I just caught wind this morning of the right-wing angst about the State Department’s decision to move the US Embassy to the Vatican into the same complex with the US Embassy to Italy, albeit with a separate entrance. Maybe the perspective of a former deputy chief of mission (DCM) and charge’ d’affaires at the embassy to Italy will enlighten, or more likely stir up even more protest.
I was DCM at the embassy to Italy 1990-93. The embassy to the Vatican had a separate ambassador, DCM, political officers and premises then, but it got its administrative services from the much larger and well-established embassy to Italy. The natural state of the relationship between the two embassies (as well as the mission to the UN organizations in Rome) was mildly contentious. The ambassador to the Vatican often felt ill-served and disrespected. He competed for Washington’s attention. The physical separation made things worse, not better, as it deprived the two embassies of casual daily interaction.
The DCMs of the three embassies, all then in separate premises, tried to meet regularly to sort things out. This was more useful than our ambassadors knew or cared. Most of what we talked about were the trivia of daily embassy existence, but sometimes more important things got done. The Vatican embassy DCM, Cameron Hume, and I decided that he would handle the then on-going negotiations to end the civil war in Mozambique, mediated by a Catholic organization known as the Community of Sant’Egidio. It was an Italian nongovernmental organization rather than a Vatican one, but I had my hands full with the first Gulf War and its aftermath so we happily decided Cameron would take on Mozambique. He did a great job supporting Sant’Egidio and wrote a fine book about it.
The notion that moving the Vatican embassy into fabulous quarters on the via Veneto constitutes a demotion in stature will amuse generations of diplomats. The Vatican itself is all right with the arrangement. The administrative and security savings are said to be only $1.4 million (per year of course), but that does not count sale of the Vatican embassy property, which according to its website the US government purchased in 1994. The savings in terms of staff time and energy will be far greater. The ambassadors might even learn to get along a bit better. But if they don’t the DCMs will try to smooth things out.
More interesting is the State Department’s assertion that staffing will not be reduced. It should be, at both the embassy to Italy and the embassy to the Vatican. These are vastly overstaffed for current requirements. Embassy Rome is back up to 800 people (about half Italian and half American). When I was DCM we cut it back to about 720, which was hard to do because there were 36 different agencies of the US government represented. Most of its 63 diplomats are servicing non-State agencies, who are there because of legacy and inertia rather than current requirements. I today think 50 Americans would suffice in Embassy Rome; there are 400 there today.
The Vatican embassy occasionally takes on enormous significance, but presidential visits and the like have always required the Rome embassy to pitch in. That will be much easier once the two embassies are co-located. Day to day business is usually pretty tame. The Vatican doesn’t do a lot of radical policy change and instant reaction. So the Vatican embassy could also do with a slimming down. Its staff of seven diplomats is more than twice what it was when I was DCM twenty years ago. Has the Vatican doubled its significance since then? Has technology improved productivity at all? We’ve got to take a much harder look at our diplomatic presence abroad and cut it back to more reasonable dimensions.
The move of the US embassy to the Vatican into glorious via Veneto quarters should be seen as a first step in the right direction. Listening to people who complained about inadequate security in Benghazi advocate keeping another facility separate from a well-protected embassy would be funny if it weren’t sad. I hope the administration has the gumption to drop the other shoe: cut staff back to what we really need.
My friends get in trouble a lot. At the moment, I’m concerned in particular about Ahmed Maher, an Egyptian activist in the April 6 Movement for whom an arrest warrant has been issued because he defied the government’s latest law on demonstrations, which went into effect this week. He already faces other charges related to previous demonstrations. And I’m concerned about Sonja Biserko, who is being criticized for agreeing to testify on behalf of Croatia to support its charge of genocide against Serbia at the International Court of Justice. In Belgrade, where Sonja has lived most of her life, she is accused of being a traitor.
Ahmed was in DC just two weeks ago, when he spoke at the Middle East Institute conference and chatted with some of us privately. He is determined to create space in Egypt for a “third force,” which would occupy the political space between the current military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood, now the object of repression but itself intolerant and anti-democratic when it held power for a year, ending last summer. Ahmed’s third force would be committed to human rights, a civil state based on citizenship, and democratic ideals. It has been precisely the lack of support for these ideals that has made the Egyptian revolution such a roller coaster ride.
Ahmed doesn’t expect real success for another ten years or so, which makes his willingness to keep democratic hopes alive now particularly striking. He is trying to maintain a space for political dissent in Egypt, despite the restoration of military authority. This will not be easy. Egypt’s army quickly accuses dissenters of being terrorists, or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, against which Ahmed also took to the streets. Now he defends their political rights. Egypt’s restored military regime does not take that kindly.
Sonja is in a different, but no less problematic, situation. Serbia today is a democracy, more or less. So far as I can tell, its government is refusing to comment on her willingness to testify against it at The Hague, but Serbia’s press is condemning her (this is from Novosti last Saturday):
This is one of rare, if not the unique, examples in modern history of a person taking the stand against his or her own state by proclaiming it genocidal. Should the trial take place – meaning should the two sides refuse to withdraw charges – Sonja Biserko would be responsible for war damages citizens of Serbia would have to compensate Croatia that had expelled and plundered 450,000 Serbs in 1990s. What’s even worse, the title of the genocidal state would be forced on Serbs who had sided with the Allies in WWI and WWII. And all that in favor of the country that allied itself with fascists and left a legacy of Jasenovac and other concentration camps in which Serbs in the first place have been systematically eradicated; Serbs against whom a proved genocide was committed, the genocide that for the sake of brotherhood, unity and peace has always been swept under the carpet in SFR of Yugoslavia.
Serbia’s own homicidal record in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s of course goes unmentioned. That too is one of Sonja’s sins: she mentions it all the time.
Sonja too was in Washington recently, as a member of a UN-commissioned group looking into human rights violations in North Korea. The long-time chair of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, like Ahmed she is a well-known figure abroad. Both of them will enjoy some measure of international attention, as well as whatever limited protection that may bring. And if they decide to flee, even temporarily, they will find haven in any number of Western countries where they are known.
People committed to nonviolence like Ahmed and Sonja are trying to assert their rights, not incite violence. Many can’t flee, and most don’t want to. What they want is to be able to speak their minds freely, no matter how unpopular–or distasteful to those in power–their views may be. I am grateful for all of them this Thanksgiving, including those with whom I don’t agree. May you be safe, and may those of us who enjoy freedom be prepared to protect your rights as best we can!
Secretary of State Kerry took to video yesterday to explain the nuclear deal with Iran. He does a good job, at a junior high school science level. He seems well-suited to the role.
Meanwhile Iran’s President Rouhani put out a “yes we can” version of his inaugural address:
I’m still looking for a subtitled version but Max Fisher has helpfully published some excerpts.
No one should conclude that the Iranians are better at video duelling. Their Foreign Minister’s soppy video last week was far from fully successful with the Western audience it was intended to impress, despite his many years living in the United States (he was Tehran’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations).
Video duelling is certainly preferable to the military kind, but the content quotient is so thin it is hard to imagine this Youtube diplomacy* will have much impact. The US Congress will continue to fulminate, but not pass new sanctions that go into effect before the six month duration of the deal wraps up next April. Hardliners in Tehran are more tight-lipped, as they need to be careful to toe the Supreme Leader’s line of support for the deal.
I continue to believe that we need a broader peace process between Iran and the United States, one that gets our parliaments, thinktanks, universities and media talking with each other. A more permanent agreement will have to allow Iran some nuclear technology but prevent a rapid breakout to nuclear weapons. It will also have to lift some sanctions (others in place because of human rights violations may need to stay in place). I don’t see how that can be done unless there is much broader mutual understanding, in addition to tight verification provisions. Videos are not going to suffice.
*Note that the State Department doesn’t actually post its video to Youtube, presumably to prevent it being tampered with.
Last Friday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Bülent Arinç discussed the work the Freedom and Development Party (FPD) has done for the democratic process in Turkey. Moderator Katherine Wilkens introduced DPM Arinç as being a founding member of the FDP and a key architect of government policies in Turkey.
Arinç began by praising the relationship that Turkey and the United States have as a model partnership and a strategic allegiance. He sees the United States as a leader in global politics, which is why Turkey sees the need to be attached to it.
He also praised the work that the FDP has done in Turkey and its success as a political party. FDP has been in power since 2002, with increasing success in general elections, local elections and referendum votes. Arinç believes it will be also be successful in local elections set to take place in early 2014. People are happy with the reforms and progress Turkey has made under the FDP. These include healthcare reforms, and he hopes the same for the US. The economy is growing at 2.5-3% a year. It was not affected by the 2008 global recession. The FDP has also created stability in the government administration, allowing for more fair and just representation.
While warning against politicians staying too long in government (quoting the Turkish proverb so that “your face doesn’t get old”), Arinç sees the FDP as playing an important role in Turkey’s democratization process. The political process opened up with the removal of the state security apparatus. The FDP has been running campaigns in languages other than Turkish so that anyone can enter the political process. He sees Turkey’s minority groups as adding to the country’s diversity, with equal citizenship rights. He also sees the value of conflicts within the democratic framework. Opposition to the ruling party is a good thing because it creates competitors, not enemies. There are currently 76 political parties in Turkey. They are indispensable to Turkey’s democracy.
Similarly, Arinç believes that peaceful demonstrations should be encouraged. Even a small voice should still be heard. When asked about the Gezi Park protests, he praised the protestors who came out during the first few days to oppose the building of a shopping mall in the park. He also apologized for the police’s unwarranted use of force against citizens. However, he condemned the rest of the protests for their use of violence, saying that illegal organizations were harming public property and people. He denounced those who made false accusations against politicians inciting hate, and BBC and CNN for exaggerating the protests in Gezi Park. But demonstrations are allowed everywhere in Turkey. The FDP is willing to accept both applause and criticism.
Wilkens asked Arinç about his thoughts on the role and importance of a free press in democracy. He recognized the importance of journalists and their role in relaying information to the people. He discussed provisions that the FDP has put in place that protect journalists so that they are able to freely do their jobs. He is aware of the criticisms Turkey has been facing regarding its crackdown, but he responded to these criticisms by claiming that journalists were not arrested for carrying out their profession but rather for ties to terrorist organizations.
Arinç painted a pretty picture of FDP openness and willingness to expand Turkey’s democracy, but to a good part of the audience this narrative clashed with actions of the government. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
When it rains, it pours, or so it seems with diplomatic initiatives. Yesterday it was the six-month Iran nuclear deal. Today it is the United Nations announcement of a date for Syria peace talks: January 22, in Geneva.
Neither one faces easy implementation, but the Syria peace talks are the dicier proposition. A lot of things are still unclear, including who is invited and how they will be represented. But Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was at pains to be clear about the purpose:
“full implementation of the Geneva Communique of 30 June 2012,” including the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities.
This is word for word what the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Etilaf) requires.
It is a tall order for Bashar al Asad, as it implies that the meeting aims to remove him from power, if not from Syria. Friends in Etilaf doubt the regime will show up for a meeting with this purpose. I think it more likely it will, but with people who cannot make serious commitments for Bashar al Asad, whatever their nominal titles. It is very unlikely that a one-day meeting is going to move us more than a millimeter closer to a negotiated settlement in Syria. I’ll be delighted if it does that much.
How, you should ask, are the two news items related? Did the nuclear deal pave the way for the Syria talks? Or vice versa, did some sort of unannounced side deal on Syria pave the way for the nuclear deal? Or are these two developments unrelated?
There are certainly some who have hoped that a nuclear deal would open the door to a broader rapprochement with Iran. That’s possible, but unlikely in such a short timeframe. Syria is no less vital to Iran and its “resistance axis” (which also includes Hizbollah and Hamas) today than it was before the nuclear agreement was reached.
It is far more likely that Iran and Russia, the Asad regime’s key allies, are hoping to find the Americans pliable on Syria and even willing to accept half a loaf now that they’ve had their top priority at least temporarily met. The Americans and their European partners (including Turkey) are worried about the rampant proliferation of extremists in Syria, reliant on Bashar al Asad to complete implementation of the chemical weapons agreement, and aware that things are going badly for the opposition military forces. It is not a good moment from Etilaf’s perspective to be negotiating an end to the regime.
There is, however, virtue in talking, if the UN can manage to get both the regime and opposition to Geneva with credible delegations. If, as I expect, the regime is nowhere near ready for Bashar al Asad to step aside, the obvious subject to discuss is the protection of civilians. The international norm against military attacks on civilian populations is at least as important as the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. It is violated in Syria on a daily basis.
The regime’s use of artillery, aircraft and missiles against civilian population centers should be ended. Moscow and Tehran have the leverage to make this happen. Without their financing and weapons supplies the regime wouldn’t last a month. Even if the Geneva meeting is unable to achieve its avowed purpose of creating a transitional government, it would be doing something worthwhile if it provides an opportunity for the Americans and Europeans to get Russia and Iran to pressure Asad to end attacks on civilians.
The Geneva meeting might also serve a useful purpose if it fails altogether, forcing the Americans to rethink strategy in Syria (as Fred Hof suggests). But if the Americans do nothing different after such a failure, the damage will be to the credibility of Etilaf and any other groups that go to Geneva. When it rains, it pours, especially on the heads of those who aren’t well supplied with protection.
With Thanksgiving this week, Washington is pretty quiet. Still a couple peace and conflict events to check out:
1. Italy, the Cold War, and the Nuclear Dilemma: The Struggle over the NPT
November 25, 2013 // 4:00pm — 5:30pm // Wilson Center
Washington History Seminar
Historical Perspectives on International and National Affairs
Italy, the Cold War, and the Nuclear Dilemma:
The Struggle over the NPT
UNIVERSITY OF ROMA TRE
Why do nuclear weapons matter? Italy‘s military nuclear policy throughout the Cold War was an attempt to achieve a position of parity with the major European powers. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, however, challenged this basic goal, and both the signature and the ratification of the treaty became two of the most controversial choices that postwar Italy had to face.
Leopoldo Nuti is Director of the Machiavelli Center for Cold War Studies and professor of history of international relations and coordinator of the international studies section of the doctoral school in political science at the University of Roma Tre. He is the Co-Director of the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project. Nuti has been a Fulbright student, NATO Research Fellow, Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute, Research Fellow at the CSIA, Harvard University, Research Fellow for the Nuclear History Program, Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, and Visiting Professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. He has published extensively in Italian, English, and French on U.S.-Italian relations and Italian foreign and security policy. His latest book is a history of nuclear weapons in Italy during the Cold War, La sfida nucleare. La politica estera italiana e le armi nucleari, 1945-1991.
Report from the Field: David Nickles, US Department of State Office of the Historian
Monday November 25, 2013
Woodrow Wilson Center, 6th Floor Moynihan Board Room
Ronald Reagan Building, Federal Triangle Metro Stop
Reservations requested because of limited seating:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-450-3209
The seminar is sponsored jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Wilson Center. It meets weekly during the academic year. See www.nationalhistorycenter.org for the schedule, speakers, topics, and dates as well as webcasts and podcasts. The seminar thanks the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations for its support.
2. Nuclear Talks with Iran: Potential Pitfalls and Prospects for Success
Tuesday, Nov 26, 2013 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM Lehrman Auditorium, Heritage Foundation
The rise to power of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has boosted expectations that the decade-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear weapons program soon will be resolved through a diplomatic agreement. How realistic are these expectations? What is the meaning of the deadlocked talks at Geneva? What negotiating pitfalls must be avoided to construct the framework of an acceptable agreement? What is the role of international sanctions in pressuring Iran and under what circumstances should Washington consider easing sanctions? Join us as the speakers address these and other questions.
More About the Speakers
Director of Research, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Chief Analyst of the Langley Intelligence Group Network and former Senior Analyst with the CIA, DIA and House Intelligence Committee
Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs, The Heritage Foundation
Steven P. Bucci, Ph.D.
Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies