In defense of colleagues

The brouhaha about this lengthy New York Times Magazine piece on presidential aide Ben Rhodes, in which one of his minions treats journalist Laura Rozen as a reliable mouthpiece for the Administration, is sort of personal for me. I was the executive director of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), much of whose report Ben wrote. Laura worked for me briefly at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), when I was principally concerned with the Balkans (not the Middle East). So a few words about these two colleagues are in order.

Ben is a terrific draftsman largely responsible for the sharp analytical portion of the ISG report, which told Americans in no uncertain terms the truth: things were not going well in Iraq, which is what the 40 or so experts I had organized into four working groups had concluded. The policy recommendations were much more muddled and unsuccessful, at least in the immediate aftermath. But I have little reason to believe Ben either conceived or even drafted many of those portions of the report, which were the result of compromises among the disparate members of the group, including two future secretaries of defense (Gates and Panetta).

Throughout its deliberations, Ben’s great virtue was the one he has exercised so successfully with President Obama: he reflected honestly and even brutally the preferences of his principal, then Lee Hamilton. There is no principal/agent ambiguity with Ben. He understands his master and delivers unerringly, with clear explanations. From my point of view, this was a great virtue. I am not surprised that President Obama treasures it.

I remember taking Ben to lunch, along with another colleague at USIP, just before he left for Chicago to work for the recently elected black Senator who seemed to have little to no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, never mind the presidency. Hamilton had recommended him to Obama as a speech writer. Ben was looking forward to the adventure, no matter how short it might turn out to be. I remember admiring the risk taker. Basically I still do.

Laura’s time with me at USIP is less memorable because we were working on more mundane matters outside the public limelight. She had been a really good journalist in the Balkans and had a lot to contribute to our peacebuilding efforts. She was a fox, not a hedgehog: she knew many things, not one great thing. She found people and channels in which to get things done that I would never have managed to discover. She had lots of contacts and always reflected accurately their perspectives. I’d have thought that a great virtue in a journalist, not the vice David Samuels makes it out to be in the New York Times article.

Samuels’ main gripe seems to be with the Iran nuclear deal, whose basic concept he is anxious to note predates the election of relatively reformist President Rouhani. In Samuels’ version of the story, the White House sold the deal to a bunch of dumb young tweeting cyberscribblers who lacked the sophistication to see through Ben Rhodes’ spin. This narrative is even more disdainful of contemporary journalism that what Samuels alleges about the Administration.

It is also ridiculous: a lot of serious experts have had a good, hard look at the agreement and come away thinking it made the best of a bad, and worsening, situation. I count myself, as I have a bachelor’s and master’s in physical chemistry and seven years abroad working on nuclear nonproliferation issues as a science counselor in American embassies (not to mention a doctorate in history of science also working in part on radiation issues). Many finer experts have come to the same conclusion. I hasten to add that no one at the White House or State Department has ever contacted me about the agreement with Iran, which I suppose reflects how little influence they think I might have.

Laura was one of the journalists who followed the nuclear deal in depth and with care. I don’t know anyone who got more of the inside story, which is difficult when negotiations are ongoing. What better target if you are trying to besmirch the thing than throwing mud at someone who really helped the American public to understand what was going on? I gather from her subsequent remarks that Samuels never gave Laura a fair opportunity to reply to his allegations. That is notably bad journalism.

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Professors on the Montenegrin coast

Saturday was a recovery day for me after 15-hour trip to Podgorica, where I’ll be speaking Monday at a university event commemorating Montenegro’s tenth anniversary of independence. So naturally Sinisa Vukovic, my Montenegrin colleague at SAIS, and I took in the sights on the coast, in addition to a busman’s holiday morning at a conference on Global Security at Stake–Challenges and Responses that happened to be occurring in Budva.

Hotel Splendid
Hotel Splendid

The first of the three sessions we attended was on the Balkans, featuring the presidents of Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia. The message was clear: they want us to speed up entry of the remaining Balkans countries into NATO and the EU. Their plea is that accession is not only a technical question but a political one as well. It should be conceived as consolidation of Europe rather than enlargement. Montenegro’s entry into NATO is a strong positive signal, but it needs not only approval at the July Warsaw Summit but also quick ratification in the 28 member states. A membership action plan for Bosnia and Herzegovina should follow, as should membership for Macedonia, which had met the criteria for membership before its most recent crisis.

President Borut Pahor of Slovenia was less certain about membership in the EU for Ukraine and Turkey. He thought some sort of special status needed. President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic claimed Croatia is not blocking Serbian negotiations with the EU but only insisting that Belgrade meet the standards the EU sets, just as Croatia had to do in becoming a member. She was also keen to point out that the problem of refugees entering the EU is not the main issue, but rather the conditions in the Middle East and North Africa that are generating the refugee flow. Europe has to do more about that, she suggested. All three presidents seemed keen on infrastructure connections (transport, telecommunications and energy) not only within the Balkans but also around the Black Sea and with eastern Europe, all the way to the Baltics.

Sveti Stefan
Sveti Stefan

The second session focused on the US election and likely shifts in foreign policy. The European panelists–Julian Lindley French and Stefano Stefanini–agreed that either candidate as president will want Europe to do more. Both also thought it should, but suggested that the benchmark should not necessarily be 2% of GNP spent on defense (the NATO goal) but rather a broader measure of national security expenditure that takes into account relevant civilian diplomatic, development and state-building efforts.

Former US Ambassador to Turkmenistan Laura Kennedy (retired) had the unenviable task of explaining America, in particular the candidate she does not favor, to the Balkan audience. Hillary Clinton, she said, would be well within the centrist, multilateralist tradition that Barack Obama also represents, even if she differs with him on Syria and other things. Donald Trump, however, would be a radical departure, one more friendly to Russia, far less concerned about human rights, doubtful of US alliances (including NATO), and much more unpredictable than Clinton.

The third session discussed the Islamic State (ISIL) challenge. There was much the usual discussion of radicalization and deradicalization, with some observers noting a sharp decline in the once high rate of Balkan Muslims leaving to fight in Syria and Iraq. This is apparently the result of a sharp crackdown in Kosovo and Bosnia. Reintegration of those returning to the Balkans and elsewhere is however still a big challenge, even if there has been no sign so far of violent extremist events in the Balkans attributable to returnees.

Much the most interesting moment was General (ret.) John Allen’s outline of the longer-term challenges that are likely to make the governance challenges we face in the Middle East (and elsewhere) harder: shifts of wealth to the east, growing inequality, urbanization, youth bulges and climate change are the factors I remember him mentioning. Terrorism, he suggested, is a symptom of much deeper problems that are not going to go away because ISIL is defeated militarily. We need to meet the governance challenges the longer-term factors pose if we want to live in peace.

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Where is Serbia headed?

My SAIS colleagues Aylin Unver Noi and Sasha Toperich launched the Center for Transatlantic Relations’ Challenges of Democracy in the European Union and its Neighbors yesterday. Here are the remarks I prepared on my chapter, which deals with Serbia, where I’ll visit next week (after a stop in Montenegro):

  1. Let me give you the bottom line up front: I think Serbia is headed in what I consider the right direction. Ten years from now, I expect Serbia to be a far more prosperous, established democracy ready for EU membership and clearly aligned with the West, even if not a NATO member. I also think it will have taken major steps in the direction of normalizing relations with Kosovo.
  1. That may shock some of you. Right now, Serbia is still struggling to complete its April 24 early parliamentary election, with repeat voting at 15 polling stations and still no clarity about the overall result.
  1. It is clear however that nationalist, Russophile forces have done relatively well, while Western-oriented liberal democrats did poorly, not least because they are fragmented. Some harbor suspicions that the government is manipulating the results. Many would say the election was free but not fair, with the incumbents using their privileged position to gain unfair advantage.
  1. Even apart from the election it is easy enough to find well-founded criticism of Serbia’s still largely unreformed security services, government influence on its media and lack of independence and effectiveness of its court system. These are all serious long-term problems.
  1. But I would be far more worried if there were no criticism.
  1. It seems to me Serbia is struggling with what I would regard as the difficult middle period of its democratic transition.
  1. The initial period from the defeat of Milosevic to the end of President Tadic’s second term was a slow, and slowing, march toward the West.
  1. Prime Minister Vucic in the past couple of years accomplished a great deal, settling at least some issues with Kosovo, accelerating the opening of accession negotiations with the EU and signing a partnership agreement with NATO.
  1. But at the same time he faces a serious challenge on his nationalist right, including from President Nikolic and other anti-Western politicians determined to find in Moscow a counterbalance to the EU and NATO.
  1. The question we need to answer is what to do to keep Serbia moving in the right direction and prevent a relapse. Let me offer some ideas.
  1. The EU accession process is vital to curing what ails Serbia’s security services, its media and its judicial system.
  1. Beyond that, infrastructure and interconnectedness is important. Serbia is highly dependent on Russian gas and energy technology. With the cancellation of South Stream, there are lots of long-term options out there. Serbia’s road network needs better connections to the Mediterranean, both through Montenegro and through Kosovo and Albania.
  1. Regional issues are also important. Serbia needs to demarcate its boundary/border with Kosovo and establish a flexible regime for residents who need to cross it frequently. It also needs to fully implement the many technical agreements with Kosovo as well as make a clear break with Milorad Dodik’s ambitions of holding a referendum in Republika Srpska.
  1. Also important are improved and enhanced relations with NATO and American forces. That should come now from deployment, in a natural disaster area if not in a war zone, likely with the Ohio National Guard.
  1. It’s not clear that the door to the EU will be open when Serbia is ready to enter. The euro and migration crises, as well as Europe’s own turn to nativism, are all to evident.
  1. Serbia’s last challenge in transition will be convincing the 28 member states to ratify the accession treaty. That will not be the easiest of the tasks ahead, but it will be the most satisfying if it can be accomplished successfully, sometime after 2020 but I hope before 2025.
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Extending the 3 day miracle

Alexandra Martin, a Johns Hopkins SAIS graduate student and Eurasia Foundation Young Professional 2015/16, reports: 

May 1 most Eastern Europeans celebrated the Orthodox Easter. I have vivid memories about how important this tradition is for the Orthodox community. When I was little, my grand-grandmother used to tell me that people forget about their discords for these three days. Even those who are fighting in a war put their guns down and respect the Holiest of the Orthodox celebrations. She survived both World Wars and many political regimes, including an empire, communist repression and fragile democracy.

Her words came to my mind when I read about the Easter armistice negotiated in Eastern Ukraine. The conflict between Ukrainian authorities and separatist fighters in Donbas had escalated in past weeks. The number of ceasefire violations skyrocketed. A week ago, four civilians lost their lives in Olenivka, when the area came under shelling. They add to the 9187 people killed since the beginning of Ukraine crisis in 2014.

The armistice was brokered in order to ensure that people on both sides of the Contact Line are safe celebrating Easter. Compared to previous weeks, it accomplished some success. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) “observed a low number of ceasefire violations in Donetsk region, and none in Luhansk region” on Easter Sunday, according to the organization’s daily report. The entire weekend appeared to follow the same trend, with a low number of ceasefire violations. But what will happen now? What will happen as Eastern Ukraine returns to business as usual?

To clarify some of my questions, I reached out to Alexander Hug, Principal Deputy Chief Monitor at the OSCE SMM. He was kind enough to answer my concerns.

Q:  Why the upward trend in fighting recently? What triggered it?

AH: Let me qualify what is underlying your question: we have always recorded ebbs and flows in ceasefire violations, and they have always concentrated in a couple of hotspots. There have been quieter periods, especially after 1 September, and around New Year. It is true that since mid-January there have been more very active days of fighting. And what is worrying: the usage of weapons which should have been withdrawn from the Security Zone, e.g. mortars, are used much more than in the fall of 2015. A key factor for the near-constant violations of the ceasefire is that military formations are standing too close together and have recently moved even closer in some locations. This represents a violation of the Minsk agreements and must not continue. Disengagement is a necessity in the current situation. Another element contributing not necessarily to an increase, but to the continuation of ceasefire violations is that there is no effective response mechanism for violations.

Q: How is the OSCE getting prepared for this new level of fragility? What additional efforts are designed to re-stabilize the situation?

AH: The SMM remains an unarmed civilian monitoring mission. The SMM has expanded its presence on both sides of the contact line – both in numbers and geographically. Forward patrol bases are now operational in eight locations, bringing the total of SMM locations in Donetsk and Luhansk regions to thirteen, eight in government-controlled areas and five in non-government controlled areas. More forward patrol bases are needed, including in non-government controlled areas, but the SMM needs safety and security assurances from those in effective control in the respective locations. 

Currently, the Mission has 699 Monitors, with the aim of further expansion. This expansion is accompanied by an expansion of the Mission’s technical capabilities. Long-range UAVs have been complemented by mid-range and small size UAVs. In addition, the Mission is now operating three static observation cameras in certain hotspots along the contact line, and this number will be expanded.  

However, the freedom of movement of the SMM is restricted, which impedes monitoring. Direct attacks against the SMM and its assets are taking place with impunity for the perpetrators. Three serious security incidents have taken place recently: weapons were shot in the direction of SMM Monitors, they were threatened at gunpoint and one vehicle was hit by a bullet.

 We have called for an end to this impunity for people who threaten, violently mistreat or attack the SMM, or who violate its freedom of movement at all levels and on all sides.

Q: Many experts and scholars saw Donbas as a new frozen conflict in Eastern Europe. The evidence proves that we are far from frozen. What is your projection for conflict resolution, implementation of Minsk II, and normalization on the ground for the near future? Are the parties running into a stalemate, are there signs of fighting fatigue or exactly the opposite?

AH: During the past weeks, the SMM has registered the highest number of ceasefire violations in months. Artillery and mortars, proscribed by the Minsk agreements, are being used again in increased numbers. Fighting takes place in hotspots. The fighting there varies in intensity over time. Days of relative calm are followed by days, or even weeks, of intense escalation. Just recently, in the week from 11 to 17 April, the Mission has observed particularly intensive violence between Avdiivka and Yasynuvata, to the north of Donetsk. This was the highest level of violence observed since August 2015.

Armed violence also continues around the city of Zaitseve, around Horlivka and around Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve. An upsurge in ceasefire violations has also taken place in the south of Donetsk region and in Luhansk region.  An ever increasing number of weapons are missing from permanent storage sites and from known weapons holding areas. Many of these facilities are completely abandoned. Our observations suggest that many of these weapons are back in use at the contact line. 

A sustainable ceasefire is of central importance to the further implementation of the Minsk agreements. The sides need to show visible and decisive action to restore it. The SMM stands ready to facilitate dialogue between the sides in order to return normality to the lives of the people of Ukraine. There are no alternatives to the Minsk arrangements, and our experience on the ground proves that the sides can stop the fire when they want to. It is all up to political will at the highest level. We have also seen that when there are quieter periods, trust is increasing and the sides are able to work together, e.g. on repairs, demining etc. I believe it is possible to normalize the situation, and this is necessary not least for the lives of civilians affected. And it is why we are here. We will keep on working on it.   

The implementation of Minsk II provisions remains central to a long lasting conflict resolution in Ukraine. The war has already exposed over 3 million people to high risks. They are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.  The Orthodox Easter armistice proved that fighting can de-escalate immediately if there is political will. At this point one can only hope that the ‘miracle’ lasts more than three days.


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Peace Picks May 2-6

  1. 2016 Global Strategy Forum | Monday, May 2nd | 8:30-5:30 | Please join the Atlantic Council’s Strategy Initiative, in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, for its flagship annual conference, the Global Strategy Forum. This year’s theme is “America’s Role in the World,” and will feature three panels—Strategic Foresight, Strategic Challenges and Opportunities, and Strategic Solutions—a debate on America’s role in the world, and a keynote address by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work on the Third Offset and how artists can help with it. On May 3, we will also hold Global Strategist Roundtables, by invitation only. If you are interested, please contact full agenda may be found here.
  1. Political Crisis and Democracy in Brazil | Monday, May 2nd | 12:30-2:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Georgetown University, in partnership with the Brazilian Club, Latin American Policy Association, Center for Latin American Studies and the Latin American Initiative invite you to attend a panel discussion on Brazil’s political crisis with Professor Monica Arruda de Almeida, Center for Latin American Studies, Professor Bryan McCann, Department of History, and Mr. Paulo Sotero, Director, Brazil Institute, Wilson Center. Professor Elcior Santana, Center for Latin American Studies, will moderate.
  1. Advancing Women in MENA: Should We Keep Trying? | Wednesday, May 4th | 2:00-4:00 | U.S. Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Since its adoption in 2000, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security has inspired more than 50 member states to adopt National Action Plans to implement its provisions. Iraq in 2014 became the first country in the Middle East to adopt such a plan. Palestine approved its NAP in 2015. But insufficient public awareness and political buy-in and a shortage of targeted resources have stalled efforts elsewhere in the region and continue to hamper implementation even where advocates have succeeded in promoting the adoption of a plan. USIP is preparing to publish a Special Report on these issues, led by the Middle East Center for Peace, Development and Culture at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Center Director Paula Rayman will be among speakers at that May 4 discussion addressing the connecting between implementation of UNSCR 1325 and long-term national security, with a special focus on Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The experts also will explore the importance of including men in the development of national action plans and creating safe spaces for productive conversations to prepare for peace. Dr. Linda Bishai, Director of North Africa Programs, U.S. Institute of Peace, will offer opening remarks. Martin Meehan, President, University of Massachusetts, and Dr. Paula Rayman, Director, Middle East Center for Peace, Development and Culture, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, will make other remarks. Panelists include Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Co-Founder and Executive Director, International Civil Society Network, and Ambassador Steve Steiner, Gender Advisor, U.S. Institute of Peace. Kathleen Kuehnast, Senior Gender Advisor, U.S. Institute of Peace, will moderate.
  1. Power and Change in Iran: Dynamics of Contention and Conciliation | Thursday, May 5th | 9:30-10:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Drawing from their contributions to the recently published book, Power and Change in Iran: Dynamics of Contention and Conciliation, (co-edited by Daniel Brumberg and Farideh Farhi), Daniel Brumberg and Shadi Mokhtari will shed light on political and social struggles that are shaping Iran’s domestic politics and its evolving engagement in the Middle East and wider global arena. Their presentations will highlight insights from the scholars who contributed to this volume, including Farideh Farhi, Kevan Harris, Payam Mohseni, Shervin Malekzadeh, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Koroush Rahimkhani, Yasmin Alem, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, Mehrangiz Kar, and Azadeh Pourzand.
  1. Third Annual Security Forum: American and Japanese Interests and the Future of the Alliance | Friday, May 6th | 9:00-5:00 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Sasakawa USA is pleased to welcome distinguished guests including Japanese Minister Shigeru Ishiba, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Scott Swift, Michael Chertoff, Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, Ambassador Ryozo Kato, Ambassador Richard Armitage, former Japanese Minister of Defense Satoshi Morimoto, Michèle Flournoy, and many others, for this high-level discussion. Panel topics include Japan’s global security role, a new era in U.S.-Japan maritime cooperation, a view from Congress of U.S.-Japan relations, recommendations for the alliance through 2030, cyber security challenges, and the effect that the U.S. elections may have on the alliance. Panel topics may be found here.
  1. National Security Challenges in Asia for the Next U.S. President | Friday, May 6th | 11:00-12:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | America’s next president will inherit a multitude of national security challenges in Asia. These include instability and terrorism, nuclear proliferation, territorial disputes, and threats to critical sea lanes, among others. R. Nicholas Burns, one of America’s most accomplished diplomats, will discuss what he views as the major concerns in Asia for the United States, and offer guidance as to how the next U.S. president can best tackle them. He will give special attention to how, and to what extent, Washington can cooperate with its friends in Asia, such as India, to help manage and address these challenges confronting the broader region.
  1. Peace After Paris: Addressing Climate, Conflict, and Development | Friday, May 6th | 10:00-11:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | 2015 was a milestone year for international commitments on climate change, sustainable development, and peacebuilding. Where are the opportunities at the intersection of these processes to address climate security risks and build peace? What needs to happen in the next five years for these frameworks to achieve their long-term goals? Nick Mabey, founder and Chief Executive of E3G, will provide his analysis of these processes with commentary by Ken Conca, author of An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance, and Sherri Goodman, former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security and current Wilson Center public policy fellow.
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Comic relief

The world isn’t funny, so needs some comic relief. Here it is: