Good cop, bad cop

I could sign up to 90% of what the foreign ministers of France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union say today in the Washington Post. They want the US Congress not to pass new sanctions on Iran, for fear that would split the P5+1 (that includes the US, Russia and China as well as the Europeans) and wreck the prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran. The Israeli intelligence establishment apparently agrees, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does not.

Knowledgeable people who follow the talks closely also oppose additional sanctions now, but for different reasons. Some think a nuclear deal that goes beyond the current Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is unlikely. The question would then become who–the Iranians or the Americans are the prime candidates–scuppers the deal, either before it expires at the end of June or during another six-month extension. From an American perspective, it is preferable that the Iranians take on the responsibility, thus increasing the likelihood that the P5+1 would remain united and then respond with tightened sanctions.

I’ve argued that in a sense none of this matters. The overt Iranian nuclear program is not the problem. There is simply no history of anyone developing nuclear weapons using materials produced in a program monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. So why should we care about the JPA at all? It provides access and accountability for activities that are not the problem.

Access is the point. If we are going to have early warning that Iran’s covert nuclear activities are moving towards developing a nuclear weapon, we are going to need access. The JPA provides it. While there are no doubt means of knowing what is going on clandestinely in Iran that do not depend on the IAEA, its inspectors are an important source of knowledge about the Iranian program and its purposes. Had we listened to Hans Blix, the IAEA director general before the invasion of Iraq, we might have saved ourselves a lot of trouble.

This argues for continuation of the JPA, even though the target of its monitoring is likely to involve material that will never be diverted to a nuclear weapons program. The technology is a different matter. Iran is not so well-endowed with physicists and engineers that it would want, or be able, to develop enrichment or reprocessing technology from scratch, independent of its IAEA-monitored efforts. If there is a separate, clandestine activity the IAEA is likely to garner hints of it. That is precisely what we should want.

So scuppering the JPA is not a good idea for the US. But many who know Iran well believe it is necessary in order to get a nuclear deal to make it clear what will happen if there is no more permanent nuclear deal.  This is where Congress comes in. The Administration is already playing good cop, threatening to veto new sanctions. Congress can play bad cop, even without passing new legislation.

Congress could prepare a bipartisan bill (with broad support in both Houses) that imposes tough new sanctions but is put on a slow track to approval. That would constitute a clear and compelling message. Of course this would have to be carefully coordinated with other P5+1 members, and we should expect the Iranians to retaliate with a bill in the Majles that sends an equally clear and compelling message about what Tehran will do if the JPA breaks down without a new agreement in place.

The Iranians will of course understand what we are up to. But there is no need to hide it. There is only a need to anticipate, prepare to impose new sanctions if the need arises, and play the diplomatic game well. That Tehran will appreciate.


Less force, more diplomacy

The Middle East Policy Council’s 79th Capitol Hill Conference yesterday provided an overview of issues of concern to US policymakers with regards to the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq, as well as the broader issues facing the region. The topic was particularly pertinent in light of recent signals from the Obama administration of a shifting approach to Syria’s president Assad, as well as the president’s call for congressional authorization of the current anti-ISIS campaign.

A common theme was the need for the US to scale down ambitions in the Middle East while diverting more of its resources to non-coercive methods of conflict management. Michael Hayden, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, called for more intelligence cooperation with U.S. allies from the region, who possess greater understanding of the cultural and political dynamics on the ground. He also argued that a scenario in which the Assad regime remains in power is the best possible outcome as the situation is today.

Daniel Bolger, retired Army Lieutenant General, argued for a de-escalation of US military objectives in the Middle East. He also called for an authorization from Congress if the Administration intended to continue the current campaign against ISIS. On the flip side, Dafna H. Rand, Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security, argued for escalation of non-coercive methods of conflict management, with a greater focus on multilateral diplomacy. She also argued that more support for the Syrian opposition should be directed towards strengthening good governance.

This argument was also reflected in the presentation by Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He advocated the same kind of financial and political backing to the diplomatic and development corps as is provided to the US military, so that these forces can effectively assist in the formidable challenge of regenerating a stable and legitimate system of states in the Middle East.

A summary of the event is available on MEPC’s websites.

Tags : , , , ,

Nothing new

President Obama said a lot more about foreign policy in last night’s State of the Union message than many of us expected. But did he say anything new?

His first entry point to international affairs was notable:  he got there via exports and trade, pivoting quickly to TTP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and TTIP, the Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe. Though he didn’t name them, that’s what he was referring to when he appealed for Congress to provide him with what is known as trade promotion authority to negotiate deals with Asia and Europe that are “not only free, but fair.” Nothing new here, just an interesting elevation of economic diplomacy to pride of place. Ditto the plea to close tax loopholes that encourage American companies to keep their profits abroad.

But after a detour to the internet and scientific research, the President was soon back on the more familiar territory of national security. He plugged smart leadership that builds coalitions and combines diplomacy and military power. He wants others to do more of the fighting. But there was little or no indication of how collapsed states like Syria, Yemen and Libya might be governed in the future.

Leaving it to their own devices hasn’t worked out well, but this is a president who (like all his predecessors) doesn’t want to do nationbuilding abroad and who (unlike many of his predecessors) has been disciplined enough to resist it. He talks non-military means but uses force frequently and says he wants an authorization from Congress to use it against the Islamic State, which he is doing anyway.

Russia is isolated and its economy in tatters, the President claimed, but it also holds on to Crimea and a large part of Donbas in southeastern Ukraine. He offered no new moves to counter Putin but rather “steady, persistent resolve.” On Cuba, the Administration has already begun to restore diplomatic ties. The President reiterated that he wants Congress to end the embargo, which isn’t in the cards unless Raul Castro gets converted to multi-party democracy in his dotage.

Iran is the big issue. The President naturally vaunted the interim Joint Plan of Action and hopes for a comprehensive one by the end of June. He promised to veto any new sanctions, because they would destroy the international coalition negotiating with Tehran and ruin chances for a peaceful settlement. All options are on the table, the President said, but America will go to war only as a last resort. Nothing new in that either, though I believe he would while many of my colleagues think not.

Trolling on, the President did cybersecurity, Ebola, Asia-Pacific, climate change and values (as in democracy and human rights), stopping briefly at Gitmo and electronic surveillance along the way. Nothing new here either, just more of that steady, persistent resolve.

Notable absences (but correct me if I missed something):  any mention of the Israel/Palestine “peace process,” Egypt, Saudi Arabia (or the Gulf), India (where the President will visit starting Sunday), Latin America (other than Cuba), North Korea.

What does it all add up to? It is a foreign policy of bits and pieces, with themes of retrenchment, reduced reliance on US military power (but little sign of increased diplomatic potency), prevention of new threats and support for American values woven in. The President continues to resist pronouncing a doctrine of his own but wants to be seen as a moderate well within the broad parameters of American internationalism. He is wishing to get bipartisan action from Congress on a few things:  trade promotion authority, the authorization to use force, dismantling the Cuba embargo, closing Guantanamo. But none of this is new ground.

He is also prepared to forge ahead on his own. As I’ve noted before, this lame duck knows how to fly.

In case you didn’t watch it last night and have more patience than I do, here is the whole thing:

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Producing more enemies than you can kill

No doubt one of the few international issues President Obama will highlight in tonight’s State of the Union speech is the threat of international terrorists associated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. He will cite the American military response in Iraq and Syria as vital to our national interests and claim we are making progress, at least in Iraq.

He is unlikely to acknowledge that the problem is spreading and getting worse. In Libya, there are two parliaments and two governments, one of which has ample extremist backing. In Yemen, rebels have laid siege to the government the Washington relies on for cooperation against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram is wrecking havoc. In Syria, moderates have lost territory and extremists have gained. Taliban violence is up in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Fourteen years ago when the World Trade Center was attacked in New York City Al Qaeda amounted to a few hundred militants hiding out mainly in Afghanistan, with small clandestine cells in Europe and the US. Now estimates of the number of extremists change so rapidly it is hard to know which to cite, but there are surely more than 100 times as many actively engaged in extremist Islamist campaigns or recruitment efforts in close to a dozen countries, including (in addition to the ones cited above) Somalia, Egypt, Niger, Mali, Algeria, Palestine and Tunisia. Counting the numbers of sympathizers in Europe, Russia and the United States is just impossible.

The long war against Islamist extremism is not going well. It can’t, because we are fighting what amounts to an insurgency against the existing state system principally with military means. Drones and air strikes are killing lots of militants, and I am even prepared to believe that the collateral damage to innocents is minimized, whatever that means. But extremist recruitment is more than keeping up with extremist losses. We are making more enemies than we are killing. Insurgencies thrive on that.

The Obama administration is apparently prepared to make things worse, as it now leans towards supporting UN and Russian peace initiatives in Syria that are premised on allowing Bashar al Asad to stay in power. The Islamic State will welcome that, as it will push relative moderates in their direction and weaken the prospects for a democratic transition. Bashar has shown no inclination to fight ISIS and will continue to focus his regime’s efforts against democracy advocates.

President Obama knows what it takes to shrink extremist appeal: states that protect their populations with rule of law and govern inclusively and transparently. This is the opposite of what Bashar al Asad, and his father, have done. But President Obama has no confidence the US or anyone in the international community can build such states in a matter of months or even years. So he does what comes naturally to those whose strongest available means is military power:  he uses it to achieve short-term objectives, knowing that its use is counter-productive in the longer term.

But producing more enemies than you can kill is not a strategy that works forever. The Union is recovering from a devastating economic crisis and can now afford to take a fresh look at its foreign policy priorities. I’ll be with the President when he calls tonight for completion of the big new trade and investment agreement with Europe (TTIP) and its counterpart in the Pacific (TTP). These are good things that can find support on both sides of the aisle, among Democrats and Republicans.

I’ll groan when he calls for a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) but says little or nothing about building the kind of states in the Greater Middle East that are needed to immunize the region against extremism. Support for restoration of autocracy in Egypt and for Gulf monarchies is not a policy that will counter extremism. We are guaranteeing that things are going to get worse before they get better.

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Martin Luther the King

That’s what my nephew answered when I asked the name of his grade school:  Martin Luther the King. It strikes me as consistent with the hagiography of our time. MLK is treated in much of today’s America, especially on today’s holiday, like a latter day Moses:  he led us out of the oppression of segregation to a promised land of equal opportunity that he was not allowed to enter.

This narrative distorts two realities. We are still far from the promised land of his dreams. And MLK was no saint. Come to think of it:  neither was Moses, who killed an Egyptian to stop him from whipping a Jew and broke the original tablets containing the Ten Commandments in anger.

Our record on equality is far from perfect. The statistical evidence for inequality in outcomes (assets, income, health, jobs, education) is dramatic.  So too is the psychological evidence of input bias. We are not talking ancient history here. We are talking today, in post-segregation America, where our housing, schools and churches remain more segregated than most of us like to admit. I’d be the last to deny that lots of things have changed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act made discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin illegal and the 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to end voting discrimination. But we are still a society in which police kill too many black men with impunity and blacks fail to show up in force at the polls.

Nor was MLK perfect. That is one of the messages of Selma, a film noted in recent weeks more for its lack of Academy Award nomination than for those it received. The film conforms to the classic American narrative:  good triumphs over evil, but it still offers a nuanced and equivocal portrait of MLK. Hesitant and uncertain in private with his wife, his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he is forceful in public and in defying President Johnson. This is no absolute monarch but rather a man who tries to stay in touch with his supporters, listens to his advisers (even if he also overrules them) and suffers from guilt about his sexual exploits as well as the deaths of his supporters.

Today, all American politicians present themselves as supporters of Martin Luther the King. Selma illustrates how that is a snare and a delusion. The real MLK was interested not only in equal rights and opportunity, but also in empowering black people politically and economically. He would be dissatisfied today not only with the bias that affects blacks but also with the skewed economic and social outcomes that tarnish the American dream. MLK’s assassination stopped the movement he led in its tracks. Ralph Abernathy tried to continue the struggle for economic betterment through the Poor People’s Campaign, but he was no MLK and failed to arouse the passion required. Bottom line:  we are stuck halfway with supposedly equal opportunity but continuing bias in behavior and sharply contrasting outcomes.

We can and should do better. I suppose beatifying Martin Luther the King may help us, because it makes us seek a more just and equal society. But we need to be clear:  the movement he led was rooted in American ideals, but it sought to change American reality. That is happening too slowly for my taste. MLK wouldn’t be pleased either.

So here, via @adamserwer and @jonquilynhill:


Tags : ,

Iran’s generational divide

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Yesterday’s talk at the Woodrown Wilson Center on Iranian domestic politics by Nicola Pedde, director of the Institute for Global Studies in Rome, provided much needed insight into the generational change  in Iranian politics and its implications for Iran’s relations with the West. The shift from a political class deriving from Iran’s theocratic apparatus to a younger generation of political figures emerging from the institutions of the revolutionary structures themselves is radically changing Iran’s engagement with the West, which is at the same time becoming more open and more confrontational. In light of these changes, Pedde argued that our perceptions of Iranian politics need to be heavily revised. Particularly, the idea of the Islamic Republic as a monolithic entity must be dispelled, and engagement must be sought with all elements of the regime – including those emerging forces that are more skeptical of Western intentions. Unless the West adapts to and engages with the new Iran, the future of any Western-Iranian agreement will be at risk.

A full event write-up can be found on the Woodrow Wilson Center’s webpage.

Tags : , ,