Shortest route to Balkans peace

Filip Raunic of Croatia’s Telegram asked some questions about Bosnia and Herzgovina. I replied: 
Q: Republika Srpska celebrated its National Day, despite the fact that Constitution Court marked it as unconstitutional. The President of Republika Srpska said a few days ago that Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) should disintegrate. How do you see his actions and his role in BiH?

A: It has been clear for a long time that Dodik opposes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is the core of the Dayton agreements. Respecting court decisions, even if you disagree with them, is vital to rule of law and democratic governance, not only in BiH but also here in the US.

Q: If Republika Srpska really decides to call a referendum on independence, do you see the possibility of the reaction from Federation and potentially a new military clash?

A: I don’t think you can expect those who support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes most people who live in the country as well as the international community, not to react in some fashion to a referendum on independence. But such referenda often are not fulfilled, since sovereignty requires recognition by other sovereign states. I would expect an RS that declares independence to end up in limbo, with minimal recognition, no serious foreign support, and little ability to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of its people for security and prosperity.

Q: Do you see some similarity in  the situation and behavior of the political elites in Bosnia in the 90’s and today?

A: Yes, I do. But the circumstances are different. Serbia is no longer willing to risk its own prosperity for irredentist political aims, many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are far better off than they were at the end of the war, Europe’s and NATO’s doors are in principle open to BiH, and its population expects more transparent and accountable governance. The nationalist fervor is far less murderous, but no less dangerous.

Q: Former English diplomat Timothy Less wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs in which he suggest disintegration of Bosnia – Republika Srpska would unite with Serbia and parts of Hercegovina with Croatia. What do you think about this idea?

A: It is just as bad an idea as it was in the 1990s. It would result in the formation of a non-viable rump Islamic Republic in central Bosnia and Herzegovina heavily dependent on Islamist funding from Iran, Saudi Arabia or somewhere else. Why would Croatia or Serbia want such a neighbor on their borders?

Q: You mediated between Croats and Muslims in the 90s and brokered the first agreement of the Dayton peace talks. How do you now look on these days and Dayton agreement. Was Dayton a good framework for Bosnia, and is it still good?

A: It was good enough to end the war, but not good enough to make real peace. It now needs updating, but how and what to do is now up to the citizens of BiH, not the internationals.

Q: Do you think that BiH should enter EU as quickly as possible?

A: I think BiH should qualify to enter the EU as quickly as possible.

Q: If Brussels will hesitate with BiH membership, is there a possibility and danger that Russia and Turkey will gain more influence in Bosnia and would it mean instability for the country?

A: Yes. Russia is already interfering in BiH in ways that are destabilizing. Moscow’s aim seems to be pernicious: to create as much trouble as possible at the least cost.

I don’t see Turkey’s influence in the same light, but it certainly increases the weight of Islamist politics and makes it harder to reach mutual accommodations among Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks.

Q: Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarović recently said that Bosnia is becoming more radicalized in terms of more rigid interpretation of the values of Islam. Do you see Islamic radicalization? Is there a possibility of it if the situation in Bosnia remains tense?

A: I might not see things quite the same way President Grabar Kitarović sees them, but there is certainly a possibility of radicalization if Bosnia and Herzegovina is unable to succeed in satisfying its population’s aspirations. Tension produces polarization and exclusion, which are ingredients that will radicalize at least a few people.

Q: What could we expect from Trump administration for Bosnia and this region?

A: I don’t know what to expect. The new administration has said precious little about the Balkans and nothing to my knowledge about Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are not high on the priority list these days in Washington. The only clear statement I’ve seen is from Secretary of Defense Mattis, who supports the formation of the Kosovo Security Force.

Q: If you would advise Mr. Trump on Bosnia, what would you tell him to do?

A: I’d say a lot has changed for the better in the Balkans since the early 1990s. The United States should commit itself wholeheartedly to finishing the process by helping all the remaining countries to qualify for EU, and if they want it, NATO membership. I’d say that is the shortest and least troublesome route to lasting peace and stability.

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The Middle East post-Khamenei and Sistani

In a February 6 event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, leading thinkers on Iran gathered to discuss the future of Iran post-Khamenei. Ali Mamouri, lecturer at the University of Sydney, and Suzanne Maloney, a deputy director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Mehdi Khalaji, the Libitzky Family Fellow at the Washington Institute, moderated.

Khalaji framed the conversation around his new study, The Future of Leadership in the Shiite Community. Specifically, he discussed the role Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi might play in the post-Khamenei Shiite community. Because of both Khamenei and Sistani’s advanced ages (seventy-seven and eighty-six respectively), Shahroudi may be poised to become Supreme Leader of Iran as well as to take over the role top religious authority for Shia Islam. Khalaji believes it is useful to know him because there is no pattern to follow on succession. We can and should expect surprises. This opened the discussion up to the future of Shiism in the region more generally.

Mamouri discussed the future of Iraq and the prospects for Shiism after Sistani. The relationship between Sistani and Khamenei, while not hostile, is also not entirely friendly. Sistani’s Iraq and Khamenei’s Iran present two different models of governance and religious authority, a traditional Shiite system and the wilayat al-faqih theocratic model respectively. He said competition between the two sides has centered on control of Shiite Iraqis. Sistani tries to avoid sectarian problems while Iran tries to remain influential among Shiites within Iraq. The death of either would create a vacuum that the other could easily dominate. If Sistani dies first, the search for a new leader could take five to ten years, during which time Khamenei would expand his influence.

Maloney  discussed US policy in Iran and how religious succession might influence America’s attitude in the region. The US government is concerned about the nature of the Iranian regime and how it might evolve, adapt, and promote responsible policy around the region. Iran’s regime type drives its political attitudes, worldview, and foreign policy. This in turn will influence Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and subsequently US policy choices. While different administrations have different theories on Iran, Maloney said that we are living through an interesting moment because we might be on the verge of a wholesale transformation in US policy from Obama to Trump.

The central question remains, what creates positive change in Iran? Maloney expressed skepticism of Obama’s theory that diplomatic engagement could bring long-term moderation and wondered if Trump’s confrontational approach would produce short-term change. Succession remains a key factor in Iran’s evolution, and the country is currently at a critical juncture in choosing its next Supreme Leader.

Khalaji then asked the panelists what the immediate implications of the leaders’ deaths would be for US policy within the next four years. Maloney said it depended on who moves into Khamenei’s position, how quickly that happens, and how people react. Mamouri said that Sistani is important for the US because of his wide influence on Shiite Arabs; without him, American policy might not continue to push for a democratic political system.

Both panelists also discussed the role of Iran’s Shiite militias in the region and how they would impact succession. Mamouri said that while Iraqi security forces could incorporate them, some factions would resist following this pattern and instead turn to Iran. Maloney pointed to the heavy military intermingling between groups as well as the greater respect for the institution of the Supreme Leader’s office as differences between succession today and what occurred in 1989. Khalaji concluded by saying that the sustainability of future leadership is reliant on the military, specifically the IRGC, and whether they can come to a consensus on important issues.

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Silence is eloquent

The Senate Republicans silenced Elizabeth Warren last  night after she read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King that they viewed as impugning the reputation of Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration’s nominee for Attorney General. The letter and attached statement definitely do call into question Senator Sessions’ reputation and qualifications, based in part on his service as a US Attorney in Mobile, Alabama. That is apparently contrary to Senate rules, according to McConnell, even though examining reputation and qualifications is obviously an important to advising and consenting (or not) to the nomination.

Why all this sensitivity about a more than 30-year-old letter? The problem is this: the letter cites Sessions’ efforts to “intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens….Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”

That is precisely what President Trump has set out to inspire by claiming that millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton in last November’s presidential contest. It is also what Republicans nationwide have been trying to do for years by adopting unjustified voter identification laws, closing polling places, gerrymandering Congressional districts, and encouraging unqualified “poll watchers.” The only difference 30 years have made is that the target is no longer limited to elderly black voters but now includes young ones, Hispanics, and immigrants of all sorts. These efforts are well-documented in court cases throughout the country, many of which the Republicans have lost.

Silencing Warren has attracted far more attention than allowing her to complete her statement. McConnell should have anticipated that, but whether he did is unclear.

What difference does all this make to foreign policy, international affairs, or war and peace, which are the subjects of In short, the effort to suppress voting is inconsistent with American values and interests, both of which the US government spends a good deal of time, money, and effort promoting abroad. If the Trump administration, Republicans in Congress, and Republican-controlled states continue in this direction, the United States will have no credibility at all in promoting democracy abroad.

That will trouble serious Republicans, but it is not going to bother Trump. He has no intention of promoting democracy at home or abroad. His executive order on immigration is intended to establish the broadest possible scope for presidential authority to protect national security, including non-fact based measures that deny individuals equal treatment under the law. As Nora Ellingsen puts it on Lawfare:

Since January 2015, the FBI has also arrested more anti-immigrant American citizens plotting violent attacks on Muslims within the U.S. than it has refugees, or former refugees, from any banned country.

If Trump wins on immigration, he’ll try to import the broad, irrational, and unequal application of presidential national security authority to the domestic scene.

That’s why Coretta Scott King’s aging letter is so problematic. It accuses Sessions, who will play a vital role in Trump’s administration as Attorney General, of doing precisely what the Trump administration intends to do: deny individual rights, created its own alternative facts, and use them to empower the President to do as he pleases, even if that means silencing critics like Elizabeth Warren.

Fortunately, silence is eloquent.

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Lost in translation

On Friday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted “Lost in Translation: The Unsung War Heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan”. The evening kicked off with a discussion between Paul Wolfowitz of AEI, and General David Petraeus, partner, KKR and Chairman KKR Global Institute. Following this was a panel discussion featuring former Iraqi translator Salwan Al Toki, former Afghan translator Janis Shinwari, and Matthew Zeller, founder of No One Left Behind.

Wolfowitz noted the timeliness of this event given the recent Trump administration immigration restrictions, though the purpose of the gathering was not to criticize the executive order but to recognize the important role of foreign translators. Petraeus recalled his own experience working with translators from all over the world. He said that the translator’s job goes beyond interpretation; the translater is an adviser to senior US leadership with incredible responsibility. He recalled the bond of those who serve together and the risk these men and women take to put themselves in line of danger.

The US armed forces are veterans in every way except legal status, Petraeus said. He remarked that he is happy to see General Mattis immediately taking on the task of setting up exceptions to the immigration ban. Taking care of those who serve US interests abroad is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. Next time we enter into a foreign conflict, we want individuals on the ground to support us.

Al Toki asked the audience how many of them had stood in front of foreign soldiers while their countrymen stood on the opposing side. Remembering the day American soldiers approached him and asked if he would get involved, he was hesitant, unclear of US intentions in Iraq and wanted to speak to their general. After getting involved he helped build schools, train police, and worked to form a solid governance strategy for Iraq. After the military, he worked for USAID and established a chamber of commerce, along with centers for women and children. He said that the US service members in Iraq were his guests, and now he is the guest in the US. He served the US loyally and to the best of his ability. He is not afraid of death but he is afraid of someone being left behind.

Shinwari became a translator because he wanted to help his own country and to support his family, not because he wanted to come to America. As one of the most trusted translators he was at every conflict and afforded the privilege of a weapon. When recounting the tale of how he saved the life of fellow panel member Matt Zeller, he echoed Salwan’s sentiment that the Americans were guests in his country and that he felt a need to protect them, putting his own life in danger. Though he never planned on going to the US, in 2009 he was informed that the Taliban had his name, face, and information. He started receiving phone calls threatening his life and that of his family. After waiting many years for his visa to come through, he left Afghanistan for a new life in the US.

Matt Zeller recounted the day he met Shinwari at the airport and welcomed him and his family to the United States. They arrived with four small suitcases, and no idea where they were to live. Zeller realized that he needed to do something and started a “go fund me” page to raise money. Within days he got the family set up in a two-bedroom apartment, furnished with donations, and offered Shinwari a check for $35,000 from the American people. Shinwari refused the money, instead suggesting that they start an organization to help bring over other interpreters.

There was no existing organization to step up and meet this need, and thus No One Left Behind was created. The goal of the non-profit is to help former translators get a visa, welcome them at the airport with a proper reception, and find them a home for at least 90 days furnished at no cost to them. Then the group aims to buy them a car, find them a first job and a first American friend or mentor. Zeller remarked he would eventually like the Defense Department to take on these responsibilities and take care of the people who help us abroad. He recalled the honorary veteran status extended to Philippine soldiers during WWII, and suggested a similar recognition be granted to those who served with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Watch the full event here:

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What’s at stake

As I am not a lawyer, I won’t comment on the legal aspects of the hearing later today on the President’s executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and indefinitely barring Syrians, including refuges with a well-founded fear of persecution, from entering the US. The case will presumably be decided on legal grounds, but as Madeleine Albright cogently said on NPR this morning, the policy implications are enormous:

Three things are at stake:

  1. Equality: While the executive order carefully avoids singling out Muslims for the ban, it is clearly intended to favor Christians and other minorities, who admittedly often suffer significant persecution in the countries in question. There is no need to favor them. Christians and other minorities already represent a disproportionate percentage of the refugees who gain admittance to the US. What those who wrote the executive order are trying to do is establish a precedent for presidential authority to distinguish among ethnic and sectarian groups, rather than individuals. I have no doubt at all if the court rules in the Administration’s favor that the President and his minions will try again in the domestic context, perhaps going as far as to try to register Muslims. If the court denies the President the authority to make such distinctions for foreigners who have not yet entered the US, it will be hard to argue in favor of any proposal that makes them for lawful US residents and citizens.
  2. Facts: The Administration has explicitly sought to establish “alternative facts,” including not only the mythical three million illegal voters but more recently also terrorist attacks in Europe that the media have hidden from the US public. Another of its alternative facts is the claim that this executive order is required to protect national security, because immigrants from the seven countries in question might conduct terrorist attacks inside the US. That is of course a possibility that has to be taken seriously. It is a major factor in the rigorous, existing vetting processes, which have ensured that not one immigrant from any of these countries has attempted a terrorist act in the US since 9/11. Of course past performance does not necessarily predict future results, but we have no factual basis on which to expect anything different, provided the vetting remains rigorous. No one has proposed anything else. If the Administration merely wanted to improve and tighten the vetting, it could have done that without a high-profile ban.
  3. National security: As Madeleine and her colleagues have correctly noted, the executive order hurts national security: it will make it less attractive for both individuals and countries to collaborate against terrorism with the US, it will aid extremist recruiting, and it will damage relations with our traditional allies in Europe if not also the Middle East. It also damages travel and educational exchanges in ways that are both economically and culturally harmful: fewer students will be studying in the US and fewer Americans will venture abroad. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that the executive order will protect US national security.

A judicial ruling in favor of the government will not be the last word on these three issues. The government could win on immigration but lose when these issues arise in a domestic context, where equal treatment under the law, factual support, and real national security concerns could be treated more rationally, without reference to the broad executive authority a president wields in the international arena.

But a government win would validate Trump’s outrageous critique of the W-appointed judge who provided the temporary restraining order suspending the immigration ban and send a global message (including to our own citizens) that the US is no longer a rational actor committed to equal protection for all individuals or to factual assessment of its national security risks, but rather prefers some groups over others and exaggerates the potential for those others to threaten America.

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Cooling it

Iran for the moment appears to be taking a low key approach to responding to new US sanctions aimed at its ballistic missile program and support for Hizbollah. It is continuing to test missiles and radarswithout however any indication as yet that they are nuclear capable. That is the minimum we should expect of them.

Iran as I understand it has already blocked Americans from entering, in response to Trump’s travel ban. They can do much more. It is easy for the Iranians to hassle the US Navy in the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz. US troops are particularly vulnerable to Iranian surrogates in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Hizbollah maintains capabilities to strike the US not only in Lebanon but also elsewhere, including inside the US. Use of these capabilities could significantly escalate the conflict with the US, which would likely respond with military force, either openly or clandestinely.

Whatever happens, the likelihood is a significant deterioration of already pretty bad relations between Washington and Tehran. Trump, who denounces the Iran nuclear deal regularly in stentorian tones, may even be aiming to get Iran to renounce it. This would leave the Iranians free to pursue nuclear weapons without however any real possibility that the US could restore the multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. Military action would quickly become the only option for stopping the Iranian nuclear program from producing everything needed for nuclear weapons.

We should therefore appreciate the low-key approach the Iranians have taken so far. By far the best bet for the US on the nuclear weapons front is strict implementation of the deal. Even hard-line opponents of it are coming down on that option. It just doesn’t make any sense at all to do anything else.

Even with full implementation (on both sides), relations between Iran and the US are unlikely to improve during a Trump administration. The President’s National Security Adviser, General Flynn, is Tehran’s favorite American general, because appears to have accused President Obama of creating and supporting the Islamic State, a standard Iranian propaganda talking point. But he is also ferociously anti-Iranian and I would say a certifiable Islamophobe. He appears to be driving Iran policy, at least for now, but Steve Bannon, the white nationalist (I would say supremacist) chief White House strategist no doubt concurs.

Trump himself is stridently anti-Iranian, which scores him points both domestically as well as with the Israelis and Gulf states. Apart from the nuclear deal, these constituencies, as well as many others, have two problems with Iranian behavior: its aggressive support of proxies in the region (especially in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain) as well as its continued support to Hizbollah worldwide.

Iran is still a revolutionary regime aiming to maintain its semi-autocratic brand of theocracy, arm Shia populations in other countries to resist abuse, and use those surrogates to defend itself. It sees the US and Israel as its most dangerous main enemies, with the Gulf states a close second. At least in American eyes, there has been no sign of moderation in Iranian rhetoric and behavior since the signing of the nuclear deal. President Rouhani is enjoying at least some of its benefits to the Iranian economy, but the Supreme Leader, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and most of the Majles remain just as staunchly and stridently anti-American as Trump is anti-Iranian.

No, I don’t see much likelihood this will change. The main thing now is to prevent increased tensions between the US and Iran from exploding into armed conflict. Cooling it is the best we can hope for.


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