In 1990-1991, Egypt was $50 billion in debt, and then its government joined in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s forces occupying Kuwait. After the Gulf War, $25 billion of the debt was forgiven, i.e., half, which uplifted the Egyptian economy in the early to mid 1990s. Pakistan also got very heavy debt forgiveness after 2001 for turning on the Taliban and allying with the United States and NATO.

If joining a war is worth half a country’s debt, then moving from a military dictatorship to trying to become a democratic country should be worth just as much. That would mean Egypt alone should be getting $40 bn. in debt forgiveness. After all, the debt was incurred by a military dictatorship that did not consult the people, and which was in the hip pocket of the Western Powers. Why should poor Egyptians in Ismailiya and Asyut be held hostage for repayment?

And, the $25 bn. in debt forgiveness for Egypt of the early 1990s was a sure thing, not vague promises and ‘calls’ on other countries and institutions of the sort that just came out of the G8. . . .

Egypt’s transition to democracy is going to be rocky enough without the albatross of Hosni Mubarak’s debts hanging around its neck. The world community needs to be far more generous and pro-active if Egyptians are going to feel rewarded rather than punished for their remarkable achievement in moving toward popular sovereignty and a rule of law. The same holds true for Tunisia. But Egypt is a fourth of the Arab world and an opinion leader, and its success really would resonate widely in the Arab world and Africa.

The G8 gesture was good as a confidence-building measure, but it is piddling in relationship to the real needs and is short-sighted in its picayune dimensions.

Of course, what's apparent here is the economic weakness of the US and its European allies in the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2008.  In the case of the US, of course, that economic decline was hastened by the policies of Mr. Obama's foolhardy predecessor, who launched a feckless adventure in Afghanistan, a disastrous adventure in Iraq, and then tried to pay for them by borrowing from China while cutting revenue sources in the US.  Bottom line: the US is in no position to offer Egypt or anyone else anything close to what's needed in economic assistance - at a time when such assistance might be a game-changer in terms of helping Arab peoples to fashion peacefully the "new Middle East" that Bush, Condi, and the neocons tried so hard to create from the barrels of US firepower.

Who holds the money cards now?  The US's oil-wealthy "allies" in the region, and especially, Saudi Arabia. As the NY Times reported, the Saudi monarchy is now pumping funds to various Arab countries in order to win influence and, in so doing, stem the tide of democratic inroads.  In Egypt especially, they have injected $4 billion in hopes of bolstering the military council now in charge.

The kingdom is aggressively emphasizing the relative stability of monarchies, part of an effort to avert any drastic shift from the authoritarian model, which would generate uncomfortable questions about the pace of political and social change at home. . .

Prince Waleed bin Talal al-Saud, a businessman and high-profile member of the habitually reticent royal family, told the editorial board of The New York Times last week, referring to the unrest, . . . “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

The range of the Saudi intervention is extraordinary as the unrest pushes Riyadh’s hand to forge what some commentators, in Egypt and elsewhere, brand a “counterrevolution.” Some Saudi and foreign analysts find the term too sweeping for the steps the Saudis have actually taken, though they appear unparalleled in the region and beyond as the kingdom reaches out to ally with non-Arab Muslim states as well.

“I am sure that the Saudis do not like this revolutionary wave — they were really scared,” said Khalid Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst and columnist. “But they are realistic here.”

In Egypt, where the revolution has already toppled a close Saudi ally in Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis are dispensing aid and mending ties in part to help head off a good showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming parliamentary elections. The Saudis worry that an empowered Muslim Brotherhood could damage Saudi legitimacy by presenting a model of Islamic law different from the Wahhabi tradition of an absolute monarch.

“If another model of Shariah says that you have to resist, this will create a deep difficulty,” said Abdulaziz Algasim, a Saudi lawyer.

Saudi officials are also concerned that Egypt’s foreign policy is shifting, with its outreach to the Islamist group Hamas and plans to restore ties with Iran. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, also retains a personal interest in protecting Mr. Mubarak, analysts believe.

What's emerging in Egypt then is a possible scenario for conflict between the US and Saudi Arabia over the nature of the new government.  Yesterday, thousands of Egyptians poured back into Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand (in what the LA Times termed a Second Revolution) that the government be re-formed to reduce the influence of the military, and that elections be delayed in order to give newly developing secular parties a fighting chance against the much better organized Muslim Brotherhood, which is predicted to do very well if the elections are held as scheduled. 

If Mr. Obama's rhetoric is to be believed, the US would want the voices of yesterday's protest to be respected, as both an expression of popular political will as well as in the hope that Egypt's future government will not be dominated by Islamists.  But the Saudis are already using their money to prop up the current government, which is dominated by the same military from which hailed ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors back to Gamal Abdul Nasser.  The Saudis would surely like nothing more than a kind of Mubarak-lite regime that would leave a military autocracy in charge.  And if such an autocracy could somehow disburse Saudi largesse to the Egyptian people in a manner that lifted hopes for a better life across the social spectrum, those thousands of Egyptians who risked (or lost) their lives to demand the dignity of democracy may find those dreams trumped by the lure of petro-dollars.

Why Palestinians Should not Recognize Israel as a "Jewish State"

As Hussein Ibish notes at Foreign Policy, the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel explicity as a "Jewish state" is a relatively new element among their demands, and one that, for a variety of reasons, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership would be foolish to embrace.


For decades, Palestinians were told to recognize Israel and renounce violence, and through their sole legitimate international representative, the PLO, they did so almost 20 years ago, even though it meant effectively renouncing claims on a full 78 percent of the country in which they had been a large majority in 1948. They did this on the understanding that it would lead, in short order, to their own independence in an excruciatingly small part of what they regard, with impeccable historical credentials, as their own country. That has not transpired and does not appear imminent. Now they are being told that they have not done enough, that this novel concept is now the defining issue, that they once again have to read from a script being handed to them by Israeli leaders, and that if they will only say the new magic words the problem will be solved.

I doubt there is a single Palestinian who does not believe that behind Netanyahu's demand lies a fundamental disinclination to agree to a truly independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Indeed, at the Knesset on May 16 and at the Congress on May 24, he insisted on a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, effectively denying this potential Palestinian state control of its own borders. This places Netanyahu squarely at odds with U.S. President Barack Obama's clear reference to a "full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces" from the areas to become a Palestinian state, as does his continued strong implication that he is not prepared to negotiate seriously about Jerusalem. Therefore Netanyahu's insistence that the only real issue is for Abbas to intone the incantation "I accept Israel as a Jewish state" rings exceptionally hollow.

Netanyahu's demand is an additional and quite recent complication to an already tangled knot, but it has sunk so deeply into the Israeli and pro-Israel consciousness that some sort of language to satisfy it may ultimately have to be found. Reciprocal recognition of the Jewish right of self-determination in Israel and the Palestinian right of self-determination in Palestine might well prove a requisite final flourish on a peace agreement. But expecting or demanding Palestinians to embellish their already unrequited recognition of Israel with an extremely problematic, premature, and, at this stage, politically impossible statement about Israel as a "Jewish state" (again, whatever that might mean) can only be interpreted as another, and entirely gratuitous, obstacle to peace.

I have absolutely no doubt that if the Palestinians agreed tomorrow to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu would seize upon some other demand as a means of delaying negotiations - secure in the knowledge that settlement construction goes on in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and that no one is about to stop it.  Netanyahu has done nothing but play for time, especially with Congress - and they are willing to give him all the time he wants.

Even after Mr. Obama's speech, then, as Rashid Khalidi wrote recently, 

There is little sense in the Arab world or among Palestinians that the United States has a constructive role to play in resolving this conflict. Indeed, if anything, it has only succeeded in making itself even more of a roadblock to progress than it was before.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bibi Better Have a Plan B

As Benjamin Netanyahu comes home to much public acclaim for his performance in D.C. (according to a Haaretz poll), more far-seeing Israelis seem to be saying that, OK, Bibi earned some style points, but . . . what happens now?  For except for that glittering performance before an adoring Congress, he came home, essentially, empty-handed.  Even the normally Israeliphile NY Times makes the point that many in Israel, who expected Netanyahu to create a viable path back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, see that he did nothing of the kind.  From the diplomatic standpoint, Bibi's trip was a failure.

Likewise, in the US and elsewhere outside Israel, more knowledgeable commentators (I especially recommend the essays from Henry Siegman, Patrick Seale, Tony Karon, and Robert Dreyfuss) have made the same point: Netanyahu created no real opening to peace, but did a spectacular job of playing to Congress as well as throwing red meat to Republicans eager to use the issue of Israel vs. Palestinians as a wedge to drive voters away from Obama.  There's a nice synergy of partisan-political upsides there, because Bibi also can say to his Likud party and to pro-settlements members of his ruling coalition (like Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's Shas party) that he gave nothing away to an American president who spoke of returning to 1967's "indefensible" boundaries.

But Bibi had better be thinking a few years down the road . . . or, for that matter, a few months.  As the NYT piece noted, one of Israel's leading dailies,  Yediot Aharonot, ran a cartoon that
"showed Mr. Netanyahu’s returning plane flying near a volcano. Inside the plane someone says, “All in all, it was a very successful visit.” From the volcano, smoke rises that spells out “S-E-P-T-E-M-B-E-R.”

September is when the UN meets again, and where Israel may be facing a General Assembly vote to recognize officially a Palestinian state.  Pro-Israel lobbies and American Jewish groups are already hard at work shmoozing and cajoling delegations from countries all over the world:
Jewish groups are looking to the Caribbean for support, meeting with representatives of Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, St. Lucia and Antigua. They are talking with Central American countries such as Panama and Costa Rica.

In Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria are being lobbied as possible "no" votes. Kenya is on the list. So are Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati and Vanuatu.

No country is too small. Lobbyists for Israel will be schmoozing up the tiny principalities of Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino, which wield the same clout in the full member body as China or Russia.

They may be fighting an uphill battle at this point.  But looming over the horizon is an eventuality that Bibi ignores at his peril: the pending decline of American power, and, ergo, America's ability to intimidate Israel's neighbors into acquiescing in the kind of intransigence to which Bibi has become so accustomed.  Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett are, to my knowledge, among the very few with the prescience to raise this - and they take their cue from Obama's speech to AIPAC, where he  said:
There is a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations.  They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process—or the absence of one.  Not just in the Arab world, but in Latin America, in Europe, and in Asia.  That impatience is growing and is already manifesting itself in capitols around the world…

[T]he march to isolate Israel internationally—and the impulses of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations—will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.  For us to have leverage with the Palestinians, with the Arab states, and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.”

In their estimation, what Obama was alluding to was this:
The language used by the President describes this changing context in terms of an “impatience” with continued irresolution that “is already manifesting itself in capitals around the world” and “is growing”.  At the same time, there is a subtly conveyed assessment that this impatience is growing not just in predictable places, like the Arab world and Europe, but also in Latin America (with Brazil in the lead) and Asia (where the world’s greatest concentration of rising powers is found).  In other words, impatience is growing in precisely the non-OECD parts of the world that will gain relative power and influence at the expense of the United States in coming years.   

That is why, in the President’s words, “we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace.”  Obama justifies his position on the grounds that “the world is moving too fast” and that “the extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow”.  But what this really means is that, in coming years, America’s ability to continuing shielding Israel from the consequences of its own benighted choices will shrink.  America’s commitment to Israel’s security may be, as Obama described it, “unwavering”.  But the extent to which that unwavering commitment actually translates into incremental security for Israel will almost certainly decline in the future.

From Obama’s perspective, the inference Israelis should draw from his words is:  strike a deal now, before the ability of the United States to protect you in the rather comprehensive way it does now erodes in strategically consequential ways.  We have no confidence that Israel, even under whatever ruling coalition follows the current Netanyahu government, will take Obama’s words to heart and act on them.  But we are struck that Obama has implicitly acknowledged a reality we have been highlighting for some time—that, in terms of its ability to affect on-the-ground outcomes and achieve its own stated policy goals in the Middle East, the United States is a declining power.  

The vast majority of commentators have framed their analyses within a paradigm of continued US pre-eminence across the globe, and continued US ability and will to enforce what Obama referred to as an "ironclad" guarantee of Israel's security.  Yet even in recent years, we've seen that there is nothing "ironclad" in the ability of the US military hyper-power to guarantee any proposed outcome: not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Libya.  That hyper-power now struggles with a fragile economy, trillions of dollars of debt, and an infrastructure with roads and bridges in such disrepair that recent estimates peg the cost of refurbishing them at $1.5 trillion. 

Americans will soon be faced with some difficult choices and will need to make major sacrifices if the US is to regain its footing.  Can Bibi be so certain that, when that time comes, the American people will be willing to forgo their own futures in order to rescue an ally so reckless and uncompromising as Israel has been?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The WSJ's Twisted Spin: Obama an "Anti-Israel President"

Bret Stephens' piece today is nothing if not over the top in its biased allegations and twisted spin in his assessment of Obama's recent pronouncements on the Arab Spring and the Israel-Palestine issue.  To wit:
it isn't often that this or any other U.S. president welcomes a foreign leader by sandbagging him with an adversarial policy speech a day before the visit.
Sandbagging?  Adversarial?  Stephens surely refers to Obama's reference to the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations, with appropriate swaps.  Nothing in that reference runs counter to decades of US policy concerning that issue.  Bibi and his people know that; or they have no excuse not to know it.  If Bibi felt sandbagged or picked on, that's on him, not on Barack.  In fact, one might just as easily make the case that Bibi was the more adversarial of the two with his day-after lecture, which tried to bully the US president in order to throw some rhetorical red meat to his Likudniks back home.
No U.S. president has explicitly endorsed the '67 lines as the basis for negotiating a final border, which is why the University of Michigan's Juan Cole, not exactly a shill for the Israel lobby, called it "a major turning point."
Explicitly or not, that has been US policy for many years (and that Juan Cole, for whose work I have great respect, called it a turning point mystifies me).  It explains why the US still refuses to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  It also explains the protests a few months ago when the US vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have reinforced the illegal status of Israel's settlements in the West Bank - a policy that, again, the US adheres to officially.
on Thursday Mr. Obama called for Israel to make territorial concessions to some approximation of the '67 lines before an agreement is reached on the existential issues of refugees and Jerusalem. . . .   the essence of his proposal is that Israel should cede territory, put itself into a weaker position, and then hope for the best. This doesn't even amount to a land-for-peace formula.
That Obama made no statement of US positions on refugees and Jerusalem is lamentable, but so is Stephens' use of "concessions" for an act that would put Israel on the right side of both international law and history: to return the West Bank to Arab Palestinian control.
Mr. Obama was also cheered for his references to Israel as a "Jewish state." But why then obfuscate on the question of Palestinian refugees, whose political purpose over 63 years has been to destroy Israel as a Jewish state?
No, their underlying purpose lies in their right - likewise enshrined in international law - to return to the homes and homelands from which they were driven, illegally and unjustly, beginning in 1947.

Nothing like chumming the water for Bibi's speech to Congress.  But I suppose one can't expect much different from a Wall Street Journal columnist whose previous employment was as editor at the Jerusalem Post.

I'd rather embrace the assessments of a long-time CIA official who has probably forgotten more about the history of US public diplomacy on this issue than Bret Stephens will ever know.  Paul Pillar writes at The National Interest: 
The drop-the-veil moment during this past week was the importunate lobbying by Netanyahu's government before President Obama delivered his Middle East speech [4] on Thursday at the State Department (and doesn't that say something right there—where else would one see a foreign government get in the last lobbying licks on a president's speech, even at the expense of delaying the speech?) to omit any mention of the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiating land swaps and an eventual territorial settlement. The president mentioned that anyway, and in the joint appearance on Friday Netanyahu said nothing about land swaps, instead denouncing the 1967 borders as not being a suitable basis for anything.
(Netanyahu, by the way, reiterated that position to AIPAC.)
More from Pillar:
As Mr. Obama correctly noted in his address to AIPAC [5] on Sunday, there was nothing new in his mention of 1967-borders-with-swaps. It has long been recognized as the only formula that has any hope of being the basis for a successful negotiation. It has been the basis for several official proposals, including one by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. It also has been at the center of several unofficial proposals, including ones from people whose concern for Israel cannot be doubted (such as a plan offered by David Makovsky [6] of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).

So for Netanyahu, not only is the land allotted to the Jewish state in the UN partition plan of the 1940s not enough, and not only is the larger territory that became the State of Israel with what we call the 1967 borders not enough. Even with land swaps that would extend Israel farther into the West Bank and include the large majority of the settlements Israel has constructed on land seized in the 1967 war, that would still not be enough for him. How much would be enough? One can speculate on what crumbs of land would be left to the Palestinians, but speculation is not required to have an idea based on Netanyahu's own statements of what such a “state” would entail: Israeli control of the airspace, no military of its own [7], and, as the prime minister mentioned on Friday, a “long-term” Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. It sounds like a bantustan that would make Bophuthatswana look like a paragon of sovereignty. But trying to envision the details of such an entity is pointless because it is a non-starter very likely intended to be rejected. . . .

Dishonesty in his professed desire for a peace settlement and a Palestinian state was only one part of the deception Netanyahu has displayed this past week. Another part concerned his reasons for coveting all that land. This part of the duplicity derives from the nature of U.S. interests involving Israel. The United States has an interest in assuring the security of Israel. In his AIPAC speech, President Obama properly referred to this aspect of U.S.-Israeli relations as “ironclad.” But the United States has no positive interest in either party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict acquiring title to land not because it is needed for security but instead for historical or religious reasons, or simply to acquire living space. The only U.S. interest is the negative one of being associated in the minds of much of the rest of the world with the Israeli occupation. So Netanyahu couched his denunciation of the 1967 boundary in security terms, saying (again ignoring what President Obama said about land swaps) that the boundary was “indefensible.”

Let's see—even if we ignore, as Netanyahu has, what would be needed for the Palestinians' security—how has that boundary figured into Israeli security in the past? In the one war that was fought across the boundary—the one in 1967—the Israeli Defense Forces conquered the entire West Bank in less than a week (while they also were taking the Golan Heights away from Syria and the Sinai away from Egypt). Since that war, the differential between Israel's military capability and that of its Arab neighbors has become if anything even greater (even just at the conventional level, without considering Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons beginning in the 1970s). Who would threaten Israel across that 1967 border? A demilitarized Palestinian “state”? Some rusty post-Cold War army from some other Arab country that somehow made it into the West Bank? For many years the biggest threat to Israelis' security has come not across a border beyond which Israel lacked control but instead from angry Palestinians in land that Israel does control. The idea of the 1967 border as indefensible is—given military realities in the Middle East—itself indefensible. And the notion that an Israeli-Palestinian boundary based on land swaps on either side of that border, and as part of a larger peace agreement, would threaten Israeli security is ludicrous.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Beat Goes on in West Bank; New Challenge in Iraq

Obama speech or no Obama speech; borders, shmorders . . . business as usual in the West Bank.  The Jerusalem Post reports that the Israel defense ministry has approved the construction of 294 new housing units in Beitar Illit, the second-largest colony in the West Bank.  This on the heels on the heels of authorizations only two months ago for new construction of at least 390 housing units in West Bank settlements, including 200 in Modi'in Illit, 100 in Ariel, 40 in Ma’aleh Adumim and 50 in Kfar Eldad.  This, of course, pre-empts any negotiation about these settlements - all of which, again, are illegal according to international law.

Meanwhile, Bibi is preparing his speech before Congress, to be delivered Tuesday (the speech, that is; not Congress. Congress was delivered to Bibi years ago). The word seems to be that he may include a few surprises, but that he may hold off from challenging Obama any more. Not that he'd need to.  As Reuters reports, House Republicans are on the job:
 Republicans in Congress, including House leaders, are not about to drop their criticism of the Democratic president's newly articulated Mideast vision. House Republican Leader Eric Cantor said Monday that Obama's comments on Middle East borders left "most Americans ... just questioning what kind of strategy there is. It doesn't make sense to force a democratic ally of ours into negotiating with now a terrorist organization" about land swaps. Cantor was referring to a unity deal last month between Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and Hamas, an Islamist group viewed by the United States as a terrorist organization. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch's office says he will introduce a resolution that it is not U.S. policy to have Israel's borders return to the boundaries of 1967. Israeli officials said they expected Netanyahu to deliver several "surprises" in his address to Congress on Tuesday, but they declined to elaborate, saying he would likely be working on a final draft up until the last minute. . . .

And, get this:
The official Israeli statement on Netanyahu's speech noted that he is "among the few world leaders, who include Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin, invited to address Congress for a second time."


In Iraq, meanwhile, one of the Middle East's other "democracies" - this one installed by Uncle Sam himself - keeps taking hits to its stability (more violence in Kirkuk).  Bombings and assassinations have marked almost every day over the last month, motivated perhaps to create fear ahead of the impending US withdrawal.  (In fact, at least one report suggests that attackers may be hoping that their mayhem will force the US to stay.)

But Kuwait may be about to land a hugely crushing blow to Iraq's recovery. As reported in The National, the Kuwaitis are moving ahead on the construction of a new port facility on Bubiyan Island, in effect, beating the Iraqi government to the punch.  The Iraqis have been laying plans for their own new port for quite awhile, but according to The National, delays resulting after the March 2010 election (when it took Iraq months to decide on a new government, still under construction), as well as the corruption endemic in the Iraqi government, enabled the Kuwaitis to get out in front.  The Iraqi government is furious:
Iraqi politicians and community leaders have accused Kuwait of deliberately stealing their idea in order to hamstring Iraq's economic recovery after decades of war and sanctions.

Zuhair al Araji, a parliamentarian with the Iraqiyya bloc from Basra, 550km south of Baghdad and the city that was most likely to benefit from the proposed port, said: "I'm sorry Kuwait has taken the decision to turn against Iraq. They are destroying the Iraqi economy."

Mr Araji and others said they are convinced Kuwait pushed forward on their own port as a way of punishing Iraq. Under former leader Saddam Hussein, Iraq invaded the much-smaller and less-militarised Gulf kingdom in 1990. Kuwait insists the new port is part of its own strategic plan for itself becoming a major shipping hub in the region.

Relations between Baghdad and Kuwait city have been strained, with various peaks in tension as the various claims are pushed.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al al Maliki has now set up an emergency committee to negotiate over the port with Kuwait.

Iraqi economists have estimated the country's current deep-water port, Um Qasr, located nearby on Iraq's short coastline, will also be severely affected if a more-modern Kuwaiti competitor is built.

"We hope this issue can be dealt with properly and quickly, said Mr Araji, the Basra MP.

"The Iraqi economy is in a state of collapse and it is in everyone's interests, including Kuwait's, to fix it," he said.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bibi's Beating Up on Barack. But Beware . . .

Many moons ago, I recall, when Obama first entered the White House, I wrote of my concern that Israel premier Benjamin Netanyahu would try to "school" him, to bully him as a relatively untutored statesman, when it came to the Middle East in general and the Israel-Palestine situation in particular.  Well, it's pretty clear that since then, Bibi has pretty much had his way with Barack - even before the Republicans regained the House in 2010.

Yesterday, Bibi made it plain that he'd brook no uppity back-talk from the White House whipper-snapper.  As the NY Times reported, in yesterday's meeting at the White House, Bibi stared Barack in the eye and not only insisted (in what the WaPo report describes as a "lecturing tone") that Israel could not accept the 1967 lines as the starting point in any negotiations with its Palestinian interlocutors, but also would insist on a fully demilitarized Palestinian state and on an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River (i.e., on the border of a putative Palestine with its neighbor, Jordan) and would brook no discussion of a Palestinian right of return.  Barack did not back down, but he did make sure to insist that the US would regard Israel's security as its foremost consideration in any negotiation.  (Not that Bibi ever had cause to doubt it.  As the NYT also reports - in a piece that some might regard as "outing" him to readers who might not have already known - Dennis Ross, whom some have anointed as Israel's lawyer in the White House, has been on the job, even if Obama's speech likely ran counter to what he advised.  Abe Foxman is quoted extensively to the effect that, all along, Ross has had Israel's back in any discussions in the White House that involve Israel.)

Roger Cohen contributes a brave piece applauding Obama's speech as brave and on the mark.  From the Palestinian side, though, the outcome of the last two days is hardly promising.  Though Obama's reference to the 1967 lines was welcome, it was hardly a revolutionary statement; and Obama failed to enunciate any US position on Jerusalem or the Palestinian right of return, stating instead that such issues could be taken on farther down the road.  That attitude, of course, replicates the tactic embedded in the Clinton-era Oslo Accords, much touted at the time but, in the end, hugely disappointing because they, too, allowed the opposing parties to kick major issues down the road.  Meanwhile, successive Israeli governments keep on building those settlements in the West Bank.

Tomorrow, Obama speaks before AIPAC.  His reception there will speak volumes.

One ray of hope for the Palestinians, and for Mr. Obama: the "Quartet" (which includes the EU, the UN, and Russia - in other words, most of the rest of the planet) backs Obama's approach.  And that date for a UN General Assembly vote to recognize a Palestinian state still lies ahead this fall, only a few months away.

Whatever success the Bibi + Congress tag-team has against the president of the United States, Israel still faces the prospect of even greater international isolation, at a time when Arab countries it could count on to not rock the boat may be sailing in a different direction on the tide of the Arab Spring.  For Israel's sake, Bibi would do well to think it through before he humiliates Obama even more.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The US as "Dispensable Nation"

I can't recommend highly enough the new essay posted by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett to Foreign Policy.  They not only pan the Obama speech for its shortcomings; they expose the US's increasing irrelevance in a region where, as they note, the most important actors are charting their own courses to suit their own interests rather than kowtowing to US dictate.

I'm especially impressed with their portrait of the turn the region has taken, and on how the US needs to adjust its thinking:
It is now absolutely imperative for the United States to revamp its posture toward Islamist movements in the Middle East, including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, as well as Hamas. By continuing the same dysfunctional approach as his predecessors -- demanding, up front, that these groups recognize Israel's right to exist and disarm before negotiations and surrender everything else that makes them distinctive as political actors -- Obama is not isolating the Islamists. He is only deepening America's isolation from some of the most vital political forces in the Middle East today, whose leaders have precisely the kind of democratic legitimacy the president claims to want to encourage.

The president's rejection of serious engagement was even more stark with regard to the Islamic Republic. We have argued, from early in Obama's presidential tenure, that he was never serious about productive engagement, much less "Nixon to China" rapprochement, with Tehran. But in his speech, Obama dropped even a fa├žade of interest in negotiations with Iran.

Obama depicts the Islamic Republic as the antithesis of the Arab Awakening. It is certainly the case that there is no significant constituency outside the Islamic Republic for replicating precisely its form of government. But, however much the U.S. president and his administration try to deny it, the Islamic Republic is, in broad terms, a prototype of the sort of political order that other Middle Eastern populations want to create for themselves -- orders that may be imperfect, but which will be indigenously authentic, highly competitive, and not subordinated to an overbearing American hegemon (as with Mubarak's Egypt) or any other external power.

The fact is that any political order in the Middle East which becomes at all more representative of its people's values, beliefs, and positions will, by definition, become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with America. (That's why Tehran thinks it is "winning" relative to the United States as the Arab Awakening unfolds.) But, rather than face this reality and take on the real challenge of thinking through how the United States pursues its interests in the Middle East in ways that don't offend most of the people who live there, Obama resorts to rhetoric and policies that have already manifestly failed.

Moreover, even people close to the administration are admitting that the $1 billion in debt forgiveness and the offer of $1 billion in loans to Egypt and Tunisia hardly represent a Marshall Plan for the region.  (And Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has already criticized the loan forgiveness as money that an economically troubled US needs back home.  So sad.) 

Public opinion in the Arab countries has greeted Obama's speech not only warily, but even with apathy and derision.

Incredible.  In 20 years, the US has gone from "hyperpower" that helped engineer the "end of history" (as Francis Fukuyama put it) to a declining power steadily fading back into the pack.

Obama's Speech: Arab Wariness, Israeli Anger, American Irrelevance

Reactions that the NYT sampled in various Arab capitals were mixed - and for good reason.  Obama had stirred many with his Cairo speech in 2009, only to falter in his follow-through and even back down in the face of Netanyahu's refusal to halt settlement construction in the West Bank.  And, of course, under previous US presidents, the US had acquiesced in such construction in both the West Bank and Gaza, supported Arab dictators across the board, and under Bush I and Bush II, twice invaded Iraq and killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.  People are understandably wary of Obama's rhetoric, and American intentions.

Two prominent Arab commentators hit those points during an interview with PBS Newshour.  Rami Khouri aptly noted the disconnect between Obama's rhetoric and American policies, but also noted that Obama had perhaps carved out some space for the US to deal with the recent inclusion of Hamas in the new Palestinian coalition.  Mona Eltahawy (who seems to be everywhere these days) was more blunt in her criticism:
for an audience in the Middle East and North Africa, that is very fed up and has long been very fed up of a clear double standard in U.S. foreign policy, and a policy that would take the sides of dictators, at the expense of the people, I don't think that the speech finally caught up, because, I mean, I heard many positive things, but there were many things that were glaringly missing.

For example, the United States gives the Egyptian armed forces $1.3 billion in aid every year. The Supreme Military Council, which runs Egypt right now, is endangering the very values and the revolution that President Obama praised today, because the Supreme Military Council in Egypt detains people, detains revolutionaries, tortures them, and puts them on military trial.

And then when it comes to the most glaring omission of all, and the country that is the worst offender and the strongest counter-revolutionary force, Saudi Arabia, the president didn't mention it at all. President Obama mentioned Iran as a potential threat in Bahrain. But remember, Saudi Arabia has actual troops on the ground in Bahrain.

And when it comes to religious freedom and women's rights, which the president mentioned -- and I praise him for that -- Saudi Arabia again is the worst offender, especially when it comes to its Shia minority and women's rights.

The NY Times also  reports on the icy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu leading up to Obama's speech yesterday (and their meeting today), as well as Netanyahu's gamesmanship in trying to trump Obama - even going so far as to contact John Boehner to let him know that he wanted to address Congress (an offer, I'd assume, that Boehner was more than happy to entertain, and that, most likely - to channel The Godfather - Boehner couldn't refuse).  Just before departing for the US, and before the speech, Netanyahu evidently called Sec of State Hillary Clinton to object furiously to Obama's recommendation that the 1967 borders - with land swaps - be the basis for a peace deal. But in the eyes of the international community (and until 2004, the US), the 1967 lines have always been the accepted basis for a settlement (as a Politico report notes).  What Netanyahu is seizing on is George Bush's 2004 statement to then Israel premier Ariel Sharon that a return to the 1967 boundaries would not accord with the new "realities" that Israel settlement construction had created.  At the time (and since), most experts have noted that Bush's statement was a significant departure from decades of US diplomacy.  One also had to ask, at the time, what gave Bush the right to make such a statement.  (Of course, Bush has never been one to accept international law as binding on the United States.)  More from the NYT:

In a statement after Mr. Obama’s speech on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu’s office pointedly said that the prime minister would raise his concerns about Mr. Obama’s language about the pre-1967 borders during Friday’s meeting.

“While there were many points in the president’s speech that we appreciate and welcome, there were other aspects, like the return to the 1967 borders, which depart from longstanding American policy, as well as Israeli policy, going back to 1967,” Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “The prime minister will raise the issue with the president. As the president said, the United States and Israel are great friends, and friends have to be able to talk frankly to one another.”

Yossi Beilin, a longtime peace negotiator for Israel and a former government minister who is now in private business, said by telephone that what Mr. Obama said was a “historic precedent.” He said that President Bush had spoken about ending the occupation that began in 1967, but that Mr. Obama’s formulation suggested an equal exchange of territory in a final deal.

Mr. Obama stated that the solution should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, meaning that if, as expected, Israel held on to some close-in settlements, it would have to yield an equal amount of land to the future state of Palestine from within its borders.

This formulation goes beyond what President Bill Clinton called for in 2000 and is in keeping with one of two key Palestinian demands for a return to direct peace negotiations. The other is at least a temporary freeze in Israeli settlement building, which Israel has rejected. Whether the Palestinians could be persuaded to return to talks with only one of their two conditions met was unclear.

But Mr. Abbas has made clear that he would prefer negotiations over an appeal to the United Nations this September, the other path he has been pursuing. That path would help the Palestinians gain legal advantage over Israel but it could also lead to unmet expectations in the streets of the West Bank once it became clear that United Nations recognition did not rid the area of Israeli occupation. That could result in frustration and violence.

If Mr. Netanyahu was upset by the president’s reference to 1967, politicians to his right — who make up the bulk of his party and his governing coalition — were horrified.

Danny Danon, a member of Parliament from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, said: “With his call for Israel to return to 1967 borders before the Palestinians even sit down at the negotiating table, it is now clear that the U.S. president has adopted Yasir Arafat’s infamous ‘Stages Plan’ and the hope to eventually remove the State of Israel from the map. I call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to unequivocally state to the president tomorrow that this vision will never be implemented as it is in direct opposition to the security and strategic interests of the people and land of Israel.”

Finally, a reality check from Andrew Bacevich on Obama's speech:
The hold-your-breath portion of the speech came last, when the president turned to the Israeli-Palestinian question. No doubt peace-process exegetes will spend the next days poring over the president's words attempting to divine their inner meaning. For my part, I noted three things of interest. First, although implicitly chastising Israel for continuing to expand its settlements, he was notably silent on their future. Second, after describing the basis for a settlement in terms of a "viable Palestine" living alongside a "secure Israel," Obama then offered this refinement: Palestine would be a "sovereign demilitarized state." I take this to mean that Palestine will stand in relation to Israel as Canada does to the United States. That appears to work for Canada (we last invaded during the War of 1812); whether demilitarization will satisfy a Palestinian definition of sovereignty seems less likely. Third, in terms of working through so-called final status issues, Obama suggested that the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian "right to return" be tabled for now, with attention given to questions of borders. Why any Palestinian negotiator would agree to that approach is beyond me.

And Stephen Walt weighed in even before the speech, with words that ring true in its aftermath:
the big problem is that nobody cares what U.S. presidents say anymore -- and especially not Obama -- because he hasn't delivered. As surveys of popular opinion in the Arab world have repeatedly shown, what his audience in the Middle East wants is not more elegant phrases beautifully delivered -- but actual policy change. Obama gave a wonderful speech in Cairo in June 2009 -- which was well-received -- but since then we've seen him backing down on Israel's settlements, helping trash the Goldstone Report, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution on the settlements, and adopting a decidedly inconsistent attitude towards the Arab spring (we like it in Egypt and Libya; not so much in Bahrain).

Words do matter, but only when they are backed up by appropriate action. Obama gave some pretty good speeches on our terrorism problem, for example, but it was the decision to redouble the search for bin Laden and then the bold choice to send a team after him in Pakistan that is the potential game-changer there. Without significant policy change, in short, the speeches we're going to hear over the next week will just be a lot of eloquent irrelevance.

Well, Walt is wrong about one thing: Israeli politicians certainly do care about what this US president just said.  What's very sad is that, I'll predict, Netanyahu's anger will translate into some body blows to Obama's policy prescriptions about the 1967 borders.  (And I'll be clear: I agree completely with going back to the 1967 borders.  Ideally, even the huge settlements ought to be removed; but failing that, then land swaps.) Today, Obama is meeting with Netanyahu in the White House, where I'm sure some pointed remarks will be exchanged.  I'm sure Obama will more than hold his own there.  But then,
  • on Sunday, Obama addresses the AIPAC convention.  If he's to have any credibility going forward, he can't back down one word from what he enunciated yesterday.  I doubt that the response he gets will electrify - much less warm - him.
  • on Monday, Netanyahu addresses AIPAC - a hall full of people who adore him.  He will play to that, and I fully expect him to reject Obama's 1967-lines principle, and instead hammer Hamas+Iran = new Holocaust  = existential threat to Israel and world Jewry.  He will receive a rousing response, and have Obama back on his heels.
  • on Thursday, his markers down from the AIPAC address, Netanyahu addresses a Joint Session of Congress whose Republican members will be only too happy to embrace him personally (lots of big smiles and warm handshakes) - and whatever he has to say - if for no other reason than to put the screws to Obama as the 2012 election looms.

By next weekend, I'm betting it will be clear that
  • Obama's 1967-borders idea will be under heavy fire from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and other Republican leaders in Congress (and Democrats will be hanging back).  The White House will know that it will receive no support from Capitol Hill.
  • With budget battles looming and the economy uncertain, it's doubtful that Obama will press the issue among the American people, where America's Christian Zionists will be backing Bibi anyway. 
  • Bibi will feel no serious pressure from the US to make "concessions" - which gives the Palestinian leadership no reason to go back to the negotiating table, because Netanyahu will give them nothing, and they don't need the humiliation.
  • Instead, they'll keep on their path to the UN General Assembly, where the US will be working furiously to undermine the vote on Palestinian statehood - to no avail, because the vast majority of the world's countries sympathize with the Palestinian cause.
In the end, Obama's speech will be rendered a historical footnote, not a game-changer; and as the tide now sweeping the Arab world engulfs Israel, the US will be able to do little more than watch from the sidelines while Israel struggles to remain afloat.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Afghan War's Toll on US Soldiers

AP reports on the psychological deterioration of US forces in Afghanistan.  Some of the "highlights":
— Only 46.5 percent of soldiers said their morale was medium, high or very high last year, compared to 65.7 percent in 2005. For Marines, it was only 58.6 percent last year compared to 70.4 percent when they were surveyed in 2006 in Iraq. (The report compares numbers of the Marine to their time in Iraq because they were not in Afghanistan in significant numbers before the surge)

— Nearly 80 percent of Marines and soldiers said they'd seen a member of their unit killed or wounded, compared to roughly half who said that in the earlier years.

— Nearly one in five soldiers and Marines reported psychological problems such as acute stress, depression or anxiety last year. The number for soldiers was one in 10 in 2005 and for Marines about one in eight in 2006.

—The military says it boosted the mental health staff in the country to one for every 646 soldiers last year, compared to one for every 1,123 in 2009.

And, of course, besides the suffering these troops are already dealing with comes the question: What about after they muster out, and return to homes and families, and try to resume "normal lives" after what they've had to endure?  And if they remain in the military, how effective can they possibly be if called into another conflict?

Quick Take on Obama Speech - and Reactions

In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Obama's Middle East speech (full text here), what seems to be drawing attention is his assertion that Israeli-Palestinian settlement must be based on 1967 borders, with agreed-upon swaps.  One Likud MK has already denounced this; and a bulletin indicates that Netanyahu has declared that those borders are "indefensible."  I'll be eager to see his full reaction, and whether or not he leaves some room for hedging.  Mollifying  his political coalition will require him to reject outwardly the 1967 borders.  If he sincerely intends to stick by that though, then Obama may be in for a rude reception at AIPAC meetings in a few days - and Netanyahu may feel some need to push back when he addresses Congress days from now.  It will be interesting - perhaps telling - to see how hard he pushes back, and what kind of response he gets.  Remember, international law and countless UN resolutions are on Obama's side.

Also of note: that Obama made scant mention of Iran.  One of Netanyahu's biggest bullet-points, for many months, has been to pound the Iran = Germany 1938 = existential threat nail.  But on Iran, Obama went with nothing heavier than a staple-gun, as opposed to Bibi's sledge-hammer.  Again, will the congressmen bought or intimidated by AIPAC throw that back at Obama?

Iraq's High-Stakes Game with the US

With all the uncertainty surrounding the Israel-Palestine issue, the chaos swirling across the Arab world, and the pretty mist that's likely to be the product of Mr. Obama's speech today (which, as Tony Karon asserts, is likely to be more for domestic consumption than designed for real impact abroad), it's worth noting that, mostly under the radar, a lot is happening in Iraq.  The future there is anything but secure.

What's getting by far the most attention in the US is the Pentagon's hope that the Maliki government will reach out  and ask that the US military presence (now set to end on 31 Dec.) be extended.  Mr. Obama's professed intention all along - and one of his major 2008 campaign promises - was to end the US military involvement and have all US forces out, on schedule.  (And, by the way, as of Sunday, all British forces will have left.)  But it's also evident that lots of Iraqis are scared to death that once the US is out, all hell will break loose.  The security situation remains very tenuous, not only along the Arab-Kurd fault-lines in the north (as evidenced today by the bombings in Kirkuk that killed as many as 27), but also in the south, where Shii militias are stepping up their activity against the remaining US forces, evidently to be able to claim later that it was they who forced the US out.  (This parallels, of course, what happened when the Israelis pulled their last occupation forces out of southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah claimed that their attacks on the IDF drove out the Israelis - a claim that allowed them to burnish their status as the spearhead of militant resistance to Israel in the entire region.)

Most worrisome, however, is the situation in and around Kirkuk and in Ninewah province in the north, which was the subject of an excellent report from the International Crisis Group back in March. That report made it crystal clear that virtually no one familiar with the tensions afflicting relations (1) among the local Arab, Kurd, and Turkoman populations and (2) between the central, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government at Erbil believes that the situation there can remain at all stable once the US forces there pull out.

And complicating the situation for the KRG is the impact of the "Arab Spring."  The demand for accountability and representation now sweeping the Arab world is also being felt in Iraqi Kurdistan, where demonstrators have hit the streets (especially in the northern Iraqi city of Suleimaniya) to demand an end to corruption and to the domination of Kurdish politics by the two established parties (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party) and their militias, which are dominated by the rival Barzani and Talabani clans.  Moreover, the KRG has been the US's biggest ally in Iraq - a fact not lost on the demonstrators, in whose eyes the forces of corruption are backed by America.

What happens now remains extremely uncertain.
  • If the Maliki government decides to ask the US to stay, it may bring down on its head - and on the US forces - the wrath of Muqtada al-Sadr, who has vowed to resist any extension of the US presence, and the animosity of the Iranian government, which has till now extended significant help to Maliki but will not look kindly on a continued US presence next door. 
  • The Pentagon has expressed its hopes that the Iraqis will ask them to stay on.  If they do, then Mr. Obama will feel huge pressure to accede to their request - not only from the Pentagon, but from the McCain/Graham/Lieberman trio and the Max-Boot-ilk chest-thumpers who will demand that Obama not squander the American "victory" that the Petraeus "Surge" brought in Iraq.
  • But if Obama does cave to the Pentagon, he will incur the wrath of those millions of voters who cast ballots for him because he promised to pull the US out of Iraq.  Obama will also hamstring the US's credibility among the broader Arab public at a time when he hopes to rebuild it.
As I said, the stakes are high, even if most Americans no longer have Iraq on their radar.  If Maliki asks, Obama says yes, and Muqtada says no-way, that may change.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bibi's Non-Concession Concessions

As reported in the NY Times, Mr. Netanyahu outlines his parameters for a deal with the Palestinians:
Mr. Netanyahu showed more willingness to yield territory than he had before, strongly implying that he would give up the vast majority of the West Bank for a demilitarized Palestinian state. He said Israel needed to hold onto all of Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs in the West Bank, thereby suggesting that he would yield the rest.

The other principles he enumerated included Palestinian recognition of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, an agreement to end the conflict, resolving the refugee problem only within the new state of Palestine and an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley.

When he speaks to AIPAC and Congress (between the two of which there is, in truth, no real daylight), Bibi can count on screaming, foot-stomping support and adulation if he insists on these very points before both groups - and Christian Zionists across the US will be chiming in with their own hosannas. Bibi's speech will also include, from both the ritual denunciation of Hamas as "terrorists" - and, in so doing, the undermining of the new Fatah-Hamas reconciliation as illegitimate and unacceptable, as offering aid and support to the nefarious mullahs in Iran, and therefore as threatening a new Holocaust.

It's (sadly) unimaginable that Mr. Obama's speech to AIPAC will not hit the same notes, or not insist just as much on what Bibi asks for from the Palestinians.
But as the NYT also notes, what Bibi has on offer is not even close to what would be acceptable to them:
Palestinian leaders have repeatedly rejected every one of those. As a result of the impasse, they have been pursuing other approaches to statehood, including political unity with Hamas and a plan to ask the United Nations in September to recognize a state of Palestine within the 1967 boundaries. That would include East Jerusalem and all of the West Bank and Gaza.

And let's please remember:
  • Palestinian Arab sovereignty over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza (and, for that matter, Arab control of the Golan Heights - a major sticking point between Israel and Syria) is essentially implicit in the United Nations' Resolution 242 - as well as in international law that asserts that Israeli colonization of those territories is illegal.
  • Both UN resolutions and international law assert the right of Palestinians forcibly dispossessed in 1948-49 and 1967 to return to reclaim their houses.  Even if that has become difficult to implement on a practical basis, it is incumbent upon Mr. Netanyahu - and the state of Israel - to admit to its moral and legal culpability in that dispossession.
Even more than democracy, what the Arab Spring has ultimately been about is the Arab demand for dignity.  Implicit in that demand is the demand for justice, including the justice that the dispossessed Arabs of Palestine have never been offered by the state of Israel.

Mr. Obama was fond of the exhortation, "Yes we can."  Both he and Mr. Netanyahu would do well to remember an oft-chanted slogan of several contemporary movements: "No justice, no peace."

Arab Spring, Palestinian State, American Irrelevance

Anyone who follows sports is familiar with the concept of momentum shift: that point during a contest at which things come together for one team, and that team often (though not always) rides that shift to victory.  I think it's fair to say that in their contest with Israel over sovereignty over the West Bank, the Palestinian side is riding a momentum shift.  And even though it's not at all sure that they will prevail, the odds seem to be moving almost inexorably in their favor.

The Arab Spring, of course, has been the prime mover in that shift, with Palestinian Arabs seizing upon the example of Arabs across the Middle East who have risen up to demand that their leaders afford them dignity, accountability, and hope.  In the case of the Palestinians, that has forced Fatah and Hamas to come together, with common purpose, or face being rendered irrelevant by the new spirit.  And even before this broad awakening, Mahmoud Abbas seemed to have a more individual awakening to the fact that the US-sponsored "peace process" was a sham (something that observers like Tony Karon have been pointing out for a long time), and that it was time to end-run Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu by going directly to the United Nations General Assembly with the case for Palestinian statehood.

With this weekend's al-Nakba demonstrations (where rock-throwing Palestinians stormed Israel's borders with Syria and Lebanon, to be shot at - and in some instances, killed - by IDF troops firing live ammunition), the Palestinian momentum got an even stronger push.  One senses among the Palestinians now a feeling of no-going-back.  And as Peter Beinart notes, on the Israeli side, one senses a looming awareness that they have lost the initiative,
America and Israel are no longer driving history in the Middle East; for the first time in a long time, Arabs are. . . .   Netanyahu and his American backers are demanding that Obama rewind the clock, but he can’t. The Palestinians no longer listen to functionaries like George Mitchell. They have lost faith in American promises, and they no longer fear American threats. Instead, they are putting aside their internal divisions and creating facts on the ground.

And as for the US's ability to shape a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, well . . . ironically, it reminds me of that song that our youthful chest-thumpers were singing outside the White House the night that Bin Laden's execution was announced: "Na na na na, hey hey eh, good-bye."  Again, Beinart points out:
if Netanyahu continues to entrench the occupation and Palestinian leaders keep nonviolently demanding a state near the Green Line, it won’t ultimately matter what Obama does. The more America sticks by Netanyahu, the less relevant America will become. Other powers will begin taking matters into their own hands, and their strategies for achieving a two-state solution will have none of the tenderness of Dennis Ross. . . .
The Palestinians are taking control of their destiny because Israel has not. Zionism, which at its best is the purposeful, ethical effort to make Jews safe in the land of Israel, has become—in this government—a mindless land grab, that threatens Jewish safety and Jewish ethics alike. Once upon a time, when the Arabs were hapless and America was omnipotent, Israel could get away with that. Not anymore. If Barack Obama cannot get Benjamin Netanyahu to endorse—and work toward—a Palestinian state near 1967 lines, events will pass them both by. Others will take the initiative; in the Middle East, the U.S. and Israel will increasingly find their destinies in other nation’s hands. For those of us raised to believe that Americanism and Zionism were can-do faiths, it is harder to imagine any crueler irony than that.

One would hope that Mr. Obama would want to put the US on the right side of history - and by that, I mean supporting the Palestinians and their drive for statehood in the face of the hyper-Zionism of Netanyahu/Lieberman et al.  He indeed has an opportunity to do the right thing when he addresses the American people from the State Department in two nights' time, in a speech advertised as signaling America's stance in the ongoing drama in the Middle East.

But, I fear, no brave words, no new vision will be forthcoming.  For, it's been announced, Mr. Obama plans also to address the upcoming convention of AIPAC, the Jewish-U.S. pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.  As IPS notes, "The President couldn't possibly appear before staunch Netanyahu supporters had he wanted to knock Israel's occupation and its settlement enterprise."

So sad.  From the president who came to office by inspiring so many of us with the promises of change and new thinking that were inherent in the words "yes we can," we will continue to hear stirring words, finely crafted, stylishly delivered, but belied by a lack of courage to act.

Monday, May 16, 2011

US Indifference to Bahrain Abuses

One of my most important tools for trying to stay abreast of current events in, and thinking about, the Middle East is Google's free e-mail alerts.  You choose the keyword; Google alerts you to new stories from media or blogs.  For "Bahrain" yesterday, I received an alert listing several stories.  The juxtaposing of an official State Department pronouncement with other media reports was, frankly, stunning.

The State Department issued essentially an all-clear for US citizens to travel to Bahrain, because - in DoS's estimation - the security situation has calmed down.  Or, if you, that all-important condition of "stability"  has been restored.  Gee, that's swell.  However, that same Google alert let me know that
  • Bahrain security forces have been torturing detainees, including medical personnel - and including use of electrical shock (via LA Times)
  • the Bahrain government has been completely unresponsive to reports and allegations concerning abuse (McClatchy, via Christian Science Monitor):
  • The government, which dominates the airwaves of state television, the state news agency and the print media, offers little response to the international criticism the crackdown has received.

    A scathing report by Physicians for Human Rights, a US group that shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, accused Bahrain in a report April 22 of an "all-out assault on health care and health professionals," abductions of doctors in the middle of the night and "egregious" acts against patients and health professionals that included "torture, beating, verbal abuse, humiliation, and threats of rape and killing."

    Asked on May 1 for a comment, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al Khalifa, a diplomat drafted to serve as a government spokesman, told McClatchy that he hadn't seen the report. A copy was emailed. Two days later, the same question was put at a news conference to Dr. Hala al Mehza, the acting health minister, who also said she wasn't aware of the report and asked a reporter to send a copy. Asked by email Sunday what she thought of the report, Mehza didn't respond.

    Mehza also said she was in almost daily touch with the UN's high commissioner for human rights in Geneva and had cordial conversations with officials there. Yet on Sunday, High Commissioner Navi Pillay voiced deep concern about the "dire" human rights situation. She charged that Bahrain's secret trial of protesters, which led to death sentences for four, was "illegal and absolutely unacceptable" and she spoke of reports of "severe torture" of human rights defenders currently in detention.

  • More than 2,000 private sector employees, most of them Shia, have either been sacked or suspended in an expanding Bahraini crackdown on anti-government protests (via al-Jazeera)
  • Reuters’ Bahrain correspondent has been expelled from the country amid an ongoing crackdown on media in the Gulf kingdom (via WaPo)

Meanwhile, meeting in Riyadh - with King Abdullah himself presiding - the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has declared full support for the Bahrain monarchy.  And the monarchy is so sure things are under control that it has decided to lift, ahead of schedule, the emergency rule it has imposed on that island country (I'd hardly call it a "nation.")  The US, of course, is watching the Saudis' back in all of this, as well as that of Bahrain's king - whose country's capital also happens to be the home port of the US Fifth Fleet - on which the US security establishment relies as a major deterrent to the expansion of those nefarious Iranians, who, we're so sure, plan to take over the entire Middle East (and nuke Israel - just ask Bibi!).  And the US is also counting on the Saudis to lead the Arab world against those Persians.

Thankfully, the HuffPo (Huffington Post) publishes a Reuters report (by the reporter that the Bahrain government booted out) how the West has essentially ignored the atrocities on Bahrain, for the standard reasons, most of them cited above: fear of Iranian Shii influence, the US's need to keep its naval base at Manama, access to Saudi oil.

Let's not quibble: detention and torture, destroying Shii mosques, depriving Shii employees of livelihoods by firing them - these are atrocities. And they are motivated not just by considerations of regime self-preservation, but out of the deep-seated religious hatred of Shia that is promoted by the hyper-Sunni version of Islam that is preached by the Wahhabi ulema who are the spiritual/ideological foundation of the Saudi monarchy.  And, let's not quibble: that is a hatred that US oil interests have served to perpetuate.



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