Where youth has few prospects

The Middle East Institute hosted a conversation Friday, March 3 on the future of Palestinian leadership and the challenges Palestine faces in developing its next generation of leaders. Moderated by Barbara Plett Usher, BBC correspondent, the panel included Omar Shaban, Director at PalThink for Strategic Studies, Yousef Munayyer, MEI Scholar, Gabriel Mitchell, US Representative at The Mitvim Institute, and Sarah Yerkes, nonresident fellow at Brookings.

The panelists discussed the future of Palestine post-Abbas. Shaban saw several challenges to future governance, most notably the age gap between the Palestinian leadership and the population—an average age of 85 as compared to 25. There is no clear way for youth to establish a political party, but the only way to bridge this gap is through elections. The disconnect between the government and the people is not confined to age either. Shaban noted that much of the current Palestinian leadership resides outside the territories and lacks the professionalism to meet the political ambitions of Palestinians.

Palestinian youth frustration largely stems from feeling overlooked in the political dialogue concerning their country and their future. Munayyer asserted that calling the issue the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” gives the illusion of false symmetry, when in reality Palestinians are not represented by a government. Nor do they have institutions to develop political representation for themselves. Without functioning institutions, it is difficult for leadership to gain legitimacy or reach out to the broadest spectrum of stakeholders. This becomes a greater issue hindering peace as public opinion does not capture the full array of Palestinian voices and ignores perspectives from a broad section of Palestinian society. According to Munayyer, part of the problem comes from the international community’s willingness to meet Israel where they are as a nation while shaping a Palestinian partner that suits international purposes and Israeli demands.

Outside actors, especially the United States and Israel, play a big role not only in the regional political context but also in internal Palestinian affairs and the future of government and elections within the territories. Presenting the Israeli viewpoint, Mitchell discussed Palestine’s future from three perspectives—the current government, the security establishment, and the Israeli opposition. The current government endorses a smooth transfer of power after Abbas and wants to influence the process while not appearing to manipulate it. They hope to get the international community involved as intermediaries. The Israeli security establishment hopes to develop a clear path to succession and continue its security cooperation with whoever replaces Abbas. The Israeli opposition does not have a clear idea of who should succeed Abbas and feels frustrated and/or indifferent over the idea of a two-state solution.

Speaking from the perspective of American foreign policy, Yerkes said that while the US is planning for succession because of Abbas’ age, America will pay little attention to Palestinian internal affairs due to its lack of influence or interest in the outcome. What the United States will want in Palestine is a partner for peace that helps combat and condemn incitement, supports economic development, and takes steps towards political reform and democracy. But the Trump administration may well opt for absentee-ism and allow Netanyahu to operate however he chooses.

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Peace Picks March 6- 10

Building the Programs That Can Better Build Peace | Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 | 9:30-11:00 | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here |

On March 7, members of the consortium at USIP will describe their findings, including new tools that can assess and improve the effectiveness of peacebuilding programs. The work of accountability is vital to prove the case for peacebuilding as a strategy—and to sustain support from donors and taxpayers. Several non-government organizations—including Alliance for Peacebuilding, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, Mercy Corps and Search for Common Ground—have formed a Peacebuilding Evaluation Consortium. This group is developing better tools for the design, monitoring and evaluation of programs abroad.

What Both Parties Like: Two-State Solution and Beyond | Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 | 12-1:30 | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here |

President Trump expressed an early interest in making “the ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians, but it remains unclear how the administration plans to engage on this conflict. Polls of Israelis and Palestinians consistently suggest that while support is shrinking for the two-state solution, it remains the preferred outcome. So what are the alternatives, and how politically and logistically feasible are they? The conversation will include Dahlia Scheindlin, who recently proposed a confederal approach as a “Third Way for Israel-Palestine.” She will be joined by Khaled Elgindy, a former advisor on permanent status negotiations to the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership, and by USIP’s Mike Yaffe, formerly the senior advisor to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the Department of State.

Will Washington and Moscow Work Together in the Middle East? | Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 | 12:00-1:30 | Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington | Register Here|

Join AGSIW for a discussion of how the U.S. and Russian Middle East agendas converge and diverge, and how the prospect of a new level of coordination between them is viewed both in Europe and the Gulf.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump advocates greater cooperation with Russia, including in the Middle East. But how compatible are Russian and U.S. regional strategic goals, especially over the long run? Can the new administration simultaneously pursue cooperation with Moscow and confrontation with Tehran, given the close partnership between Russia and Iran? Will Washington identify and exploit differences between Russian and Iranian priorities, particularly in Syria? How can Gulf Arab countries adapt to this complex evolving environment and protect their own interests?

Chasing War: The struggle for journalism in ISIS’ Middle East | Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 | 3:00-4:30 | Elliott School |Register Here|

Shaheen Pasha is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. She previously worked as the Middle East Regional Editor for The Brief, a legal magazine published by Thomson Reuters. Prior to launching the magazine, Pasha was the Islamic finance correspondent at Thomson Reuters, based in Dubai. She has been an assistant professor of journalism at The American University in Cairo, teaching print and online journalism for undergraduate and graduate students, and has worked at CNNMoney.com as a banking and legal reporter, covering the Supreme Court and the Enron trial. Pasha was also a reporter at Dow Jones Newswires, where she had a daily column in the Wall Street Journal and appeared as a regular correspondent on CNBC Asia, covering the ADR market. Pasha will join us at the Elliott School on March 7 to discuss the challenges for those in the journalism and media industries in covering the war in Syria and the ongoing conflict in Iraq. She will give some background on the conflict, bringing in a discussion of the difficulties journalists are facing on the ground, and ISIS’ own media efforts in the form of their magazine, Dabiq. This event aims specifically to engage journalists and other media specialists, but is open to all.

Prospects for Ending the Civil War in Libya | Thursday, March 9th, 2017 | 10:00-11:30 | Atlantic Council | Register Here |

The situation in Libya today, as a result of increasing fragmentation and polarization among actors, is on the verge of a breaking point. So far, the competing authorities in the country – namely the Presidential Council and Government of National Accord established by a United Nations-backed process, and the eastern-based House of Representatives and head of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar – have failed to come to an agreement to end the conflict. In this environment, it is more important than ever to offer perspectives on ways in which the new US administration can help Libya move toward stability. The Rafik Hariri Center will convene a panel of experts to discuss the current situation in Libya and explore ways forward out of the current conflict.

The View From Israel: A Conversation with Reuven Azar, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Israel | Thursday, March 9th, 2017 | 12-1 | Wilson Center | Register Here |

Israel sits in the middle of a volatile Middle East and at a nexus of issues critical to regional stability, security and American national interests. Join the Wilson Center as a veteran Israeli diplomat, Reuven Azar, offers observations on the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the Iran nuclear deal, the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace, Russia’s role in the region and Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors.

The Syrian Crisis: American Interests and Moral Considerations | Friday, March 10th, 2017 | 11:45-1:30 | Hudson Institute | Register Here |

After nearly six years, Syria remains locked in a bloody civil war while Iran and Russia continue to be President Bashar al-Assad’s primary enablers. Assad’s Syria offers Iran an important supply line to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. The war has taken the lives of more than 400,000 Syrians and has displaced more than 9 million, creating a refugee crisis that has been felt around the world.

U.S. response to the Syrian civil war has been inconsistent. President Obama lacked a coherent strategy for dealing with Syria and infamously chose inaction after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. President Trump has made it clear that he intends to refocus U.S. efforts abroad and pursue a foreign policy focused primarily on American interests. He has, along with his Secretaries of State and Defense, signaled a willingness to take a very different approach to Syria.

What are the most pressing U.S. interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war? What moral obligation, if any, does the U.S. have to help the region regain stability and to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people? What options are before the Trump administration, and do those options take into consideration both U.S. security and humanitarian concerns? To address these questions and more, Hudson Institute and Providence Magazine will host a March 10 panel discussion with Marc LiVecche, managing editor of Providence Magazine, and Hudson fellows Michael Doran, Nina Shea, and Rebeccah Heinrichs.

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Tailspin

Yesterday it seemed likely to me that there was some sort of truth behind Donald Trump’s allegation that the Obama Administration had wiretapped people at Trump Tower. I still think that possible, but authoritative denials have been fast and furious. The most important comes former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:

There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, as a candidate, or against his campaign.

When asked if he could confirm or deny a FISA court order existed for Trump Tower, Clapper said:

I can deny it.

This still leaves open the possibility of a wiretap directed against Russian agents, not the Trump Tower or its personnel, that happened to record conversations with people there, but let’s assume that is not the case.

What does it tell us if the allegation is completely false?

Nothing new I’m afraid. The main conclusion to be drawn is that President Trump is unreliable: a liar who finds it impossible to control his penchant for telling untruths, especially those that serve his purposes. This one did. It distracted attention from the important issue of whether there was coordination or cooperation between his campaign and Moscow. He is now insisting that any Congressional investigation of that issue also look into the wiretapping allegation.

I don’t have a problem with that. A definitive answer to all these questions is what any citizen should be looking for. I think it preferable that an independent commission do the investigation rather than a committee of the Congress, even a specially constituted one. But any body that is independent of the executive branch and has access to all the relevant materials will satisfy most of us.

In the meanwhile, we have no choice but to endure a government thoroughly compromised by its leadership’s unreliability. We’ve got a president who lies habitually, an Attorney General who lied to the Senate about contacts with Russian officials and has consistently misrepresented his racist career, a Secretary of State who has said nothing in public for weeks even as world events demand his attention and public posture, a Department of Homeland Security that has repeatedly postponed the president’s revised travel ban partly because its own staff can’t find any way to justify it, several cabinet officials haphazardly trying to dismantle the regulatory apparatus their departments are responsible for implementing, and a Republican majority in Congress that can’t figure out how to get rid of Obamacare. While promising to make America great (again), the Trump Administration is about as close to collapse into incoherence as any I can remember.

Moscow has good reason for delight. American credibility is in sharp decline. The Western democratic model is far less attractive today than even a couple of months ago. Trump’s unreliability is proving even more useful to President Putin than any friendship a more competent Trump Administration might have offered. We are in a tailspin. No telling yet where it will end.

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The Moscow connection

The current furor over the Trump campaign’s links to Moscow is still generating more heat than light. This morning’s news that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court last fall authorized tapping of his phones suggests there is fire as well as smoke. The FISA court would issue a warrant only if the requester demonstrates

probable cause to believe that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power,” that “a significant purpose” of the surveillance is to obtain “foreign intelligence information,” and that appropriate “minimization procedures” are in place.

The original report of the wiretap refers explicitly to FISA authorization.

The vital question is whether there was coordination or cooperation with Russia’s concerted efforts to tilt the election in Trump’s direction. I haven’t seen an answer. Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from any investigation of the Moscow connection is no more than a procedural step in the right direction, one he should have taken even before it was revealed that he lied at his Senate confirmation hearing about contacts with the Russians.

The debate now is over a special prosecutor or an independent commission. I don’t really care which, so long as whoever investigates can collect and see all the intelligence available, without undue influence by the administration. That is no small order: it means independent people with courage, high-level clearances and a year, or more likely two, before we know the results.

That’s a long time to leave people in office who may have collaborated with a foreign power in getting elected. But at the same time it virtually ensures that President Trump will not be able to do anything really harmful with Russia. As Steve Walt tweeted this week, he would have to get a very good deal from President Putin in order to convince even the Republicans in Congress to go along. Presidents Bush and Obama tried hard and failed. Short of giving away Crimea, it is unlikely Putin would make a deal. Republican Senators have already made it clear they won’t put up with that.

Frustrated, Trump is likely to turn his venom on Iran. He won’t tear up the nuclear deal, because even the Israelis have come to believe it is better than no deal at this point, since the Europeans would not agree to reimpose sanctions unless the Iranians violate the agreement. But Trump might well push for more sanctions related to Iran’s missile program or more pushback against its forces and proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain. That however would give Iran good reason to solidify its alliance with Russia, making any attempt at rapprochement with Moscow even more unlikely to succeed.

So Trump’s bromance with Putin is not going to be consummated. Moscow knows and has already toned down its media enthusiasm for its favorite American presidential candidate. Trump is still enamored, but with H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser and James Mattis as Secretary of Defense it will be hard to move the machinery of government into support for a bad deal with Moscow. Rex Tillerson, who might feel differently, is proving a non-entity at the State Department, where he is fighting a rearguard action against giant budget cuts rather than contributing to foreign policy.

The Trump Administration has anyway done little to clarify its distinct foreign policy views other than intensifying drone strikes in Yemen, canning the Trans Pacific Partnership intended to counter increasing Chinese influence in the Asia Pacific, and claiming to have started on design of the wall with Mexico. Mostly Trump has abandoned his previous radical views. He is not moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, nor is he abandoning the NATO Alliance. Even renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is looking dicey, because Mexico and Canada have made it clear they will come to the table with their own demands. Trump has now reaffirmed the One China policy.

The Administration has not however changed its radical view on the European Union, which Trump regards as disadvantageous to the US. He should consult his friends in Moscow on that subject: they are determined to block expansion of EU membership and influence, which Putin views as an instrument that benefits the US. Trump could learn a lot from Putin, if only he would stop liking the guy (and doing his bidding) and start understanding that an autocratic Moscow is not democratic America’s best friend. That would require Trump to identify as a democratic leader, which he doesn’t. That’s the real Moscow connection.

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Will Trump disappoint as much as Obama?

In his Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture February 28, Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm discussed the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East and America’s foreign policy options within the context of the Obama administration’s legacy in the region and the Trump administration’s inheritance.

Gnehm focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath as well as intervention by outside powers in regional power struggles. With hopes dashed and chaos raging across the region, old power centers such as the military and entrenched bureaucracies have reasserted themselves and undone much of the work the revolutions hoped to do. The conflicts erupting in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, have led to increased external intervention and proxy conflict. Notably, Iran and Russia have spread their influence and military clout around the region in pursuit of their own national interests.

The US has remained notable for its absence. Obama’s reluctance to intervene confused and angered many traditional American allies. This led to a widespread view in the Middle East that a gap exists between expectations and US performance. Obama’s hopeful rhetoric in 2009 in Cairo did little to create actionable change in the region. The administration’s failure to follow through on its Syria red line was devastating to American credibility and lost the United States respect in the region. Although the Obama administration’s efforts in combating ISIS and supporting the Syrian opposition were significant, the widespread feeling of disappointment is Trump’s inheritance as he took the reins earlier this year.

Gnehm weighed Trump’s policy options in confronting the regional landscape as it stands and in charting a course for the future. In Syria, Trump could continue the present policy of arming Kurds and rebels, ramp up American military presence, or accept the existing Russian and Iranian influence. Although each option has its consequences, Gnehm felt that directly engaging militarily with ISIS would underscore Trump’s current rhetoric. In Iraq, Trump could continue supporting the Iraqi government to regain control of territory and  continue to provide assistance and training to Iraqi Kurds, or he could increase American involvement.

Iran poses a greater challenge to Trump due to its opportunistic bids for power in the region, which undercut Saudi Arabia and position Tehran as the champion of Islam. With regards to the nuclear deal, Gnehm saw four options Trump could pursue:

  • directly confront Iran and respond with force to force,
  • impose new sanctions,
  • alter the nuclear deal,
  • or continue the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Iran to curtail its aggressive behavior.

How Trump chooses to deal with Iran has implications for America’s regional allies, who remain uncertain about US commitment. The Trump administration may be able to restore good faith among allies in the Gulf, especially in light of his tough line on Iran. However, Gnehm also stressed the humanitarian crisis in the region as people remain displaced, areas destroyed, and societies shattered. Although the administration has not said much about this aspect of the regional landscape, it will remain a significant challenge for policy in the months and years to come.

A little over a month into his presidency, Trump will soon discover that the world he has inherited is a difficult and complicated place with opportunities, risks, and unintended consequences. No course of action Trump chooses to take will be smooth or neatly solve the complex problems and challenges the region faces. Just as Obama raised expectations and collapsed on performance, Trump’s bombastic approach could result in the same outcome.

 

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The bigotry of low expectations

President Trump of course said nothing like what I had suggested yesterday in his speech to Congress last night. The tone was marginally less objectionable than his “grab pussy” speech, but as SAIS colleague Eliot Cohen put it:

POTUS clunky speech seemingly judged a success because he did not sound like an unhinged, belligerent maniac. .

Trump repeated virtually all of his worst domestic campaign promises: repeal Obamacare without specifying what should replace it, counter supposedly rising crime by blocking immigrants who don’t commit more crimes than natural born Americans, build an unneeded wall on parts of the border already difficult to cross, drop government regulations that protect Americans from ineffective or unsafe pharmaceuticals, build pipelines that don’t increase American energy security even though the economics no longer justify it….

The only domestic proposition I agreed with is his $1 trillion for infrastructure, but that’s pretty much what Obama wanted to do too. The Republicans in Congress wouldn’t let him.

The only real adjustments were a pledge of support to NATO (but not the European Union, which is arguably just as important to US interests) and a denunciation of hate crimes, which he should have made weeks ago. China went almost unmentioned, he skipped North Korea’s nuclear weapons and Russian interference in the American election, and forgot about climate change entirely. He offered no indication of how he is going to defeat ISIS.

The moment that struck me as most inappropriate was the exploitation of Ryan Owens’ widow (her husband was killed in a botched raid in Yemen that Trump personally approved), who was present in the gallery. I gather veterans shared my reaction:

But the Congress provided the desired long and loud applause.

The public display of a tearful grieving widow for political purposes grates the wrong way with me, but obviously I’m not with the program. Trump thought McCain wasn’t a hero because he was captured. By what logic does Trump think Owens is a hero because he is dead? Wouldn’t logic suggest that Trump prefers fighting men not only uncaptured but also alive?

The press is celebrating the more moderate tone of the speech, exemplified best in Trump’s refraining from criticizing the media. Some people are easy to please.

Throughout the speech, Trump was glued to his Teleprompter. No doubt within 48 hours he’ll be back to saying the things he really means in the acerbic tones that come naturally to his pouting mouth and short fingers.

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