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Pushback isn’t working

A colleague yesterday told me not to worry about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) overreaching in his effort to push back against Iran. The Saudis, he said, will talk a good line but not really do anything. They are too lazy.

That is little comfort and not accurate. MbS has launched a now more than two-year war in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthis, a diplomatic offensive against Qatar that aims (among other things) to break its good rapport with Iran, and the purported resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, whom the Saudis think too tolerant of Iran’s Hizbollah proxies. The United States appears to have greenlighted all these moves, the first under President Obama and the second and third under President Trump.

The net effect so far is not good. Iran, through Hizbollah, will own Lebanon, whether Hariri returns there or not. Qatar is weathering the Saudi blockade with the aid of the Turks and Iranians. Doha is arguably closer to Tehran now than it was before the Saudi initiative, though it continues to host a major US air base. The stalemated Yemen war has precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis throughout the country. MbS’s Washington-encouraged pushback against Iran is not working well.

Oddly, the one place neither the Washington nor Riyadh has pushed backed against Tehran is Syria. The US has assiduously tried to avoid conflict there with Syrian government forces, the Russians, and Iranian proxies, firing on them only when they appear to be getting ready to attack US or US-supported forces. Riyadh has organized, and is getting ready to re-organize, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, but the Kingdom’s military support to the opposition is fading, along with that of the Americans. Even Russian promises to keep Hizbollah far from the border with Israel appear to be evaporating.

The sad fact is that Saudi Arabia is a weak reed for the US to lean on. The Kingdom has purchased an astounding quantity of US and other weapons but has little capability to use them effectively. Financially strapped due to lowered oil prices, MbS is rushing to conduct long-overdue domestic reforms under the rubric Vision 2030, as well as an anti-corruption campaign that has the added virtue of eliminating some of his rivals. Even if thoroughly and assiduously implemented, the main positive effects of these domestic initiatives are a decade or more in the future.

Besides, reform plans in Saudi Arabia have a long history of getting stuck in the desert sand. Trying to do too many things at once will guarantee that some of them suffer that fate. And attacking Iran in peripheral places like Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen may cause suffering to their populations but is unlikely to cause the Islamic Republic much heartburn. Tehran could suffer setbacks in all three without minding all that much. It is Syria that really matters to Iran, which is why it has sent its best there: the Quds Force and Hizbollah. Confronting them in Syria would be a lot more meaningful than the sum of all the Saudi initiatives elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Iranians are also escalating. Despite Tehran’s denial, Bahrain claims Iran was behind a gas pipeline bombing last week, the Iranians backed Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s successful offensive against Kurdistan, and they are pushing their proxies to establish the much-coveted “land bridge” from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. If the Trump Administration has a regional strategy to push back against Iran, it is not working. MbS has overreached, to no good effect.

 

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Outrageous and incredibly stupid

Here’s an interview I did Thursday for Alexander Gupta of UATV (Ukrainian government English-language service). 

I didn’t know yet that President Trump had played down his personal concern about Ukraine in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, saying that “American critics” cared about it. The Russians will have read this as approving their invasion of Crimea and thinly veiled occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk, not to mention their shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane. It is difficult to imagine what I might have said about this, but here I’ll just say it is outrageous and incredibly stupid.  

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The difference between Jews

I spent an hour today with two really smart guys: Dov Waxman of Northeastern University and Ilan Peleg of Lafayette College. The occasion was a Middle East Institute event we hosted at SAIS on Dov’s newly published book, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel. I can’t review it, because I haven’t read it yet, but the two professors certainly gave me a good deal to think about.

I confess I was uncomfortable with the book’s title. I don’t regard myself as a member of a tribe but rather as an individual who has chosen to be what my parents were: Jews and Americans. Many years ago a co-worker referred to the Jewish owner of the factory we worked in as my Landsmann. That grates to this day. Of course I share with at least some Jews many things: history, culture, beliefs, norms, and support for the state of Israel. But I also share those things with many non-Jews. And I differ from many Jews on some of those things. I am not indifferent to the religious connection, just not willing to prioritize it over everything else and assume a familial tie to someone I had never met.

This turned out to be one of Dov’s main points: many American Jews, especially the millennial generation (of which I am definitively not a member), feel the way I do. We prioritize liberal values rather than ethnic connections. In so doing, we are increasingly at odds with an Israel that has returned to its 19th century roots as a Jewish national movement, especially but not only under Benyamin Netanyahu’s leadership. We want to see Palestinians treated in accordance with liberal values as equals endowed with inalienable rights. Bernie Sanders expressed this view last night in the debate with Hillary Clinton.

So why, I asked, do so many American politicians, like Clinton, support Israel so unconditionally? Even Barack Obama has been assiduous, more so than his predecessors, in protecting Israel from undesired UN Security Council resolutions. Part of the answer is that they get vital support and money from doing so. I’m not going to be able to match Sheldon Adelson as a political donor, but in addition I wouldn’t prioritize Israel as my top issue. He will. Passion counts and most of it is on the side of those who want unconditional support for Israel as the Jewish state. They don’t much care about how Palestinians are treated.

They even deny that they exist, saying they are really just Jordanians. If anyone argues that with you, tell them to talk with a Jordanian and ask what Jews who lived in the Holy Land were called before Israeli independence in the 1948. The answer will shock: they were called Palestinians, albeit Jewish rather than Arab ones. The term “Arab Jew” then applied to the many Jews whose native language was Arabic. Today many use the Hebrew term: Mizrahi Jews, which includes Jews from other than Arab countries.

More important is that Christians, in particular evangelicals, have lined up solidly in more or less unconditional support of Israel. Bernie of course doesn’t have to worry about them, because they will never support him. He is much more interested in that millennial generation, including the young New York Jews he wants to vote for him on Tuesday. So he grabbed the third rail of American politics with both hands and seems to have survived the immediate shock, though I won’t be surprised if Clinton beats him in New York on Tuesday.

Apart from the domestic political issues arising from the palpable split in the American Jewish community, there are potentially serious foreign policy issues. Ilan pointed to the split between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the Iranian nuclear deal and Dov mentioned Israeli opposition to the American role in the fall of Egyptian President Mubarak in 2011. On the Iranian nuclear deal, it seems to me the split is already partly healed: Netanyahu has become a cheerleader for strict implementation, since that is manifestly in Israel’s interest.

But the healing is only partial, because the President is inclined to allow at least a partial return of Iran to something more like its traditional role in the region (in exchange for postponement of its nuclear ambitions) while Netanyahu is increasingly aligned with the Sunni Arab states in actively resisting that. He has also begun to imitate some of their less liberal practices in cracking down on Israeli civil society and making life hard for those who speak out against excessive use of force against Palestinians. That really offends my liberal sensibilities.

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Inclusive governance matters

Lebanon’s Assafir newspaper asked a few questions the other day. I answered:

Q: How do you explain the continuous US delay for the Mosul battle ?

A: I would find it easier to explain the Iraqi Government’s setting of unrealistic deadlines, which it does in an effort to prevent political criticism. The Americans are not in a hurry, because they know this will be a big and difficult job fraught with risk. They want it done right.

Q: Many see that Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria are interrelated battles. Why? And what do you think?

A: These are the two centers of gravity of the Islamic State. It can’t afford to lose either one, and if it does it will retreat to the other.

Q: How do you explain that the US is leading the military effort in western Iraq, and the Russians are doing the same in the preparation in eastern Syria?

A: I’m not really sure that is correct. US and Coalition aircraft and US-backed ground forces have been very active in eastern Syria. So far as I know, Russian intervention there is limited to relatively few bombing runs. Moscow’s main effort has been against moderate rebel forces in the west.

Q: How do you see the contradictions in the US war on terrorism when it comes to Syria and Iraq?

A: In Iraq the US is backing a government it thinks sincerely committed to fighting terrorism. In Syria, Washington is backing rebels it thinks are sincerely committed to fighting terrorism. I wouldn’t describe that as a contradiction.

The biggest issue in my mind is how territories taken back from the Islamic State will be governed. I think Haider al Abadi will try to govern in an inclusive way. I doubt Bashar al Assad will.

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Over the low bar

I could easily cheer the climate change agreement reached yesterday in Paris: it is the first to gain universal adherence, it starts the process of limiting greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, it makes a big down payment on helping poorer countries join the process, it sends a strong signal to finance and industry about future directions, it is a big win for President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, and it arguably initiates a process that will ratchet up restraints on emissions for decades to come.

But the sad fact is that the agreement does not do what many scientists think necessary to avoid catastrophic outcomes: limit future increases in global temperatures to 2 degrees centigrade or less. So yes, the agreement may be a turning point, and it is certainly a remarkable example of global governance aiming to meet the challenge of a long-term problem. It may even avoid the worst of the impacts global warming might have caused. But it won’t prevent island countries from being inundated and even submerged, or ferocious storms from ravaging many parts of the world. Nor will it prevent the United States and other countries with long coastlines from needing to spend fortunes to protect property and infrastructure, if they don’t want to lose to both to rising sea levels.

This is one of those triumphs that needs to be seen in perspective. Both what it achieves and what it fails to achieve are significant. But no agreement would have been far worse. Failure would have poisoned the subject for another decade or more, as politicians would have hesitated to revive it once more from its deathbed.

So the bar may be low, but getting over it is better than not getting over it. In foreign policy, that is cause enough for celebration.

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Peace picks, October 5-9

  1. Toward a “Reaganov” Russia: Assessing trends in Russian national security policy after Putin | Monday, October 5th | 10:00 – 11:30 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | During their recent speeches before the United Nations General Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama traded strong words on issues from Ukraine to arms control to Syria. The exchange between the two presidents unfolded as questions about Russia’s long-term foreign policy ambitions and grand strategy return to the forefront of policy debate. To better understand what lies ahead in Russian foreign and security policy, analysts must explore variances between Russian strategic culture and the agenda put forward by President Putin. Disentangling these differences will be crucial for U.S. policy planning of the future. Brookings Senior Fellow Clifford Gaddy joins Michael O’Hanlon, author of “The Future of Land Warfare,” to discuss their research on the issue, focusing on five possible paradigms for the future of Russian grand strategy. Former ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, presently the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at Brookings, will also participate in the panel.
  2. United States and China: Trends in Military Competition | Monday, October 5th | 12:00 – 1:00 | RAND Corporation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Over the past two decades, China has poured resources into upgrading its military. This modernization, coupled with China’s increasingly assertive position in the waters surrounding the mainland, has caused concern in Washington and capitals across Asia. Recently, a team of RAND researchers led by Eric Heginbotham released The U.S.-China Military Scorecard report. This study is the broadest and most rigorous assessment to date of relative U.S. and Chinese military capabilities based entirely on unclassified sources. Join us to discuss the evolution of Chinese military capabilities in specific domains (air and missile, maritime, space, cyber, and nuclear) and the overall trend in the regional military balance over time; how Chinese relative gains could affect the strategic decision-making of Chinese leaders; steps the United States can take to limit the impact of a growing Chinese military on deterrence and other U.S. strategic interests. Eric Heginbotham is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation specializing in East Asian security issues.
  3. Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East | Tuesday, October 6th | 10:00 – 11:30 | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Join The Center for Transatlantic Relations in a discussion on nuclear Middle East. This discussion with feature Yair Evron, professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Tel-Aviv University and senior research associate for the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel-Aviv. Additionally, Ambassador Robert E. Hunter, senior fellow for Center for Transatlantic Relations will participate in the discussion.
  4. The Pivotal Moment: How the Iran Deal Frames America’s Foreign Policy Choices | Tuesday, October 6th | 12:00 – 1:00 | The Heritage Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | At the core of the debate over the Iran deal are two distinct visions of what American foreign policy should be. In contrast to the politicized efforts to frame foreign affairs as a choice between isolationism, regime change, or some nebulous choice in between, the controversy over the efficacy of the Vienna Agreement represents the real difference between the alternatives being offered to the American people. This discussion aims to frame the distinctions between progressive and conservative foreign policy and the choice they represent for the nation as it considers what kind of statecraft to expect from the next administration. Speakers include: Colin Dueck, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute, and  Kim Holmes, Distinguished fellow, The Heritage Foundation.
  5. Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators | Tuesday, October 6th | 1:00 | Institute of World Politics | REGISTER TO ATTEND |Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be the child of a Stalin or Hitler, a Mao or Castro, or Pol Pot? National Review’s Jay Nordlinger asked himself this. The result is Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators, an astonishing survey of the progeny of 20 dictators. Some were loyalists who admired their father. Some actually succeed as dictator. A few were critics, even defectors. What they have in common, Nordlinger shows, is the prison house of tainted privilege and the legacy of dubious deference.
  6. India and Pakistan: From Talks to Crisis and Back Again | Wednesday, October 8th | 8:30 – 10:00 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The last few months have witnessed nascent efforts to restart high-level bilateral talks between Delhi and Islamabad dashed again by political maneuvering in both capitals. In addition, there has been an uptick in violence along the Line of Control in Kashmir and muscular signaling from both sides. Why has the latest effort between India and Pakistan to talk about the myriad issues between them fallen apart? What can we discern about the approach of Indian Prime Minister Modi toward Pakistan? How do civil-military politics in Pakistan inform its approach toward India? Are the two states doomed to a perpetual state of ‘not war, not peace,’ or is there hope for a way forward? Huma Yusuf , Wilson Center, and Aparna Pande, Hudson Institute, will discuss. Carnegie’s George Perkovich will moderate.
  7. What can Myanmar’s Elections tell us about Political Transitions? | Wednesday, October 7th | 9:30- 11:00 | Advancing Democratic Elections and Political Transitions consortium | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Elections are critical junctures in many transitions, providing clarity on whether a political transition is advancing or retreating – and Myanmar’s November 8, 2015 parliamentary elections promise to be such a watershed moment for the country’s potential democratic transition. Speakers Include: John Brandon, Senior Director at The Asia Foundation, Jennifer Whatley, Division Vice President, Civil Society & Governance at World Learning, Robert Herman, Vice President for Regional Programs at Freedom House, Jonathan Stonestreet, Associate Director of the Democracy Program at The Carter Center, Eric Bjornlund, President of Democracy International.
  8. A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine for a New Era | Thursday, October 8th | 10:00 – 11:30 | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Saudi Arabia has in recent years consolidated its place as the preeminent Arab leader, regional stabilizer, and critical bulwark against terrorism and a nuclear Iran. The Kingdom’s growing security responsibilities require rapid and substantial military investments. Prince Sultan bin Khaled Al Faisal and Nawaf Obaid, visiting fellow and associate lecturer at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, will outline a comprehensive Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine for a new era and explain why the Kingdom is likely to double down on defense and national security capabilities in the next decade.
  9. The EU Migration Crisis | Thursday, October 8th | 2:30 – 4:00 |Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND |Dean Vali Nasr and The Human Security Iniative of the Foreign Policy Insitute Invite you to a panel discussion on The EU Migration Crisis. Speakers include: Michel Gabaudan, president, Refugees International, Reka Szemerkeny, Ambassador, Hungary, Peter Wittig, Ambassador, Germany.
  10. Democracy Rebooted: The Future of Technology in Elections | Friday, October 9th | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As technology plays an increasingly dominant part of our lives, its role in elections has come under scrutiny. We are at a crucial moment to review the policies that influence elections and the technology we use to execute them. Why can we call a car, book a hotel, and pay bills on our phones, yet elections are often still implemented with pen and paper? Legitimacy, access, credibility, and trust are the issues that will require policymakers and technologists to carefully script the implementation of technology in our elections.  Speakers include: Governor Jon Huntsman, Chairman Atlantic Council, Secretary Madeline Albright, David Rothkopf, CEO and Editor-in-Chief FP Group, Pat Merloe, Director, Electoral Programs, National Democratic Institute, Mark Malloch Brown, Former Deputy Secretary General, UN, Matthew Masterson, Commissioner, Electoral Assistance Commission, Tadjoudine Ali-Diabacte, Deputy Director, Electoral Assistance Division, UNDPA, Justice Jose Antonio Dias Toffolio, President, Supreme Electoral Court, Brazil, Manish Tewari, Former Minister of Information, India.
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