Diplomats traditionally dread release of their cables, which often convey private conversations with foreign government officials. Having left the State Department more than 18 years ago, I’ve lost that sensitivity.
That’s a good thing, as the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera has gotten hold of some from US Embassy Rome (presumably through the Freedom of Information Act), where I was deputy chief of mission and frequent Charge’ d’affaires from 1990 to 1993. Those were turbulent years in Italy. Its magistrates were investigating corruption, especially among political party leaders. Their “Clean Hands” (Mani Pulite) effort was strikingly successful, shaking Italy’s Christian Democratic and Socialist parties to their foundations.
The Embassy of course had lots of contacts in those political parties, which had collaborated in preserving Italy’s Western orientation throughout the Cold War. But we also by that time were expanding our contacts in the former Communist Party and in the relatively new Northern League (Lega Nord). We were determined not to intervene in what was going on, but to follow it with care and elucidate the events for officials in Washington, who sometimes had exaggerated fears and excessive concerns.
The published account of our cables (ignore the headline) shows just that: an embassy doing a highly professional job in the midst of political turbulence. We talked to lots of different people but managed to stay out of the fray. Flying below the radar in Rome is not easy. Italians are inclined to think the Americans, in particular their ambassador, are behind everything important that happens in their world. They were also quick to think we would protect this or that accused politician. Those suspicions were disarmed: we neither generated Clean Hands nor shielded anyone from judicial investigation.
Such probity doesn’t make for big headlines. I’m told the story is attracting little attention in Rome. It will attract none in the US. Americans have already had a giant dose of diplomatic cables from Wikileaks. Interest has been limited to those that suggest scandal or malfeasance, especially by still active politicians.
Will the publication of these and other cables inhibit non-Americans from sharing their perspectives with our diplomats? I suppose it will make some people more cautious in what they say. But most politicians understand perfectly well that what they say to diplomats will be conveyed, in one form or another, to a foreign capital. Diplomats hear what people want them to hear. That’s why it is so important to listen to many voices and reach independent judgments about what to believe, or not. I may not want what I say to a diplomat published tomorrow, but I definitely want it noticed and reported.
One small note about diplomatic cables: they are all signed by whoever is in charge of the embassy, either the ambassador or a charge’ d’affaires. That does not mean he has read and signed each and every one before it is sent. A number of section chiefs in a big embassy like Rome will have the authority to sign off on a cable if it is judged not to merit top-level attention or if the head woman is unavailable for some reason. I frankly don’t remember which of the cables Corriere has quoted I or the ambassador signed, though much of the wording is familiar. I likely read all of them, if not before sending then afterwards. And I am proud of the professional tone and substance, whether I signed them or not!
On Monday the Middle East Institute hosted the launch of the November volume of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The event featured a panel of the Special Editors of the edition, Rand Beers, Richard A. Clarke, Emilian Papadopoulos, and Paul Salem, discussing the issue titled The Middle East and Regional Transition, Terrorism, and Countering Violent Extremism: What the Next President Will Face.
Clarke remarked that the next president will face a markedly different Middle East from eight years ago. The volume seeks to make specific recommendations for action as opposed to just a discussion of the issues. Two major and overlapping problems are determining how we see the issues:
- The number and role of failed states in the Middle East, of which there are now six or seven. These will continue to be a source of terrorism for some time.
- The role of ideologies, in particular how to address the violent jihadist ideology that is highly attractive to disaffected youth, not only in the Middle East but across all regions of the world.
Regarding the US role in Syria, Clarke recommends that we must not abandon the principle of ‘Assad must go’, as the US role in the Middle East will be permanently undermined if we do. The US must also take leadership in supporting the stabilization, economic stimulation and return of refugees in post-Islamic State Mosul and Raqqa, as simply removing IS from cities will not resolve any problems. Salem also suggested that the economic rebuilding of conflict zones in the Middle East is an opportunity to coordinate with China, which has demonstrated interest in building infrastructure and ensuring trade relationships in the region.
As former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor to the President, Beers focused on counter extremism measures. Since 2001 the focus has been on preventing the arrival of foreign nationals intending to commit terrorist acts in the US. But the trend has now shifted to radicalized Americans. Ninety-four people have been killed in the US by domestic terrorists since 2001, with 63 of those in the last year alone. The next administration must therefore focus on identifying individuals prior to their radicalization and on redirecting them. As the government itself is not particularly successful in communicating these messages the approach needs broadening beyond law enforcement agencies. Local nongovernmental organizations and religious organizations will be helpful partners in identifying those exhibiting patterns of behavior that suggest a move towards violent extremism.
Clarke remarked that to law enforcement’s credit there has not been a major foreign attack on American soil since 2001, however the next president should identify these successful components of the counter extremism program and cut down the excesses and inefficiencies that also plague the program.
Salem considers the Middle East to be in a perfect storm of dysfunction due to the disrupted regional order, the number of failed and fragile states, and underlying stress factors including demographic issues, climate change, and competing ideologies. He suggests some of the concerns in the Middle East that have dominated administrations in the past, such as Weapons of Mass Destruction and the flow of oil through the Gulf, are largely stable at this point, and Russia and China do not pose a direct threat to US security. Therefore the threat of terrorism should continue to be the primary concern of the US in the region.
The next administration, Salem thought, should continue to address IS and then focus on al Qaeda, try to rebuild the regional order, make more concerted efforts to end civil wars, and help to rebuild failed states. Salem agreed wholeheartedly with Clarke that Syria will not be resolved while Assad is still in power, but while waiting for a political solution the US must address the suffering of civilians. He considers President Obama to have failed in addressing humanitarian concerns. In response to a question on the future of the Sykes-Picot borders, Salem explained that the Middle East’s problems are primarily attributable to poor governance and institutions rather than the borders. The current borders are likely to endure but changes such as decentralization and federalism within states will be important.
The problems the next administration will face in the Middle East are complex, but the volume focuses on realistic recommendations for what can be achieved. The US must balance its military strength with non-military assets and smart power. While the Obama administration has cautiously withdrawn the next administration must reassert American leadership in the region and focus on re-establishing a regional order.
The popular image is that Russia is doing well in Syria, where it has been bombing for a year. Donald Trump says the American-allied forces in Iraq are struggling to retake Mosul. Precisely the opposite is true.
The Islamic State (ISIS) has now lost well over 60% of the territory that it once controlled in Iraq. Mosul is the last main population center it rules. Its diversionary attack on Kirkuk was just that: an effort to make the anti-ISIS coalition slow its advance by diverting forces. But it will have only a temporary impact. The tens of thousands of troops involved in or supporting the Mosul offensive seem remarkably determined and unified in their objective: to chase ISIS out. ISIS likely has no more than a few thousand fighters left inside the city.
If there is a serious problem in the anti-ISIS coalition attacking Mosul, it is more likely to come after success than before. At least some of the various coalition forces–Iraqi Army, Kurdish peshmerga, Shia “popular mobilization forces,” Yezidi, Christians and other militias–will race to the center of Mosul, each hoping that early arrival will help to strengthen its position in the inevitable pushing and shoving once ISIS is gone. That will be the big test: we’ll see whether the Iraqi government can succeed in putting together a coalition to govern the country’s second largest city. It won’t be easy.
The situation in Syria is much less favorable to the Russian/Iranian/Assad coalition. After months of effort, it has still not succeeded in taking eastern Aleppo, even after besieging it, denying it humanitarian assistance, and bombing it to near smithereens, including many civilian targets. In the meanwhile, Kurdish and allied Arab forces have taken Manbij on the Euphrates river from ISIS. Seeking to block further Kurdish expansion west, Turkey has helped Syrian rebels to take Jarablus, and move towards al-Bab, thus carving out what might become a de facto opposition “safe area” under Turkish protection.
The Assad coalition will eventually succeed in dislodging the opposition from Aleppo, but in doing so they are creating Sunni martyrs and radicalizing people who might otherwise have preferred a more moderate course. They are also guaranteeing that the Americans and Europeans will not be available to foot the bill for reconstructing Aleppo as well as other Syrian towns Assad, the Russians and Iranians have attacked. It is entirely possible for Assad’s coalition to win the battle for Aleppo but lose the war and the peace.
President Obama can be pleased with the progress of the war in Iraq, especially as he was instrumental in recruiting Haider al Abadi to replace Nouri al Maliki. It is impossible to see how the latter would have been able to construct the kind of coalition the former has managed to cobble together.
But Syria is likely to besmirch both Obama and Putin. Their failure to reach an accommodation that ends the war between coalitions that both claim to oppose the Islamic State and to begin a political transition is not just a personal tragedy for many Syrians but also a geopolitical disaster for the region.
The American-backed war is going okay. The Russian war is not. Iraq has a chance for a decent outcome. But no one is likely to be happy with the outcome in Syria.
- Cultural Heritage: A Target in War, An Engine of Peace | Monday, October 24th | 8.45am – 5.30pm | US Institute of Peace | click HERE to register
Recent wars offer no greater example of cultural heritage turned to healing than the work in Afghanistan of the charity Turquoise Mountain, the subject of a stunning, 11-month exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution. “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, shows how historians, artisans, young students and communities are preserving and renewing traditions, crafts, economic livelihoods and a historic district of Kabul.
This symposium at the U.S. Institute of Peace will gather scholars, museum professionals and policymakers to explore what we have learned from recent wars about the role of cultural heritage. The daylong symposium aims to improve our understanding of how cultural heritage initiatives, such as Turquoise Mountain, can contribute to peace. How can this work empower marginalized women and communities? How can it strengthen the reconciliation, civic engagement and economic bases needed to build peace in the shadow of violent conflicts? Discussions will include the emerging role of new technologies and the ways in which Afghanistan’s lessons, with other case studies, apply elsewhere in the world. Funding for this symposium, and for the Smithsonian exhibition, has been provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
- Middle East and Regional Transition, Terrorism, and CVE: What The Next President Will Face | Monday, October 24th | 12pm – 1.30pm | Middle East Institute | click HERE to register
The Middle East Institute and the American Academy of Political and Social Science are pleased to host the special editors of the November volume of The ANNALS from the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
When the next American president takes office in January 2017, he or she will encounter a challenging landscape with regard to terrorism, countering violent extremism, regional turmoil, and failed states in the Middle East and surrounding region. Even if the United States and its allies disrupt ISIS and other terrorist organizations, the problems of violent Islamist extremism and the social and demographic conditions that enable it will persist.
The November volume of The ANNALS from the American Academy of Political and Social Science examines the state of these issues today and provides some paths and priorities for the next president and administration.
Please join Rand Beers (MEI Board Member), Richard A. Clarke (MEI Board Chairman), Emilian Papadopoulos (Good Harbor), and Paul Salem (MEI) for a discussion of these issues and what the next president can do about them. Mary Louise Kelly (NPR) will moderate the panel.
- Coping With the Refugee Crisis and Violent Conflict: Bold Ideas for the Next US President and UN Secretary General | Monday, October 24th | 4.30pm – 6pm | The Stimson Center | click HERE to register
Mandated to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and to seek a “life in larger freedom”, the United Nations has helped the world succeed in halving extreme global poverty, slowing the spread of nuclear weapons, and managing many long-standing conflicts. Yet, hardly anybody with an insight into global politics or economics would use the words “just” or “secure” to describe the world today. From Syria and Ukraine to Afghanistan, Iraq, and sub-Saharan Africa, rising violence has erased human rights, increased mass atrocities, and reversed the global decline in political violence seen since the end of the Cold War. These deadly conflicts have further fueled more than 60 million displaced persons, creating the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Despite noteworthy efforts to contain these conflicts and the attendant refugee outflow — including President Obama’s September 20 Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis at U.N. Headquarters, mounting evidence suggests that the United Nations and international community are losing the battle against several of the most pressing security and justice challenges of our time.
The panel discussion will bring together leading policy analysts and former senior international and U.S. officials for a moderated discussion on how the next U.S. President and U.N. Secretary-General, with the support of countries and global civil society, can better cope with the current refugee crisis and the underlying violent conditions that sustain it.
Vikram Singh (moderator), Vice-President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and South-East Asia
Ibrahim Gambari, former Nigerian Foreign Minister, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs, and Co-Chair of the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance
Melanie Greenberg, President and CEO, Alliance for Peacebuilding
Cindy Huang, Co-convenor of Idealists4Hillary, Visiting Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development, and former Deputy Vice President for Sector Operations at the Millennium Challenge Corporation
William Durch, Distinguished Fellow at Stimson and former Director of Research, Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance
Hardin Lang, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former senior U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations official for Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, and Mali.
- Geopolitics, Security, and Energy in the Arctic | Tuesday, October 25th | 1pm | Atlantic Council | click HERE to register
While commercial, environmental, and local community development aspects of the Arctic have received increasing attention in Washington in recent times, the US also faces growing national security challenges in the Arctic region. This is a worrying development, as the United States risks not being able to appropriately respond and posture for a rapidly changing security situation in the Arctic.
The Arctic is an inherently challenging region to operate in, with vast distances, limited infrastructure, and harsh climate. As human activity in the region grows, these conditions give rise to a range of pressing security issues, from Russia’s growing militarization of the region and China’s interest in the Arctic, to disaster and accident response and search and rescue operations.
Please join the Atlantic Council as it convenes a leading group of officials and experts to address these challenges and take forward the debate on how the opening Arctic region impacts US national security.
The Honorable Amy Pope – Vice Chair, White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee;
Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Homeland Security Advisor; National Security Council Staff
Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., USCG (Ret.) – Special Representative for the Arctic, US Department of State;
General Joseph Ralston, USAF (Ret.) – Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe
Dr. Janine Davidson – Under Secretary, US Navy
Rear Admiral Donald P. Loren, USN (Ret.) – Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, US Department of Defense
Admiral James M. Loy, USCG (Ret.) – Former Deputy Secretary, Department of Homeland
Sherri Goodman – Former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense; Former CEO, Consortium for Ocean Leadership; Board Director, Atlantic Council
Rear Admiral David Titley, USN (Ret.) – Director, Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, Pennsylvania State University
- War and Tweets: Terrorism in American in the Digital Age | Tuesday, October 25th | 3pm – 5pm | New America | click HERE to register
“Here in Orlando, we are reminded not only of our obligations as a country to be resolute against terrorists,” President Obama said in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, “we’re also reminded…that what unites us is far stronger than the hate and the terror of those who target us.”
In the past year, terrorists have struck not only in Orlando, but in cities all over the world, from Beirut to Brussels, seeking to generate fear and anger. But what really determines public reaction? Is it, indeed, possible to be resolute in the face of terrorism?
Join us on October 25th at New America as we examine these questions and launch a new report as part of the “Building Civic Resilience to Terrorism” project, a partnership between New America and the charitable organization Democracy Fund Voice.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer will join the Hon. Sharon Burke, Director of the Resource Security program at New America, Juliette Kayyem, CNN National Security Analyst, and Dr. Peter Singer, Senior Fellow of the International Security Program at New America to discuss how political rhetoric, news media, and social media shape the public reaction to terrorism. The panel will also look at how to use strategic communications to build community resilience in the aftermath of an attack.
- The 25th Annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference | Wednesday, October 26th – Thursday, October 27th | 8am | National Council on US-Arab Relations | click HERE to register
Since 1991, the National Council’s annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference has gathered internationally renowned specialists to analyze, discuss, and debate issues of over-arching importance to the American and Arab people’s needs, concerns, interests, and key foreign policy objectives. Over two-days, Arab and American leaders from government, the military, business, and academe share privileged information, insight, and recommendations that are vitally important to the definition of issues, the ordering of priorities, and the direction of policy formulation and implementation in American and Arab governments alike.
The 25th Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference is scheduled for October 26-27, 2016, at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in Washington, DC. The conference will again provide attendees with two days of shared ideas, intense discussions and debate, and extensive networking.
- Tackling the Root Causes of Conflict in the Middle East and How to Tackle Them | Thursday, October 27th | 9am – 12 am| Atlantic Council | click HERE to register
The decades-long unravelling of the economic and social fabric of the Middle East has played an instrumental role in the rise of civil strife. From undiversified economies and ineffective political institutions to inadequate education and youth unemployment, there are many root causes of conflict in the region.
Please join the Atlantic Council and Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs on Thursday, October 27 from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. for a half-day conference that will explore the underlying causes of conflict in the Middle East and propose new ways to strengthen cooperation among the United States and its European allies in the region.
Annika Söder, Sweden’s State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, will deliver keynote remarks, followed by two panel discussions. A light breakfast will be served.
What happens in the Middle East will have major importance for the global system. An international peace settlement would help rebuild global cooperation and could be the first step toward a reinvigorated, rules-based order. Join our discussion to help shape and achieve this future scenario.
Paige Alexander – Assistant Administrator, Bureau for the Middle East, USAID
Michele Dunne – Director and Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Paul Hughes – Interim Operations Chief for Middle East and Africa, United States Institute of Peace
Mohamed Younis – Senior Analyst, Gallup World Poll
The Center for American Progress held a discussion earlier today about the challenges, trends and setbacks of US strategy in the Middle East. The event began with US army commander for CENTCOM, General Joseph Votel, and broke out into a panel featuring Derek Chollet, a Counselor and Senior Advisor for Security and Defense Policy for The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Linda Robinson, a Senior International Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation, and Michael Singh, the Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and Managing Director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
General Votel listed three major areas of focus for the US strategy in the Middle East:
- Listen to what our partners in the region have to say.
- Reinforce and cultivate relationships with our regional allies.
- Maintain excellent communication with our partners.
With Iranian behavior becoming increasingly aggressive and destabilizing, we must reassure our allies that we will not abandon them. This, however, does not mean that we should cut off communication with Iran. In fact, communication with Iran should be maintained so we can better control our interactions with them.
In terms of fighting ISIS, particularly in light of the ongoing operation in Mosul, General Votel recommends that we maintain momentum and pressure on the group on all fronts. Elimination of ISIS is the ultimate goal for the US military right now. Fortunately, our military coalition campaigns have largely been successful. However, these campaigns need to go hand-in-hand with humanitarian and political solutions. They will be difficult to achieve, but they are absolutely necessary for lasting stability.
The panelists were invited to provide their insight on US strategy in the Middle East. They focused primarily on a report recently published by the CAP Middle East team. Katulis said the Middle East is still incredibly vital to the US, but our goals there cannot be accomplished alone. The new administration needs to increase trust with our traditional partners such as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others. However, this should not be an unquestioning embrace of friendship, but rather it should be a friendship of increased communication and goal-sharing.
Robinson echoed this sentiment, but she also brought up that the US needs to bring its attention to non-state partners as well, such as the Syrian Kurds. She emphasized the importance of not relying too heavily on military solutions, but also integrating political and social solutions into the larger operational framework. Most importantly, the US needs to devise a reliable system of local policing for recently liberated areas. A lack of reliable policing is an “Achilles heel.” Perhaps the US and its allies need to formulate an international police force to provide interim policing services.
Chollet noted the US is perpetually in crisis management mode in the Middle East, which might not be in our best interests. The US and its partners do not necessarily share the same goals, so our cooperation with these actors needs to be examined closely. The next president should to step away from defining her/himself by what he/she accomplishes in the Middle East and concentrate on other issues.
Singh highlighted that the US strategy in the Middle East has often been solution-oriented when perhaps it should not be. Our goals should not be focused on solving conflicts or creating governments, but rather providing support when needed. The US shouldn’t “fix” the Middle East, rather it should simply ensure that things don’t get worse and that our allies have back up if they need it. The region, he argued, has a lot of potential if provided with the right support. If we work carefully and patiently with our regional friends, the Middle East could begin to thrive.
There were a lot of things Trump said in this third presidential debate that I disagreed with and lots more that undermined his claim to have the temperament and judgment to be president. But the coup de grâce for his campaign was his refusal say he would accept the outcome of the election. Here is the suicidal candidate, making a mockery of American democracy the day after the debate:
It has long been apparent that Trump lacks liberal democratic values. Witness his claim that an American-born judge is biased because of his Mexican heritage. Witness his pledge to put Clinton in jail if he wins. Witness his willingness to accept the support of white supremacists and anti-Semites. Trump’s world is one in which white and male privilege is a good thing, taxes are for others to pay, and illegal immigrants are manual labor to be exploited and deported. He is a self-declared law and order candidate with no respect for equal rights.
None of his anti-liberal stances have much affected Trump’s attractiveness to something close to 40% of the electorate. He will get most of those votes, apparently no matter what. The Republican party, sadly, will be reduced not to its core principles of less intrusive government and more private initiative, but rather to arbitrary government power and no respect for individual rights. How they are going to get out of that trap I don’t know.
To win Trump would need more. That’s where he failed last night. And that’s where his refusal to make it clear he will accept the election outcome hurts him the most. He has no chance of extending his reach to independents without respect for the electoral process he is participating in. Failing that respect, he will also lose a lot of Republican voters who know that the election is organized at the state level, where Republican governors and legislatures have if anything been over-vigilant in their effort to prevent almost non-existent voting fraud.
On foreign policy questions, especially Syria, Trump was mostly incoherent last night. He continues to wish for a good relationship with Vladimir Putin, which is ironically an attitude Hillary Clinton initially took as Secretary of State, only to find that her “reset” was unsuccessful. Trump also continues to refuse to acknowledge that Russia is responsible for hacking American emails, something he has urged Moscow to do. Neither candidate had much to say about China, though Trump emphasized its unfair trade practices (against which Obama has been retaliating) and seemed to think the US could somehow approach its claimed growth rate of 7% (actually 6.7%, and no one seems to believe that figure).
Trump even promised 5-6% growth in the US, achieved by lowering taxes on the rich and vastly expanding government spending for infrastructure.
Lots of foreign policy issues went unmentioned: vast areas like Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, current crisis areas like Ukraine and Libya (though Trump mentioned the latter in connection with ISIS, which has been largely defeated there), North Korea, the pending trade pacts in Pacific and with Europe (TTP and TTIP to the cognescenti), Egypt and Israel…. I hardly need to mention that my readers’ favorite part of the world, the Balkans, did not make the cut.
ISIS was a big deal in this debate. Trump blames its existence on Clinton, which is clearly nonsense. Even if you think the American withdrawal from Iraq opened space for it and choose to ignore Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s contribution and the impact of the war in Syria, the agreement to withdraw and the timing were decided in the George W. Bush administration, not by President Obama or Hillary Clinton. Neither Trump nor Clinton offered much idea what they would do about ISIS other than what is already being done. Clinton said she would not put US troops on the ground to stabilize Mosul. Trump did not make that commitment but instead insisted that the attack on Mosul should have been a sneak attack.
He hasn’t got a clue. You can’t move tens of thousands of troops into place, carpet the civilian population with leaflets urging them to shelter in place or rise against ISIS, begin to soften up the defenses with air attacks and artillery, and prepare for the inevitable displacement of people by constructing shelters for them to live in without alerting the enemy that something is up. Trump’s knowledge of how war is fought seems grounded in playing Risk with his kids.
I’m not willing to see him play Risk with the United States. Nor it seems are most of the American people. It’s a shame the election isn’t today, but millions have already voted early and many more will do so in coming days. The only good thing that can come of Trump’s candidacy is a resounding defeat.