The places we’d like to forget

Busy morning:  conversations with people who know the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo really well.  What’s the common denominator?  Ethnic strife, which makes everything so much harder.   Each of my interlocutors (that’s people you talk with in diplomatese) has his/her own agenda and views.  Here are my conclusions:

1.  Iraq:

Not going badly.  Much more Sunni ethnic nationalism than in the past, with Sunnis and Kurds getting on better as the Sunnis start thinking about wanting one or more regions of their own.  Maaliki managing to maintain the fragmentation and shifting alliances that keep him in power, even as he continues to gain greater control over the army.  Arrests of Ba’athists and Exxon contract with the Kurds are not causing giant problems:  Iraqiyya is staying in the government and the Exxon move brings pressure on Baghdad to pass the oil law.  Both sides reasonably content with the American withdrawal, looking forward to stronger implementation of the Strategic Framework Agreement that will now govern the bilateral relationship.  Not clear however whether they see implementation of that agreement in the same way.

2.  Afghanistan:

Not going well.  Governance is the main issue.  This is well-recognized among the Americans, who regard the 2014 presidential succession, strengthening of independent institutions, and improvement of national and provincial planning and budgeting as the governance priorities.  But there is not a lot of sign of progress, despite substantial effort.  Governance is difficult.  President Karzai’s way of governing is not one we can ever much like, as it involves behaviors that we regard as corrupt, but creating an alternative requires a degree of commitment and sophistication that the now declining American presence is not likely to display.

3.  Bosnia:

No prospect of forming a “state” government (that’s what they call the central government), ten months after elections.  Meanwhile the Federation half (51%) of Bosnia, led by engineer turned Social Democrat Zlatko Lagumdžija, is competing with Republika Srpska (49%), led by social democrat turned ethnic nationalist Milorad Dodik, for both improved governance and political clout.  RS is thought to be running out of money and is borrowing at high rates.  Federation has recently borrowed at lower rates.  RS is trying hard to negotiate pre-accession funding and other matters directly with the European Commission, which is inclined to accommodate.  The Federation is intervening to prevent this, in order to preserve the prerogatives of the state government and block RS from weakening it further.

4.  Kosovo:

No clear solution has emerged yet to the problems of the north, where Serbia still controls the territory.  There is hope NATO and EULEX will resolve the issue of collection of taxes at the border posts, seized by Pristina last summer, but governance in the north is a bigger problem and can only be solved with Belgrade’s cooperation, which has not been forthcoming.  It is not clear what the Europeans will insist on as the price for a positive decision on EU candidacy, due December 9, even though Merkel was clear enough on the need to eliminate the Serbian “parallel structures.”  Meanwhile Pristina is weighing constitutional amendments, which may provide for popular election of the president (rather than election in parliament).  But then they might have to augment the functions of the president as well.

All in all, not such a bad picture, if you consider the very real difficulties of post-war state building, which is a decades-long process.  Afghanistan is the greatest of the concerns–it is just very difficult to picture how the situation there comes out well enough for U.S. troops to be able to stay on after 2014, an idea Karzai has been trying to sell to this week’s loya jirga. And even more difficult to picture how we would leave Afghanistan if things do not straighten out. 


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The game is changing, but to what?

More than a little difficult to sum up today’s Middle East Institute “game changer” conference in a few words, but here’s a try:

1.  Enthusiasm for Arab spring, with lots of uncertainty about both transition and how it will come out in the end.  It is still the first five minutes.  Economic problems loom.

2.  Tunisia could be a hopeful bellwether:  good electoral process, moderate Islamist victory, clear roadmap.

3.  Libya shaky, with militias the big immediate problem but the constitutional framework provides a clear roadmap ahead, if they can stick with it.

4.  But Egypt is the big prize.  Things there are not going well: security shaky, military holding on, electoral process too complicated, liberals fragmented, Muslim Brotherhood strong, economy weak.

5.  Revolution likely to succeed sooner or later in Syria, but possible high cost (civil war) and high payoff (depriving Iran of an important ally).  Arab League moves do make a difference.

6.  Also like to succeed in Bahrain and Yemen, but cost may also be high there.

7.  Little hope to revive the Israel/Palestine peace process before the U.S. presidential elections, though Dan Kurtzer argued strongly for a bold U.S. initiative to define parameters.

8.  Iran is gaining in Iraq and Afghanistan, but losing in Syria and the Arab world generally, as Turkey and smaller Arab monarchies gain but Saudis do not. 

9.  Israel, facing many uncertainties, hopes for preservation of the status quo but navigates when need be.

10. Lots of change, but overall outcome not yet clear.

These are obviously only my impressionistic highlights.  I’ll be glad if others chime in.

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Happy anniversary!

Today marks the first anniversary of, more or less.  Listen carefully to NPR, where a day sponsorship will mark the occasion!  Here are the stats, as of this morning:

  • Posts:  this is number 562, not counting those I put up as “pages”
  • Visits:  Googleanalytics says 31,304
  • Page views:  59,931
  • Unique visitors:  16,790
  • Countries of origin:  149
  • Visitors from the U.S.:  56%, hence 44% non-U.S. (most from Serbia, Kosovo, Italy, Bosnia, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Sweden, Poland)
  • New visits:  53%
  • Pages per visit:  about 2
  • Minutes on site:  about 2

I put all this in the so far, so good category.  I might wish for more, but even if the numbers were double I’d likely still wish for more.  And that high percentage of new visitors means peacefare is still growing, as do the 1200 or so Twitter followers, with 2-5 added most days.

The one clear area needing improvement is getting other people to write for the  I’ve had a few fabulous friends, students and colleagues contribute wonderful pieces, but not as many as I would like.  Peacefare is too much a solo act, something I regret.  Please help me fix that!

I would also hope for more comments.  My Balkans readers have engaged in rough and tumble debate, rarely moderated by my intervention.  The Middle East hasn’t yet elicited the same feistiness.  I wish it would.

Please accept my sincere thanks for your readership, which is really the only reason I do this almost every day.  I could just as well tuck these thoughts away, as I did during more than four decades of diplomatic career at the UN, State Department and U.S. Institute of Peace.  It is much more fun to get them out to you, so I sincerely hope you’ll keep reading, commenting and contributing when the spirit moves you.

On to year 2!




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Hold the line

Sonja Biserko, the courageous chair of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade, announces The End of the Kosovo Myth in a paper written for the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society project “Communicating with Europe”:

In order to secure a candidate status (provided it is genuinely interested in it), the Serbian Government will have to make efforts to repair the damage caused by the imprudent radicalization of the situation in northern Kosovo and to show readiness for a constructive continuation of dialogue with Pristina. It will have to do this by December, before the EU member countries vote on the Commission’s proposal for Serbia’s candidacy.

The Serbian Government and President have yet to dissociate themselves from the ‘log revolutionaries’. A firm position of the Government to this effect would help ease tensions and calm passions among Serbia’s citizens, who have long realized that Kosovo cannot be returned within Serbia’s borders. Serbs in Kosovo, including those living in the north, have no confidence in Belgrade’s policy and are much more realistic about the situation. As it turns out, ordinary people both in Kosovo and in Serbia have proved far more realistic and rational than government itself.

I hope she is correct in believing that the day is near when Belgrade will align itself with the more realistic expectations of ordinary people.  In the meanwhile, it is important for Washington and Brussels to hold the line, insisting on a resolution of the northern border/boundary issues before candidacy and looking forward to resolution of all other Kosovo issues before Serbia achieves EU membership.

More on this Saturday, when I put up a piece I’ve done for Serbian Pravda on the Kosovo situation and Serbia’s EU candidacy.

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Syria is not hopeless

Bashar al Assad continues to defy international pressure by cracking down violently on peaceful protesters in Syria.  The internationals are running out of ideas about what to do:  Arab League suspension, contact group, tightening sanctions against economic mainstays of the regime, helping the Syrian National Council (SNC) unify and project a program, renewed pursuit of a UN Security Council resolution and ambiguity about whether military force will be used are on Robert Danin’s list, which isn’t much different from Andrew Tabler’s.

What Danin and Tabler are trying to do is accelerate Bashar al Assad’s departure.  I wish them luck in that, and I hope we do all they recommend.  But I think we need also to prepare for a long siege.  Bashar is trying to outlast the protesters, and he might well succeed unless they, and we, get smarter.

They need to get clever about new ways of defying the regime and demonstrating widespread support.  The streets are dangerous these days, and the use of violence by some of the demonstrators is going to make it worse.  Some stay at home, general strike or boycott-type demonstrations are in order.  As Chenoweth and Stephan point out, it is much harder for the regime to respond to these. And much less risky for the demonstrators if they do nothing but fail to appear for work.  More coordinated evening banging on pots and pans is another possibility.  Do it twice and everyone will understand its significance.

The internationals also need to prepare for the long haul.  This means using the time available to get the SNC up to snuff, with a serious plan and program for the future.  Yeh, I know there are proposals for this working their way through the State Department, but too slowly for my taste.  It also means talking with the Russians about their naval base at Latakia.  They are sure to lose it if they don’t switch sides before Bashar falls.  The trick is to convince them that his fall is inevitable and they may as well help make it happen, in hope of ensuring their basing rights for the future.

We also need to press for international human rights monitors.  They appear to have been part of the Arab League deal (a written copy of which I still haven’t seen).  At some point, the regime may give in to these, because it will want confirmation that it has defeated the protests.  If Bashar continues to refuse them, he only embarrasses himself.

Syria is not hopeless.  But it may take a long time.







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Waffling, weak-kneed, paltry stuff

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s able foreign minister, today tweeted this “good conclusion” from the Euroepean Union meeting today:

In the light of the new IAEA report, which is to be considered by the IAEA Board of Governors, the Council expresses its increasing concerns over the Iranian nuclear programme and the lack of progress in diplomatic efforts. It condemns the continuous expansion of Iran’s,enrichment programme, and expresses particular concerns over the findings of the IAEA Director General report on Iranian activities relating to the development of military nuclear technology. Iran has been found in violation of international obligations, including six UNSC and ten IAEA Board Resolutions. We urge Iran to address the international concerns over the nature of its nuclear programme
through full cooperation with the IAEA and by demonstrating readiness to engage seriously in concrete discussions on confidence building steps, as proposed by the HR on behalf of the E3+3. The Council recalled the latest European Council conclusions inviting it to prepare new restrictive measures against Iran. The Council will continue to examine possible new and reinforced measures and revert to this issue at its next meeting, taking into account Iran’s actions.

There may of course be something lurking here that is not spelled out: we can hope that there will in fact be “new and reinforced” measures out of the next meeting.  But on the face of it, this is waffling, weak-kneed, paltry stuff from people who should know better and by now be ready to act.

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