Is meeting Putin smart?

The White House has let it be known that President Obama will meet with President Putin next week at the United Nations. Is this smart diplomacy, or not?

The arguments against it are strong. Putin has invaded eastern Ukraine. His proxies there are failing to fulfill their commitments to a ceasefire and expelling humanitarian organizations as well as the UN. He is also deploying combat forces to Syria to protect the Alawite heartland along its Mediterranean coast and to protect the Russian port facilities at Tartous. Defiance and escalation do not merit the acceptance a meeting implies. Giving Putin the recognition he craves will only encourage further misbehavior intended to ensure that vital issues cannot be solved without Russian involvement.

The arguments for it are weaker. We need to reiterate the need for Moscow to live up to the September 1 ceasefire agreement in Ukraine. We need to hear directly from Putin what his intentions are in Syria in order to judge whether we can make common cause with him there against the Islamic State. The Ukraine-related sanctions are having an impact. It would be a mistake to leave any stone unturned in the quest for peaceful resolutions in both Ukraine and Syria. Putin is the one pressing for the meeting, which is just a meeting. It does not imply acceptance of Putin’s behavior or a great power role for Russia.

But there is another consideration: what is President Obama getting in exchange for this meeting? Have the Russians offered something of value?

I don’t know the answer. This is where the confidential nature of diplomatic exchanges makes it difficult to comment. A meeting might be worthwhile if it means Russia will permanently stop its advance in eastern Ukraine and abide by the Minsk 2 agreement. It would certainly be worthwhile if Moscow were seriously committed to a political transition in Syria that excludes Bashar al Assad from power.

The odds against both these propositions are long. Moscow is unquestionably feeling the pressure of lower oil prices, sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Putin wouldn’t be calling Elton John to discuss gay rights (yes, this time he really did) if he weren’t feeling the need to grab a headline or two and project an image of openness and reason. But Putin is a master at distracting attention from his perfidies with ultimately meaningless gestures. He can’t withdraw support for Assad and still hope to hold on to the port facilities at Tartous, which any opposition-supported successor government will feel compelled to banish. Retreat from Donbas, or even a serious effort to implement the existing agreement, would surrender Ukraine to the European Union and the West.

I’ll be glad to be proved wrong, but my sense is that Putin is prepared to stay the course both in Ukraine and in Syria, intensifying or toning down Russian military efforts as the situation requires but refusing to budge on the basic issues of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as support for the existing Syrian regime. If that is right, the best outcome from a meeting next week will be an American conviction that he is irredeemable and that only a shift in the military balance in both places will lead to serious political outcomes in Syria and Ukraine.

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The trifecta

The coincidence of holidays this year–Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonment) yesterday and Eid al Adha (the Muslim feast of the sacrifice) begins tonight for at least some people–is purely coincidental. Both Jews and Muslims use lunar calendars, but more “corrections” are applied in the Jewish one to keep the holidays in more or less the same season each year. Muslim holidays peregrinate through the seasons. The Pope peregrinates in the world. His arrival in Washington on Yom Kippur eve was presumably coincidental too.

Eid al Adha commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, as allegedly commanded by God. The two religions differ on who the son was. Muslims today generally say it was Ishmael, though he is not named in the Quran. Jews think it was Isaac, as specified in Genesis.

On Rosh Hashanah last week, Jews read the Torah portion that recounts the bizarre story of Isaac’s near-death at his father’s hand. Religious Jews and Muslims seem to regard Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as the epitome of human devotion to the divine. Some of the more sacrilegious among us think what Abraham was supposedly prepared to do was nuts. The claim that God then told  him not to do it might be taken as proof. These days at least, people who hear directly from the divine are not high up on the rational scale.

In contrast to Eid al Adha, which is an occasion for great feasting among Muslims, Tuesday night and Wednesday for Jews was a day (25 hours or more officially) for radical fasting: no food, no drink. On Yom Kippur we repent. We cleanse ourselves. We atone for our sins against the deity in prayer. Atonement for sins against people requires that we deal with them directly by taking responsibility and acknowledging harm. That’s not easy. Nor is there anything easy about a full day without food or water. That’s why we wish each other an “easy fast,” which doesn’t make much sense. We wouldn’t be doing it if it were easy.

We also wish each other “a good seal” (hatima tova), meaning a seal in the book of life. That’s a remnant of the belief that God decides on Yom Kippur who merits life and who doesn’t, presumably based on behavior, or degree of atonement, or faith, or something like that. These days we are more likely to suggest that you choose, not God, but neither proposition is convincing. Life is full of chance, not predetermination or choice. Anyone who thinks the good are rewarded and the evil are not doesn’t live in my universe.

We broke the fast at my house after sundown. It wasn’t a feast, just a bowl of matzoh ball soup (don’t ask me what they do with the rest of the beast called “matzoh”), salads, a bagel and smoked salmon (it’s been a long time since my wife allowed anything called lox into the house). The Muslims will provide a lot better than that for Eid over the next few days.

Meanwhile the Pope has met with the President, paraded on the Ellipse, prayed at the Cathedral and canonized a debatable saint. Today he speaks at Congress.

The three Abrahamic traditions are coexisting pretty well in America these days, though there are certainly occasional conflicts and many misunderstandings. All of us will behave a bit better if we listen to the preaching of our separate traditions. But the bigger lesson is that there is room for all of us, if only we allow it.


Like the traffic jams they generate

You might not know it from the press coverage, but there are two high-profile visits to Washington this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives as Pope Francis leaves. The Pope may not have any divisions, but his focus on the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised is going to drive a lot of electrons this week. China’s cyber provocations, its building of runways on Pacific reefs and its still growing but shaky economy are not attracting nearly as much attention.

Bergoglio, as the Italians call the Pope, has managed to insinuate himself into domestic American politics in an elegantly ambivalent way. The right likes the Church’s stands on gay marriage and abortion, while the left thinks the Pope is liberalizing on both issues and applauds his loud denunciation of global warming and the consequences of the allegedly unfettered capitalism that has produced it. John Boehner summed it up eloquently: “he’s the Pope,” suggesting that it is useless to argue with such high authority. Best just to welcome him.

Xi is facing the opposite reaction. “He’s the Chinese president” evokes not welcome but distaste. He is the guy who steals our secrets, unfairly devalues his currency, and flashes his military might to bedazzle and cow America and its nervous allies in the Pacific. He may be cooperating for the moment on global warming and on the Iran nuclear program, but his stirring of Chinese nationalism at home and his mercantilist efforts to corner markets in mineral-producing countries are clear warnings of more trouble to come.

My view is that we have more to fear from China’s economic failure than from its success. With Chinese growth slipping below 7% this year–a level unachievable any developed country–the global economy is already sputtering. What will happen when China experiences a real recession? One of the few inevitabilities in our world is the business cycle. China is not immune. Nor is it destined to weather a downturn well. Its jury-rigged financial system is already trembling. Autocracy–witness Putin’s–will splash about for a life saver if it gets into trouble. Inflated enemies and overseas adventurism all too often lie close to hand.

Bergoglio is less vulnerable but unlikely to make a big or lasting impression. He is enunciating a timeless message that urges care for fellow human beings and for the earth on which we live. The problems he is pointing to do not arise from the business cycle but rather from the economic and social systems we have constructed. Some may think his critique unjustified and even dangerous, but they will keep quiet during the visit and get back to business as usual once he is gone.

These visits are like the traffic jams they generate. The impact is evanescent. They are a vague memory once we’ve gotten through them. For better or for worse, the systems we live in do not yield readily either to moral appeal or to the business cycle.

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Beyond refugees

On Friday the United States Institute of Peace and Atlantic Council jointly hosted an event titled Middle East Strategy Task Force: Beyond Refugees. The panelists included Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, Stephen Hadley, former National Security Advisor, David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, USIP President Nancy Lindborg, and Antoine Frem, Mayor of Jounieh, Lebanon.

Manal Omar, USIP Acting Vice President of the Middle East and Africa Center  delivered opening remarks on the goals and findings of the task force’s research. The goal of the group is to outline a strategy that moves beyond refugees and focuses on rebuilding societies for a brighter post-conflict future. She highlighted one important finding: starting with small areas will be much more successful than looking for national solutions. But the strategy for the Middle East must be a global one. Current international aid is insufficient.

Albright said destruction of whole societies in the Middle East is not only a humanitarian emergency, but a political crisis. The international community’s lack of action to end the violence should be seen as a political failure. The lack of effort by the international community is disappointing. The policy failures in the Middle East are clear, even if solutions are difficult to reach.

Lindborg cited four reasons why pushing forward is challenging. Over 60 million people globally are displaced. Funding limitations prevent accomplishing all that is pledged to do. Second, the institutional architecture for providing assistance is not fast enough. Research suggests that in some situations handing out cash rather than food is better for the local economy. Third is the failure to provide education and prevent a “lost generation.” Lastly, security is a challenge. A solution must tackle the heart of the crisis.

Miliband, focused on Europe and the refugees. The feeble response by Europe is not just threatening the refugees, but the European Union as a whole. Refugees must be distributed across the EU. Even though Europe is getting the most attention, it is important to remember that 85% of refugees are in poor countries. He agreed with Lindborg that handing out cash is a better option than physical aid because it empowers the people, limits waste and boosts economies. Miliband concurred with Albright that political solutions are needed to stop the killings.

Lebanon currently hosts 1.2 million refugees. One out of four people in the country are refugees. Mayor Antoine Frem noted that this pressure has exasperated preexisting conditions. The country is a quasi-stable state with severe debt, political, and sectarian issues. Frem stressed that Lebanon alone cannot solve the crisis.

Asked if Russia and the United States would be able to work together, Albright responded “yes,” there is the potential for cooperation, but the difficult part is figuring out the political solution. She added:

…if the Russians really do think that they have some influence on Assad, they can be a part of this and say, ‘we can discuss whether you are in the government or not, but we cannot discuss it if you are dropping barrel bombs’ and they should use their influence that way. The Russians wish to be seen as a normal country. I think it would be useful if they said something that made clear that barrel bombs are not the way to deal with civilians.

She added that it is important not to forget Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Another question asked about the feasibility of a safe zone. Both the moderator Hadley and Miliband spoke in favor of establishing such an area. Hadley argued that a safe zone must exist strictly for humanitarian purposes to protect civilians rather than to train fighters.

PC to Heidi LIedtke
PC to Heidi LIedtke
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Peace picks September 21- 26

  1.   No Reconciliation, No Peace: Building Ways for People to Live Together After Violent Conflict | Monday, September 21st | 10:00 – 11:30 | United States Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | On the United Nations-declared International Day of Peace, September 21, USIP highlights an essential process for any country to heal from a violent conflict: reconciliation.USIP is convening this reconciliation discussion as part of a daylong celebration of the international day of peace. If you would like to take some action for peace, share it with us at #PeaceDayChallenge.For a society that has lived through war or other violent conflicts, a reconciliation process is fundamental to finding a way to live in lasting peace. Reconciliation allows grievances to be heard and addressed, and the social contract to be renewed.A forum led by USIP President Lindborg will explore how collaborative reconciliation processes can ensure a more inclusive peace for the community and for individuals. USIP practitioners will discuss their recent reconciliation work, which combines the Institute’s research and thought leadership with work alongside its partners in conflict zones. Speakers include Nancy Lindborg, President, USIP, Elizabeth A. Cole, Senior Program Officer, Center for Applied Research on Conflict, Virginia M. Bouvier, Senior Advisor for Latin American Programs, Sarhang Hamasaee, Senior Program Officer, Center for Middle East and Africa, Susan Hayward, Director, Religion and Peacebuilding, Center for Governance, Law and Society.

    Photo Credit United Nations Photo Flickr
  2.      U.S. Policy Against ISIS: Protecting Minorities in the Middle East | Monday, September 21st | 11:00 – 1:00 | Syrian American Council and Muslim Public Affairs Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND by emailing | Since March 2011, religious and ethnic minorities in Syria have been brutally oppressed under the Assad regime and at the hands of ISIS. Join this discussion about the future of Christians and minorities in Syria, the role of the Assad regime in fanning the flames of sectarianism, and recommendations for US policymakers. Speakers include: Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, former preacher of the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Hind Kabawat, Director of Interfaith Peacebuilding at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University.
    Syrian american
  3. Multiple Security Challenges in Central Europe: Migration Crisis and Relations With Russia | Monday, September 21st | 6:00 | Women’s Foreign Policy Group | REGISTER TO ATTEND | This special event is part of the embassy series. Embassy Series events are held at embassies, consulates, and diplomatic residences in Washington and New York and highlight issues pertinent to the host country. The evening will be held at the resident of Ambassador Reka Szemerkenyi and will include a program and reception. Please note there is a fee. H.E. Szemerkenyi was appointed Ambassador of Hungary to the United States in 2015.
  4. Is nuclear war risk growing? | Monday, September 21st | 6:30 – 8:30 | Project for the Study of the 21st Century | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Is great power nuclear war back on the agenda? Ahead of the publication of PS21’s landmark survey of national security experts on conventional and nuclear conflict risk, we bring together a panel to discuss just how real the risks might be. This discussion — which comes ahead of the survey’s publication in the first week of October — will focus on where the greatest risk of superpower conflict might lie and how it might be avoided. Speakers include: Elbridge Colby, senior fellow, Center for a New American Security, Scott Cheney-Peters, founder, Center for International Maritime Security, Rachel Rizzo, program assistant, Strategy Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council.Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 1.08.12 PM
  5. The ISIS Apocalypse: The history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State | Tuesday, September 22nd | 10:00 – 11:00 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND |The Islamic State is one of the most lethal and successful jihadist groups in modern history, surpassing even al-Qaida. How has it attracted so many followers and conquered so much land in its relatively brief existence?In The ISIS Apocalypse (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), Will McCants examines the Islamic State’s tactics and goals, and the many ways in which it is more ruthless, more apocalyptic, and more devoted to state-building than any of its predecessors or current competitors. Based almost entirely on primary sources in Arabic—including ancient religious texts and secret al-Qaida and Islamic State letters that few have seen—The ISIS Apocalypse explores how religious fervor, strategic calculation, and doomsday prophecy shaped the Islamic State’s past and foreshadow its dark future.On September 22, McCants will discuss ISIS’ strategy and the future of jihadi terrorism. NPR Counterterrorism Correspondent Dina Temple-Raston will moderate the discussion, after which McCants will take audience questions.ISIS
  6. Preparing for Peace: Challenges for Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Yemen | Tuesday, September 22nd | 12:00 – 1:30 |The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Yemen is in the grip of its most severe crisis in years, with a Saudi-led military campaign against the rebel Houthis now in its sixth month. Civilian casualties continue to mount, the internally displaced population grows, and Yemen’s already weak infrastructure teeters on the verge of collapse.Amidst the chaos and suffering of the ongoing war, what are the prospects for a political solution, and how does Yemen tackle the urgent need for reconciliation and reconstruction in a post-conflict scenario? What will be the immediate priorities, and how quickly can the international community mobilize resources to help stabilize and rebuild Yemen? The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington is pleased to host a panel discussion on these and other aspects of the challenges that will face Yemen and the international community following the cessation of the ongoing conflict. Speakers include: Amatalalim Alsoswa, Formerly United Nations Development Programme, Leslie Campbell, National Democratic Institute, Fatima Abo Alasrar, Independent policy analyst from Yemen.
  7. Charting NATO’s Future | Thursday, September 24th | 9:00 – 2:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The transatlantic community faces urgent challenges on multiple fronts. In the East, the crisis in Ukraine continues unabated, coupled with Russian assertiveness and pushing West-Russia tensions to an all-time high in the post-Cold War environment. In the south, conflicts in the wider Middle East have fueled the rise of new terrorist groups and catalyzed one of the worst refugee crises that Europe has faced since World War II. At the same time, the transatlantic community faces challenges in political unity, from ongoing debates about burden-sharing and defense spending to the rise of fringe political parties to new cracks and fissures in European unity and solidarity. The Atlantic Council is convening leading experts from across Europe and North America to analyze these critically important issues, what they mean for NATO’s future, and what policies and strategies NATO and its members should consider ahead of the Warsaw Summit in 2016. Speakers include: Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of Defense, Frederick Kempe, President and CEO, Atlantic Council,
    Fabrice Pothier, Director, Policy Planning, Office of the Secretary General, NATO, and others.
  8. Getting With It: Putting Momentum behind the U.S. – India Nuclear Deal | Thursday, September 24 | 12:30 – 2:00 | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Speakers include: Vijay Sazawal, nuclear industry expert, and Paul Murphy, Special Counsel at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.
  9. The Islamic State: The Face of Sectarian Violence and Extremism in the Middle East | Thursday, September 24 | 6:00 – 8:00 | Elliot School of International Affairs | REGISTER TO ATTEND | What is behind the rise of sectarianism and extremism in the region? What is the appeal of the Islamic State — a search for a new religious/cultural identity, religious zealotry, or an excuse for legitimized violence? Why has mainstream traditional Islam failed to challenge the appeal of extremist groups? How should governments, clerics and communities confront religious extremism and sectarianism? Speakers include: Joseph Bahout, visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program.
  10. Russian Military ForumRussian Military Forum: Russia in the Middle East | Friday, September 25 | 2:00 -3:30 | Center For Strategic & International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Please join us for a discussion on Russia’s rising influence in the Middle East.
    After being virtually shut out of the region for many years, Russia has lately increased its influence by capitalizing on recent developments, such as the Arab Spring, the Syrian crisis and the Iran nuclear accord. This has allowed Russia to enhance relations and expand military-to-military ties with various states in the region. But Russia’s objectives and strategy for the region remain unclear. Long-time Russia experts Michael Kofman and Stephen Blank will explore these developments in greater detail, including their implications for the region, and for the U.S. more generally. Speakers include: Michael Kofman, Public Policy Fellow, Kennan Instiute, Woodrom Wilson Center, Stephen Blank, Senior Fellow for Russia, American Foreign Policy Council.

The Anwar al-Awlaki tale

On Thursday Brookings hosted a conversation with the national security reporter for the New York Times, Scott Shane on “Anwar al-Awlaki, Yemen, and American counterterrorism policy.” Shane discussed his new book, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President and the Rise of the Drone, with Bruce Riedel, the director of the Intelligence Project at Brookings. An investigation of al-Awlaki’s path to becoming a charismatic English-language recruiter for al-Qaeda, the book deals with the important question of whether an executive authority should have the power to order the extrajudicial killing of its own citizens. The question of drones is especially relevant today, as Britain has also recently killed two of its citizens who were Islamic State combatants in Syria with a drone.

Riedel began by asking Shane why he became interested in al-Awlaki’s story. Shane highlighted how unexpected it seemed for al-Awlaki to become a conservative Salafi preacher and an ally of al-Qaeda, given his early background. The American-born son of a Yemeni minister who admired America, al-Awlaki studied engineering at Colorado State University. There he became attracted to Salafism, a puritanical, conservative form of Islam. He began preaching his new faith, surprising his roommates. He went on to become the most influential English-language recruiter for al-Qaeda, as well as an operational planner in Yemen. Even after he accepted Salafism, however, this role was not in any sense inevitable.

Shane became intrigued about this trajectory – what changed? He hoped he might shed light on the larger phenomenon of radicalization by investigating al-Awlaki’s story. Al-Awlaki attracted the FBI’s attention at various points, for suspicions of connections to known terrorists and, after 9/11, the hijackers involved in that attack. Shane determined in his research that at that point in his life, there was no real connection. Two of the 9/11 hijackers had attended the San Diego mosque at which he was imam, but al-Awlaki never had knowledge of the plot and soon after condemned the attacks to his younger brother.

What the FBI found, through following his movements on a daily basis, was that al-Awlaki habitually visited prostitutes. In Shane’s opinion, this is a fascinating part of his story that has not been highlighted enough. A well-regarded and even famous preacher on moral aspects of life, al-Awlaki appears a hypocrite when this aspect of his life is known. Though it is a small part of the larger story, it is information that the FBI and the administration could have used to discredit al-Awlaki publicly, reducing his effectiveness as a recruiter, Shane pointed out.

Riedel asked about al-Awlaki’s transition to Yemen, and how he began Inspire, which was a propaganda magazine for al-Qaeda, or as Riedel noted, from another perspective, public diplomacy. Once al-Awlaki was informed about the FBI’s file on him, and in the context of heightened tension about the treatment of Muslims in the US, he moved to the UK, with increasingly frequent trips to Yemen, where he eventually ended up. Al-Awlaki had always been a prolific preacher who was adept at using new media to disseminate his sermons – cassette tapes in the 90s, then box-sets of CDs, and finally Youtube, where there remain some 40,000 of his videos. Much of the content nevertheless concerned the banalities of everyday devout Muslim life, rather than incendiary calls for jihad or war with America. Shane said that for a few years al-Awlaki wavered about re-starting his life in the US. But after he was imprisoned in Sana’a and the US declined to intervene on his behalf, he began to get involved with al-Qaeda. Even while he was in Yemen, al-Awlaki’s path was not definite; he tried many different ventures, but he wanted to make his mark, according to Shane. Public diplomacy was something he excelled at.

It is from this point, as early as 2006 but certainly by 2008, that the US began noticing al-Awlaki’s presence in terrorism cases, in the searches suspects were making on line and the videos they were watching. After the case of the 2009 ‘Underwear Bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had gone to Yemen to find al-Awlaki and was guided by him in his attempt, Obama asked his lawyers to explore the legality of adding him to his ‘kill list’ with the objective of eliminating him with a drone strike. While propaganda alone wasn’t enough to take this step, in Abdulmutallab’s case, al-Awlaki had taken the role of an ‘operational’ terrorist, in connecting the bomber to the bomb-maker.

Al-Awlaki had become prominent and convincing for American Muslims. Shane argues he was effective in this role because of his duality: equally fluent in English and Arabic, equally at home in Yemen and the US. Having lived in the US as a Muslim, he understood the tensions that brought about and knew how to activate young American Muslims’ grievances. Like other transnational Islamists, al-Awlaki stressed the umma, the global community of believers, allegiance to which overrides allegiance to any country.

Riedel observed that al-Awlaki’s influence seems only to have grown since his death. In light of that, were there alternatives that could have been taken to deal with him as a threat? Shane thought so. He believes that Obama and his administration did not take the role of the internet into consideration, nor how death by drone would effectively turn al-Awlaki into a martyr, whose legacy would then become valued. There were other options – the FBI, in 2003, could have used its information on his sexual habits to get him to cooperate with them, or the US could have attempted a deal with al-Awlaki’s tribe to hand him over. The legal justification for using a drone centered on the claim that it would have been too dangerous, and near impossible, to enter Yemeni tribal lands to capture or kill him. Shane also pointed out that it was a political decision on Obama’s part, in order to represent himself as a decisive commander in chief who could protect Americans from external threats.

Al-Awlaki’s story highlights questions about US counterterrorism strategy and the projection of American power abroad. Questions from the audience focused on why the administration was reluctant to use information about al-Awlaki’s sexual habits to discredit him, as well as to provide information from several closed cases that Shane researched while writing this book. In Shane’s view, there is an option for the administration to amplify its soft power and create a counter-narrative to religious extremism through highlighting al-Awlaki’s moral hypocrisy. Though al-Awlaki’s videos remain in the public domain on the internet, the response shouldn’t necessarily be censorship, or removing the videos, but rather to counter bad speech with more speech.

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