Month: December 2011

Happy new year, Balkans!

I seem to have developed the habit of doing a piece for Kosova Sot‘s New Year’s edition.  Here is what I sent Magarita Kadriu on December 20:

Friends in Kosovo and the Balkans often ask me what I think about events there.  The truth, if I care to tell it, is that people in Washington don’t think much about the Balkans these days.  The Council on Foreign Relations recently published a list of 30 conflict prevention challenges for the United States in 2012.  None involved the Balkans.  I follow events there—mainly from B92’s coverage and many Balkans visitors—but only with peripheral vision.  I am far more focused on the Arab spring, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.  And this week North Korea.

I am well aware that there are still war and peace issues in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and in Kosovo.  But they are relatively small ones subject to a lot of international monitoring:  Milorad Dodik is not going to be able to take Republika Srpska in the direction of independence without a lot pressure being brought to bear against the idea, and Belgrade is not going to be able to formally annex northern Kosovo without suffering substantial consequences.

That does not mean however that the underlying problems can be resolved.  Resolution really depends on the Europeans, who have often shown little stomach for using their leverage to good effect.   I say that, and yet just yesterday German Chancellor Merkel made it clear, once again, that the European Union will not accept partition of Kosovo (or the persistence of the parallel structures in the north) and expects Belgrade and Pristina to collaborate in finding solutions.  Her steadfastness is a great contribution.

I only wish we were seeing the same strong European voice in Bosnia, where Catherine Ashton has been far more tolerant of Dodik’s antics than I would like.  This is partly because the Europeans don’t take him seriously.  They know he knows there will be no recognition if Republika Srpska makes the mistake of declaring independence.  But they underestimate the frustration and annoyance on the Bosniak side of the equation.  Bosnia is stagnating, a condition that is not good for peace and security.

That said, I don’t expect dramatic developments in 2012.  Pristina and Belgrade need to continue their dialogue and the search for mutually acceptable solutions, which can be found in implementation of the Ahtisaari plan.  Bosnia is reaching the end of its financial rope, which may encourage at least formation of the new state government, so long overdue.  Much of the rest of the Balkans is enjoying a relatively good holiday season:  Croatia is entering the EU, Macedonia won its case in the International Court of Justice against Greece, Montenegro is moving faster than most thought possible towards the EU and NATO.

Serbian President Tadic yesterday acknowledged that neither partition nor restoration of Serbian sovereignty in Kosovo is possible.  Now he is talking “dual sovereignty.”  I’ll be glad to hear what he means by this—certainly dual citizenship is not only possible but desirable.  But I don’t know of any places that enjoy peace and stability without clarity about sovereignty.

Kosovo’s citizens have every right to be frustrated that their sovereignty and independence has not been recognized at the United Nations or by Belgrade.  But the best revenge is simply this:  govern well, improve the lot of all of Kosovo’s citizens, and enjoy freedom each and every day in 2012.

Ten days later, I don’t have much to add, but my message would be the same to Belgrade and Sarajevo:  govern well, improve the lot of your citizens and enjoy freedom each and every day in 2012.  The Bosnians have apparently reached agreement in principle on forming their government. So far as I know, everything else is more or less where it was before Christmas. Things move slowly in the Balkans, except when they move fast.

Slow is probably safer right now, but I do hope Serbia will make a decisive turn in 2012 in favor of a European future. Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dačić gives me some hope this morning with this from B92:

We are going to the EU because of Serbia and only if it is in our interest. Serbia will not be destroyed if it loses Kosovo. That happened in the Serbian history before, that fanaticism about being in love with Europe or masochism that we cannot live without Kosovo or the Republic of Srpska.

Then he dashes my optimism with talk about “demarcation.” Hard to know what that means, but it presumably refers to his partition ambitions. Giving up on partition, both of Kosovo and Bosnia, is absolutely essential if Serbia and the rest of the Balkans is going to thrive.

I’ll be in Belgrade in mid-January and hope to get a feel for how likely that is. Stay tuned to for reports on what I find.

With very best wishes for the New Year to friends of all flavors in the Balkans,

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The Arab League monitors improve the odds

Two things are clear about the impact of the Arab League human rights monitors in Syria:  they have prompted the protesters to turn out in very large numbers, but they have not stopped the Assad regime from killing, which appears to be the only response the security forces can muster.

What we need now from the monitors is some serious reporting on what is going on.  Initial indications are not good.  Their Sudanese leader, Mustafa al Dabi, has already indicated he saw “nothing frightening” at Homs, where the security forces have been firing indiscriminately on peaceful protesters for months.  Much as I share concerns about his background and qualifications, I still hope we will find a few of the monitors willing to communicate clearly and directly about regime abuses.  It doesn’t have to be al Dabi.

At the same time, I am hoping we see a renewal of nonviolent discipline among the protesters.  The Free Syrian Army’s feeble attempts to harass the security forces are provocative and counterproductive:

They will reduce the numbers of people in the street and allow the regime excuses for violence.  I don’t like to see unprotected people who are standing up for their rights killed, but the toll will be far worse if Syria deteriorates to civil war.

On other fronts:  the Russians are still stalling UN Security Council action and the Iranians are pumping resources in to help Bashar al Assad.  There is little we can do to block the Iranian assistance, but we should take some satisfaction that they are being forced to spend precious coin at a time when their economy seems to be deteriorating rapidly.  Their threats to the strait of Hormuz may even be an effort to lift oil revenue at a time of pressing need.

The Russians must be beginning to wonder whether their interests in maintaining their naval facilities in Syria are best served by supporting the regime.  Contacts between Moscow and the Syrian National Council (SNC) last month were in principle a good sign.  The SNC has to keep at it.  It might also help if President Obama would tell Prime Minister Putin directly that Russia needs to get on the right side of history before it is too late.

Bashar al Assad is still trying to outlast the demonstrators.  His odds of doing so have gone down with the arrival of the Arab League monitors, however serious their limitations.  That is a good thing.

PS: This video purports to show observers running from gunfire, and the Syrian Free Army creating the excuse for the security forces to shoot.

PPS:  And this one memorializes a brave soul:

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The strait of Hormuz: go around

Tehran has been threatening this week to close the strait of Hormuz if sanctions are levied against its central bank, preventing export of Iranian crude.  I’m with Simon Henderson:  the right response to Iran’s threats is rapid development of alternative routes.  He long ago laid out the geography and suggested some options.

It is really rather extraordinary that nothing has been done about this in the several decades since the strait of Hormuz became a key choke point for world oil supplies and a major (and expensive) preoccupation of the U.S. Navy.  America spends something like $100 billion per year on military capabilities to protect oil routes.  Easily a quarter of that is attributable to the strait of Hormuz.  A pipeline from the UAE through Oman that circumnavigates the strait, another through Iraq to Turkey and a couple to get Saudi oil out to the Red Sea are all that is needed to devalue Iran’s geographic trump card. Put one through Yemen and the transit fees will be enough to solve that country’s economic troubles for decades.

I find it puzzling that none of this ever gets done.  I was in charge of our preparations for an oil supply disruption in the State Department in the mid 1980s.  We spent a small fortune accumulating the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and considerable diplomatic coin getting a few allies to do likewise.  We also got them to commit to coordinated, early drawdown, a policy that has been implemented several times successfully over the last couple of decades.

But somehow we have never managed to get oil suppliers to use some of their gigantic flow of cash to circumnavigate the strait of Hormuz.  I have to wonder whether we’ve got a moral hazard here:  we protect the sea lanes and guarantee that the strait remains open, so Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others conclude there is no need to invest in the pipelines that would make the strait less critical.  We are hard-strapped now and need to reduce many commitments.   Some even propose that we withdraw entirely from the Gulf.  That is a a flaky idea in my book, but it is perfectly reasonable to expect oil producers–and other consumers–to carry more of the burden of ensuring that Gulf oil continues to flow.

PS:  Michael Rubin views the Iranian threat as a hollow because Tehran needs to import gasoline and American military superiority more than suffices to keep the strait open.  But he neglects the economic damage that even ineffective military action in the strait (or anywhere in the Gulf) will cause worldwide.  He also emphasizes Iraqi vulnerability, which would be significantly reduced if  oil could be exported in larger volumes to Turkey.


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Ten places ICG neglects

I don’t entirely agree with ICG’s “Next Year’s Wars,” their choice of conflicts is idiosyncratic, and they don’t really predict anything, but it is hard to compete with an organization that has smart people on the ground in difficult places.  I’ll focus on 10 places they don’t mention:

1.  Russia:  Putin doesn’t make it over 50% in the March 4 election but wins the second round.  Demonstrations continue but he resists new parliamentary polls.  Weakened, Putin lashes out at his opposition and makes things worse.  Who knows where this ends, but it will probably not be in 2012.

2.  Saudi Arabia:  Crown Prince Nayef succeeds to the throne and tries to roll back King Abdullah’s modest reforms.  Demonstrations break out but are brutally repressed.  Oil prices, already high due to Iran’s threats to the strait of Hormuz, skyrocket.

3.  Iraq:  The Sadr bloc’s call for new elections in Iraq is echoed by the Kurds and eventually Iraqiyya.  Maliki tries to avoid it, but he eventually falls to a vote of no confidence in parliament and elections are held towards the end of the year.  I’m not going to predict the outcome.

4.  Egypt:  The constitutional process is difficult and delayed, but presidential elections are held in the fall (postponed from June).  Secularist candidates split their constituency, the Muslim Brotherhood blows its lead by pressing social conservatism and Abdel Fotouh, a relatively moderate Islamist, wins.

5.  Libya:  Continues to implement its established roadmap, elects the “National Public Conference,” prepares a constitution and succeeds in disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating most militias.

6.  Bahrain:   The Americans continue to support the regime.  Iran, stung by tightened sanctions, sponsors demonstrations against the Fifth Fleet.

7.  Sudan:   War, between north and south.  South wins, takes back Abyei and part of South Kordofan.  President Bashir is shipped off to The Hague by his generals.

8.  Zimbabwe:  Mugabe dies, his loyalists hang on but can’t manage the economic collapse.  The opposition takes over.

9.  Balkans:  Serbia gets candidacy status for the EU but that fails to save President Tadic’s Democratic Party from a parliamentary election defeat.  Kosovo meets all the requirements but continues to be denied the European Union visa waiver.  Bosnia gets a new government but no constitutional reform.

10.  United States:  Republicans nominate Mitt Romney. Economy continues slow recovery.  Barack Obama is reelected, by a smaller margin than in 2008.  Al Qaeda succeeds post-election in mounting a non-devastating suicide bombing.

And for extra measure:

11.  China:  Big real estate crash late in the year cripples Chinese banks and causes bigger problems for the world economy than the euro, which muddles through.

12.  Israel/Palestine:  Big but largely nonviolent demonstrations on the West Bank.  Israelis say “genug ist genug” and unilaterally withdraw from Palestinian population centers.

That should give me something to write about a year from now!  None of it should be mistaken for advocacy, and a good bit of it is based on feel rather than analysis.

I reviewed last year’s predictions yesterday.

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Who doomed Iraq?

Three of Iraq’s leading politicians write in the New York Times this morning:

Unless America acts rapidly to help create a successful unity government, Iraq is doomed.

Is it true?  And if so, who doomed it?

I confess my strong sympathy with the plight of these Iraqiyya leaders:  former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, current parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and current Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi garnered more seats in the March 2010 elections than any other coalition but for almost two years have been unable to convert that victory into meaningful power.  Their complaints about Prime Minister Maliki, who dreads the prospect of a Ba’athist coup, are well founded:  he does abuse the security services and manipulate the courts.

I nevertheless find myself gagging on their plea for American help.  These are the same politicians who refused to speak up publicly for a continuing American troop presence in Iraq.  Their colleagues–Vice President Tariq al Hashemi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq–were among the strongest voices calling for American withdrawal.  They are now hiding out in Kurdistan, having lost the protection that the American troop presence once provided.

Looking more closely at the New York Times piece, the plea sounds more like a threat.  Nowhere is there any sign that Iraqiyya is prepared to go into opposition, ally with other political forces to bring down Maliki’s government in parliament, or take other political measures to solve the problem.  They say they will come to an American-supported national conference aiming to resuscitate a power sharing government, but the preconditions for doing so are legion:

But first, Mr. Maliki’s office must stop issuing directives to military units, making unilateral military appointments and seeking to influence the judiciary; his national security adviser must give up complete control over the Iraqi intelligence and national security agencies, which are supposed to be independent institutions but have become a virtual extension of Mr. Maliki’s Dawa party; and his Dawa loyalists must give up control of the security units that oversee the Green Zone and intimidate political opponents.

In other words, Maliki has to disarm first, or else.

What is this “else”?  Are our Iraqiyya friends threatening civil war, as the Times headline writer suggests?  Or are they just suggesting that they will press for further regionalization, trying to free Iraq’s Sunni-majority provinces from Baghdad’s rule?  I might wish it were the latter, but there is no sign at all in their piece that this is the case.  And to be fair, Maliki has done everything he can to block regionalization efforts, in both Sunni and Shia majority areas. It was unsettling, and possibly instructive, that the warrant for Tariq al Hashemi’s arrest quickly generated an Al Qaeda in Iraq spate of bombings targeting mainly Shia in Baghdad.  Are our Iraqiyya friends getting support from those committed to violence?

Vice President Biden, who once proposed that Iraq be broken up along sectarian and ethnic lines, is now scrambling to keep the country together.  He has leverage over Maliki, who values American security assistance and intelligence cooperation as well as diplomatic help in reestablishing Iraq as a regional power.  Using that leverage is not cost-free however.  At the very least, he should insist on peaceful methods from all sides, including those who say:

For years, we have sought a strategic partnership with America to help us build the Iraq of our dreams: a nationalist, liberal, secular country, with democratic institutions and a democratic culture. But the American withdrawal may leave us with the Iraq of our nightmares: a country in which a partisan military protects a sectarian, self-serving regime rather than the people or the Constitution; the judiciary kowtows to those in power; and the nation’s wealth is captured by a corrupt elite rather than invested in the development of the nation.

Hard to dissent from the preferences expressed here, and America should be prepared to help.  I have spent many hours in recent years talking with Iraqi parliamentarians about national reconciliation.  They need to begin doing some.  The issues are difficult but not insoluble.

If Iraq is doomed, it is Iraqis who are dooming it.

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The end is nigh, again!

I made a bunch of predictions a year ago.  Here is how they turned out:

  • Iran:  the biggest headache of the year to come. If its nuclear program is not slowed or stopped, things are going to get tense.  Both Israel and the U.S. have preferred sanctions, covert action and diplomatic pressure to military action.  If no agreement is reached on enrichment, that might change by the end of 2011.  No Green Revolution, the clerics hang on, using the Revolutionary Guards to defend the revolution (duh).  I wasn’t far off on this one.  No Green Revolution, no military action yet.
  • Pakistan:  it isn’t getting better and it could well get worse.  The security forces don’t like the way the civilians aren’t handling things, and the civilians are in perpetual crisis.  Look for increased internal tension, but no Army takeover, and some success in American efforts to get more action against AQ and the Taliban inside Pakistan.  Judging from a report in the New York Times, we may not always be pleased with the methods the Pakistanis use.  It got worse, as suggested.  No I did not anticipate the killing of Osama bin Laden, or the increased tensions with the U.S., but otherwise I had at least some of it right:  growing internal tension, no Army takeover, some American success.
  • North Korea:  no migraine, but pesky nonetheless, and South Korea is a lot less quiescent than it used to be.  Pretty good odds on some sort of military action during the year, but the South and the Americans will try to avoid the nightmare of a devastating artillery barrage against Seoul.  I did not predict the death of Kim Jong Il, but otherwise I got it right.  There was military action during the year, but no artillery barrage against Seoul.
  • Afghanistan:  sure there will be military progress, enough to allow at least a minimal withdrawal from a handful of provinces by July.  But it is hard to see how Karzai becomes much more legitimate or effective.  There is a lot of heavy lifting to do before provincial government is improved, but by the end of the year we might see some serious progress in that direction, again in a handful of provinces.  This is pretty much on the mark.
  • Iraq:  no one expects much good of this government, which is large, unwieldy and fragmented.  But just for this reason, I expect Maliki to get away with continuing to govern more or less on his own, relying on different parts of his awkward coalition on different issues.  The big unknown:  can Baghdad settle, or finesse, the disputes over territory with Erbil (Kurdistan)?  I did not anticipate the break between Maliki and Iraqiyya, but I pegged Maliki’s intentions correctly.  The Arab/Kurdish disputes are still unsettled.
  • Palestine/Israel (no meaning in the order–I try to alternate):  Palestine gets more recognitions, Israel builds more settlements, the Americans offer a detailed settlement, both sides resist but agree to go to high level talks where the Americans try to impose.  That fails and Israel continues in the direction of establishing a one-state solution with Arabs as second class citizens.  My secular Zionist ancestors turn in their graves.  Wrong so far as I know about the Americans offering a detailed settlement, even if Obama’s “land swaps” went a few inches in that direction.  Right about failure and Israel’s unfortunate direction.
  • Egypt:  trouble.  Succession plans founder as the legitimacy of the parliament is challenged in the streets and courts.  Mubarak hangs on, but the uncertainties grow.  Pretty good for late December, though I was happily wrong about Mubarak hanging on.
  • Haiti:  Not clear whether the presidential runoff will be held January 16, but things are going to improve, at least until next summer’s hurricanes.  Just for that reason there will be more instability as Haitians begin to tussle over the improvements.  Presidential election was held and things have improved.  Haiti has been calmer than anticipated.  Good news.
  • Al Qaeda:  the franchise model is working well, so no need to recentralize.  They will keep on trying for a score in the U.S. and will likely succeed at some, I hope non-spectacular, level.  Happy to be wrong here too:  they did not succeed, but they did try several times.  And they did not recentralize.
  • Yemen/Somalia:  Yemen is on the brink and will likely go over it, if not in 2011 soon thereafter.  Somalia will start back from hell, with increasing stability in some regions and continuing conflict in others.  Yemen has pretty much gone over the brink, and parts of Somalia are on their way back.  Pretty much on the mark.
  • Sudan:  the independence referendum passes.  Khartoum and Juba reach enough of an agreement on outstanding issues to allow implementation in July, but border problems (including Abyei) and South/South violence grow into a real threat.  Darfur deteriorates as the rebels emulate the South and Khartoum takes its frustrations out on the poor souls.  Close to the mark, though Darfur has not deteriorated as much as I anticipated, yet.
  • Lebanon:  the Special Tribunal finally delivers its indictments.  Everyone yawns and stretches, having agreed to ignore them.  Four indictments were delivered against Hizbollah officials.  I was also right about yawning and stretching.
  • Syria:  Damascus finally realizes that it is time to reach an agreement with Israel.  The Israelis decide to go ahead with it, thus relieving pressure to stop settlements and deal seriously with the Palestinians.  Dead wrong on both counts.
  • Ivory Coast:  the French finally find the first class tickets for Gbagbo and his entourage, who go to some place that does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (no, not the U.S.!).  The French and UN settled it by force of arms instead of the first-class ticket.  Not cheaper, but less long-term trouble.
  • Zimbabwe:  Mugabe is pressing for quick adoption of his new constitution and elections in 2011, catching the opposition off balance.  If he succeeds, the place continues to go to hell in a handbasket.  If he fails, it will still be some time before it heads in the other direction.  He failed and the predicted delay ensued.
  • Balkans:  Bosnians still stuck on constitutional reform, but Kosovo gets a visa waiver from the EU despite ongoing investigations of organ trafficking.  Right on Bosnia, wrong on Kosovo.

I’m content with the year’s predictions, even if I got some things wrong.  Of course I also missed a lot of interesting developments (revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Syria, for example).  But you wouldn’t have believed me if I had predicted those things, would you?  Tomorrow I’ll discuss 2012.

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