Peace picks October 27-31

  1. Ebola: U.S. Domestic and Foreign Policy Options | Monday, October 27th | 12:00 – 1:00 | Heritage Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Months after the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, the news of two American nurses becoming infected has sparked fear amongst the general U.S. population. With Ebola victims now in the United States, concerns are growing over the ability of the administration, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and hospitals to control the spread of disease. The speakers will discuss the very real risks of the Ebola virus, but without the fear brought on by speculation and hype. Through clear communication of the nature of the threat and what policy options are available in the U.S. and in West Africa, the U.S. can make clear, rational decisions as to how to best deal with the current situation. The speakers are Dr. Robert Kadlec the Managing Director of RPK Consulting LLC, Charlotte Florance, a Research Associate for Economic Freedom in Africa and the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation and. Tevi Troy, President of the American Health Policy Institute.
  2. The New Threat in Town: Iraq, ISIS, and Managing the Crisis | Monday, October 27th | 6:30 – 8:00 | American University School of International Service | A panel discussion on the current security situation in Iraq regarding ISIS, the implications it has on the regional security of the Middle East, and how the United States can engage with the region in order to mitigate the situation from spiraling out of control. Panel speakers will include Dr. Tricia Bacon, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey from the Washington Insitute, and Dr. Paul Salem from the Middle East Institute.
  3. Ukraine Update: Elections, Conflict, and the Future of the EU’s Eastern Partnership | Wednesday, October 29th | 2:00 – 5:15 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND |  In 2009, the European Union established its Eastern Partnership to advance political association and economic integration with six neighboring nations to its east. However, in November 2013, Ukrainian President Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the EU, triggering mass protests in Ukraine that ultimately led to his departure and accusations that the EU “sleepwalked” into a conflict in Ukraine. Although the EU long asserted that the framework was never directed against Russia, the agreement with Ukraine was perceived in Moscow as a step too far. In the wake of the ongoing crisis between Ukraine and Russia, some are questioning whether the EU’s Eastern Partnership should be fundamentally altered—and, if so, how? Against the backdrop of simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian people will go to the polls on October 26 to elect a new parliament. The new parliament members will then have to form a majority coalition and begin to tackle the pressing challenges facing the country. The herculean tasks include not just the violent conflict in the east and the troubled relationship with Russia, but needed economic and political reforms as well as measures to curb corruption. Questions remain about Ukrainian public expectations and potential tensions in the immediate aftermath of the vote. A panel discussion assessing next steps for Ukraine and the EU’s Eastern Partnership. The first panel will explore the Ukrainian election and what it means for politics within Ukraine, the Ukrainian economy, and Ukraine’s relations with Russia and the West. The second panel will focus on international perspectives on the EU’s Eastern Partnership and the EU’s role in supporting Ukraine in this time of turmoil.
  4. A Nuclear Deal with Iran? Weighing the Possibilities | Thursday, October 30th | 2:00 – 3:00 | American Enterprise Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As global crises unfold, President Barack Obama appears to see one silver lining in the clouds on the foreign policy horizon: a nuclear deal with Iran. However, it appears increasingly likely that the November 24 deadline will come and go without a comprehensive agreement, and the stakes could not be higher. A bad deal that leaves too much of Tehran’s nuclear capabilities intact or enables Iran to develop nuclear weapons in the months or years to come could set off a nuclear arms race across the Middle East. Alternatively, a good deal could solve a problem at the heart of much of the turmoil in the region. Are the United States and European powers prepared to renew sanctions if Iran refuses to comply with demands from the international community and International Atomic Energy Agency? Will the Iranians refuse to concede on any of their own red lines? Will the Obama administration sidestep Congress to achieve a nuclear deal? The speakers are David Albright, George Perkovich and Danielle Pletka.
  5. Public Opinion in the Arab World: What do the latest surveys tell us? | Friday, October 31st | 10:00 – 12:00 | United States Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Arab uprisings were a vivid demonstration of the importance of public opinion in the Middle East. Frustrated by poor governance and the lack of economic opportunity, citizens demonstrated in mass protests on the streets, and online, throughout the region. As autocrats fell, instability and extremism rose. Although democracy appears to be succeeding in Tunisia, in most of the Arab Spring countries the future is far from secure. To learn how citizens in these countries view government, religion and economic opportunities, please join the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP), the Arab Barometer, the Arab Reform Initiative, the Project on Middle East Democracy, and the Project on Middle East Political Science for discussion on how publics view the situations in their respective countries.  The event will highlight new findings from the third wave of surveys (late 2012-2014) of the Arab Barometer across 12 Arab countries including Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, and more. The speakers are Amaney Jamal a Professor of Politics at Princeton University, Michael Robbins the Project Director of the Arab Barometer, Khalil Shikaki, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and Senior Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University, Mark Tessler a Professor of Political Science from the University of Michigan and Steven Riskin a Senior Program Officer for Grants at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
  6. Challenges in Nuclear Verification: The IAEA’s Role on the Iranian Nuclear Issue | Friday, October 31st | 10:30 – 12:00 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has for almost 60 years been at the forefront of international efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  Its safeguards system is indispensable in providing credible assurance that states are honoring their international obligations, including under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and ensuring that any misuse of nuclear material or technology by a state can be quickly detected. The IAEA has been addressing the Iran nuclear issue for over 10 years. More recently, it has played a critical role in verifying and monitoring the implementation of nuclear-related measures agreed by Iran under the Joint Plan of Action negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 countries.  It is likely to play a central role in monitoring and verifying nuclear-related measures under any comprehensive agreement that may be reached between Iran and the P5+1 countries. The Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at Brookings will host IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, who will discuss the IAEA’s role in nuclear verification, including in monitoring the November 2013 interim agreement between the P5+1 countries and Iran. Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Einhorn will moderate the question and answer session

What they don’t say matters

I am reminded this fine DC morning that what politicians and officials don’t say in politics and diplomacy matters. Russian President Putin let loose yesterday a tirade against the US, but

when one British newspaper reporter asked him specifically about the repeated reports of Russian army troops operating in east Ukraine, Putin chose to ignore the question completely.

He has to. Despite his high standing in opinion polls, Russians overwhelmingly oppose direct military involvement in Ukraine. While his tirade will get lots of ink (and electrons) in the Western media, it may betray Putin’s weakness more than his strength. He would like to do more in Ukraine than the current surreptitious presence of a limited number of Russian army troops, which Russians refuse to acknowledge even if the documentation in the West is ample. He would have liked, among other things, to halt the Ukrainian parliamentary elections that will take place tomorrow. They will likely reduce pro-Russian representation in the Rada, if only because voting won’t be possible in separatist-controlled territory (or Crimea, which Moscow has annexed). Putin’s silence on Russian army troops in Ukraine betrays political weakness, not strength.

Wendy Sherman last week gave a talk on the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. While eminently clear on the US objective of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, she ignored what has become a serious problem plaguing the negotiations:  the possible military dimensions (PMDs they are called in the business) of past Iranian nuclear activities.  To make a long story short, there is ample evidence that Iran in the past (prior to 2003) did conduct research connected exclusively to nuclear weapons. Tehran has not yet satisfied the International Atomic Energy Agency on this point. Tough-minded Americans want Iran to “come clean,” by giving a full explanation of these activities and providing ample assurances that they will not be renewed, including tight verification. This is difficult for the Iranians, not only because of the loss of face but likely also because these activities were conducted in secret by people and institutions not fully under the control of President Rouhani, who is leading the nuclear negotiations for Iran. This is not the first time Wendy has skimmed over the PMD issue. If an agreement is reached by the November 24 deadline, she’ll need to address it far more directly.

There are many other examples of how silence speaks louder than words in the diplomatic and political worlds. Think President Obama’s silence on how Syria is to be governed if the coalition war against the Islamic State is successful. Think Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s silence lately on concrete steps to form the provincially-based National Guard or prospects for resolving financial and other issues with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Politicians and diplomats will often say nothing on key issues because they have nothing to say that is acceptable, either to themselves or to their antagonists.

Those silences matter. We should listen to them attentively.

Condemned to cooperate

Laurentina Cizza, a former Middle East Institute intern, writes:

Thursday’s event at the Stimson Center on “Iran and the World After the Nuclear Deal: Possible Scenarios” produced two main conclusions:  the US and Iran will inevitably reach a deal, and the war against ISIS represents an area of competition, and possible cooperation, between Tehran and Washington. Presenters were

  • Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Professor and Chair, Political Science, Syracuse University;
  • Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Geneive Abdo, Fellow, Middle East Program, the Stimson Center, moderated.

A poverty of options on the nuclear issue

According to Boroujerdi of Syracuse University, both the US and Iran face a “poverty of options” when it comes to the nuclear deal. They have little choice but to continue talking. A nuclear deal is inevitable.

Despite coming to power on a wave of popular support, Iranian President Rouhani has struggled to push meaningful reforms past conservative elements of the establishment that have obstructed or criticized his policies. His honeymoon is effectively over. As a result, he has focused the momentum from his electoral victory on ending the nuclear deadlock and reviving the Iranian economy. A foreign policy victory in the form of a nuclear deal would strengthen Rouhani domestically, giving him greater political capital to negotiate with rival conservative elements on other hotly contested issues.

Western observers should view the nuclear negotiations within the context of vicious factional domestic Iranian politics. Rouhani cannot overhaul Iranian foreign policy by signing an unpopular nuclear deal. But failure to sign a nuclear deal would: a) waste the best opportunity for progress on the nuclear issue in at least a decade, and b) paralyze the Rouhani administration along a conservative-reformist divide. Boroujerdi argued that given the political costs of failure Iran and the US will eventually reach a resolution—even if not necessarily by the November 24 deadline.

The Obama administration’s dearth of foreign policy success heightens the need to reach a resolution to the Iran nuclear issue. Despite the administration’s claims that “all options are on the table,” Boroujerdi argues that the administration would never risk giving the Middle East another failed state by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The race against ISIS

Irrespective of the outcome of the current nuclear talks, ISIS provides a palatable second option for agreement between the US and Iran. The two powers are likely to pursue their mutual goals on separate tracks while competing for regional recognition of their efforts.

Boroujerdi argued that since the ISIS capture of Mosul in July, Iran has demonstrated remarkable flexibility and pragmatism. The Iranians blessed Iraq Prime Minister Maliki’s removal, refrained from criticizing the US-led air campaign against ISIS, and began supplying weapons to the Lebanese army—not just Hezbollah. Boroujerdi suggests this new pragmatism extends to Syria as well: the Iranians would be willing to throw Assad under the bus so long as their greater strategic interests could survive without him. In Iraq, Maliki’s departure did not weaken Iran’s unfaltering influence in the country, which is concentrated in Karbala.

In the fight against ISIS, Iran has taken care to jump ahead and take credit for being the first to act. When the militants overran Mosul, Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa provided the Iraqi army with the boost of morale and reserves necessary to face ISIS. The US stood idle on the sidelines. When the US finally announced its intention to arm the Kurds, pictures emerged of Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleymani training Kurdish peshmerga forces.

Kadhim argued that members’ conflicting priorities will doom the US-led coalition to failure. Although the US wants to tackle ISIS first and Assad second, coalition members such as Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia would rather see events occur in the reverse order. Kadhim likened inviting Saudi Arabia to join an anti-terror coalition to inviting Al Capone to a coalition against organized crime. The presence of pro-ISIS members, he argued, is bound to doom the coalition. Boroujerdi echoed this concern:  the US strategy of fighting ISIS and Assad simultaneously is “unrealistic.” The US—he suggested—could learn a thing or two from Iranian pragmatism.

Putin’s Serbia

A friend writes:

The front cover of Wednesday’s Blic, a wide-circulation Belgrade daily, ran a big photo of openly gay actor Goran Jevtić, who played a leading role in the film Parada and in Angelina Jolie’s film In the Land of Blood and Honey:

Blic Oct 22 page 1The front page reads “The Actor Goran Jevtic Had Sex with My Son,” and accuses Jevtić of sexually molesting a minor in a bathroom several months ago. The other front page story — which takes up less space than this one — is about tennis star Novak Djokovic’s wife giving birth to a baby boy. Under normal circumstances, the Djokovic story would be the entire front page. People in Serbia’s entertainment industry (film, TV, theater, etc.) think the trumpeting of the Jevtić story is politically motivated.

The alleged event occurred several months ago. The police have made no arrest, nor has an indictment been brought. In the meantime, Jevtić is now at risk. He dares not leave his home without security, for fear of being attacked and killed. He appears to have gone into hiding. Were he to be detained for even 24 hours, the chances that he would leave prison alive are slim. Blic has proclaimed him guilty without trial.

Blic has continued to run front-page pieces on Jevtic for the two subsequent days. I can’t recall the last time I saw such an unprovoked and flagrant media lynching in Serbia. This hits home on many fronts: rule of law (due process), right to privacy, LGBT rights, human rights, presumption of innocence, hate speech, incitement, etc.

Blic is owned by the German media house Ringier. They have been under pressure from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) as of late and have become increasingly sensationalist in their coverage. The former ruling Democratic Party (DS) also brought pressure to bear on the media. If a paper spoke out against the DS, then their advertising revenues would dry up. Since SNS has come to power, it is also able to control the media via placement of advertizing and appointment of editors, even in privately-owned papers. The latest (2013) European Commission progress report on Serbia says:

media reporting was insufficiently analytical and was influenced by the political parties in power, including through public funding, which led to widespread media self-censorship.

The OSCE has documented increasing pressure on the Serbian media, as have others.  There is little doubt that the attack on Jevtic would not occur without political backing.

For all his abuses, Milosevic permitted at least token opposition media in the form of B92, Studio B, and Danas and Nasa Borba. Today, B92 TV has been sold, Studio B is under the control of SNS, Danas has been privatized to a government friendly, and Nasa Borba went out of business. The current government wants little or no dissent.

Prime Minister Vucic will be speaking at LSE on 27 October. The event is organized/chaired by Dr James Ker-Lindsay, Eurobank Senior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe. Balkanistas in the UK should show up to the event and hold Vucic’s feet to the fire. An email-writing campaign to the chair might also help.

Is there anything you can do on your end to activate people and institutions to send signals to the Serbian government that international attention is being given to 1) how the media handles this; 2) how the police and prosecution handle this; and 3) how Jevtić will be able to move about without fear of being killed?

On this last point: I am reacting by publishing this note on, which is often heavily covered in the Balkans press, including the Serbian media. I don’t know Jevtić. But I am concerned that he and others be safe, indicted or not. I am also concerned with the crescendo of reports that the Serbian media are under increasing government pressure to sensationalize and politicize their coverage.

Catching foreign fighters

US Customs and Border Police detained me last Friday en route home from Istanbul. I’ve been hesitating to write about the experience, until I read the story of three Colorado girls busted on their way to Syria to join up with ISIS.

My experience was mundane. I was clearing Customs in Toronto on my way home as a Global Access passenger, which means I usually slide through on my machine-read passport and fingerprints without any questions asked. But human intervention prevailed. When an official examining my passport asked why I had been in Istanbul, I uttered the key word:  “Syria.” I was there for a meeting of Friends of the Syrian People working group, an intergovernmental group beginning to plan for reconstruction in the war-torn country.

That was enough to get me shunted to secondary screening, where I found a young man who looked military age and stature as well as an Iraqi Kurd of 45 or so who was returning from visiting family in Dohuk. He had lived in Nashville he said for the past 20 years or so. We were eventually joined by two young men who looked to my inexpert eye to be South Asians, I know not from which country.

By then I was next up to be questioned. It is mildly absurd to question someone my age, ethnicity and occupation as a potential ISIS recruit, but I decided not to object. Any sign of resistance would clearly have meant even more time in detention. If I was only being questioned to demonstrate that they weren’t profiling it was all right with me. Whites and Jews should know what Arabs, Kurds, South Asians and others are subjected to.

It wasn’t painful though for me. The questioning was straightforward and respectful. I explained in a bit more detail what I had done in Istanbul, emphasizing that the US government was represented at the meeting. I answered truthfully whether I had ever been to Syria: yes, before the revolution, to study Arabic. Yes, I know quite a few Syrians, as I’ve done some training of Syrians for nonviolent democratic transition and have followed events there with interest. I pushed forward my Johns Hopkins/SAIS business card. I willingly opened my suitcase and displayed my dirty laundry (literally literally).

About an hour and a half after the initial questioning, I was on my way again, having missed a connection. But no one should assume that my fairly mild experience is typical. The officials were unabashedly giving the Iraqi Kurd a hard time. They said he had deleted something from his cell phone while waiting to be questioned.

I confess I felt for the officials who do this work. Of the thousands of passengers through Toronto on a given day, how many are signing up for, or returning from, fighting with ISIS? Who knew whether and what my Kurdish friend had deleted.

The three Somali girls headed for Syria were caught at the Frankfurt airport. That’s a good thing. But fighting the Islamic State is going to require far more savvy than US Customs and Border Patrol can muster. Even if we stopped every single American going to fight in Syria, there would still be lots of volunteers from other countries far less committed than Germany and the US to stopping them. The contest we are in requires that we win hearts and minds, not just find needles in a haystack.


The ADD nation fights ISIS

Last Wednesday American University’s School of International Service hosted its professor and former ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Politico correspondent Susan Glasser, and Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius to discuss Fighting ISIS: The Future of American Foreign Policy in the Middle East. David Gregory, the former moderator of Meet the Press, presided.

President Obama some weeks ago stated his goal of degrading and defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with air power and a dynamic, committed coalition but the campaign thus far has been unimpressive. Ignatius defended the President stating, “wars often start badly” but questioned whether the President has a concrete strategy to accomplish his goal. While President Obama sought to turn the page of America’s legacy in the Middle East, he has been “sucked back” into the region. The President’s insistence on changes to the Iraqi government as well as demands for regional actors to become involved are promising first steps. Although the coalition does not have a UN mandate, it avoids the “go it alone ethos” of the Bush administration or the lead from behind approach in Libya.

How will ISIS be defeated in Syria? In Iraq? While there are plans for the CIA and military to train guerilla fighters in Syria, Ignatius notes that history shows us this approach is rarely successful. With internal conflicts plaguing both Syria and Iraq, a coherent strategy is lacking. This will be a test for President Obama as he faces a group that has an “apocalyptic view.” Ignatius noted Osama Bin Laden and the writings of his final days, in which he outlines his feelings of failure and his intention to rename Al-Qaeda. The Muslim leaders whom he respected had come to hate Al Qaeda, which its leader feared would lead to its downfall. Ignatius believes the same goes for the “savagery” of ISIS, hated by both the Muslim world and the West.

While all three speakers underlined the President’s reluctance to become involved, Glasser focused on the public debate that transpired between the President and the Pentagon. This friction has largely gone uncovered. Glasser believes the United States is in a quagmire that will not end well.

Ahmed believes that the US has forgotten the lesson of Afghanistan, where it entered without any understanding of tribal wars. There is a parallel situation in Iraq, but along sectarian divisions. ISIS vaunts the golden age of early Islam but Ahmed disputes this. He instead believes “justice, knowledge, equality and tolerance” are embedded in Islam, none of which are included in the ISIS movement.

Gregory asked a question that went largely unanswered. What are we protecting the US and our allies from? Ignatius believes that ISIS is such an aggressive adversary that we should have seen it coming. While there is no current intelligence that ISIS is planning an attack on the United States, ISIS poses a serious threat to Jordan’s monarch, a key US ally.

Ignatius refers to the media as playing to an “ADD nation,” with a dwindling attention span to critical foreign affairs. The consequences of not being patient will hurt the United States. There is no overnight solution. Stability will not be achieved until there is reconciliation between Sunni and Shia and between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Proxy wars are “eating up” the Middle East, which will need restoration of strong security institutions.

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