Day: January 24, 2012

This is called retrenchment

We all anticipated this State of the Union speech would not focus on international issues, but here is my short list of more important things not mentioned or glossed over:

  • West Bank settlements (or Palestinians)
  • North Korea
  • Euro crisis
  • Africa or Latin America (not even Cuba),
  • Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, virtually no Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen
  • China (except as an unfair competitor)
  • Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, India or even Russia (except as an emerging market)
  • Pakistan (except as an Al Qaeda haven)
  • Strait of Hormuz

That’s a pretty spectacular list, even without noting the absence of NATO, Japan, allies, Europe, the UN…

A few notable items that were mentioned:

  • Strong on regime change in Syria (putting Assad in the same sentence with Qaddafi could have implications) and on exporting democracy and free markets in general
  • Positive about peaceful resolution of the dispute with Iran over nuclear weapons, while keeping all options on the table
  • Trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia
  • Burma as the hope of the Pacific!

Of course the President also mentioned withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, security cooperation with Israel, blows delivered against Al Qaeda, and the troops (no mention of civilians serving abroad this time around I’m afraid).

If this is a prelude to the campaign, as rightly it should be, it presages an ever more economically focused foreign policy, with security issues narrowed to a few top priorities and little focus on diplomacy except on a few specific issues.  This is a vision for restoring American economic strength at home, not increasing–or perhaps even maintaining–its commitments abroad.  This is called retrenchment.

PS:  I should have mentioned that Richard Haas calls it “restoration.”  That’s a more positive word, but the substance is the same.


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Arab world: positive balance, still teetering

I need a scorecard to keep track of political change in the Arab world, so here it is:

  • Egypt:  New Egyptian parliament led by Muslim Brotherhood met for the first time yesterday.  It needs to choose a commission to write the new constitution and call elections for president in June.  Other powers are uncertain.  Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still running things and holding on to perks and power.
  • Yemen:  President Saleh has left for the U.S. for medical treatment.  I still find it incredible he would come here given the risks of a court deciding to hold him accountable for crimes for which he has immunity in Yemen.  A single-candidate “election” February 22 is scheduled to elevate his vice president to the presidency.  It is unclear to me what good this will do.  Protests continue, his relatives cling to power and dissident parts of the armed forces control parts of the capital.
  • Libya:  Demonstrators in Benghazi Sunday attacked National Transitional Council offices in a protest over lack of transparency in deciding the electoral law to be used in May elections and in disbursing money.  That’s the good news.  Occasional strife among the armed militias is the bad news.
  • Syria:  The Arab League, much criticized because its human rights observers have failed to stop the violence, proposed a serious transition plan, which the Syrian National Council accepted and the Assad regime rejected.  The Russians are saying that their patience has run out.  A strong UN Security Council resolution would be a fine way to show that they mean what they say.
  • Saudi Arabia:  The Kingdom is cracking down hard on demonstrations in the majority Shia, oil-producing east.
  • Bahrain: Despite the Bassiouni report‘s frankness about human rights abuses during last year’s repression of protests, the monarchy shows no sign of letting up and the Americans, anxious to keep the Fifth Fleet there, aren’t complaining too loudly.
  • Morocco, Algeria, Jordan:  All attempting various degrees of reform to forestall revolution.  Largely succeeding so far.  In forestalling that is.  Reforms are modest.

So what once looked like a wave of Arab spring protest has now broken into rivulets moving in many different directions as they hit harder and softer obstacles.  A few regimes are gone, but most are still holding on, in some cases just barely.  Tunisia is the great success story, so far.

There are quite a few shoes that haven’t dropped yet, but likely will:  Egypt’s economy is devastated, shoulder launched antiaircraft missiles are circulating in and beyond Libya, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may well expand further in Yemen, sectarian war threatens in Syria.  The new regimes, especially in Egypt, look likely to be tougher-minded towards Israel, even if domestic issues predominate in the short term.  2012 is likely to be even more challenging than 2011.

Still:   the overall direction is clear enough.  There will likely be more freedom of speech and expression in much of the Arab world once this tide goes out.  There will also be more Islamists in power and fewer supposedly secular and pro-Western autocrats.  There will likely be more political competition, though how long it will be permitted to last is uncertain.  It is also unclear how much governance will improve, in particular whether accountability and transparency will triumph over cronyism and corruption, and whether human rights–especially minority rights–will be respected.  The balance for the year is positive, but there are still a lot of things to sort out.


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