Serbian President Nikolic said today:
We are not giving Kosovo away. And [the] Bundestag should think about what kind of a decision it would make if it were about Germany.
This is a good point, whose meaning is precisely the opposite of what Nikolic intended. My guess is that many members of the Bundestag know full well that Germany has given up many territorial claims since 1945: to Alsace-Loraine (now part of France), to the Sudetenland (now part of the Czech Republic), and to a big chunk of Poland. Not to mention its pretensions to rule as an empire over Russia, France, Britain, North Africa and much of the Middle East.
Where would Germany be today if it had not given up these ambitions but instead, like Serbia, continued to maintain them in principle? It would not be the largest and most prosperous member of a large and prosperous Europe, albeit one with current economic and financial problems. It would not have been allowed to return to military prominence. It would not be a key ally of the United States or a major player in the world’s most successful military and political alliance. It likely would have been involved in several more wars and reduced to rubble many times. Or maybe it would have won one of the wars, thus enabling it to preside over an expanded Germany struggling to protect itself from hostile neighbors and domestic insurgency.
So if the Germans ask for Serbia to give up its claim to Kosovo, or at least to the north of Kosovo, it is asking no more than successive German governments have been prepared to do with claims to far more extensive and valuable territory, in order to secure peace and prosperity. Nikolic’s argument might be more compelling if it were addressed to the American Congress, which has presided over vast expansions of territory during the past 225 years or so. But it cuts precisely the opposite way when used against the Germans, who learned the hard way that territory is far less valuable than good neighborly relations.
Herewith my short list of ten international issues more worthy of presidential attention than the issues that are getting it this week:
- Drones: Apparently the President is preparing to address how and why he uses them soon.
- Syria: Secretary of State Kerry and the Russians are ginning up a peace conference next month, while Moscow strengthens Syrian defenses against Western intervention.
- Iraq: The Syrian war is spilling over and posing serious challenges to the country’s political cohesion.
- Egypt: President Morsi is taking the Arab world’s most populous country in economically and politically ruinous directions.
- Israel/Palestine: With the peace process moribund, the window is closing on the opportunity to reach a two-state outcome.
- Libya: The failure to establish the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force leaves open the possibility of further attacks on Americans (and on the Libyan state).
- Afghanistan: The American withdrawal is on schedule, but big questions remain about what will be left behind.
- Pakistan: Nawaz Sharif’s hat trick provides an opportunity for improved relations, if managed well.
- Iran: once its presidential election is over (first round is June 14, runoff if needed June 21), a last diplomatic effort on its nuclear ambitions will begin.
- All that Asia stuff: North Korean nukes, maritime jostling with China, Trans-Pacific Partnership, transition in Myanmar (how about trying for one in Vietnam?), Japan’s economic and military revival…
In the good old days, presidents in domestic trouble headed out on international trips. Obama doesn’t seem inclined in that direction. He really does want to limit America’s commitments abroad and restore its economy at home. Bless him. But if things get much worse, I’ll bet on a road trip.
I repeat what I said yesterday: “The editing of the Benghazi talking points strikes me as unworthy of a news story on an inside page.” But if you want to understand what happened, here is as clear an account as I have seen, extracted from the emails the White House made public yesterday:
It is not clear who wrote this, but it was sent to Ambassador Susan Rice at the US mission to the UN on September 15 at 1:23 pm, apparently along with the approved talking points for her to use the next day. By way of explication, the SVTS is a classified videoconference, Morell was deputy director of the CIA, Rhodes and McDonough were top White House aides. They deferred to Sullivan at the State Department.
Morell’s “heavy editing hand” shows clearly on the marked up document:
It is clear from the other emails that Tori Nuland at State had objected to some of the items excised, but it is also clear that CIA carried the bulk of the drafting and excising responsibility. This is logical, as the facility in Benghazi was not a normal diplomatic post but principally a CIA facility. CIA had at least as much reason as State to get rid of references to prior warnings and extremists. While the White House deferred to State, CIA did the actual excising.
To make a long story short, this was a CYA* editing job, to which Susan Rice appears to have contributed nothing. She was the unwitting victim of a bureaucratic exercise of no particular interest or merit. Would it not have been better to spend the time and energy wasted on this issue instead on whether the U.S. should have done more to help establish rule of law in Libya after Qaddafi fell? Come to think of it, that would still be a good question on which to expend some time and effort.
*For my non-American readers, that’s “cover your ass.”
I have a skeptical reaction to the current Washington scandals. The editing of the Benghazi talking points strikes me as unworthy of a news story on an inside page. Why is the Internal Revenue Service’s close scrutiny of a flood of patriotic “tea party” registrations not viewed as a rigorous effort to carry out its mandate in the face of potentially fraudulent tax exemptions? How come politicians who called for vigorous prosecution of the AP leak of information about a foiled terrorist plot are now upset that the Justice Department is pursuing the investigation with vigor?
These are not Watergate-league affairs, yet. No one has connected the President to any of them. He referred to the Benghazi incident as a terrorist attack the next day. The inspector general at the IRS found no evidence of White House involvement, even if Washington-based political appointees did know about the matter. The AP investigation is a Justice Department responsibility, from which the Attorney General recused himself because the FBI had at one point questioned him as a possible source of the leak.
The IRS affair is potentially the most serious of these scandals. The inspector general’s report documents mismanagement in responding to a sharp increase in applications for tax exemptions from Tea Party and other right wing groups. What it does not show is whether this response was out of the ordinary. Would a sharp increase in environmental organization applications for tax exemption have triggered a similar response? No one should be unhappy to see the IRS closely scrutinizing organizations that ask for tax exemptions. I might even crack a smile to hear tea partiers suggesting that the IRS should have hired more employees if it had trouble reviewing all the applications for tax exemptions. It is is the implied political bias, still unproven, that is most disturbing.
Massaging of talking points is a bureaucratic art unworthy of serious attention. Susan Rice should have known better than to use them.
The AP leak is troubling mainly because a government investigation of this sort could have a chilling effect on confidential sources for journalists. But I confess to surprise that confidential informants are still using telephones to spill the beans, or even to make appointments to spill the beans. And it would be best if the culprit were found.
No one is (yet) blaming the Administration for the military’s various sexual abuse scandals, which seem somehow to involve disproportionately those responsible for preventing sexual abuse. Fixing the culture from which these incidents grow will not be easy.
Yesterday’s international embarrassment came in Moscow. The Russians appear to have caught a CIA agent red-handed in an attempt to recruit a Russian agent of their Federal Security Service. Rarely does Moscow go so far as to release video of an agent with his bozotic tradecraft tools: wigs, eyeglasses, a map of Moscow. He lacked only false moustaches. This does not bode well for budding cooperation with the Russians on Syria, though it likely won’t derail their help with the withdrawal from Afghanistan or their participation in the nuclear talks with Iran.
The news media are delighted that so much is happening to embarrass the Obama administration at a time when other news is lacking. The president was already on the ropes. Gun background checks have failed in Congress, immigration reform at best is moving slowly, and the budget won’t be ripe for serious negotiation until the Feds bump up against the budget ceiling again in the fall. This is weeks later than anticipated, as revenues are running ahead of projections and the deficit falling more rapidly than anticipated. I’ll let you know when someone decides to celebrate that.
The international significance of all this is that it puts the administration off balance in dealing with foreign policy issues. A president who had convinced Congress to pass gun background checks, could be confident Congress would pass immigration reform and could hope for a budget deal would be in a stronger position internationally as well as domestically. It would be even better if the president were not defending himself from charges of downplaying terrorism, using the IRS to discomfit his domestic opponents and infringing on freedom of the press.
There are serious international questions out there requiring American leadership. Will it be possible to move ahead on a Middle East peace process that stalled in Obama’s first term? Will Russia and the US find a way to manage a political process to end the Syrian civil war? Can the administration bring to conclusion big Atlantic and Pacific trade agreements? Will Afghanistan survive the withdrawal of the Americans and their international coalition partners from combat roles? Can the administration somehow end nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran without military action?
So yes, I do worry, even if Alfred E. Neuman would advise against it.
The genocide conviction of general and coup leader Efraín Ríos Montt for his scorched earth campaign against the Ixil Mayans is remarkable in the Guatemalan context. More than 30 years after his cruel campaign of extermination, which murdered 5.5% of their population, a Guatemalan court sentenced the 86-year-old dictator to 80 years in prison and ordered the Guatemalan government to make “fair restitution” by asking the Ixil Mayans for forgiveness and making available public funds. It’s not over. Ríos Montt is expected to appeal.
The conviction is also remarkable in the international context. This is the first time a head of state (de facto, not de jure) has been convicted of genocide in his own country.
But what effect will this have? Is Adama Dieng, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, justified in hoping this case sets an example to countries “that have failed to hold accountable those individuals responsible for serious and massive human rights violations.”
I doubt it. I might hope that President Omar al Bashir of Sudan will be tried one day in a Sudanese court, but it seems highly unlikely. I might hope even more that President Bashar al Asad of Syria be tried in Damascus, but the odds aren’t good for that either. I doubt one-tenth of those tried and convicted in The Hague at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia over the past 20 years would have been tried in their home countries, and possibly many fewer.
The more interesting question is how chiefs of state will behave in response to the Guatemalan decision. Will they constrain their genocidal instincts? Will they be more careful about claiming to control their troops? Will their lieutenants refuse to carry out orders? Will they outsource murder to paramilitaries? There are many ways of evading what happened to Ríos Montt, who left not only lots of documentation but even video of himself claiming to have complete command of the Guatemalan military.
Ríos Montt was popular in Washington with President Reagan. He was, after all, supposedly fighting Communists, which in the Central America of the 1980s could get you a blank check to do just about anything you wanted. Things have changed, but of course American support for leaders who torture and kill alleged Al Qaeda enemies is still with us. It isn’t genocide, but it isn’t pretty either. A good deal of effort goes into making sure we don’t get the full picture, including about our own government’s misdeeds.
This brings me to where I started: the Guatemalans have done themselves proud. But whether they have set a good precedent, or discouraged others from misbehavior, will be determined by what brave people in other countries, including our own, do to follow the Guatemalan lead. I’m not confident others can match their lead.
This rare interview with Salim Idriss, who (sort of) commands the forces in Syria that call themselves the Free Army, is telling. It demonstrates three things:
- The rebels are still in need of weapons.
- Their fragmented structure makes supplying them a dicey proposition.
- Disunity is a serious impediment to their military progress.
This is not an unfamiliar situation. It is comparable to the Bosnian army during the first year of that country’s miserable war, which started more than twenty years ago and went on for three and a half years before the Federation forces started winning and the Dayton accords ended it.
By then, the Bosnian (ABiH) was unified under General Rasim Delic and fighting in tandem with the Croat Defense Force (HVO) and the Croatian Army (HV) against the Republika Srpska army (VRS). But things hadn’t started that way. The HVO and the ABiH had even fought with each other in 1992 and 1993, just as some rebel forces inside Syria have in recent months.
Likewise in Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army was not completely unified at first and fought occasionally with the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo (FARK), a less well-known group that also fought against the Yugoslav security forces.
The Syrian rebel forces will need greater unity if they are to make further progress against the Syrian army, which has been gaining ground in the past few weeks. That is at least in part due to Iranian and Lebanese Hizbollah forces fighting inside Syria. The regime’s objective is to relieve Damascus and secure the route to the Alawite-populated areas of the northeast, where ethnic cleansing of Sunnis has been proceeding apace.
The rebel forces are also going to need more international help, at the very least arms supplies, but some want a much narrower focus. Aram Nerguizian wants American intervention to focus exclusively on chemical weapons and extremists among the rebels:
How U.S. military power could be used is to selectively target risks tied to proliferation of chemical weapons and other strategic capabilities in Syria. It could be used to contain and curtail the expansion of al Qaeda in the Levant and to prevent the preeminence of radical forces in the region.
The chemical weapons seem to me strategically irrelevant. If used, they have killed a tiny fraction of the more than 80,000 dead. It can still be argued that the President’s “red line” has to be enforced, lest failing to do so sends the wrong message to Iran. Certainly a credible threat of military force to block Tehran from getting nuclear weapons is vital to the diplomatic strategy the President is pursuing. But the notion that chemical weapons, like nuclear bombs, are “weapons of mass destruction” is hyperbole. Syria’s use of chemical weapons has nothing like the implications of Iran gaining nuclear ones. Finding and destroying Asad’s stocks of sarin and other poisons would be a major military enterprise, not the limited intervention some may imagine.
Extremists are likewise a difficult target to engage. Muslim extremists also emerged in Bosnia and Kosovo but were quickly undone once the fighting was over. That will be a far more difficult process in Syria, as it will not be getting the tens of thousands of NATO peacekeeping forces that made it happen quickly, and in retrospect easily, in the Balkans. But how, precisely, does one target Jabhat al Nusra in Syria? Do we really want to be hunting them down with drones while they are fighting the Asad regime? Or encouraging the Free Syria Army, which is less than fully effective against the regime forces, to engage against them while the extremists are fighting Asad? We have made it clear that Jabhat al Nusra is not acceptable to the international community, something the UN reinforced last week with financial sanctions. But do we really need to do more than that right now?
The higher priority is to focus on protecting civilians in Syria. The regime is targeting civilians in rebel-held areas daily, trying to make life there unbearable and governance impossible. The purpose is to get the civilians to expel the insurgents, in the hope doing so will provide some measure of relief from artillery and air bombardment. Protecting Syria’s civilian population from these ravages should be our priority concern.
The costs of failing to do so are high. US humanitarian relief in Syria could total $1 billion by the end of this year. Unless we focus on civilian protection we are not likely to recover some measure of confidence in Syria’s Sunni Muslim population and prevent its youth from further radicalization. A post-Asad Syria dominated by extremists will be a problem for the Middle East and the US for decades into the future. We should want a Syria that respects the rights of its citizens (regardless of sect or ethnicity) as well as its borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. That will take time and effort. There is no shortcut. A narrow focus on chemical weapons and extremists will not serve these broader strategic purposes. There is no narrow way out.