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.

 

Tags : , , , , , ,

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

Tags : , ,

Unraveling

My Council on Foreign Relations report on preventing the unraveling of the Balkan peace agreements was published yesterday. It speaks for itself, except in one respect. The report recommends that the US appoint a special envoy to do some heavy diplomatic lifting in the Balkans, including normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, enabling Macedonia to enter NATO, and Bosnian constitutional and electoral reform, as well as blocking Russian trouble-making.

On reflection, there might be a better solution, but I thought of it too late to get it into the report: delegation of responsibility for all these things to the Vice President, who has already informally taken the lead on Balkans policy with a trip to Montenegro. Vice President Biden had such a formal delegation, but so far as I know not the explicit responsibility for the particular issues I cite. Empowering Vice President Pence to seek these goals would ensure high-level political attention, which is what they all need. None of the current problems in the Balkans are insoluble, provided the US and EU are prepared to use their leverage in a coordinated and forceful way.

What if there is no special envoy appointed and the vice president is not formally delegated responsibility? Should we give up hope? No. the things I have suggested can be handled, as they have been in recent years, by a Deputy Assistant Secretary and his staff, but he will need access to higher levels of the US government. That has been lacking, especially during the transition from President Obama to President Trump. It is high time that connection was strengthened. People in the Balkans need to know that the top levels of the US government are backing the person–no matter what her or his title–who seeks to complete the regional peace processes, which were all negotiated with strong backing at high levels.

Visits are one way to demonstrate that high-level backing, but they require real progress on real issues. People in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia are all asking for visits from the President, Vice President, as well as the Secretaries of Defense and State. What they have not always done is to make the kind of progress that got Montenegro a visit from the vice president after its accession to NATO. Political and economic reform are their own reward, but they will also attract positive attention from others and prevent the unraveling of peace agreements that have brought enormous benefits to a region once in turmoil.

 

Tags : , , ,

The US and Turkey at loggerheads

Last Thursday, the SETA Foundation in Washington hosted Richard Outzen of the US Department of State, Mark Kimmitt of MTK Defense Consultants, Kilic B. Kanat of the SETA Foundation, as well as moderator  Kadir Ustun of the Foundation to discuss the future of US-Turkey relations. The discussion gave an overview of the history of relations between the two countries, examined contemporary challenges, and proposed solutions. The discussion was timely, because of the recent “mini diplomatic crisis” that began in October, when the US halted the issuance of nonimmigrant visas to Turkish citizens, and Turkey reciprocated. Despite the gravity of this development, which was caused by the detention of US consular officers in Turkey as part of coup investigations, Ustun maintained that there are other, more serious points of contention.

The history of US-Turkey relations is replete with both long-standing tension and cooperation. Outzen outlined three main events as points of conflict: the presence of US troops in Turkey in the 1990s, the distrust that emerged because of Turkey’s Cyprus operation in the 70s, and the ensuing US embargo on Turkey. Kanat described the history of US-Turkey relations as a “roller coaster” distinguished by a vague dynamic. Kimmit shed light on positive developments in relations between Turkey and the US, citing their cooperation in Bosnia and Iraq, the existence of a US base in Turkey, and agreement on the Kurdish referendum.

Outzen and Kanat also described current causes of conflict. First is the “complex of issues” linked to the Turkish coup and Turkish political and religious figure Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, accused by the Turkish government of having organized the coup attempt of 2013, has been living in the United States and has been the subject of an extradition request by the Turkish government. The US government’s “failure to extradite Gulen,” Outzen explained, has been seen as unworthy of an ally. Outzen acknowledged that the US believes the coup to have been violent and unjustified, but that Washington also had concerns about blatant rights violations in the process of punishing those deemed responsible.

The PKK issue was also another point of tension. Outzen described the two sides, saying that Turkey interpreted the US integration of PKK fighters into the Syrian Democratic Forces as a show of support for the PKK and, by extension, undermining of Turkish power. The United States, on the other hand, sees the SDF as admirable, particularly in light of its contributions to the fight against ISIS. Kanat emphasized the significant distrust that the apparent US support for the PKK has caused, saying the PKK issue “unites Turks.”

There are nevertheless possibilities to strengthen the US-Turkey relationship. Outzen stated that an increased understanding of the other country’s national interests and values should be fostered on both sides, and that “economy to economy cooperation” should be developed and given more importance than military cooperation, for which a framework which already exists.  Kimmit emphasized that the current challenges to the relations between the US and Turkey are not “structural and long-term” but rather temporary and solvable. He highlighted the importance of Turkish trust of the United States, which he found to be lacking, as well as improved public relations on both sides. Kanat called on the United States to be more transparent with Turkey on its positions and plans, mentioning specifically the lack of a clearly communicated policy on Syria, which, if shared, could foster understanding and create possible areas of cooperation.

Tags : , , , , ,

My strange name

The Russian Ambassador to Serbia, in an interview with Sputnik News, notes that my family name, Serwer, is “strange.”

Indeed it is. Though a name in Kurdistan and Pakistan (it means the leader or the man in front, I am told), my “Serwer” was likely invented at immigration, as all my immediate relatives and their descendants in the US bear that name except for those few who later changed it to “Server.” Apart from Kurds and Pakistanis, I know of no Serwers in the US to whom I am not related.

The name before immigration was Servianski. My ancestors were Jews, as I am, once upon a time from Russia. They left there sometime in the 19th century for the Russian partition of Poland, where they lived near Lake Servi, whence the name. Now a resort spot for middle class Poles near the northeastern town of Sejny, Lake Servi must have hosted a Jewish shtetl once upon a time. Fully half the population of Sejny was Jewish at one point, and there is still a synagogue building there, but no Jewish community. Russian czars, World War I, Stalin, Hitler, and World War II took care of that.

We don’t know whether my antecedents were political refugees or economic migrants, but the family was not unique: many Jews left unwelcoming Russia and Poland in the nineteenth century, then moved on to the United States in the 1890s. Mine arrived not at Ellis Island, which only opened in 1892, but shortly before that at Castle Garden, the facility at the Battery where immigrants were processed earlier.

A colleague has suggested to me that the Russian ambassador’s remark was a thinly veiled anti-Semitic one. I suppose that might be right. But I don’t really care: my views on the Balkans and Russia are shaped mainly by my commitment to liberal democracy and its virtues, not least of which is correct treatment of Jews and other minorities. That virtue holds today, despite the current fashion for ethnic nationalism in both the US and Russia, not to mention the Balkans and other places. I was pleased to see that yesterday’s elections in the US (especially Virginia, New Jersey, and New York) amounted to a massive repudiation of Trumpism and, by implication, Putinism.

Russia’s and Poland’s loss of Jews like my family was America’s gain. The Balkans would do well to remember that when hearing Moscow’s attacks on Americans, Jewish or not. We are the people Russia and other countries drove out, cast off, and enslaved, to their lasting detriment. I am proud of my strange name, which is preferable to one derived from a pretty lake in Russian-occupied Poland that my grandparents fled.

Tags : ,

Peace picks November 6 – 10

  1. Democratic Deterioration at Home and Abroad | Monday, November 6 | 12:15 – 2:00 pm | New America | Register Here | For the past several decades, our working assumption has been that once firmly established, liberal democracy represents the best and final answer to authoritarianism and the surest guarantor of liberty and equality. Today, however, that assumption is being seriously challenged. Where liberal democracy has taken root, we now see it in retreat in attacks on the press, the judiciary, and on voting rights – the essence of democratic organization. As the United States contends with these challenges, arguably for the first time, what can we learn from other countries that have experienced similar democratic downturns? What were the warning signs and could this deterioration have been stemmed? Are the combination of legal constraints and non-legal norms that undergird our constitutional system enough to keep our democracy on solid footing? What safeguards are currently in place to prevent further deterioration of our democratic values and institutions, and what additional precautions should we consider? In other words, how worried should we be? Join New America, The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School for a discussion about the future of democracy at home and abroad. Speakers include Sheri Berman of Columbia University, Aziz Huq of The University of Chicago Law School, Norman J. Ornstein of The Atlantic and The American Enterprise Institute, and Arturo Valenzuela of Georgetown University. Amanda Taub of The New York Times will moderate.
  2. How Do You Solve a Problem Like North Korea? | Monday, November 6 | 9:00 am – 12:00 pm | Cato Institute | Register Here | What are the implications of North Korea’s recent gains in nuclear and missile capabilities for the future of U.S. strategy toward North Korea? What is the state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies? What are the prospects of diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang? Should the United States pursue a different strategy toward North Korea in light of Pyongyang’s improving nuclear capabilities, perhaps including revising its alliance with South Korea? The Cato Institute will host two panels and a keynote address by former governor Bill Richardson to examine these critical questions. The first panel, titled “ Pyongyang’s Capabilities and US Policy,” will include Joshua Pollack of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Suzanne DiMaggio of New America, and Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares Fund, and will be moderated by Eric Gomez of the Cato Institute. The second panel, “New Approaches to Solving the North Korea Problem,” will feature Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institution, Rajan Menon of the City College of New York, and Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute. John Glaser of the Cato Institute will moderate.
  3. Re-energizing Nuclear Security | Tuesday, November 7 | 5:00 – 6:30 pm | Stimson Center | Register Here | The nuclear industry is experiencing many dynamic changes. Economic challenges are forcing premature reactor shutdowns in some countries such as the US, while Russia and China are making lucrative deals in energy-starved developing countries. A general expansion in all aspects of nuclear development, such as next-gen reactor technologies, is clouded by an evolving security landscape including emerging cyber vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, nuclear security is out of the spotlight since the end of the Nuclear Security Summit series. What is the future of nuclear development and how can industry, civil society, and international organizations facilitate the outstanding Security Summit commitments? The event will feature Leslie Ireland of the Stimson Center, Maria G. Korsnick of the Nuclear Energy Institute, John Barrett of the Canadian Nuclear Association, and Frank Saunders of Bruce Power. The Stimson Center’s Debra Decker will moderate.  
  4. Iraqi Vice President Al-Nujaifi on His Nation’s Post-ISIS Future | Tuesday, November 7 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Osama al-Nujaifi is one of Iraq’s three vice presidents. Hailing from Mosul, a city recaptured this year from the ISIS extremist group, he is secretary general of the United for Iraq Party, and the leader of the Sunni political coalition Muttahidoon. Vice President al-Nujaifi’s address at USIP will be his only public appearance during his visit to Washington.As one of Iraq’s most prominent leaders and a former speaker of Parliament, Vice President al-Nujaifi has been a key player in Iraqi politics for more than a decade. With Iraq’s leaders confronting the fallout from the Kurdistan region’s independence referendum and the Iraqi army’s retaking of key oil fields from the Kurds, questions about governance after ISIS and the quickly approaching provincial and national elections in 2018 take on even more urgency. Vice President al-Nujaifi will discuss the future of Iraq’s democracy and the federalist system adopted after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ambassador Bill Taylor of the USIP will moderate the discussion. 
  5. After the Referendum: What Path Forward for Iraq’s Kurds? | Tuesday, November 7 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The September 25 referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan brought a chilling reaction from Iraq’s central government. Baghdad disputed the legitimacy of the process, but especially rejected Erbil’s claim on Kirkuk and other disputed territories implied by staging the vote there. Following days of military action that resulted in deaths and the retaking of Kirkuk by Iraqi national forces, the KRG has proposed to freeze the referendum results and seeks negotiations about the contentious issues. The United States, which opposed the referendum despite its reliance on Kurdish fighters combating ISIS, must now address the deepened rift between Erbil and Baghdad. To consider the path out of this crisis, the Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host Shaswar Abdulwahid (New Generation Movement), Peter Shea (U.S. Department of State), and Amberin Zaman (Al-Monitor). MEI’s director for Turkish Studies, Gonul Tol, will moderate the discussion on how Baghdad and Erbil can move forward with each other and with the United States, Turkey, and Iran, and on how U.S. policy can effectively manage the dynamics between the players.
  6. The Civilian Elements of the New U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan | Wednesday, November 8 | 3:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Despite an overwhelming response to the United States’ new military strategy for Afghanistan announced by President Trump in August 2017, the non-military components of the strategy have received scant attention. As part of its ambitious reform and self-reliance agenda, the Afghan government has made considerable progress towards improving the capacity of civilian management, leadership, human resources, as well as in addressing formal corruption. But challenges remain. Please join the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center for a panel discussion of the civilian elements of the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, including the reform process, internal politics, economics, and how the Afghan government plans to deliver on its pledges. Panelists include Ahmad Nader Nadery, the Chairman of Civil Service Commission of Afghanistan, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, and Ambassador James B. Cunningham of the Atlantic Council. Javid Ahmad of the Atlantic Council will moderate.
  7. A Strategy for a Brighter Future in Libya: Redefining America’s Role | Wednesday, November 8 | 2:30 – 3:50 pm | American Enterprise Institute | Register Here | Recent terrorist attacks in Berlin and Manchester trace back to Libya, where ISIS relocated operatives from Syria and Iraq. Libya’s ongoing civil war, coupled with weak governance and law enforcement, creates the perfect crucible for ISIS and al Qaeda to extend their operations. How can these groups in Libya be defeated? What can be done to stabilize the country and address humanitarian concerns? Is American leadership essential to combating this threat? Please join AEI for the release of “A Strategy for Success in Libya” by Emily Estelle and a panel discussion on a US strategy to rebuild Libya. Panelists include Emily Estelle of AEI and Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council. Katherine Zimmerman of AEI will moderate.
  8. Turkey, Europe, and the U.S.: New Challenges and Changing Dynamics | Thursday, November 9 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | As a Muslim-majority country pursuing EU membership, closer cooperation with trans-Atlantic partners, and a domestic agenda based on securing individual freedoms and strengthening the rule of law, Turkey was deemed a model partner and economic success story. Today, Turkey projects a different image—rolling back democracy, rule of law, individual freedoms, and the separation of powers. The EU accession process, trans-Atlantic commitments, and shared values are in jeopardy. Yet, this is not an isolated incident—it follows an international trend that has seen the emergence of “strongmen leaders,” whose illiberal actions and rhetoric are punctuated by populism and anti-globalism. The EU and the United States are not exempt from elements of this trend. The global economic crisis, terrorism, and migration are closely interrelated with these tendencies. This state of affairs is starkly different from what was envisioned at the end of the Cold War. So, what happened?  Can this common challenge be addressed? On November 9, the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) will host a panel discussion on this recent drift toward authoritarianism, populism, and religious nationalism, and what the West can do to reverse this trend. Kemal Kirişci, Brookings TÜSİAD senior fellow, will moderate the discussion featuring Brookings scholars Amanda Sloat and Alina Polyakova, and Hakan Yılmaz, professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Brookings Vice President for Foreign Policy Bruce Jones and TÜSİAD CEO Bahadır Kaleağası will offer introductory remarks.
Tags : , , , , , , ,
Tweet