Falling off the wagon

I am grateful to Davide Denti and Franklin DeVrieze for this tweet on Saturday:


no longer supports European perspective for . See footnote in report Peace Implementation Council. Sad.

It is sad, but also good, to have it in writing. Davide adds this:

and they had the same objection few weeks ago @ UN on the renewal of EUFOR Althea (abstained)

This is no footnote. It is an important development that has long been in the making. Russia has sometimes in the past vacillated between outright support for specific NATO and EU goals in the Balkans (during Yeltsin’s time Russian troops served under US command in Bosnia) and competition (Russian troops seizing Pristina airport). Most of the time it has stood aside and watched while Washington and Brussels pushed Euro-Atlantic integration. It has now gone over to outright hostility.

This has serious implications, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina but possibly also in Serbia. Moscow, which has annexed Crimea and is seeking to carve out a Republika Srpska-like, semi-sovereign entity in eastern Ukraine, has long coddled and financed Milorad Dodik, supporting his maximalist positions.

Now we can expect the Russians to go further in challenging EU efforts to promote reform, which Brussels is trying to intensify. We should also anticipate that Russia may veto the next renewal of the EUFOR Althea peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, or try to extract a price for not doing so. Moscow is anxious to show it is an indispensable superpower, just like the US. Putin figures the best way to prove that is to block what others want to do.

Dodik will be a willing ally to Moscow. He has no interest in EU-promoted reforms, which would likely lead to transparency and accountability contrary to his interests. I am told that at the working level Republika Srpska officials often do cooperate with the Bosnian government in Sarajevo when it comes to technical issues associated with preparing the country for its European obligations. I have my doubts that will continue.

Serbia’s attitude is more uncertain. Moscow is actively courting Belgrade,which remained loyal to the Russian-sponsored South Stream natural gas pipeline up until the day President Putin killed it, despite EU pressure to conform to Brussels’ antagonism to the project. Russians own a large part of the Serbian energy sector. Military cooperation and religious ties are strong. Belgrade loves to portray itself as “non-aligned,” a notion most Americans will have trouble fathoming in the post-Cold War world. In the Serbian lexicon, it no longer means equidistance between two superpower blocks but rather hostility to NATO and the EU. But the political leadership in Belgrade is at least nominally far more committed to EU accession, which it is now negotiating, than Dodik is.

Few in the US will get worked up about this. The Balkans have returned to oblivion in Washington, where everyone would like to be thinking about the Asia Pacific but many find themselves preoccupied with the Middle East. If Serbia wants to volunteer to serve as a Russian satellite, the issue won’t rise above the Deputy Assistant Secretary level in the State Department, where they are likely to c0nclude that little more than continuing to chant about a Euro-Atlantic future for the Balkans can be done about it. Nor is Brussels likely to get too agitated either. Heightening the prospects for EU enlargement is just not something any major players there want these days.

I don’t have any doubt about whether a European perspective for all the Balkans is a good idea. It is the opportunity of a generation. The other countries of the Balkans see it that way and are preparing accordingly. But Bosnia and Serbia could fall off the wagon, with a push from Moscow. It’s their loss if they do.

The troubles we see

This year’s Council on Foreign Relations Preventive Priorities Survey was published this morning. It annually surveys the globe for a total of 30 Tier 1, 2 and 3 priorities for the United States. Tier 1s have a high or moderate impact on US interests or a high or moderate likelihood (above 50-50). Tier 2s can have low likelihood but high impact on US interests, moderate (50-50) likelihood and moderate impact on US interests, or high likelihood and low impact on US interests. Tier 3s are all the rest. Data is crowdsourced from a gaggle of experts, including me.

We aren’t going to be telling you anything you don’t know this year, but the exercise is still instructive. The two new Tier 1 contingencies are Russian intervention in Ukraine and heightened tensions in Israel/Palestine. A new Tier 2 priority is Kurdish violence within Turkey. I don’t believe I voted for that one. Ebola made it only to Tier 3, as did political unrest in China and possible succession problems in Thailand. I had Ebola higher than that.

Not surprisingly, the top slot (high likelihood and high impact) goes to ISIS. Military confrontation in the South China Sea moved up to Tier 1. Internal instability in Pakistan moved down, as did political instability in Jordan. Six issues fell off the list: conflict in Somalia, a China/India clash, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo Bangladesh and conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.

Remaining in Tier 1 are a mass casualty attack on the US homeland (hard to remove that one), a serious cyberattack (that’s likely to be perennial too), a North Korea crisis, and an Israeli attack on Iran. Syria and Afghanistan remain in Tier 2 (I think I had Syria higher than that).

The Greater Middle East looms large in this list. Tier 2 is all Greater Middle East, including Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and Yemen (in addition to Tier 1 priorities Israel/Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine). That makes 11 out of 30, all in the top two tiers. Saudi monarchy succession is not even mentioned. Nor is Bahrain.

Sub-Saharan Africa makes it only into Tier 3. Latin America and much of Southeast Asia escape mention.

There is a question in my mind whether the exclusively country-by-country approach of this survey makes sense. It is true of course that problems in the Middle East vary from country to country, but there are also some common threads: Islamic extremism, weak and fragile states, exclusionary governance, demographic challenges and economic failure. From a policy response perspective, it may make more sense to focus on those than to try to define “contingencies” country by country. If you really wanted to prevent some of these things from happening, you would surely have to broaden the focus beyond national borders. Russian expansionism into Russian-speaking territories on its periphery might be another more thematic way of defining contingencies.

One of the key factors in foreign policy is entirely missing from this list: domestic American politics and the difficulties it creates for a concerted posture in international affairs. Just to offer a couple of examples: failure to continue to pay Afghanistan’s security sector bills, Congressional passage of new Iran sanctions before the P5+1 negotiations are completed, or a decision by President Obama to abandon entirely support for the Syrian opposition. The survey ignores American “agency” in determining whether contingencies happen, or not. That isn’t the world I live in.

For my Balkans readers: no, you are not on the list, and you haven’t been for a long time so far as I can tell. In fact, it is hard to picture how any contingency today in the Balkans could make it even to Tier 3. That’s the good news. But it also means you should not be looking to Washington for solutions to your problems. Brussels and your own capitals are the places to start.

Peace Picks December 15-19

  1. The Escalating Shi’a-Sunni Conflict: Assessing the Role of ISIS | Monday December 15 | 9:30 | The Stimson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Today, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controls and effectively governs large parts of territory based on a sectarian agenda. By implementing an ideology of religious intolerance, ISIS plays a significant role in deepening the already existing sectarian divide in a region deeply embroiled in conflict. Its appeal namely lies in its ability to offer an alternative to many communities that have felt marginalized and threatened in the past, and more so since the Arab uprisings began. Given its anti-Shi’a agenda, did ISIS capitalize on the conditions in Iraq and the Levant or did it help create them? Does ISIS have the potential to spread to other countries in the region where there is a sectarian problem, such as Lebanon? What is the potential for the US to push back on the ISIS march? Is Washington throwing money at the problem or are US military efforts actually making a difference on the ground? The discussants will address these issues, with a particular focus on Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The panelists are Joseph Bahout, Visiting Scholar, Middle East Program, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Omar Al-Nidawi, Director for Iraq, Gryphon Partners LLC. The event is moderated by Geneive Abdo,  Fellow, Middle East Program, The Stimson Center.
  2. International Diplomacy and the Ukraine Crisis | Monday December 15 | 9:30 – 10:30 | International Institute for Strategic Studies  | To date, international diplomatic efforts to address the Ukraine crisis – the most severe threat to European security since the Cold War – have been episodic and largely unsuccessful. A discussion on the attempts thus far and how they might be improved going forward with three highly experienced negotiators from Russia, the US, and the EU. The discussants are  Vladimir Lukin who was the special envoy of the Russian president for the February 21st talks in Kyiv between then-President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders, Richard Burt who serves as managing director at McLarty Associates, where he has led the firm’s work in Europe and Eurasia since 2007 and Michael Leigh who is a Transatlantic Academy Fellow, consultant and senior advisor to the German Marshall Fund.
  3. Congressional Options and Their Likely Consequences for a Nuclear Deal with Iran | Tuesday December 16 | 1:00 – 2:00 | Rand Corporation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | With nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 now extended beyond the original November 24 deadline, some members of Congress might now attempt to intervene legislatively. Congressional action could either help or hinder the implementation of whatever deal may be reached. What options are available to Congress, and what are the likely consequences of each for the United States? The talk is with analyst Larry Hanauer as he identifies and assesses eight potential courses of action that Congress could take that might either facilitate, hinder, or block implementation of a nuclear deal.
  4. The State and Future of Egypt’s Islamists | Thursday December 18 | 12:00 – 1:00 | Hudson Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Who are Egypt’s Islamists? What are the internal dynamics among Islamism’s various individual and collective constituents? How have the dramatic political developments in Egypt over the past four years affected the country’s Islamists, and what are their future prospects? Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Samuel Tadros’s two-year long study of Egyptian Islamism has resulted in two landmark reports. The first, Mapping Egyptian Islamism, profiles 128 currents, groups, and individuals that form the complex Egyptian Islamist scene. The second, Islamist vs. Islamist: The Theologico-Political Questions, examines the internal dynamics of Islamism in terms of the relationships among its leading figures and major tendencies, and their disagreements on key theological and political questions. The discussion will surround the future of Egypt’s Islamists and Tadros’s two new reports featuring Mokhtar Awad of the Center for American Progress, William McCants of the Brookings Institution, and Eric Trager of the Washington Institute. Samuel Tadros will moderate the discussion.
  5. Bordering on Terrorism: Turkey’s Syria Policy and the Rise of the Islamic State | Friday December 19 | 9:30 – 11:00 | Foundation for Defense of Democracies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Southeastern Turkey has become a hub for terror finance, arms smuggling, illegal oil sales, and the flow of fighters to extremist groups in Syria including the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. Ankara has made explicit that it supports the arming of Syrian rebels, although whether Ankara is directly assisting jihadist groups remains unclear. Nevertheless, Turkey’s reluctance to cooperate with the international coalition acting against the Islamic State has undermined domestic stability, threatened the country’s economy and placed it on a collision course with the United States. Should Washington, therefore, seek to persuade Ankara to confront extremism at home and its neighborhood? And if Turkey refuses, should there be implications for its NATO membership? A conversation with Tony Badran, Jamie Dettmer, and Jonathan Schanzer.

Lessons learned and forgotten

Roy Gutman, currently serving with distinction in Istanbul as McClatchy bureau chief for the Middle East, has kindly given me permission to publish this longer than usual post. Read and weep. 

Until recently, few Americans had even heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). But a new poll just out shows that 70 per cent of the population view ISIS as the number one threat to the United States. From nothing to 70 per cent in six months. What’s behind the phenomenon of the Islamic State? Who’s to blame? What do you do about it?

My premise is that the Islamic State did not spring from nowhere. It is the product of five wars over 35 years, three of which took place in Afghanistan; there was one long war in Iraq and we’re now three years into war in Syria. A major contributor to its rise is us, the United States, and how we’ve dealt with those wars.

We need to go back 25 years to 1989. That astonishing year began with the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in February, and ended with the opening of the Berlin Wall and the Czech revolution. The Soviet Empire collapsed, and a new era began with one superpower and no defined order about how to handle crisis. What we’ve seen since then is a good deal of disorder and, with some notable exceptions, flawed responses to it. Possibly it’s because many of the crises occurred in countries that had been in the Russian orbit or non-aligned.

Afghanistan ushered in the post-cold war era, and the US response there set a pattern. The crisis is now in its 35th year. It has produced not just tragedy and threat, indeed radical modern Islam got its start there — but lessons as well. In my book, now out in a second edition (How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the Hijacking of Afghanistan), I documented well over 50 policy decisions that led to the continuing crisis. I’ll choose just 10 lessons that should have been learned. They weren’t, as we are seeing in Syria today.

Ten lessons Read more…

Disaster looms

The Middle East Institute discussion today of building support for moderate Syrian rebel forces stirred both mind and blood.With Kate Seelye moderating, the panel offered a multilayered critique of US and coalition policy.

McClatchy’s Roy Gutman launched with a denunciation of US aid cuts to the 8-10,000 vetted fighters, who are losing ground and personnel to the Syrian regime and extremists. While White House favorites like David Ignatius are declaring the moderates don’t exist, in fact they did well fighting extremists for much of this year (after an initial debacle in the north, where their warehouses were raided by ISIS).

The rebels have suffered more recently from having no unified command, lack of coordination among donors, and the need to fight Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra as well as ISIS and the regime. The US, which a Syrian opined “walks like a turtle while events race like a rabbit,” punishes the opposition for failures that are due in fact to lack of US support. The situation bears all the hallmarks of impending disaster for the moderates. Somehow the opposition is holding its ground in the center of Aleppo, but it is losing manpower to the extremists.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition’s Oubai Shahbandar agreed the situation is difficult, but he thought not impossible. Despite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters operating on the regime side, Aleppo has held. The rebels are resilient. They are fighting Assad, a fight that is inextricably linked to the fight against ISIS. Defeating ISIS in Iraq and containing it in Syria, as the Obama administration would like to do, is not a viable option. Rebel forces in southern Syria are making real progress in surrounding Damascus. The moderates are not finished. There are still viable options if they get sufficient support.

Retired US Army General Paul Eaton said the US has no strategy, just an incoherent response. This is partly because there are no vital US interests at stake in Syria, only “conditional” ones. The war against ISIS is the main US effort, which we entered because ISIS threatened our Kurdish friends in Erbil (not because journalists were beheaded). But the war is existential for President Assad, who is therefore unrestrained even as the US pursues the art of the possible. The Administration has a choice of two out of three: good, fast and cheap. It has chosen good and cheap (and therefore also slow). One year will not be enough. In the meanwhile, the opposition is unable to hold and build.

Retired Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford underlined that this is a two-front war, east and west. The Administration has given priority to the east (Iraq). The west (Syria) is not going well. But there is no solution only in Iraq. Nor is there a solution unless we fight both the regime and ISIS. It may be too late, as we have failed to bomb ISIS forces that are challenging the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades. Assad and the jihadis are winning in the west. It is unrealistic to expect the FSA to fight only Assad. We need to change the balance on the ground in order to get a political solution in Syria.

Asked about the UN “freeze” proposal for Aleppo, Gutman underlined that past ceasefires have essentially amounted to surrenders of the opposition to the regime. The UN is on its third top-notch special envoy. But he won’t succeed either unless something is done to alter the balance on the ground. Ford noted that of three dozen ceasefires, only one has held up. Eaton said that the US could enforce a freeze, but it has to consider the Iranian and Russian responses if it were to do so.

If we move towards a “no fly” zone, Ford emphasized the need for strict conditions on our friends: we would want the Sunnis to pledge protection for Alawites and other minorities, the Turks to pledge not to push Syrian refugees out of Turkey, the donors to tighten coordination and to push for a political solution. Gutman underlined that it is vital for the opposition to set up shop inside Syria, but doing so will require ground forces (which Turkey does not want to provide) as well as protection from the air. Shahbandar thinks a “no fly” zone would help to change the balance on the ground and win hearts and minds, which are being lost now because of US failure to attack regime forces.

Russia and Iran, the panel agreed, are key international players. Russia has been reluctant to force the regime to fight ISIS or to push Assad out. The Administration has told the Iranians it will not bomb Assad’s forces. But Iran is a key factor in supporting ISIS, which it helped revive after its defeat in Iraq. Tehran is the “turboengine” of terrorism in the Levant, Shahbandar said. The US risks losing all Sunni support if it is seen as allied with Iran.

Bottom line: the US still lacks a coherent strategy against ISIS in Syria, which would require stronger support to the moderate opposition and the fight against Assad, a unified opposition military command and logistics, and more effort to undo Iranian and Russian support for the regime. Otherwise disaster looms.

Doing good is a powerful motive

Below you’ll find my commentary about the second ten of the Senate Committee findings on the CIA interrogation program. These comments are admittedly off the cuff, like my comments on the first ten.
But before proceeding I offer you this from NPR on the question of the effectiveness of the Enhanced Intelligence Techniques (EIT) program:
I am afraid it is true in the public discourse (including statements from Senator Feinstein) that the Senate report is being portrayed as denying any intelligence benefit from the program.
But as I pointed out two days ago, that is not actually what the report says. It says the program was not effective. An ineffective program may still produce some benefits. I assume the intel professionals claiming it did are correct. But the available evidence suggests not nearly enough to justify the methods used (even ignoring the moral issue). That is presumably what CIA Director Brennan meant when he classified the benefits as “unknowable.”
To round out your day, here is a 25-minute interview with the alleged designer of the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques program. Note his emotional crumble at the end. Doing good is a powerful motive for doing bad:
#11:The CIA was unprepared as it began operating its Detention and Interrogation Program more than six months after being granted detention authorities.
The Agency has pretty much agreed with this finding.
#12: The CIA’s management and operation of its Detention and Interrogation Program was deeply flawed throughout the program‘s duration, particularly so in 2002 and early 2003.
While it doesn’t plead guilty to the “deeply flawed” label, CIA in its 2013 response certainly agreed about some of the specific management and operation mistakes.
#13: Two contract psychologists devised the CIA‘s enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced operations related
to the program.
The Agency actually goes further in admitting fault on this point, saying it
allowed a conflict of interest to exist wherein the contractors who helped design and employ the enhanced interrogation techniques also were involved in assessing the fitness of detainees to be subjected to such techniques and the effectiveness of those same techniques;
#14: CIA detainees were subjected to coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved by the Department of Justice or had not been authorized by CIA Headquarters.
The former CIA higher ups disagree with this and say everything was approved. This is a factual question that closer examination should elucidate. They have Vice President Cheney on their side. He has said he and the President knew about the details and approved them.
#15: The CIA did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the
number of individuals it detained, and held individuals who did not meet the legal standard for detention. The CIA’s claims about the number of detainees held and subjected to its enhanced Interrogation techniques were inaccurate.
The allegation is 26 “wrongfully held.” But for the rest we are getting into the weeds. Sure they should have known precisely how many people they were holding, but that is nowhere near the worst that was done.
#16: The CIA failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques.
I haven’t heard anyone dispute this.
#17: The CIA rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable for serious and significant violations, inappropriate activities, and systemic and individual management failures.
You are not going to get people to do the stuff that was done if you come down hard on them. And if the program had proper authorization, it would be better to focus where that decision was made.
#18: The CIA marginalized and ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections concerning the operationand management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.
More credit to those officers who spoke up.
#19: The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program was inherently unsustainable and had effectively ended by 2006 due to unauthorized press disclosures, reduced cooperation from other nations, and legal and oversight
More credit again, this time to the press, other nations and whatever those oversight concerns were. Would defenders of the program want to argue that we are at significantly greater risk for the past eight years because this program ended?
#20: The CIA‘s Detention and Interrogation Program damaged the United Statesstanding in the world, and resulted in other significant monetary and
non-monetary costs.
Defenders of the program might argue that it is the Senate report revelations that have really damaged US standing, but that would be fallacious. Anyone pursuing a classified program of this sort should be taking into account the risk that it will some day become public. That is inevitable, and it is an eventuality any classified program should take into account before embarking.

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