No seal of approval

I’ve taken some flak for meeting with former Macedonian Prime Minister Gruevski on his visit to Washington last week. Here is a sample:

I would like to ask you something, please don’t give a chance together anymore to politicians like Gruevski to seat with you. They will again and again misuse you for their purpose. And if you go and read some newspapers this night you will find he already did it. Milosevic had done it so many times using meetings with west politicians on TV to show the people that ‘he is in line with the western politicians’ and that he was the one they like to speak with….You who have been our hope that it can be better future for our people back home. At least please do not do that ahead of so significant elections that may happen in Macedonia. Just figure out how many people will read what you wrote and how many people will see the picture of you and Gruevski on how many TV all under the cup of the corrupted government.Yet it is up to us aways not to you to bring him down, out of power. I admit I may ask to much from you.

You do ask too much, but let me explain why.

I am a university professor, no longer a government official. When a foreign politician comes to the US and asks to talk with me, I rarely say “no.” Mine is a society based on the free exchange of ideas. I treasure that exchange, even with people with whom I disagree or criticize. Meeting with me is no endorsement. It is only an acknowledgement that you exist and have something to say that I might want to hear. I even happily provide opportunities for people I disagree with to speak at SAIS, where they will be intelligently and politely challenged on all fronts.

Of course I know that in their home countries some of these politicians will try to exploit a meeting with me or other American academics to burnish their reputations at home, even claiming at times that I have given a good democracy seal of approval. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am blunt and forthright in telling politicians what I think. I also try to publish material that informs the inquiring public what my attitude on the main issues is, while maintaining the confidentiality of the actual conversations, which is only polite.

I may of course make mistakes. If I am smart enough to realize what they are, I try to publish something that corrects them. I am confident that these corrections are read by the politicians in question, even if no one else pays them mind.

Let there be no doubt about my attitude towards other politicians, from Macedonia or elsewhere. They are welcome at SAIS, so long as the US government will give them visas to visit. Opposition leader Zaev, whom I don’t know, or parliamentary leader Sekerinska, whom I do know, would be just as welcome as Gruevski and his colleagues. I don’t play favorites, even if I might have them.

My personal preference will always be for politicians seriously committed to democracy and rule of law. That includes free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, transparent, accountable, and inclusionary governance. But I am only too well aware that few will meet that standard in every respect. Talking to them about how they can move in the right direction is for me an obligation, not a seal of approval.

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I spent the long Columbus Day weekend in West Philadelphia hunting US citizens not yet registered to vote and campaigning for Clinton/Kaine and the downballot Democrats. I bagged none of the former and had only a little trouble selling the latter. One woman said the campaign was such a mess so she wouldn’t think of voting. She repeated that refrain with every attempt I made to get past it. A man of 45 or so said it was a big decision given the state of the country and the world. My suggestion that Clinton was far better than Trump for both made no headway with him. My best guess: he was a military retiree, judging from his upright bearing. Why military people support Trump, who has been brutal in his criticism of both leadership and troops, is beyond me.

Other than that, I found a lot of mostly black people unhesitating in their support for Clinton. Many were elderly. It is surprising how many require oxygen or are otherwise severely disabled. Some were Muslim. There is often a sign on the door announcing that fact and asking that people remove their shoes to come indoors. I also found a lot of empty homes, especially Sunday afternoon, when many people were presumably at church. Or just didn’t want to answer an unknown door knocker. Functioning doorbells are few and far between. We left a bit of campaign literature most places, and stickers announcing that the deadline for voter registration in Pennsylvania is Tuesday.

The mundanity of the door knocking was a sharp contrast to last night’s debate, which we tuned into only towards the end after enjoying a really good dinner with a former college professor at Talula’s Garden, one of Philadelphia’s finer. Too many words have already been spent for me to add anything new about Trump, but let me just confirm that the man knows nothing about what is going on in Syria and has more in common with the world’s petty dictators than he has claim to lead the free world. Besides, an avowed sexual assault perpetrator blaming her husband’s infidelity on Hillary Clinton is a strange strategy for winning women’s votes.

Trump still has a 20% chance of winning the election, according to 538’s “polls plus” forecast. But as the Trump sex tape and last night’s debate debacle sink in I imagine he’ll go lower, before the race tightens again as election day approaches. A big issue for Republicans now is whether to cut themselves loose from Trump’s sinking anchor, in a desperate effort to save their House and Senate majorities as well as the dignity of their party, or stick with him until he hits rock bottom. Speaker Ryan has chosen the former. I’ve heard people argue that the Rs shouldn’t abandon the angry white working class men who are his core constituents. But if they don’t, demographic change will make it virtually impossible for them to win the White House for a long time to come.

My candidate may be doing well, but this is a cheerless election. Trump is fighting with low blows, including Russian intelligence leaks of Clinton-related emails, fulfilling one of his foolishly expressed day dreams. Now Trump is even imitating Putin by promising to jail his opponent. He is desperate and will stop at nothing. But he also has a significant portion of the electorate backing him. It was never going to be easy to elect the first female president. Doing it right after the first black president is doubly difficult.

The best antidote for Trump’s poison is a decisive victory for Clinton, which I would define as more than 300 electoral votes. That would not erase the memory of Donald Trump’s ugly campaign, but it would send a clear message to future candidates that they can’t win with misogyny and racism.

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Peace picks, October 10-14

  1. Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum: Fragile States and Conflict Prevention Challenges | Tuesday, October 11th | 9.30am – 11am | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | click HERE to register

Approximately 1 billion individuals live in “fragile and conflict-affected countries” across the world. A fragile state is considered one in which a lack of governmental capacity leaves citizens vulnerable to a range of shocks, amongst which violence prevails. With a lack of funding for conflict prevention in fragile states, these countries are left without recourse. It is important to examine the lifesaving role conflict prevention can provide these countries as they move towards sustaining long term peace and social cohesion.

Join us on October 11th for an in depth discussion with two leading experts:

Nancy Lindborg, President, United States Institute of Peace

Ozong Agborsangaya-Fiteu, Senior Operations Officer, World Bank FCV

The discussion will be moderated by:

Daniel Serwer, Director of the Conflict Management Program, SAIS.

The experts will discuss their work in fragility, conflict and violence and provide recommendations for promoting peace in the most fragile segments of the world.

  1. The Current State of US-Russian Relations with Ambassador Kislyak | Tuesday, October 11th | 4.30pm – 6pm | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | click HERE to register

Dean Vali Nasr, The Foreign Policy Institute and the SAIS Russia-Eurasia Club cordially invite you to join Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the US, for a discussion on “The Current State of US-Russian Relations.” The conversation will be moderated by Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute.

Ambassador Kislyak currently serves as the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States, and previously as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2003 to 2008. Prior to that, he served simultaneously as the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Kingdom of Belgium and as the Permanent Representative of Russia to NATO in Brussels, Belgium, from 1998-2003.

  1. US Foreign Policy on Transitional Justice | Tuesday, October 11th | 5pm – 6.30pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | click HERE to register

The Human Rights Initiative invites you to attend a Book Launch and Conversation: U.S. Foreign Policy on Transitional Justice

Please join the Human Rights Initiative for the launch of U.S. Foreign Policy on Transitional Justice, (Oxford University Press, 2015) by Dr. Annie Bird. Featuring Keynote Speaker Stephen Rapp, Former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, U.S. Department of State, and author Dr. Annie Bird

  1. RAND Study: ‘Money as a Weapon’ Works in Afghanistan | Thursday, October 13th | 10am – 11.30am | US Institute of Peace | click HERE to register

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are raising new debate on their complex mixing of military operations and relief and development work. This includes CERP, which U.S. forces in Afghanistan have called “money as a weapon system.” Last year the U.S. government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction raised questions about the accounting for $2.2 billion in CERP funds. RAND experts Charles Ries and Daniel Egel have completed a study on the impacts of CERP projects in Afghan localities. Their research finds that CERP projects improved local economic conditions and security for Afghans, helped build U.S. forces’ rapport with local residents, and eventually led to reduced hostilities. The authors will discuss their forthcoming RAND report, “Investing in the Fight: Assessing the Commander’s Emergency Response Program in Afghanistan.”

Scott Worden – Director of Afghanistan, U.S. Institute of Peace

Ambassador Charles Ries – Vice President, International at RAND

Daniel Egel – Economist, RAND

Stephen Lennon – Director, USAID Office of Transition Initiatives

  1. The Middle East and the Next Administration | Thursday, October 13th | 1pm – 3.30pm | Middle East Policy Council | click HERE to register

Please join us for our 86th Capitol Hill Conference on Thursday, October 13th from 1:00 p.m to 3:30 p.m. Our panel will offer diverse perspectives on the challenges for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and opportunities for the next administration.


Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

Chairman, Projects International Inc.

Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense

Former President, MEPC

James Zogby

President, Arab American Institute

Member, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why it Matters

Ilan Goldenberg

Senior Fellow & Director, Middle East Security Program, Center for a New American Security

Former Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Former Iran Team Chief, Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy

Former Special Advisor on the Middle East, Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy

  1. State-Building and Economic Development in Palestine Without a Political Horizon: The Promise and Pitfalls | Thursday, October 13th | 2pm – 3.15pm | New America Foundation | click HERE to register

The possibility of relaunching meaningful peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians is remote given the political realities in both countries. The challenges facing states across the Middle East—civil conflict, refugee flows, and the threat posed by terrorism—have dominated the policymaking space to the exclusion of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The priority seems now to have become one focused on preventing violent extremism from taking root in Palestine, shoring up the Palestinian institutions of government and supporting economic development and opportunity for Palestinians until the environment is ripe for a comprehensive agreement.

On October 13, New America will host an expert panel from Al Shabaka—The Palestinian Policy Network—that will explore the promise and pitfalls of development and “economic peace” in the absence of a political horizon in the occupied Palestinian territory. The panelists argue that a focus on economic development should complement rather than be seen as a substitute for progress on the political front. They also examine efforts to nurture the Palestinian social, political, and cultural fabric as the occupation enters its 50th year.


Zaha Hassan, Esq. – Middle East Fellow, New America


Nur Arafeh – Jerusalem-Based Al-Shabaka Policy Fellow

Tareq Baconi – DC-Based Al-Shabaka Policy Fellow

Nadia Hijab – London-Based Al-Shabaka Executive Director


  1. A New Strategy for US-Iran Relations | Friday, October 14th | 12pm | Atlantic Council | click HERE to register

Atlantic Council Strategy Paper Series – A New Strategy for US-Iran Relations

A conversation with:

Ellen Laipson – Distinguished Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council

Michael Connell – Director, Iranian Studies Program, Center for Naval Analyses

Amir Handjani – Fellow, Truman National Security Project

The implications of the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran for the regional order could include prolonged instability and insecurity, but also new opportunities. Dynamic and innovative thinking on how regional and international stakeholders can help tackle present and future challenges and work toward a more secure and stable Middle East is very much needed. A New Strategy for US-Iran Relations, written by Ms. Ellen Laipson, Atlantic Council distinguished fellow and president emeritus of the Stimson Center, constitutes an important addition to this larger conversation. Dr. Michael Connell, director of the Iranian Studies Program and the Center for Naval Analyses, and Mr. Amir Handjani, board director at the Atlantic Council and Truman National Security Project fellow, will join Laipson for a discussion of this latest installment in the Atlantic Council Strategy Paper series.

The paper features a foreword by former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and proposes a US policy towards Iran that carefully balances effective deterrence and containment measures with more proactive engagement, with the goals of reducing the prospects for military confrontation with Iran and improving the regional security environment. Laipson’s strategy rests on several policy themes: expanding diplomatic engagement, sustaining security cooperation, improving mutual understanding, clarifying economic and financial opportunities, and protecting the nonproliferation success. Notably, this is not a plan for navigating the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but rather is a forward-looking strategy document for the next decade.

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Private investment for public infrastructure

Deea Ariana, who graduated with a master’s from SAIS last spring, writes: 

One of the inevitable costs of conflict is the damage to critical infrastructure that provides basic services to people and stimulates economic growth. Yet infrastructure procurement in post-conflict contexts is often slow and unable to cope with rising demand. Raffi Mardirosian argued that in the aftermath of conflict, an environment fraught with financial and political risks and weak legal structures hinders the construction and operation of infrastructure projects.

Conflict-affected states lack capital, technology, and skilled management that are essential to constructing new infrastructure. Consider Syria: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) states that rebuilding damaged physical infrastructure will be a “monumental task,”with cost estimates in the range of $100-$200 billion. That is nearly three times the country’s GDP back in 2010, before the conflict erupted.

The ongoing war continues to take a heavy toll on civilians and infrastructure. As Merriam Mashatt, Daniel Long, and James Crum note:

In conflict-sensitive environments, the condition of infrastructure is often a barometer of whether a society will slip further into violence or make a peaceful transition out of the conflict cycle. The rapid restoration of essential services, such as water, sanitation, and electricity, assists in the perception of a return to normalcy and contributes to the peace process.

Increasing access to infrastructure service delivery amid fiscal and capacity constraints calls for an alternative to the traditional public provision of infrastructure.

The idea of private investment in infrastructure has gained currency in recent years, leading to creation of public-private partnerships, or PPPs. These are a way for governments to implement infrastructure and services by utilizing the expertise of the private sector. Both parties share significant risks and management responsibilities.

Gonzalo Araya and Jordan Schwartz explain that private participation in infrastructure in countries emerging from conflict typically requires six to seven years to attract significant levels of investment from the day that the conflict is officially resolved. Usually the first infrastructure investments to arrive in conflict-affected countries are in sectors where financial risk is relatively low, which is mostly in telecommunications, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Private investments in sectors where assets are harder to secure, such as water, power, or roads, are slower to appear or simply never occur.

There are several challenges to infrastructure reconstruction in conflict-sensitive environments that need to be addressed. P. B. Anand delves into these, explaining that weak governance entails corruption and flawed regulatory oversight, insecurity, and fragmented legal systems that discourage foreign investments. The government of a conflict-affected country must mitigate these challenges to nurture a favorable investment climate and encourage private investment in PPPs.

Donor support can also go a long way. As Andre Jones writes, PPP transactions are likely to rely on donor support in the form of capital subsidies, guarantees, or other mechanisms to facilitate private investment. An often-cited example is that of the restoration of Liberia’s power sector following the civil war in 2003. With support from the Norwegian government, the Liberia Electricity Cooperation (LEC) handed over its management to a Canadian power company, which boosted results. LEC began rebuilding electrical distribution in Monrovia, which led to more people having access to electricity and a significant increase in revenue. Losses were curtailed, peak load more than doubled, and fuel efficiency improved.

While public infrastructure projects accrue a net benefit to society as a whole, they nonetheless result in winners and losers. It is necessary to ensure that services also reach those people who are otherwise socially excluded. This guarantees that the society does not risk relapsing into another fresh bout of conflict by fighting over scarce resources.

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Filling my gaps

A number of readers have pointed out gaps in the piece I published yesterday on Macedonia. So here are my feeble attempts to fill the lacunae.

Yes, Martin Naunov (who commented on yesterday’s post), judicial accountability is also important. I should have mentioned the special prosecutor and the need to support her fully. But beyond that I don’t usually comment on judicial matters. People should be presumed innocent and tried in court, not in public opinion, no matter who they are or what positions they hold or may have held in the past. Elections should be no shield from judicial accountability. The special prosecutor last month indicted more than a dozen people, but their names are not yet known. They will have to defend themselves in court.

One Twitter critic denounced me for ignoring the Albanians in Macedonia, who he said have suffered from former Prime Minister Gruevski’s Macedonian nationalism. But my piece focused on what I perceive to be the major issues that most concern Washington, not those of most concern to Albanians and Macedonians. Ethnic tension would concern Washington. The wire tapping scandal and its ramifications have not however on the whole generated ethnic tension but rather ethnic cooperation in protests (and to some degree protection from them). Another critic suggested that I should have focused negative attention on Ali Ahmeti, who leads the Albanian political party that was in Gruevski’s coalition. I don’t see how that would have helped me to explain what is of most concern to Washington.

Another critic questioned why Macedonia should want to become a member of NATO, since it is already surrounded by NATO members. That’s not literally true, since neither Kosovo nor Serbia is a NATO member, but it is also irrelevant, as Macedonia really faces no threat from a neighboring state. It has faced serious threats from Albanian extremists, in part exported from Kosovo, but well below the threshold for triggering NATO obligations.

Macedonian citizens give many varied reasons for wanting NATO membership. Some think it is an elite, democratic club that represents an important way station on the path to the European Union. Others believe that the military reforms Skopje has undertaken and the performance of its troops in Afghanistan merit recognition through NATO membership. Albanians in Macedonia tell me they regard NATO membership as an important guarantee of the country’s multiethnic democracy and maintenance of its constitutional protection.

It is all of those things, and more. But for the US, the key is this: Macedonian army soldiers have fought integrated with the Vermont National Guard in Afghanistan. That’s enough for me to think that the Alliance would gain something from Macedonian membership. If its citizens also think there is something to be gained, let’s make a deal.

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What I’m thinking about Macedonia

With former Prime Minister Gruevski in DC and I gather a photo published of the dinner a few colleagues and I had with him last night, I’m finding people interested in my views on Macedonia. For what they are worth, here they are.

Gruevski came to power in 2006 as an economic reformer and has a very good record in that department. Macedonia has dramatically improved its business climate, generating small and medium enterprise and attracting foreign investment. Only the European recession has clouded the picture. I’ll leave it to Gruevski’s minions to provide the facts and figures.

He has two problems in Washington:

1) a wire tapping scandal that has revealed what reasonable people believe to be wide-ranging abuse of power during his last mandate as prime minister;

2) his failure to make significant progress with Greece in resolving the “name” issue (Athens objects to the name Macedonia, claiming it should be exclusively Greek).

Gruevski has a long way to go to convince people here that the abuses of power we’ve seen revealed in the last couple of years are finished and that a new era of transparency and accountability is starting. That will have to begin with an impeccable election in December, one that provides both Macedonian citizens and the internationals who count (that’s the US and EU) with an outcome that is widely recognized as legitimate.

Transparency and accountability will require big changes in the way the Macedonian government operates and in its relationship to the press. In a way, that has already started: the local media covered the wire tapping scandal in detail and at length. Future Macedonian governments need to learn to live with the kind of sharp and constant criticism that characterizes democratic societies. They will also need to operate far more cleanly than in the past.

On the “name” issue, some in Washington still think a compromise solution can be found. They urge Skopje and Athens to come up with something that Washington, Berlin and Brussels will find worthy enough to push as part of a broader package of reviving Balkans ambitions to become part of Europe.

My own view is skeptical of that approach. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in that basket. It is certainly difficult for Gruevski to compromise because his political constituency may not accept it, which could lead to a defeat of the necessary referendum. It is difficult for Athens to compromise because it is already feeling humiliated. Berlin and Brussels don’t really want to ask Athens to do anything more than meet the requirements of its various financial bail outs. In weakness there is strength.

Linking Macedonia’s problems with Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s risks compounding the difficulty and making a solution less likely. Nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed, which may be never.

The alternative is NATO membership as The FYROM (The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the term used in the United Nations). Both an interim agreement and an International Court of Justice decision weigh in favor of that ugly solution. But it requires getting the issue back up to the President of the United States (in the next administration, not this one). That is extraordinarily difficult. President Bush tried hard at the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008 to force a solution. The Greeks balked. He failed. Who in the US government wants to tell a new president to put her prestige on the line for something that has a good probability of failure? You can forget about the issue completely if Trump is elected.

Macedonians detest the appellation “The FYROM,” but most tell me they are willing to swallow it, sometimes adding that it also needs to lead to EU membership. That in my view is a bridge too far. Greece will insist on a real solution before Skopje accedes to the EU. I don’t think there is any way out of that vise, in which Athens has a great deal of leverage.

Even getting NATO membership as “The FYROM” will require a significant reduction in Greece’s resistance. The next Macedonian prime minister needs to think about what he can do to reduce the impression among Greeks that calling Macedonia Macedonia threatens their identity. I don’t know what that is, though I can think of a lot of options. How to find out which one the Greeks will value? Ask them, in private, what they would appreciate.

The notion that Macedonia’s problems merit high priority in a Washington consumed with an election campaign, the war against the Islamic State, the roguish challenge from Russia, the economic and military rise of China and dozens of other issues is not convincing. Macedonians need to look for a solution they and the Greeks can bring to Washington for a blessing, without much heavy lifting from the Americans. I hope they do that, early in Hillary Clinton’s presidency.

PS: So here is what I get in response to this post:


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