Bluster with consequences

Prime Minister Netanyahu was better today in Congress than yesterday at the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee. But still blustering.

He argued that the nuclear deal with Iran currently under consideration is bad because

  1. it leaves a lot of nuclear infrastructure in place (enabling what he regards as a minimal one-year breakout time);
  2. Iran could evade the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections or evict the inspectors, as North Korea did;
  3. It would leave Iran unconstrained in a decade.

Netanyahu wants a better agreement that continues sanctions and restrictions on the nuclear program until Iran stops its aggression and support for terror in other countries (he mentioned Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon in this connection) and ends its threat to annihilate Israel. Failing this, Netanyahu wants no deal.

Netanyahu failed to explain how the US would be able to get the kind of deal he is talking about.  The Europeans, Russia and China are unlikely to continue sanctions if the current deal is not concluded. Without multilateral sanctions, Iran would still be feeling some pressure from the oil price collapse and unilateral US sanctions, but it is hard to picture Tehran signing on to something more restrictive with a disunited international community than with a united one.

Netanyahu also said explicitly that he prefers no deal to the current deal, which he described as paving the way for an Iranian nuclear weapon. That’s loony. Without some sort of deal–at least extension of the interim Plan of Action–Iran would be free to race for a nuclear weapon without constraints other than the existing IAEA inspections. If Netanyahu thinks they are inadequate in the deal being negotiated, which beefs them up significantly, why would they be any better without a deal?

Looking beyond the bluster, there were a few interesting commissions and omissions in the speech. Netanyahu dropped the explicit threat of war. He did say Israel can defend itself and will stand alone if necessary, but he neither demanded that the US go to war against Iran nor stated clearly what Israel would do. He presumably has come to understand that the military option is a bad one:  it won’t succeed in destroying everything, it would accelerate Iran’s nuclear efforts and it would have to be repeated in a few years time. Iran’s nuclear program involves many installations, some of which are buried deep underground. Even the US would have trouble damaging it beyond repair.

I share Netanyahu’s concern with Iranian behavior throughout the Middle East (and occasionally beyond, witness the terrorism it sponsored in Argentina). I’m not sure he is correct that Iran is as radical as ever, but let’s concede that premise. He imagines maintaining sanctions will be useful in moderating Iranian behavior or bringing about regime change. There are two problems with this hypothesis. There is no reason to believe it true–countries isolated by sanctions often become more radical, not less–and there is no way to maintain the sanctions.

So what we got this morning was more classic Netanyahu:  bluster without any serious effort to explain how his newly discovered alternative, a better deal, could be achieved. I trust the speech will help him in his electoral campaign in Israel, if only because it shifts the debate there away from his vulnerabilities (economic and social policy) and towards security, which favors the Israeli right wing (though not necessarily Netanyahu himself). Here in the US, it will make life harder for the Obama Administration, as it implicitly roused the Congress to oppose any deal Secretary Kerry brings home.

I suppose Speaker Boehner, who invited Netanyahu to address Congress without informing the White House, is satisfied and hopes this show will help him face down a brewing revolt against his leadership among House Republicans. Netanyahu hopes Israelis won’t notice that he has put the country’s relationship with the United States at risk. I hope both lose those bets.


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Prime Minister Netanyahu’s warm-up pep talk today at AIPAC (the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee) was a classic chutzpahdik performance: he claimed respect for President Obama and his office, appreciation for unprecedented US assistance, and insistence on the importance of bipartisan support in the US for the close relationship with Israel. He even lauded his wife, who has been a serious source of embarrassment.

Netanyahu cited agreement between the US and Israel that Iran should not have nuclear weapons but disagreement on the methods to achieve that goal. Israel, he said, has to worry about its survival, whereas the US worries about its security. Netanyahu claimed Israel can and will defend itself, citing the attack on the Osiraq reactor, the invasion of Lebanon and other instances where the US and Israel disagreed. Israel weathered these disagreements and will weather the current one because of common values and (metaphorical as well as real) family relationships.

The alliance, Netanyahu said, is strong and get stronger.

This is fantasy. Netanyahu has done serious harm to relations with the United States by disrespecting its president, accepting a one-party invitation to address the Congress, bringing his re-election campaign to Washington, and opposing an agreement with Iran without proposing an alternative that would make Israel more secure. He has split the American Jewish community, most of which is far more interested in an agreement not only with Iran but also with the Palestinians than Netanyahu is. Israel is losing ground steadily and irreversibly among young American Jews.

We’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s speech in Congress to hear Netanyahu’s substantive arguments against a nuclear agreement with Iran that lengthens the time it would need to make a nuclear weapon to a year and imposes strict monitoring requirements.

It is hard to picture how Israel would end up better off without such an agreement. Iran would then be free to pursue nuclear weapons at whatever pace it decides. Israel lacks the military punch required to take out dozens of often underground nuclear facilities farther from its territory than the single Syrian and Iraqi reactors it destroyed in the past. Even if it could damage vital nuclear facilities, the Iranians would reconstitute their program and forge ahead, making it necessary to attack the nuclear facilities again within a few years. The sanctions regime that has slowed the Iranian nuclear program and brought Tehran to the negotiating table will fall apart if there is no agreement.

I can agree with Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran’s support for terrorism. Not just its nuclear program but also its support for extremists in many parts of the world are deplorable. But unless he has an alternative worth considering, tomorrow’s speech on the nuclear issue will be nothing but more bluster.

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Peace picks March 2-6

1. The Israeli Elections and a Future Peace Process in the Light of Past Negotiations| Monday March 2nd | 12:00-1:00 PM| Woodrow Wilson Center|REGISTER TO ATTEND |Former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, Galia Golan will discuss the upcoming March 17 Israeli elections and reflect on her latest bookIsraeli Peacemaking Since 1967: Factors Behind the Breakthroughs and Failures. Examining the Israeli-Arab conflict as an ‘intractable conflict,’ the book seeks to determine just which factors, or combination of factors, impacted on Israel’s position in past peace-making efforts, possibly accounting for breakthroughs or failures to reach agreement.

2. The Future of the Fight against ISIL| Monday March 2nd| 5:00-6:30 PM |The Atlantic Council| REGISTER TO ATTEND | General John Allen, USMC (Ret.), the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, will discuss what may lie ahead in the US-led fight against the Islamist group that straddles Iraqi and Syrian territory. How will the Coalition sustain the fight against the terrorist group? What role will the United States play as the Coalition broadens and deepens its efforts? Can the fight be ultimately won? And if so, how does the Coalition define success? To answer these and other questions, General Allen will join Atlantic Council President and CEO Fred Kempe. 

3. Future Trends in the Gulf | Tuesday March 3rd | 12:00-1:30 PM | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTENDAmid a region beset by civil wars and terrorism, the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are facing growing challenges from an increasingly youthful population, aging rulers, economic pressures, and a new information environment. How well are Gulf regimes responding to these challenges? Jamil De Dominicis is a coordinator in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. Kristin Smith Diwan is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. Jane Kinninmont is deputy head and senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. Matar Embrahim Matar is a former member of the Bahraini parliament, and Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

4. Tackling Corruption in the Midst of War: Can Ukraine Change the Equation? |Tuesday March 3rd | 2:00-3:OO PM | USIP | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Ukrainian government has pledged to undertake a major campaign to root out corruption. But a year after the departure of former President Yanukovych, the pace of reform continues to drag. Panelists will examine prospects for reform of the energy, judicial and regulatory sectors, among others, while conflict rages in the country’s East. The discussion will gauge the political will of the Ukrainian leadership and the risks of a public backlash, and explore the role of the media and civil society in the reform effort. Speakers include: Edward Chow, Senior Fellow, Energy and Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Adrian Karatnycky, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council, Professor Robert Orttung, Assistant Director, Institute of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, The George Washington University and Inna Pidluska, Deputy Executive Director, Kyiv Office, International Renaissance Foundation (via Skype).

5. Revisiting Marshall: Private Sector Development In the Middle East | Tuesday March 3rd |3:00-4:30 PM| The Stimson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Can the Marshall Plan, which critical post-World War II transformation of Europe, provide policy recommendations for dealing with the turmoil and violence in the region today? Is there is still a place for discussion of the more conventional policy challenges of expanding economic opportunity as a part of political reform and change. Speakers include: Dr. Rob Havers, President, The George C. Marshall Foundation, Mr. Abdulwahab Alkebsi, Regional Director for Africa and MENA, Center for International Private Enterprise, and Representative of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, to be confirmed.

6. Arab Public Opinion on Terrorism: A Ground View from Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Libya | Wednesday March 4th | 10:00-11:30 AM | Center for Strategic and International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Join Dr. Munqith Dagher who will present findings from a major public opinion project on Arab public opinions towards terrorism and terrorist organizations conducted throughout Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Libya. Hosted by Burke Chair in Strategy Anthony Cordesman, the conversation will explore the sudden rise of ISIS, Arab attitudes towards ISIS and other terror groups, shifting public opinion towards terror groups in the region, and support for ongoing counter-terrorist efforts.

7. Aid to Civil Society: A Movement Mindset |Friday March 6th”| 2:00-3:30 PM| USIP | REGISTER TO ATTEND| People worldwide have been stirred by the dramatic images of “people power” movements calling for democracy and economic justice. In Hong Kong and Malaysia, Ukraine and Egypt, Brazil, Venezuela and elsewhere, throngs of citizenry have challenged their governments over corruption, political repression, discrimination, and other scourges. While global audiences respond with sympathy, it has been unclear how governments, pro-democracy groups, or other outside supporters might actually assist effectively. Grassroots campaigns for change often are fluid, diverse, decentralized, and loosely organized, so providing support is tricky. The difficulties and risks can be greater still under authoritarian regimes or, as Yemen and Libya illustrate, in fragile states. In this discussion, panelists include Maria J. Stephan, Sadaf Lakhani and Nadia Naviwala, the authors of a new USIP Special Report, “Aid to Civil Society: A Movement Mindset.”

Macedonia’s mess

Slobodan Tomic, a Macedonian journalist, asked me some questions. I replied:

1. The Prime Minister of Macedonia, Nikolas Gruevski has denounced an attempted coup d’etat against the country. The former head of intelligence Zoran Verusevski has been arrested. A network of nationals working in the security apparatus of Macedonia has been caught working for a foreign intelligence apparatus aimed at destabilizing the country. The PM said on February 25 the espionage was carried by professionals of high caliber who were highly trained in such activities “According to our information, obtained by the Interior Ministry, a foreign intelligence service, used as their main operative the person identified as Z.V. to set up a group of agents in Macedonia.” The PM specified that the powerful intelligence service spying on the Government of Macedonia was “from abroad.” The PM also revealed that the head of the opposition Zoran Zaev tried to blackmail the government and the PM personally telling him he had received video and recording material by a powerful foreign intelligence service and he, Zaev, would publish it if the elected government was not replaced by a “technical government that included Zaev. Instead Mr Gruevski called a press conference revealing to plot.

What’s your opinion on this attempted coup in our country? In your opinion who is behind this operation?

A: I don’t know who is behind this story. Zaev I understand has said that the recorded material came from within the Macedonian state security apparatus. We’ll have to wait for the court case against Verusevski to see whether he is the source. I know nothing for sure about foreign involvement.

2. Mr. Janusz Bugajski of the Center for European Policy analysis in an editorial (Moscow Applauds Greece-Macedonia Drama) argues that the publication of the illegal material by Zoran Zaev contributes to the alienation of Macedonia from NATO….Could you comment on this analysis?

A: There is no question but that Athens is deepening ties to Moscow and Moscow is opposing NATO and EU membership for Balkans countries. I have no idea however whether Zaev is somehow consciously serving those interests. I hope not.

3. Greece has been opposing the right of Macedonia to choose its name. In the recent Putsch attempt, one of the main conspirators, Ms. Verusevska, the wife of former Intelligence official Zoran Verusevski, works for Stopanska bank that is owned by the National Bank of Greece. Material found in her possession at the moment of her arrest is reported to be extremely revealing concerning the connections between the agents in Macedonia and the foreign intelligence and electronic espionage agency that has targeted our country. Do you think Greek intelligence could be active in undermining Macedonian institutions and in planning a division and a domestic confrontation?

A: I am not convinced there was a coup attempt.

All sorts of things are possible. Greece is not Macedonia’s friend. But I don’t know that what you say is true.

4. Do you see any danger that the Albanian intelligence services could get activated in this situation to push for a dismemberment of Macedonia?

A: I doubt it. But Albanians in Macedonia definitely want to see Macedonia in NATO and will be disappointed if this incident damages that prospect.

5. As you know, Macedonia is a friend of many countries in the West, East, North and South and Macedonia has a treaty of technical agreement with the US. Macedonia, however is not formal part of any alliance. In your opinion, will the US keep an official position as an “observer” or they will act according to the signed Technical Agreement between the two countries. Many sources are saying that the US is behind this attempted coup. Do you think the US is interested in destabilizing Macedonia or to defend its stability?

A: I don’t know what “technical agreement” you are referring to. Macedonia’s army has fought under US command in Afghanistan. We may not have a formal alliance agreement, but that makes for a very close military relationship. I am confident the US has no interest in destabilizing Macedonia, and I am also convinced it isn’t interested enough in Macedonia to be involved in wiretapping thousands of people. Greece and Russia have far more reason to be interested, but I don’t know for sure that they are involved in the wiretapping.

6. Do you see a danger of ethnic confrontation in the next future? A danger of an ISIS or ISIS-like attack against our country? Do you think in such a hypothetical situation the US will take a position?

A: There are extremists in many countries. I can’t rule out that there are some in Macedonia, as there have been occasionally in the past. But I don’t see ethnic confrontation as the issue here. This is a confrontation between two Macedonians: Zaev and Gruevski. The Albanians are bystanders who aren’t sure what to do.

7. The popularity of Prime Minister Gruevski party according to a very recent poll is 8 times that of the SDSM opposition. Still some analysts see an attitude of support by the US for the opposition despite their leadership have been involved in an attempted coup. Why is that?

A: I have no idea why anyone would think that. Washington favors democracy and NATO membership for Macedonia. It will support whoever comes to power there democratically. It will also support the democratic system in Macedonia.

8. Secretary of State John Kerry stated in Congress two days ago that Macedonia was one of those countries “on the line of fire” between US and Moscow. This seems to be a very threatening statement. Could you comment?

A: The threat is from Moscow, not Washington.

9. Some analysts are saying that the electronic espionage was organized by and through the American embassy in Skopje. Do you think this is possible?

A: I think it unlikely. The Americans just aren’t that interested in Macedonia. Greece and Russia are, but I don’t know they are responsible.

10. Many are worried about the consequence of a destabilization of Macedonia. Possible ethnic explosions could take place especially if supposed and fed by outside forces. Some even talk of a snowballing effect in the Balkans, leading to a general conflict. Hopefully nobody want to think that WWI started not far from here in June 1914, But do you see a potential danger of war?

A: No, I don’t. There are precious few military resources left in the whole region. The ones that exist are all being reformed and most aim for NATO membership. The danger is destabilization, not world war. Macedonians and Albanians have been wise enough to keep their country out of the worst kinds of conflict in the past. I trust they will be wise in the future too.

11. The project for a “Turkish Stream” (the gas pipeline that will transport the Russian gas from Turkey to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and so on) is very much in the mind of government in the Balkans and Europe, The Turkish stream has taken the please of the South Stream, that was canceled by Russia after the EU advanced several requests that were considered impossible to meet. Is it possible that the US administration is displeased with this project and see the countries involved as possible target to be convinced to change their position?

A: I don’t know the official US position on Turkish stream. Best to ask a US government official. I think it important that the Balkans find alternatives to Russian gas, which comes with political strings attached.

My bottom line is this: Macedonia belongs in NATO. But it has to get its own house in order to continue to be qualified for membership

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Unprofessional and misleading

I am grateful to readers of for pointing out that the Serbian media has published accounts of my post on Serbia: media and government |, clearly attributed to a “knowledgeable friend,” as my own view. This is unprofessional and misleading.

Worse: the Serbian press is suggesting that I said “Mediji nisu u službi premijera Vučića” (D. Serwer: the media is not in the service of Prime Minister Vucic). That attributes to me views that are not mine and is at best a distortion of my friend’s views. The author never said there is no censorship. The piece tries to explain how and why the media is pro-Vucic, not that it isn’t. The author gives several reasons: most people, including in the media, think the prime minister is doing the right things, and some people in the press are sychophantic towards the government because of opportunism or cowardice, including fear of losing government advertising. He also says media conditions are nowhere near as bad as they were under Milosevic.

You are entitled to wonder, what do I think? Do I agree with my friend?

One of the reasons I asked my friend’s opinion is the difficulty in forming my own. Beyond “kako ste” and “dobro dan,” I am not a Serbian speaker. I read the Serbian press mostly through Googletranslate and on B92’s English service, which is an eclectic mix that I find useful but not necessarily representative. My friend’s response was more nuanced and interesting than a lot of the commentary on press freedom in Serbia that I see in English-language media, so I thought it interesting enough to put in the public domain, even though it had to be published anonymously. It tried to explain the several mechanisms that make the press pro-government, rather than simply blaming ill-defined censorship. Whether I agreed or not was not an issue in deciding to publish it.

The Serbian press reaction and abuse of this blogpost is a true reflection of the state of the Serbian media, as one of my correspondents suggested today. It was unprofessional to attribute the views in the post to me personally. It is also inaccurate to suggest that the post exonerates the Serbian government.

As I see it, there is a tendency in Serbia, as in other transition countries, for the authorities to attack the messenger rather than respond to the message. This happens occasionally in mature democracies–President Obama a year or so ago was sharply critical of Fox News–but it is relatively rare. The press is doing its job in a democratic society when it reports unsavory facts or uncovers what it thinks is malfeasance. The right response 98% of the time is to the facts or the allegations, not to attack the media.

The situation is complicated in Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans because some of the media more critical of the government and more willing to report what it regards as malfeasance is supported internationally. This can be unsettling to politicians, who are too often inclined to think the money is explicitly aimed at discrediting them. The “Sanader effect” (Ivo Sanader was a pro-EU prime minister of Croatia who has gone to prison for malfeasance) makes politicians in the Balkans particularly sensitive.

I can’t speak for the European Union, but I know that when US government money goes to support foreign media it is intended to support professional and accurate reporting, as well as a wide range of views. Even government-owned Voice of America aims for professionalism and accuracy. In my hundreds of interviews with VOA, RFE/RL and other government-supported outlets no one has ever tried to tell me what to say. Years ago I was present when Vice President George H.W. Bush, upset with something VOA had published about him, ordered a US embassy official to fire the correspondent. The diplomat had to tell the vice president that could not be done.

Of course this doesn’t mean that either I or the outlets that carry my interviews are 100% correct or in some absolute sense unbiased. I have colleagues who believe they are not asked to give interviews by VOA because their views diverge too much from those of the US government. There is no absolute purity in the media business. Influence is exercised in many different ways, not only in Serbia but also in the United States.

That said, there is a big gap between the relatively independent press in mature democracies and the kind of shabby and sycophantic coverage my blogpost on the Serbian government and media got this week. There will always be some media that toe government lines. But I like to hope that things will evolve in a more professional and mature direction. I’ll be amused to see if the Serbian press publishes an accurate account of this, my followup post.

And no, I don’t think things are worse today than under Milosevic. Nor do I think things were better in the Balkans in Tito’s time, as so many in the seven countries derived from Yugoslavia like to say. These invidious comparisons fail to give credit where it is due: things have improved and I hope will continue to improve, even if I am among those who would like improvement to come faster.

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The emperor’s new clothes, again

I’ve read and reread the “written commitment” agreed by the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, signed by the leaders of 14 parliamentary parties and endorsed by the parliament last week. The European Union is treating this as an important step toward the reforms required for eventual membership. It includes a commitment to creating an “efficient and effective” coordination mechanism for the many levels of governance in Bosnia.

Give credit: the statement includes a substantial list of serious economic and social reforms. It says the right, though vague, things about rule of law, corruption, organized crime and terrorism. It doesn’t drop the constitutional reform required to implement the European Court of Human Rights Sejdic-Finci decision, but it postpones it to a later stage. Then there is fairy dust: “measures to accelerate the reconciliation process.”

That’s the giveaway. This is not so much a commitment as it is a wishlist. The wishes are Brussels’, not Bosnia’s. That’s why it took the better part of a month to push it through parliament. What actually happens to implement the commitments will depend on what the European Union presses, not on initiative from the Bosnian side. We can expect the Bosnians to continue to be passive, and sometimes passive aggressive, as Milorad Dodik was during the month it took to get this wishlist approved. Don’t hold your breath for him or other Bosnian leaders to get around to accelerating the reconciliation process.

The coordination mechanism, though it sounds good, is a disturbing idea in practice. Bosnia needs a central government that can negotiate and implement the acquis communitaire. That was the heart of the “April package” constitutional amendments, which died in the Bosnian parliament nine years ago two votes short of the two-thirds majority required. A coordination mechanism is less than half a loaf. It allows the country’s two entities, one district and ten cantons each to veto the necessary reforms. There is no way to make such an object either effective or efficient.

I suppose deft wielding of the EU’s substantial carrots and sticks might make up for these shortcomings. But we rarely see that happen. EU commissioners are far more comfortable bestowing gifts than withholding funds. There are rarely consequences of much import for defying Brussels, and quite often there are substantial rewards. No one suffered consequences for the failure to implement the Sejdic-Finci decision. Once the negotiation had failed, the Commission restored a lot of cash that had been withheld.

The EU is applauding the emperor’s new clothes. But we’ve seen this parade before. It’s not pretty, if you dare to look.

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