Category: Daniel Serwer

Something or nothing

Two of my favorite commentators on the Middle East differ diametrically about the impact on the Palestinians of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel motivated by common enmity towards Iran. Hussein Ibish says the Saudi moves are unavoidable and will inevitably benefit the Palestinians, one way or another. Ibrahim Fraihat says the Saudi moves will end the Arab boycott of Israel and hurt the Palestinian national cause. Both agree the Saudis will have to get something for the Palestinians to make it possible to proceed in improving relations with Israel, but beyond that they differ. Who is right?

Ibrahim thinks the necessary something will be tactical–prisoner releases, financial assistance, and possibly a settlement freeze outside the larger settlement blocks–while Israel will gain the strategic objective of normalizing relations with Arab countries. Ibrahim also thinks the Saudi moves will make reconciliation of Palestine’s two major factions–Fatah and Hamas–more complicated and difficult.

Hussein thinks that something will be better than nothing, which is what the Palestinians have been getting for years. He also assumes the Israeli gains will be limited to things like civil aviation cooperation, not the broader gains Ibrahim assumes. Besides, the Palestinians have little choice but to play along with whatever President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, comes up with.

Who is right depends on what the Americans are cooking. Ibrahim is right that the “outside/in” approach they are apparently pursuing fragments the Arab peace initiative the Saudis have advocated for more than 15 years. Instead of one big bang solution, Palestinian statehood in exchange for normalization, the process would be broken into smaller, reciprocal steps leading inevitably to the same end. Hussein views this as an advantage, not a disadvantage. After all, the Arab peace plan has gone no place for a long time. Motion in the right direction, if sustained, leads inevitably to the right goal.

I’m not sure the Americans are cooking much, at least for the immediate future. The initial steps could in fact be very small and reversible, which is perhaps more important. The key to sustaining them is something we’ll see little of in public, though it was glimpsed last week in an interview with an Israeli general published in the Kingdom: security cooperation. If Saudi Arabia and Israel find mutual advantage in sharing intelligence about their common adversary, it could lead to broader security cooperation.

That however is where and when advantages to the Palestinians might evaporate. The Israelis will aim for the kind of security relationship they have with Egypt and Jordan: one in which the Arab countries gain so much to benefit their own security that they will hesitate to do anything their benefactor opposes, including support for a Palestine worthy of being called a state.

Palestine will need far more internal cohesion and fortitude than it has today to resist the pressures that could descend on it in the future. The Palestinians have been fortunate that the Israelis have been cool to the Arab peace initiative. That has meant Ramallah did not need to worry much about what kind of state the Israelis would accept. But a fragmented version of the initiative–Hussein says that version is called “concurrence” in the trade–presents greater need for foresight, good judgment, and coherence. Ibrahim could be right in the end, even if Hussein is right for now.

 

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Alabama is an important sideshow

Judging from the headlines, the Republican party is sharply split between its establishment led by Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and its insurgents led by Steve Bannon or maybe Donald Trump. Currently dividing them are the accusations of sexual harassment against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the US Senate in a special (out of cycle) election December 12. Trump, himself a self-confessed sexual harasser, is silent, but Bannon is supporting Moore and claiming the accusations are false. McConnell says he believes “the women” and wants Moore to drop his candidacy.

But nationally Republicans are more unified than the headlines would suggest. In the House, they have approved a dramatic decrease in taxes on business and the rich. The Senate version of the bill differs, but only by degrees. The overall impact would be in the same direction. Republicans in both houses as well as the White House are desperate to pass something. Only defection of a few senators might stop them. If the tax bill passes, Moore’s vow to remove McConnell as Senate Majority Leader is unlikely to succeed, at least not until the new Congress is sworn in January 2019. If the tax bill fails, McConnell will be in trouble whether or not Moore is in the Senate.

The Alabama contest is thus a side-show, but still important from the Democratic perspective. It could help decide the Senate majority. Alabama is a solidly Republican state these days, because of white votes. Blacks vote heavily for Democrats and represent 25% of the population, which is not enough at normal turnouts to defeat a racist would-be evangelical like Roy Moore. Moore can no longer be replaced on the ballot for next month’s election, so if it comes off as scheduled McConnell’s only hope is a write-in candidacy, likely of the more conventional candidate Moore defeated in the Republican primary. That would put two Republican candidates in the race, splitting the white vote between them and enhancing the Democrats’ odds.

McConnell’s other option is to convince the governor to postpone the election, giving the Republicans time to dump Moore and come up with another candidate. I think that still likely, but the governor is reluctant to do it, not least because the election has already been postponed once. Moore and his supporters, who are strong among Alabama whites, will want it to go ahead as scheduled. Postponement won’t improve his chances.

The Democratic candidate is Doug Jones. His biggest claim to fame is the successful prosecutions in 2001 and 2002 of Ku Klux Klan members for the murder of four black girls in Birmingham in 1963. His campaign for the Senate has focused on jobs, health, and education, pretty much ignoring the sexual harassment accusations against his opponent. Jones is running better than a Democrat would normally in Alabama these days, but polling there is sketchy.

Roy Moore could win, tarnishing the Republican brand nationally, bringing a die-hard and controversial Republican opponent of McConnell into the Senate, and thereby easing the Democrats’ path to a Senate majority next year. Or he could lose, also easing the Democrats’ path to a Senate majority. No wonder the national democratic leadership is trying to stand aside and let this sideshow play out. They would gain nothing from getting more involved.

Alabama’s black voters can help decide this contest, provided they turn out in record numbers for a candidate who has been a vigorous advocate of civil rights, not to mention his other issues and his opponent’s sexual misbehavior. Some whites may be tempted to sit this one out: do you really want to vote for a guy who was barred from a shopping mall in his thirties because he was harassing teenage girls? If the election goes ahead as scheduled, black voters have a chance to send an important message in the deep South: we count.

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Questions about unraveling

A few questions have come up about my report for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on preventing The Unraveling of the Balkans Peace AgreementsI’ll try to answer some of them here.

Q: Was the report requested by the Congress or the Administration?

A: No, though it has been briefed to both.

The report originated in a call to me last spring from CFR prevention director Paul Stares, a former colleague at the United States Institute of Peace. I had done two previous reports for Paul, both on Libya, but he was of course aware of my interest in the Balkans and had noticed the increasing alarm about the Balkans in the US and European media.

Q: Why did you write about changing borders in the Balkans? Doesn’t doing so give that idea legitimacy/credibility?

A: CFR rightly requires that its authors treat a full range of options to deal with the potential contingency in question. Changing borders has been widely discussed in the Balkans, Europe, and the US. I felt I had to deal with the idea.

I did so by looking at it from the perspective of US interests and values. It failed on both counts. It would require both heavy diplomatic and military commitments from the US, EU and Russia that are not available. It would also boost President Putin’s misbehavior in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, not to mention undermine the US position on Kurdistan’s independence referendum. It would also vitiate liberal democratic values, which are based on equal rights regardless of ethnicity, not trying to herd people on to the “right” side of a border.

Q: The report suggests a special envoy for the Balkans in order to reassert US leadership on some key issues. Secretary of State Tillerson is not keen on special envoys. Isn’t there another way?

A: Yes. I mention in the report that the current institutional setup could be used, a deputy assistant secretary, provided she or he has good connectivity with upper levels of the US government. Another option, one I wish I had included, would be delegation of authority for the Balkans to Vice President Pence, who has already begun to take the lead there. A formal delegation with key objectives outlined would likely be a better solution than a special envoy, but I’m told it is also unlikely.

Q: What has been the reaction to the report?

A: Positive from those who agree with me. Others don’t communicate as much, but instead use my mention of border changes to suggest falsely that is my preferred option. Let me say again: I see no way to change borders that is feasible with the resources available and oppose the idea in principle as well as in practice. Democracy and rule of law are the answer, not ethnic tribalism.

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Putin’s pet president

He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times….Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that…And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.
Why would anyone, never mind the President of the United States, doubt that the Russians meddled in the US election, after ample evidence has become public that they purchased on-line ads and collected and published emails embarrassing to the Democrats?
One explanation is obvious: Trump is concerned that talk of Russian meddling will delegitimize his election, which rests on the shaky foundation of an electoral college victory and a smashing popular vote loss. Nothing bothers this president more than personal slight. His narcissism is his most evident personal characteristic. He can’t admit the obvious, if it reflects badly on himself.
But there is another Trump vice: his passion for money. Trump’s real estate empire is tottering. It depends heavily on Russian money from dubious sources. Putin no doubt controls many of Trump’s Russian investors. Were Moscow to signal, even quietly, that it no longer wanted Russian money flowing to Trump or Kushner real estate, the results would be devastating. To me, this is a much more compelling explanation of Trump’s Russophilia than his concern about legitimacy.
The consequences of Trump’s subservience to Putin include allowing Moscow free rein in Syria, not doing much to push back in Ukraine, and begging for Putin’s help on North Korea. Putin is enjoying his clout: Russian military action in Syria is constrained only by the presence of US troops in the northeast, Russian-supported insurgents in Ukraine remain in control of an important slice of the country, and Putin has made common cause with China on North Korea by asking for the US to suspend its military exercises with South Korea and Japan. I might even think that last idea is a good one if it brings a suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, but so far the Pentagon has prevailed and prevented Trump from giving in.
Trump seems determined to pursue his ill-conceived rapprochement with Putin no matter what. Fortunately there are Republicans in Congress who don’t like that idea and are prepared to make it difficult. The Administration is dragging its feet on implementing sanctions the Congress passed overwhelmingly, but apart from Dana Rohrabacher and a few other members the Russians haven’t yet penetrated deep into the House and very little in the Senate. Influence in the Congress is expensive, compared to Facebook. At $55 dollar per barrel oil, the Russian government doesn’t have deep pockets, even if Putin’s friends are enjoying the luxuries of Trump real estate.
Trump is Putin’s pet president. I can’t wait to see what new tricks he teaches The Donald. This “I believe” one is getting old.
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The Saudi auto-coup

Thirty-two year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has taken on a lot:

  • Domestic political and economic reforms, including partial privatization of Aramco, allowing women to drive, and shifting the economy away from oil and gas;
  • The war in Yemen against the Houthi takeover of part of the country, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and with sometimes reluctant support from the US;
  • A major diplomatic spat with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorists;
  • Removal of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri to protest Iran’s influence there;
  • Arrest of rival princes for corruption.

What could go wrong?

Each of these moves may have virtues. Certainly Saudi Arabia needs reforms to get it into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. The Houthis overreached and merit comeuppance. Qatar’s financial empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood has caused problems for Bahrain, Egypt and Syria. Iran-sponsored Hizbollah is an armed non-state actor within a state that merits opposition. Corruption is endemic in the Kingdom and needs countering.

But each also poses problems. The “Saudi Vision 2030” reforms that MbS has proposed are far-reaching, but implementation is likely to be problematic and lag. The war in Yemen is causing massive civilian suffering and political division. It will be difficult if not impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The blockade against Qatar has drive Doha in the direction of Ankara and Tehran, rather than bringing it back into the Gulf orbit. Hariri was a weak reed, but now there is none. Lebanese are united in wanting his return, which the State Department also supports. Countering corruption only among your political opponents is not a good way to clean up a system.

One other, less visible but important, initiative is the Saudi rapprochement with Israel, which shares the Kingdom’s hostility towards Iran. How far can this go? What are its implications for the geopolitics of the region?

But most of all: doing all these things at once, without ample consultation even within the royal family, is far from the Kingdom’s cautious tradition. A 32-year-old Crown Prince undertaking it amounts to an auto-coup: a takeover by someone already in power.

Some will argue that is the only way to get things done. The parallel to President Trump’s efforts to upset the apple cart in the US is obvious. It is no surprise that the White House (in the person of Jared Kushner) apparently encouraged the arrest of the royal opponents, and maybe even the resignation of Hariri, making the State Department statement against it moot. But how is Trump’s radical program working out in the US? The repudiation Trump suffered Tuesday in America’s equivalent of by elections was massive, even if concentrated in blue states (one-purple Virginia, New Jersey, and New York).

Of course there will be no voting in Saudi Arabia to test MbS’s initiatives. The consequences are likely to be less visible, at least initially, and possibly less peaceful, eventually. MbS has taken big risks for big gains. Pay day, if it happens, is still a long way off.

 

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Everyone needs more realism

Donika Krasniqi of Gazeta Express asked some questions; I responded:

Q: US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee said during a roundtable, which you attended as well, that the West should be more direct with the corrupt Balkan leaders by not inviting them to Washington and Brussels.

How serious do you think his remarks are and is this a new policy of the US State Department with immediate effect or it is merely an opinion expressed in a discussion panel?

A: He sounded serious to me. And I suspect that some otherwise difficult-to-explain moves, like Dodik’s cancellation of dates for referenda, might be related.

Q: How do you see the demarcation issue between Kosovo and Montenegro now that Ramush Haradinaj is in office? We saw that as soon as he took office he set up a new committee to measure the demarcation line, as the pressure from Brussels and Washington to adopt the deal continues to mount on Kosovo officials.

A: This is an issue that Ramush should have abandoned as soon as he took office. Kosovo has little to gain and a great deal to lose if it continues to resist demarcation.

Q: Mr Haradinaj seems to be a leader with his hands tied, so which do you think should be the solution? Is there any advice you would give to Mr Haradinaj?

A: My advice is to get out of this rabbit hole as quickly as possible. Kosovo has far bigger and more important issues to worry about.

Q: Serbian officials have never spared their bellicose statements towards Kosovo. Just recently, head of Serbia’s government office for Kosovo Marco Djuric said that Serbs were ready to fight against Kosovo. Do you believe there could be a new conflict in the Balkans?

A: Mr. Djuric should know better. There will be no fighting for Kosovo so long as the NATO-led forces are there. I hope they will stay until complete normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, including UN membership for Kosovo and exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level. Djuric’s remarks make me wonder whether he is the right guy to be conducting an internal Serbian dialogue on the subject. Serbia needs introspection and realism, not fantasy and threats

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