Month: October 2011

They’ll miss it once it’s gone

Tim Wirth argues that UNESCO admission of Palestine as a member will initiate a cascade of U.S. withdrawals from UN specialized agencies, damaging important American interests.  This is because current law prohibits the U.S. from providing financial contributions to any UN entity that admits Palestine as a member.

John Bolton says

UNESCO has made its decision: It prefers Palestinian membership to American participation. Now let the rest of the U.N. specialized agencies make their choice.

This is game of chicken, played between the U.S. Congress, which is not interested in changing the law, and foreign governments, most of which have so far seen support for Palestine’s membership in international organizations as a cheap way of supporting the Palestinians and expressing dissatisfaction with the Israeli government’s negotiating stance.

Despite its good works, few care much about UNESCO, which the U.S. stayed out of for years without much harm done.  As Wirth notes, the more important UN agencies for American interests are the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Telecommunications Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Each will make its own decision based on the procedures outlined in its charter.

Some argue that failure to pay dues does not automatically lead to withdrawal from membership, and the U.S. could continue in arrears for at least several years, and possibly more, without legal consequences.  That may be so, but American influence would certainly decline, as would the capabilities of organizations that really do perform functions–like inspection of nuclear programs–that serve U.S. interests.

We are watching a diplomatic game of chicken, which like most diplomatic games occurs in slow motion.  If Palestine’s supporters blink first, their cause suffers a setback, but not really a very serious one.  More than 100 countries have already recognized Palestine.  Membership in international organizations won’t add much.  The international system would then remain what it is:  an imperfect but useful multilateral instrument through which Washington has often been successful in pursuing its interests.

But if they don’t and the U.S. cuts off funding, we could be witnessing the end of the post-World War II international system, one that depends on the United Nations and its specialized agencies to carry a lot of water for Washington.  Bolton and company don’t see it that way–they see it as a hindrance to American power and would rather get rid of it altogether.  But they’ll miss it once it’s gone.

Tags : , ,

Arresting developments

Ali Hawar, a friendly Kurdish journalist for Al Rudaw weekly published in Erbil, writes:

A few Days ago Iraqi security forces cracked down on former members of the former ruling Baath party.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki defended the crack down and there are rumors that those who were arrested were planing for military coup….

I answered his questions:

1-  Do you think a military coup can happen in Iraq?

DPS:  I imagine a military coup could happen in Iraq, but I personally have no reason to believe that one was being planned.  If the government has evidence against the people it has arrested, I hope it will be presented soon in public.

2-  What does this latest event tell you about the future of Iraq, especially now that the US will defiantly leave at the end of the year?

DPS:  It tells me Iraqis had better learn how to sort out their problems by peaceful means without the Americans around.  Some of the people who were most critical of the American presence in the past are now hoping the Americans will rescue them from what they claim is abuse of power by the Prime Minister.  I might even sympathize with their complaint, but they should have worried a bit more about the American withdrawal they so stridently demanded.  The Americans aren’t being defiant–they are doing what the government in Baghdad has asked them to do.

I imagine the Americans will ask a lot of questions about these arrests, and depending on the answers they may register some objections, but they cannot do a whole lot more than that.  The problems emerging now have  to be settled among Iraqis.

3-  Do you believe this is another scenario from Maliki, so he can show his political power toward his rivals?

DPS:  I don’t really doubt that Maliki fears a coup attempt.  What I don’t know is if he has real reason to fear it.

He has also unquestionably been trying to consolidate his hold on power.  It is up to other political forces in the society to use the means provided by the constitution to respond if they think he is going too far.  The provision in the constitution for formation of regions is one possible route for those who don’t appreciate Baghdad’s behavior.  But the constitutional procedure for a referendum has to be followed.

The main thing is that Iraq stick with the rule of law.  I could be arrested in the U.S., too, maybe wrongfully.  I would have to hire a lawyer and defend myself.  The trouble in Iraq is that the courts are not sufficiently independent to guarantee a fair trial.  A bit more focus on problems like that, and less on who holds what position in which council, would be a good idea.


Tags : ,

This week’s “peace picks”

A few recommended events for those interested in the world beyond our borders:
1.  The National Conversation–Afghanistan:  Is There A Regional Endgame? Woodrow Wilson Center, November 1, 12 — 2pm: event full but webcast
  • Deputy Special Representative, Department of State
  • Former U.S. Secretary of State
  • Public Policy Scholar
    “International Reporting Project Journalist-in-Residence” at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies
  • USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar
  • Journalist and Author of seven books, most recently “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World”
  • Professor of International Politics, Tufts University
2.  China’s Role in Africa:  Implications, 419 Dirksen, November 1, 2:15 pm

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations


The Honorable David Shinn
Adjunct Professor
George Washington University
Washington, DC
Dr. Deborah Brautigam
Senior Research Fellow
International Food Policy Research Institute
Washington, DC
Mr. Stephen Hayes
President and CEO
The Corporate Council on Africa
Washington, DC
3.  “How to End the Stalemate in Somalia,” SAIS, 500 Bernstein-Offitt, November 1, 4:30-6 pm

J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, and Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Ansari Africa Center. For more information, contact or 202.663.5676.

4.  U.S. Policy Toward Zimbabwe, 2200 Rayburn, November 2, 3 pm

Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights

Panel I
The Honorable Johnnie Carson
Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of African Affairs
U.S. Department of StateMs. Sharon Cromer
Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator
Bureau for Africa
U.S. Agency for International Development
Panel II
Mr. Mark Schneider
Senior Vice President
International Crisis GroupMr. Paul Fagan
Regional Director for Africa
International Republican InstituteMr. Dewa Mavhinga
Regional Coordinator
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition
5.  The State of U.S.-Pakistan Relations, USIP, November 3, 2-3:30 pm (also webcast)
  • Ambassador Riaz Muhammad Khan, panelist
    former Foreign Secretary, Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Author, Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity
  • Pamela Constable, panelist
    Staff Writer, The Washington Post
    Author, Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself
  • Zahid Hussain, panelist
    2011-2012 Pakistan Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
    Author, The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan – and How it Threatens America
  • Andrew Wilder, moderator
    Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs
    United States Institute of Peace


Tags : , , , ,

There are worse fates

The annual EU Forum, a confab sponsored by the Paris-based European Union Institute for Strategic Studies and SAIS’s Center for Transatlantic Relations, convened Thursday and Friday in Washington to focus American and European luminaries on the thing we all call the Arab Spring, even though we know it started last winter, varies from country to country and may not have results as upbeat as the appellation implies.  Almost entirely missing from the day and a half conference were Arab voices.  This was an opportunity for the “the West” to put its heads together, not for the revolutionaries or the oppressive regimes to offer their narrative.

They were nevertheless much present in the minds of the participants, who leaned towards enthusiasm for the values of the protesters, as well as their energy and determination, while worrying about the impact on Western interests. The three big areas of worry arise from

  • the Islamists:  what do they really mean by sharia law?  will they really play fair in democracy?
  • increased Arab support for the Palestinians:  will it make the Israel/Palestine equation even more difficult to solve?
  • sectarianism (will it lead to civil wars and possible spillover to other countries, especially in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen?

Underlying all was a sense that the West has precious few resources with which to respond effectively to the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, to the continuing repression in Syria and Yemen, or to the reforms in Jordan and Morocco, never mind the still solid autocratic regimes in the Gulf or the fragmented polity in Palestine. No one seemed to feel Western credibility or influence was strong, especially in light of the long-standing support (and arms) both Europe and the U.S. had given to Arab autocracies in the past (and continue to provide to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others even now).  And everyone was aware that the Chinese, Turks, Brazilians, Indians and other emerging powers will play increasing roles in the Middle East, offering contracts and aid on terms far less complex and burdensome than those of the West.

The Europeans nevertheless came with a strong sense that the Middle East is their “southern neighborhood” and they need to up their game in response to changes that will affect their interests directly, whether through immigration, economic interdependence, oil and gas supplies, contracts, investment and myriad other ties.  Precisely what they are going to do about it was not clear, and there was a strong sense that European policy on the Arab Spring has been re-nationalized.  The British and French in particular are carving out their own distinct approaches, taking advantage of their forward role in the NATO military action against Qaddafi, while other countries are lagging and the EU itself is still contemplating the interior walls of the Berlaymont.

The Americans would like to focus more on Asia, not only Afghanistan/Pakistan but also China and North Korea as threats to national security.  It was clear to all that Europe would not share this Asian interest to the same degree, but yesterday’s talk of Chinese financing to back the euro might change a few minds on that score.  The problem for the Americans is that the Asian challenge requires a very different set of policy instruments from the Arab Spring, which apart from Egypt and Yemen Washington might rather leave primarily to the Europeans (no one of course says this quite so bluntly, but if you follow the money that is what they mean).  Everyone expects, though, that NATO will remain somehow important and in the end the only real military instrument capable of effective power projection available to the Europeans.

There were lots of other points made.  Trade and investment are far more important than aid.  We need to be talking not only with secular women but also with Islamist women.  Liberal economic reform, associated in Egypt and other countries with the old regimes, is in trouble, at least for the moment.  Civil society in the Arab Spring countries needs Western support, but it should not be done through governmental channels but rather by nongovernmental organizations like the American National Endowment for Democracy (and the talked about European Endowment for Democracy).  Western conditionality should focus on transparency and accountability rather than specific policy prescriptions.

I could go on, but I trust the sponsors will be doing a far better job of writing up in due course, and tweets are available from EUISS for those really interested.  Bottom line:  the West is fading even as its values spread.  There are worse fates.



Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Blasé is not what Bosnia needs

Amar Causevic, a young Bosniak friend studying at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Bologna, writes

US Embassy in Sarajevo has been attacked!…The attacker was a Wahabi follower of Bosniak origin from Novi Pazar [Serbia]…There are no words with which I can describe my anger at this moment. I feel so ashamed and disappointed as a citizen of Bosnia and dweller of Sarajevo. Americans are great friends of Bosnia-Herzegovina and if it was not for them God knows what would happen to us. Sorry if this email caused any inconveniences, but I simply wanted to share my frustration with you.

I’m glad he did share his frustration, as it illustrates well an attitude that is much more common among Muslims in Bosnia than the extremist Wahabi one, which will naturally grab a headline or two in the next 24 hours.

The Bosnian government has denounced the attack.  Media are reporting that a policeman and the attacker were wounded.  Embassy personnel are safe.

Sarajevo these days is about as quiet and relaxed as any city in Europe.  But I confess to concern that radicalization of all sorts could ensue if Bosnia’s current political problems are not resolved.  The country is going on a year without installing a government after the last elections.  The financial situation is deteriorating.  People are increasingly frustrated and annoyed.  The passions are not readily contained within any given country’s borders. The potential for instability is real.

I don’t know which of Bosnia’s tripod of nationalisms will in the end cause an upheaval, but it would be unwise for the international community to continue its blasé attitude.



Tags : ,

Turkey is playing with fire

The emergence under Turkish protection of the Free Syrian Army raises again the question of whether the protesters against President Bashar al Assad should turn to violence.

Turkey has welcomed Syrian refugees for months.  There is certainly nothing wrong with that:  it is in fact an obligation (non-refoulement) to do so if the Syrians have a well-founded fear of persecution, which under the circumstances is evident.  Disappointed in Bashar’s refusal to listen to their advice or respond to pressure in favor of reform, the Turks have not however yet done much to block investment in Syria or otherwise signal their displeasure with more than words.  Now, rather suddenly, a Foreign Ministry official appears with a Syrian colonel who announces to the world that the Free Syrian Army has already attacked Assad’s forces inside Syria and needs better weapons in order to continue the effort.

This looks to me like a puzzle with missing pieces.  Have the Syrians been allowing Kurds to attack inside Turkey?  I can’t find indication of that in the press, but it would not be surprising, and might well prompt a response in kind.  Or are the Turks just using the means at their disposal?  Will Syria also respond in kind, raiding Syrian refugee camps across the border inside Turkey?  Or, if they haven’t already, allowing Kurds to attack Turkish forces?

Whatever is going on, it is dangerous.  The protesters’ umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, has so far opted not to use violence.  The emergence of a separate group prepared to do so from outside the country puts peaceful protesters at even greater risk than they have been so far, and hurts the prospects for maintaining their unity.

The Americans have appeared to be urging the protesters to stick with nonviolence, knowing full well that third party armed intervention like that in Libya is not in the cards.  The Turks are of course capable of their own initiatives, but I can’t help but wonder whether Washington has been in touch with Ankara about the Free Syrian Army.  Did the Americans oppose letting it raid inside Syria from Turkey, or did they turn a blind eye?

Whatever, as my kids say.  None of this is good.  Violence–however justified on moral grounds–is going to make it harder for the protesters to win over minorities in Syria and opens the real possibility of ethnic and sectarian warfare that will spill over Syria’s borders into Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon.  That could become a truly serious mess that all concerned would regret.  It is time to ask the Turks to keep the Free Syrian Army inside Turkey and to stop playing with fire.  If they want to do something, some stiff restrictions on Turkish business with Syria would help.

PS: Jeffrey White discusses the implications of various approaches to military action in Syria at (why can’t I get hyperlinks from their site?). Nothing he says there convinces me that civilians can be protected better by military means, even if the failure to use them also has dire consequences. Nor do I think, as he suggests, that open discussion of the option will strike fear into the heart of a regime that is increasingly confident of its ability to survive.

Tags : , ,