Moscow’s best bet

I would normally await an official investigation before commenting on the downing of Malaysia Airlines 17, but it looks as if there never will be an opportunity to establish the facts in that way. The crash site is being trashed, rebels thought to have downed the plane have recovered the black boxes, and Moscow is failing to press the rebels to allow a serious inquiry, even while calling for one.

I am inclined to believe the emerging consensus in the West that Russian-assisted rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down the Boeing 777 thinking it was a Ukrainian military aircraft. No alternative hypothesis has yet emerged consistent with the location of the crash site, as well as the post-crash behavior of the rebels, which is clearly intended to obscure and not clarify the matter. The notion that the Kiev government brought down the plane thinking it carried Russian President Putin doesn’t pass the laugh test, despite its prominence in Russian media.

The question then is what should be done about Russian mendacity and potential culpability.

Insistence on a serious, internationally staffed investigation is still important. Even a hampered or partial investigation could turn up useful results. Ukraine is the “state of occurrence” and therefore in the lead. It has requested assistance from the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Russian participation should be welcomed, but it cannot be a Russian-led investigation. Nor should the rebels be allowed to participate. Their “republics” are internationally unrecognized, even by Moscow. The Netherlands, which had many passengers on board, Malaysia (where the aircraft was registered) and the United States (where the aircraft was designed) will also need to be involved, as well as other interested parties.

Such investigations are often lengthy and sometimes equivocal in their outcomes. Some people still have doubts about what brought down TWA 800 in 1996, even after an investigation that lasted four years. For MH17, a great deal will depend on the willingness of Moscow to be transparent about which weapons it supplied to the rebels, who was in charge of them and whether any missiles were fired at the time of the occurrence. Ukraine will similarly need to specify where its anti-aircraft weapons were located and whether any were fired. Given Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s unequivocal statements on the subject, such clarity on the part of Kiev should not be a problem.

What is to be done in the meanwhile?

Here is where American diplomats need to earn their pinstripes. What is needed is for Moscow to come clean and recognize that continuing support to the rebels in Ukraine is putting at risk Russia’s claim to being a responsible member of the international community. We’ll get a hint of Moscow’s attitude today, when the UN Security Council discusses a draft resolution calling for a full investigation and for armed groups to allow access to the crash site.

It is increasingly apparent that the thuggish rebels do not have the kind of depth of support in the local community that was available to their counterparts Crimea, which nevertheless is already costing Russia a bundle of money. Moscow should be worried that rebel success in Donbas will cost much more, both in financial and reputational terms. The substantial flow of Russian military equipment back and forth across the Ukrainian border makes Moscow complicit, if not responsible.

The Americans and Europeans are slow act, but they are not stupid. They know the rebellion in eastern Ukraine would collapse if Moscow ceased its support. Brussels and Washington are running out of the easy sanctions that send a signal but don’t do much economic damage. It would be foolish for Moscow to court additional sanctions that hit hard at its banks and other financial institutions.

The credible threat of such sanctions is difficult to mount, not least because Russia is said to be prepared to torpedo the nuclear talks with Iran. But doing that would damage Russia’s interests even more than the West’s, as either a nuclear Iran or an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would diminish Russia’s role in a world already inclined to regard its behavior as roguish. Moscow’s best bet is to fess up on MH 17 and end support for the rebellion in Donbas.


Peace picks July 21-25

  1. ISIS, Iraq, and the Gulf States Monday, July 21 | 10:00 am – 11:30 am Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; 1799 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND A panel discussion with Dr. Shireen Hunter of Georgetown University, Dr. Abbas Kadhim of SAIS, Ali Al-Ahmed of The Gulf Institute, and Kadhim Al-Waeli, an Iraq military analyst, concerning the present and future of ISIS in Iraq and the Gulf States.
  2. Tariq Fatemi on Pakistan’s Vision for Regional Peace, Prosperity, and Economic Development Monday, July 21 | 10:30 am – 12:00 pm Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; 1799 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The upcoming U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the radicalization across the region, and persisting political rivalries continue to impede South Asia’s growth and economic integration. However, the election of business-oriented leaders in most of South Asia provides reason to hope that the quest for prosperity will at last become the main driver of political relations across the region. Ambassador Tariq Fatemi, special assistant to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will discuss Pakistan’s vision for regional economic integration and enduring peace and prosperity.
  3. Iran’s Nuclear Chess: Calculating America’s Moves Monday, July 21 | 12:00 pm – 1:15 pm Woodrow Wilson Center, Fifth Floor; 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The P5+1 and Iran have been negotiating since last January under a six-month deadline to convert an interim nuclear accord into a final agreement. The discussion will address the outcome of the negotiations—whether successful in yielding an agreement, extended to allow further negotiations, or at a point of breakdown. What are the implications for U.S. policy toward Iran moving forward? The meeting will feature discussion of the new Middle East Program monograph by Robert Litwak, vice president for scholars and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center.
  4. Libya: Update from the Field Monday, July 21 | 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm Atlantic Council; 1030 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Libya’s democratic promise is more precarious than ever.  The government recently reached a deal with armed groups over the oil field blockade; however, a political struggle is taking on an increasingly violent dimension.  Fadel Lamen, nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council, will discuss the status of Libya’s transitional processes, including the National Dialogue.
  5. Obama’s Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East Monday, July 21 | 2:00 pm – 4:30 pm Rayburn House Office Building; 45 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The Middle East Policy Council will hold its 77th Capitol Hill Conference. A questions and answers session will be held at the end of the proceedings, following talks by Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, Paul R. Pillar, Senior Fellow at Georgetown University, Amin Tarzi, Director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, and Chas W. Freeman, Jr., Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
  6. The Impact of Ukraine in the Neighborhood Tuesday, July 22 | 10:00 am – 12:00 pm Woodrow Wilson Center, Sixth Floor; 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine is having ripple effects throughout Eurasia.  But what has been the impact in the immediate neighborhood, the South Caucasus, Moldova, and Belarus as well as Ukraine itself? John Herbst, Atlantic Council, Eric Rubin, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Thomas de Waal, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Hon. Kenneth S. Yalowitz, Former U.S. Ambassador to Belarus and Georgia, will examine recent developments and prospects in each focusing first on the situation on the ground in Ukraine, the performance of the Poroshenko government, and the latest Russian moves.
  7. U.S. Policy Today for Africa Tomorrow Tuesday, July 22 | 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm US Institute of Peace; 2301 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Home to burgeoning economies and brutal civil conflicts – sometimes coexisting in the same country – Africa is increasingly prominent in the foreign policy agendas of world powers. In early August, President Obama will convene most of the heads of state of the 54 nations of Africa in Washington, D.C. for the first-ever summit between U.S. and African leaders. Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, and Ambassador George Moose will discuss Africa’s economic growth and poverty, growing trade between the U.S. and Africa, and concerns about closing political space in some countries, among many other topics.
  8. Hearing: Terrorist March in Iraq: The U.S. Response Wednesday, July 23 | 10:00 am – 1:00 pm Rayburn House Office Building; 45 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, D.C. The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs will have witness Mr. Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant for Iraq and Iran, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
  9. Confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: Challenges and Options Thursday, July 24 | 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm Johns Hopkins SAIS, Rome Auditorium; 1619 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Conflict Management Program at SAIS will host a discussion about combating the rising influence of ISIS. MEI scholars Richard A. Clarke, Steven Simon, and Randa Slim will examine the current status of the organization and its support network, focusing on the steps that Iraqi political actors and the U.S. administration can take to address the spread of its influence. Daniel Serwer (SAIS, MEI) will moderate the event.
  10. The Congressional Role in U.S. Military Innovation: Preparing the Pentagon for the Warfighting Regimes of Tomorrow Thursday, July 24 | 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Root Room; 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND While conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. Congress can be a hindrance to U.S. military planning and budgeting, history tells a different story. Rep. Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, and Rep. Langevin, ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, will discuss the proper force structure and defense strategy for the U.S. military.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

Nathan Thrall, an International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst in the Middle East, wrote Thursday in the New York Times:

the most immediate cause of this latest war [in Gaza] has been ignored: Israel and much of the international community placed a prohibitive set of obstacles in the way of the Palestinian “national consensus” government that was formed in early June.

This is a classic case of the logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc: after this, hence because of this.

Thrall is right about the merits of support for the national consensus government.  It would have been a good idea. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s allergy to negotiating with a united Palestine has more to do with his own hesitation about a two-state solution than it does with Hamas, with which Israel is in daily contact under normal conditions. But the notion that failure to support the national consensus government caused the war, and therefore the West is responsible, is both logical and analytical nonsense.

The most immediate cause of the ongoing Gaza war lies in the objectives of the warring parties. Israel says it is trying to end Hamas’ rocket and infiltration capabilities, by destroying rockets, launchers, manufacturing facilities and tunnels. Hamas says it wants release of its cadres re-arrested after the murder of three Israeli teenagers, as well as relief from the Israeli blockade of Gaza. I doubt either will achieve more than a small portion of its objectives, but both seem prepared to sustain the effort for weeks if not months.

Thrall however purveys the notion that Hamas would not have gone to war except that it was denied funding to pay its civil servants.  He writes in reference to the funding:

Hamas is now seeking through violence what it couldn’t obtain through a peaceful handover of responsibilities.

This ignores Hamas’ stated war aims and strains credibility. If paying civil servant salaries were its primary objective, Hamas would stop manufacturing and launching rockets so that it could redirect the resources. If it wanted the border crossings with Egypt opened for legitimate trade, as Thrall also claims, it would have done well to accept the Egyptian-proposed ceasefire, since Cairo controls them.

Thrall is no better on Israel’s war aims. He describes them this way:

Israel is pursuing a return to the status quo ante, when Gaza had electricity for barely eight hours a day, water was undrinkable, sewage was dumped in the sea, fuel shortages caused sanitation plants to shut down and waste sometimes floated in the streets. Patients needing medical care couldn’t reach Egyptian hospitals, and Gazans paid $3,000 bribes for a chance to exit when Egypt chose to open the border crossing.

No doubt there are Israelis who wish these plagues on Gaza, and they may return as a result of this war. But Israel’s government will clearly not be satisfied with the status quo ante, which it would define not in terms of undrinkable water but rather in terms of the missile and infiltration threat.

Thrall’s inability to state Israel’s or Hamas’ war aims dispassionately and accurately renders his conclusion illogical and even silly:

The current escalation in Gaza is a direct result of the choice by Israel and the West to obstruct the implementation of the April 2014 Palestinian reconciliation agreement. The road out of the crisis is a reversal of that policy.

Does he seriously believe that Hamas would be so pleased with Israeli willingness to talk to the national consensus government (in which Hamas is not directly represented) that it would agree to use financial transfers to pay its civil servants rather than to buy more rocket fuel? Is Israel likely to find reversal of its policy on Palestine’s national consensus government an attractive proposition from the perspective of ending the rocket and infiltration threats?

I agree with Thrall about the virtues of a “generous” ceasefire that enables Gaza to obtain the resources needed for its administration and to trade legitimate goods and services with the rest of the world. But there is no evidence that those are Hamas’ primary concerns, or that meeting them would convince Hamas to lay down its arms.

Regular readers of will know that I have often criticized ICG work on the Balkans in recent years. I fear the sloppy syndrome has infected its Middle East work as well. Neither ICG nor the New York Times should fall for post hoc ergo propter hoc.

A leopard proud of his spots

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, his wife Lynne, and their daughter Liz spoke on Monday at the Mayflower Hotel at an event hosted by Politico. The event was interrupted several times by members of Code Pink, who shouted, “Dick Cheney is a war criminal!” as they were dragged out of the auditorium.

The Vice President was unrepentant about the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. It was the right idea then, he said, and “in retrospect, it is the right idea now.” He added that the threat we face today is even greater than the threat we faced before 9-11. There is something more dangerous than box-cutter wielding terrorists, and that is a terrorist armed with weapons of mass destruction. According to RAND, Cheney said, there has been a 58% increase in al Qaeda type groups since 2010. The Islamic State, for instance, has attracted thousands of adherents over the last few weeks.

Cheney, who would “not going to into what [Iraq] did or did not have” in terms of WMDs in 2003, said that the proliferation of these weapons continues to be the greatest threat to our national security. After we invaded Iraq, he noted, Gaddafi immediately relinquished his WMDs. America’s current isolationism has made the situation more dangerous than ever. Pakistan has between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons, which could easily fall into the hands of terrorists. Today, our number one threat is a terror organization that controls large swaths of territory, which could allow it to develop its own WMDs.

Cheney blamed much of the situation on President Obama. The President, he said, denies that a problem exists. He claimed in 2011 that al Qaeda was dead. That is not to say that al Qaeda wouldn’t otherwise exist, but his isolationism has “left our allies out to dry.” Cheney admitted that Obama is responding to general battle fatigue in the US, as many people are “tired of war.” “It has been a long time since 9/11,” he added. However, “we cannot conclude but that ISIS and other groups” pose a direct threat to the United States.

He named two chief culprits for the chaos in Iraq. The first is Maliki, who failed to maintain the coalition the US built. Maliki purged many of the best generals because they happened to be Sunni. The second is Obama, whose unwillingness to maintain a military presence in Iraq led directly to the current situation. He accused Obama of knowingly allowing the Status of Forces negotiations agreement to break down. By 2009, he claimed, the terrorists in Iraq had been defeated. We allowed them to come back.

He commended Secretary of State John Kerry on securing a recount for Afghan elections. However, many of our allies do not believe in our ability to influence events. Israelis and Saudis are closer to each other than either one is to the US.

While Cheney declined to endorse any presidential candidates, he said he was worried about the growing isolationist strain in the Republican Party. His daughter Liz said of Senator Rand Paul, who is currently eyeing the nomination in 2016, that his foreign policy agenda “leaves something to be desired.” The Vice President added, “Anyone who thinks we can retreat behind our oceans” is out of their minds.

In a 2009 speech, Rand Paul accused Cheney of invading Iraq to line Halliburton’s coffers. He said that Cheney initially opposed the invasion, “saying it would be a bad idea. And that’s why the first Bush didn’t go into Baghdad. Dick Cheney then goes to work for Halliburton. Makes hundreds of millions of dollars, their CEO. Next thing you know, he’s back in government and it’s a good idea to go into Iraq.” Cheney called these accusations “totally fallacious.”

After the event, a throng of Code Pink protesters greeted guests outsides the hotel. One demonstrator, donning prison stripes and a papier-mâché Cheney mask, shouted derisively, “I admit, I was a little short on my prediction when I told you that we would make a stable democracy in Iraq!”

Eleven years after America’s invasion of Iraq, much of the debate remains unchanged. A leopard, it seems, does not easily change its spots.

The trials of the Tribunal

I spent a couple of hours yesterday observing the trial of Bosnian Serb Republic army chief Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). I did not come away cheered.

The trial itself was a desultory affair. A witness for the defense–who I gather was a “home guard” reservist type–was doggedly telling the court that the people he was guarding “dusk to dawn” without a break in Foca in April 1992 were held for their own protection. They could leave whenever they liked, NATO bombing had destroyed the town’s mosques (or maybe they had been fired on previously because Muslims had fired from them), “loyal” Muslims had fought with the Bosnian Serbs, the authorities of the Bosnian Serb municipality were democratically chosen…. I can only imagine what someone held in this supposedly voluntary detention in Foca in 1992 would like to do to the “soldier” recounting this litany of half truths and bold, well-rehearsed lies.

Mladic sat calmly, listening intently and occasionally trying to communicate with his defense counsel, who seemed far more seasoned than the younger and sometimes confused prosecutor.  I am told Mladic feels he is innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever. He merely did what he had to do to protect Serbs.

Two of the three judges were openly skeptical of the testimony, asking their own probing questions. A good deal of time and effort went into establishing mundane facts: which mosques had been destroyed when, who had done it, whether a document originated with the Bosnian Serb army or was issued by another organization (and whether the prosecution or the defense would carry the burden of proof on that question).

The bigger issues of the Bosnian Serb Republic’s war aims, its techniques for achieving them and its subservience to the Yugoslav army command were nowhere to be heard in my short sampling of Tribunal proceedings. I imagine you could attend for many days without hearing much about those important issues.

I’ve never been an enthusiast for the Tribunal. Nor have I been one of its critics. It was one of the things done during the Bosnian war that was supposed make people behave better, for fear of being held accountable.  There isn’t much evidence I know of that Milosevic, Mladic or any of the other eventual indictees paid it any heed while they were in powerful positions. Nor do most Bosnians today think it has done much for reconciliation, especially in the Serb Republic entity of that unhappy country.

The costs have been hefty: over $1.2 billion by 2007 and hundreds of millions since. You don’t want to calculate how much that is per conviction, but it is still small beans compared to the $25 billion and more eventually spent on Balkans military intervention.

The initial years of the Tribunal, when it indicted small fry because evidence against bigger fish was hard to come by, were turbulent, as it established its authority and procedures. More recent years have also been controversial, as a new president of the Tribunal has backpedaled on standards of proof and other procedures set before he arrived. The result has been a series of controversial acquittals, as the threshold for demonstrating guilt has risen significantly.

The sad fact is that there has been little reason to applaud the Tribunal, even if you think (as I do) that things would be worse without it. I don’t believe for a moment that Serbia would have been able or willing to try Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, or that the proceedings would have been fair. And attempting such a trial would have profoundly distorted Serbian politics, hindering the democratic transition that Serbia has managed, one way and another. Whether the decisions have been acquittals or convictions, ICTY has managed to produce a massive documentary record of the crimes committed during the several Balkans wars, a record that in the end may be its most lasting legacy.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s bleak future

The Muslim Brotherhood experienced its fall from grace in Egypt just one year ago with President Morsi’s removal. The once highly organized and hierarchical party is now shattered, bringing into question the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Tunisian Ennahda party. On Monday, the Middle East Institute hosted “The Muslim Brotherhood: Between the Path of Ennahda and the Threat of the Islamic State” with panelists Alison Pargeter, Hassan Mneimneh, and Eric Trager. They came to a consensus that the Muslim Brotherhood has weakened, especially in Egypt, and its strategy has become disjointed. It is currently unlikely to succeed in gaining power either in Egypt or in Syria.

The future of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is questionable after the violent clashes and unprecedented crackdown this past year. Pargeter, author of The Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition to Power, said that the party has faced significant challenges over the past twelve months in internalizing its overthrow and moving forward to regain legitimacy. It has had to face depleted finances, party leader arrests, and distrust from the public.

The current strategy has been to act defensively and shift blame away from the Brotherhood. The discourse of self-preservation has been far from successful. The international community has moved on—Sisi has taken power and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is crippled. It is trying to give the impression that the fight is still going on, but is it has not found a viable path back to political power.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has always struggled in articulating its ideology. It is now more important than ever, as the future of the party depends on institutional reform and transparency. A genuine change in political culture will be necessary if the Brotherhood is ever to gain power again. The cycle of competition between the military and political Islam will need to change if Egypt is to ever move forward, which Pargeter concluded could ultimately take more than a decade.

Trager, Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, discussed the role and future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The party was founded in 1946 and had a tumultuous history throughout the past several decades. It was exiled in 1982 after a violent uprising, which ultimately forced the leadership to reshape its chain of command and membership strategy.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has now had to focus entirely on organizational maintenance, such as funding livelihoods and housing for its members. It is still a wealthy organization but has become very weak within Syria since its exile. It faces significant long-term challenges and is preoccupied with maintenance rather than politics. The organization will have to gain significant support within Syria if it is to ever acquire political power.

Mneimneh, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said  that Tunisians don’t want what happened in Egypt and Syria to play out in their countries. Ennahda has been the only true success story among the three. It is making strides towards democratic practice.

The Ennahda leader has spoken with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regarding how to seek compromise. There ultimately needs to be an acceptance of diversity and inclusivity in Egypt rather than focusing on one party at the exclusion of the others. Ennahda is working to break the three main characteristics of politics in the region:  paternalism, tribalism and elitism. It aims at broader pariticipation in government. This approach has proven far more successful than the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach in Egypt or Syria.

The Muslim Brotherhood has had a tumultuous few years and it is unlikely that it will gain power in Egypt or Syria anytime soon.  It is preoccupied with its own survival. With no coherent strategy, there isn’t much hope for the Egyptian and Syrian branches moving forward.

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