Lame duck flies again

Like just about everything else in Washington today, how you feel about the President’s action on immigration depends on how you feel about the President. He has become the political touchstone for everyone.

Dislike him? You are likely to think it is a mistake for him to act without Congress, he doesn’t have or shouldn’t use the authority needed, and the Republicans in Congress should teach him a lesson by holding up confirmations or screwing with the budget, maybe even causing a government shutdown, suing the bastard or impeaching him.

Like him (as I do), you are likely to think it is a good move, both politically and administratively. We are never going to be able to deport five million people, the Congress has failed to act, and this move will solidify the Democrats’ link to the Hispanic and Asian communities. If Republicans don’t like it, they can up the ante in the next session, when they will have majorities in both houses.

So we are at loggerheads one more time. Unlike most others, I’m not prepared to bemoan that. It seems to me immigration is an important issue that should be subject to the full force of political contestation. Who is allowed into the country does determine who we are.

The outcome of the political debate is of course uncertain, but I am betting that the Republicans in Congress will up the ante. They cannot afford to have the Democrats walk off permanently with the lion’s share of Hispanic, Asian and Silicon Valley votes, as they did during the Roosevelt era with black votes.

A lot of people are going to be surprised if the Republicans turn around and offer a path to citizenship (which the President’s action will not). But it is their best political move, provided they can gather enough of their own party’s votes to back it.  When you have lemons, make lemonade.

In the wake of the drubbing the Democrats got earlier this month in the mid-term election, it has become popular to pronounce their inevitable decline. I’ve been through too many cycles of that media trop with both parties to believe it likely true this time. But keeping the President and his views under wraps during the last election did nothing to help the Democrats stem the tide of Republican success. Getting him out front and firm about what he believes in and what he wants to do strikes me as more likely to fix the Democrats’ ailing fortunes.

Polarization may not produce the paralysis everyone expects. On immigration, Atlantic and Pacific trade, the response to the Islamic State, preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, engaging with China and other truly priority issues there are large measures of agreement and strong pressures for serious progress. A lame duck president is also a free-wheeling president. He did well in Asia last week. This week looks good too. The lame duck flies again.

In the long term…

Proceedings kicked off at Thursday’s Middle East Institute conference with a panel on A Middle East in Flux: Risks and Opportunities. Moderating was peacefare’s Daniel Serwer, presiding over a star-studded panel consisting of Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria, Paul Salem, vice-president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, and Randa Slim, director for Track II initiatives at MEI.

The panel focused on long-term forces and factors in the Middle East and North Africa. Cole drew attention to the youth bulge, low investment, lack of jobs, and the effects of climate change on the region. The population is growing as resources are shrinking. Dwindling water supplies will create immense social pressures, and may lead to mass migrations and regional tensions, including over water supplies. Sea level rises will inundate the low-lying plains in southern Iraq, areas of the Nile Delta, and other inhabited areas.

This will happen as hydrocarbon production levels off and even declines, squeezing countries made rich by petrodollars. The region needs sustainable development, Cole underlined, which means a shift towards solar and wind power and a big increase in technological capacity.

Agreeing on the importance of resource and economic constraints, Salem underlined the collapse of already weak and corrupt institutions in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. With the failure of the Arab uprisings in these countries, the region has lost its sense of direction, as well as any semblance of regional governance. There is no real alternative to accountable, inclusive and ultimately democratic governance, but it is difficult to see how the region will get there from the disorder into which it has fallen. It needs high-value exports that it is unable to produce today.

The currently oil-rich region must adapt now, before it is left without options. Ford predicts that the Middle East will become a major food-importing region. To generate the revenue needed to pay for this food, the region will need to attract investment. Businesses will want to see fair and honest rule of law before sinking money into the region. Failing to develop economies producing more than commodities risks condemning the region to an impoverished and unstable future.

The panel considered the role of religion in the future of the Middle East, but it said notably little about sectarian or ethnic strife, which is more symptom than cause. Ford hopes that Islamists will be pulled towards the center of the political spectrum, as political Islam cannot provide the answers to all the socio-economic problems faced today. But this only applies to those Islamists actively engaging within the political system. There will be no single solution. With the region in such a dramatic state of flux, Salem cautions that there is a developing contest for defining the region’s cultural identity. Sheikhs, militias, and jihadists are competing to define the future of society and culture in the Middle East. The cacophony risks drowning out more moderate reformers and democrats.

Slim underlined the importance of Iran’s trajectory for the region as a whole. Whether a nuclear deal is reached and the choices Tehran makes about support for its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine will affect Iran’s relations with its neighbors in the Gulf and with the West. There is great potential for improvement, but also serious risk of deterioration if those in Tehran who want a nuclear deal have to pay for it by giving others a free rein to do what they want regionally.

The West must engage better in the battle for hearts and minds. For Slim, the key battle ground is online and across smart phones. ISIS releases thousands of propagandistic tweets, videos and online messages every day. Jabhat al-Nusra has a similarly slick media operation. Media literacy in the Arab world is high. The West should not let extremists be the only voice in cyberspace. Twitter and Facebook are theatres in the war against violent doctrines just as much as Kobani.

But the ideological battle cannot be won only through convincing words and media campaigns. Robert Ford recalled the warm reception he had received at a university in Algeria, which had a link with a university in the US. The few graduating from the program had all found employment. The result was goodwill from an much wider section of the local population. Providing quality education, developing human connections , and working to build the skills that  bring employment and prosperity are vital in combating ideologies that preach hatred.

The path to long-term success and stability in a region facing increasing chaos can be summed up by two 1990s political catch phases. Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid”, and Tony Blair’s “education, education, education.” Military campaigns against threats such as ISIS may sometimes be necessary, but in the long term the region’s future will be determined by other factors:  demographic  and climate pressures, the search for dignity, institutional strength and economic success or failure. The US and its allies cannot determine the outcome. They can only encourage and support local actors as they seek to achieve stability and prosperity.

End the Iranian occupation of Syria

Last week, the Middle East Institute hosted Faoud Hamdan, Founder and Executive Director, Rule of Law Foundation and the head of Naame Shaam, a project dedicated to researching Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict. Since its launch early this year, the organization has been involved in a number of initiatives such as a peaceful protests in European cities where Iranian officials and ministers have conducted meetings, an open letter to the Syrian opposition, as well as producing in-depth reports and analysis on Iran’s military and economic role in fuelling the war in Syria.

One of their most in-depth reports, “Iran in Syria: From an Ally of the Regime to an Occupying Force,” provides

numerous examples and case studies of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Syria by Iranian controlled militias and forces.

This report finds Iranian involvement in the ‘crisis cell’ assassination in July 2012 in which 6 of Bashar al-Assad’s highest-ranking members were killed. In addition, the report claims the Ghouta chemical massacre near Damascus in August 2013 involved the Iranians.

The Naame Shaam report also concludes that Iran is an occupying force in Syria. It presents legal arguments for addressing the war in Syria as an “international conflict that involves a foreign occupation…as defined by the 1907 Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.”  Other key findings in the report suggest that the influence of the Iranian regime will endure past the fall of Assad due to “Iranian-backed and controlled militias fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, including Hezbollah Lebanon and various Iraqi Shiah militia.”

The question remains of the rational for Iran’s heavy involvement in Syria. Naame Shaam asseses that there motivation is driven

first and foremost by the strategic interests of the Iranian regime in keeping shipments flowing to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria, so as to keep Hezbollah a strong deterrent against any attack on Iran’s military nuclear program.

According to the report, the Iranian regime has also been providing the Syrian regime with “financial loans and credit lines worth billions of dollars.” Without Iran’s military and financial support, Naame Shaam claims the Assad regime would already have collapsed.

The Naame Shaam conclusions are far reaching:

  1. Iran should be held responsible for “complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity”
  2. No lifting of economic sanctions
  3. No extension of nuclear negotiations

In addition, the United States and the European Union

  1. should “demand that the Iranian regime orders Hezbollah Lebanon to disband and integrate into the Lebanese army”
  2. work to end the conflict in Syria by supporting moderate Syrian rebels
  3. should give the Iranian regime a “clear ultimatum” to pull “Sepah Pasdaran, Hezbollah Lebanon and other foot soldiers out of Syria.”
  4. put forth a UN Security Council Resolution under Chapter VII “imposing safe and unhindered humanitarian access to conflict zones and people in need throughout Syria.”

In case of a veto by China and Russia, the US and EU as well as their allies should “act unilaterally by securing areas held by the moderate Syrian opposition, imposing no-fly zones.”

Naame Shaam wants the international community to halt the role of Iranian influence and occupation inside Syria.

The full report is available here.

Doubts about Putin’s credentials

American Ambassador John Tefft presented his credentials to President Putin today in Moscow. Putin’s remarks were pointed:

We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in various fields, based on the principles of respect for each other’s interests, equal rights, and noninterference in internal matters.

That “we are ready” betrays Moscow’s reaction to the sanctions squeeze the EU and the US have mounted. It is hurting, as is the fall in oil prices. Moscow is wise to be signing big contracts to sell gas to China, but it will be years before deliveries begin. In the meanwhile, a budget calculated at over $90 per barrel is under real pressure. The ruble’s fall compounds the problem.

Less promising is Putin’s concept of respect for each other’s interests and equal rights. He has promulgated an expanded notion of Russia’s interests. They extend in his thinking to all Russian-speaking populations in neighboring states. The pattern is clear:  in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, Moscow has preserved or carved out separate governance for Russian speakers (in South Ossetia and Abhazia, Transdniester and Crimea). He is trying to do the same thing in the Ukrainian part of Donbas, a region that straddles the Ukraine/Russia border.

This is not an effort to reconstruct the Soviet Union. Putin may regard its collapse as a catastrophe, but he knows that the more Western-oriented parts of the Soviet empire are not going back to Moscow’s fold. What Putin is doing is akin to Milosevic’s effort to implement the Serbian nationalist dream of all Serbs in one state by helping Serb-populated territories outside the borders of Serbia proper establish or sustain separate states. Milosevic failed in Croatia and Kosovo and ended up with hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees who fled from those places. But he succeeded in Bosnia, where Republika Srpska is the kind of separate governance Putin envisages in Donbas.

Putin’s concept of “noninterference in internal matters” also merits scrutiny. I was told repeatedly during a fall visit to Moscow that Americans needed to understand that Ukraine is an internal issue for Russia. That was sufficient evidence for me that Moscow does not respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. More evidence:  the Russian claim that the US promised that NATO would not expand. The constant public refrain of the Americans after 1989 was “Europe whole and free.” In what universe does “free” not include the right of European states to join whatever alliance will have them?

Of course Putin also means by noninterference that Washington should not support democracy advocates in Russia. He has in fact restricted US efforts to support independent voices and cracked down on many of them. Here he is within his rights I suppose, as the United States was (from an international law perspective) during the Cold War when it restricted the activities of the Communist Party. But Senator McCarthy’s red scare wasn’t the America’s proudest moment. Imitating it won’t be Russia’s. Allowing and protecting dissent is a sign of a state’s strength, not weakness.

Putin accepted John Tefft’s credentials. But America should have profound doubts about Putin’s.

Yes, the time is ripe

Hamid  Bayati of the Iran Times published an article yesterday based in part on an interview with me. The article accurately reproduces my views, as you can see from the interview below, but he skipped my important final point about a possible clandestine nuclear program:

Q:  Reportedly, US President Barack Obama secretly wrote Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the middle of last month and described a shared interest in fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Can the letter have a positive impact on the nuclear talks between Iran and 5+1 group or help facilitate the diplomatic efforts to reach a nuclear agreement by the Nov. 24 deadline?

A:  I haven’t seen the whole text of the letter. What has been reported suggests that the Americans were holding out cooperation against ISIS as a “carrot” to induce Iranian agreement on a nuclear deal. But Iran has good reason to fight ISIS without any inducements, as the US does, and I’m pretty sure there is already some cooperation to try to avoid incidents between American aircraft and forces and the Iranians fighting in Iraq. If Iran signs on to a nuclear deal, it will have much more to do with removing sanctions and military risks than ISIS.

Q:  Nuclear negotiators from Iran and the 5+1 group will meet in Muscat, Oman, on November 11 and then will resume talks in Vienna on November 18. So why do the Iranian and 5+1 delegates go to Oman before Vienna?

A:  I don’t know why the meeting is in Oman.

Q:  Professor Vali Nasr wrote an article recently saying we are in a position that it is the best time to have a nuclear deal with Iran. Or, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence organizations have claimed that Western powers are willing to reach an agreement with Tehran at any price. What is your analysis of the situation? Is it possible that the two sides strike a nuclear deal by November 24?

A:  I agree with Vali that the moment is ripe: see No pain, no gain | But the Saudis are wrong that the Western powers are willing to reach an agreement with Tehran at any price. Any deal that leaves open an option for Iran to get nuclear weapons is going to be unacceptable in the West, especially in Washington DC.

Q:  There have been reports that Obama seeks to lift sanctions on Iran without Congressional permission. Are these reports true?

A:  That would not be his preferred option, but I am sure he is considering the proposition.

Q:  Can the mid-term Congressional election, in which the Republicans won the majority in the Senate as well, affect the nuclear talks in case Iran and the 5+1 group fail to reach an agreement by November 24?

A:  Yes, the election outcome will have an impact. The President will have to convince the Congress that the United States is significantly better off in terms of blocking any route to nuclear weapons with the agreement reached than without it. I anticipate the constraints on enrichment and reprocessing will be clear and compelling enough. The big problem will be whether Iran can convince the world that it has no longer has a clandestine nuclear weapons program, see Aye, there’s the rub |

Q:  Some experts argue that it is not possible to reach a comprehensive deal by the November 24 deadline and therefore is it better that Iran and 5+1 group sign a “partial agreement.” How can a partial agreement work?

A:  I don’t really know. It will be hard to get more sanctions relief from Washington without a complete agreement that clearly and unequivocally blocks all paths to nuclear weapons. It might be possible to extend the Joint Plan of Action for a few weeks. But the inclination in Congress will be to tighten sanctions if there is no agreement that satisfies the majority there by the deadline.

The problem right now is that Tehran is only slowly answering questions about its past activities with “possible military dimensions,” which are discussed between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. That hesitation raises serious question about a possible clandestine nuclear weapons program.

The Ebola challenge

As the Senate considers President Obama’s request for $6.2 billion to combat Ebola, the questions of US leadership and the international response are critical. On Wednesday, the Brookings Institution hosted a conversation with Rajiv Shah, Administrator of USAID and Eric Postel, Assistant to the Administrator for Africa, to discuss the topic. The moderator was Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution.

In March, the Ebola outbreak appeared to be on the path to being mitigated, but urban transmission exploded and by May the transmission rates were as high as 2.5 for infected persons. This decimated the health care systems in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, none of which have yet to recover. Shah noted that one of the biggest obstacles is the unpredictability of when or where the next outbreak will be.

In addressing the US role, Shah echoed the sentiments of President Obama, who in a letter to Congress stated

My foremost priority is to protect the health and safety of Americans, and this request supports all necessary steps to fortify our domestic health system and prevent any outbreaks at home…Over the longer term, my administration recognizes that the best way to prevent additional cases at home will be to contain and eliminate the epidemic at its source in Africa.

Shah believes controlling the virus at the source is the only way to guarantee the safety and security of the American people.

Another issue is the setback the Ebola outbreak will cause in the region. According to Postel, preliminary data shows that there has been a significant impact, specifically in the growth of the affected nations. This has been caused many factors such as halts in investments and the flight of expatriates from host countries. While one attendee posed the question of how to incentivize foreigners from curtailing their time in these countries, neither had a solution.

The president of the World Bank recently announced the need for at least 5,000 more health workers in Sierre Leone, Guinea and Liberia. However, quarantine practices for returning health care workers and the growing fear of infection are creating obstacles. The appearance of Ebola in Mali suggests the epidemic is not slowing down.

Shah mentioned the training of thousands of health workers in West Africa in order to thwart the further spread of the disease however there have been numerous reports of inadequate materials and training for health care workers within West Africa. This dissatisfaction with the conditions was met with an estimated 100,000 members of National Nurses United (NNU), from California to the Philippines, taking part in global “strikes and vigils to highlight perceived failings” surrounding the international response to Ebola.

With the death toll surpassing 5,000 in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea there is a responsibility from international community to allocate the proper funding and resources to ensure the necessary precautions are being taken and the appropriate measures are being put in place. The Ebola crisis must be met with monetary as well as physical assistance in order to effectively combat the deadly disease.



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