Tag: United Arab Emirates

A weakened America

Is America stronger after 11 months of Donald Trump or not?

It is demonstrably weaker, mainly because of his diplomatic moves and non-moves, but also because Trump has done nothing to reduce American military commitments and a good deal to expand them. Let me enumerate:

The diplomatic front:

  • Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) early in the game. The remaining negotiating partners have X-ed out the provisions the US wanted on labor and environmental protection and are preparing to proceed, without American participation. TPP was America’s ace in the Asia Pacific.
  • He is withdrawing as well from the Paris Climate Change accord. That is also proceeding without the US, which will be unable to affect international deliberations on climate change unless and until it rejoins.
  • He has withdrawn from UNESCO, which excludes the US from participation in a lot of cultural, scientific and educational endeavors.
  • He hasn’t announced withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but the negotiations on revising it are thought to be going very badly, mainly because of excessive US demands.
  • He has refused to certify that the Iran nuclear deal is in the US interest, which is so patently obvious that the Republican-controlled Congress is making no moves to withdraw from it.
  • His ill-framed appeal to the Saudis to halt financing of terrorists has precipitated a dramatic split among US allies within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
  • Through his son-in-law he encouraged the Saudis to try to try to depose Lebanon’s prime minister and embargo Qatar, making the prime minister more popular than ever and shifting Doha’s allegiance to Iran.
  • He has continued American support for the Saudi/Emirati war effort in Yemen, while at the same time the State Department has called for an end to the Saudi/Emirati blockade due to the humanitarian crisis there.
  • His decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, undermined his own peace initiative, and obstructed the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia he hoped for.
  • He has done nothing to counter Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria, or Russia’s position in Syria and Ukraine.
  • He initially embraced Turkey’s now President Erdogan but has watched helplessly while Turkey tarnishes its democratic credentials and drifts into the Russian orbit.
  • He has also embraced other autocrats: Philippine President Duterte, China’s President Xi, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to name only three.
  • He has failed to carry the banner of American values and preferred instead transactional relationships that have so far produced nothing substantial for the US.

The military front:

  • Use of drones is way up.
  • So is deployment of US troops in Europe, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, not to mention ships and planes in the Asia Pacific.
  • The Islamic State, while retreating in Syria and Iraq, is advancing in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are also holding their own.
  • Allies are hesitating to pitch in, because the president is erratic. Japan, South Korea, and the Europeans are hedging because the US can no longer be relied on.
  • The US continues to back the Saudi and Emirati campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, precipitating a massive humanitarian crisis.
  • Cyberthreats to the US, including its elections, have increased, without any counter from the administration.
  • Promises that North Korea would not be allowed to develop a missile that could strike the US have gone unfulfilled, and Trump did nothing effective once it accomplished that goal.
  • Military options against North Korea, which are all that Trump seems to be interested in, will bring catastrophic results not only for Koreans but also for US forces stationed there and in the region.
  • Russia continues to occupy part of Ukraine, with no effective military or diplomatic response by the US, and Moscow continues its aggressive stance near the Baltics, in the North Sea, in the Arctic, and in the Pacific.

The diplomatic record is one of almost unmitigated failure and ineffectiveness, apart from new UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea. The military record is more mixed: ISIS is defeated on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, but that is a victory well foreshadowed in the previous administration. It is also far from reassuring, since ISIS will now go underground and re-initiate its terrorist efforts. None of the other military pushes has done more than hold the line. Anyone who expected Trump to withdraw from excessive military commitments should be very disappointed. Anyone who expects him to be successful diplomatically without a fully staffed and empowered State Department is deluded.

The US is more absent diplomatically than present, and more present militarily than effective. We are punching well below our weight. This should be no surprise: the State Department is eviscerated and the Pentagon is exhausted. Allies are puzzled. Adversaries are taking advantage.

Where will we be after another three years of this?

 

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It may not last

I spent three days last week in Baghdad: two talking with people from all over the Middle East (with the important exception of Turkey) about the current situation and one talking with Iraqis.

First Baghdad: It is looking and sounding far more peaceful than it did six years ago, when I last visited. No detonations, lots of trees and other plants, heavy traffic, and bustling sidewalks. I didn’t get out of the Green Zone a lot, but we did stop in Kadhimia and Adhamiyah to see the main mosques. Apart from the all too evident sectarian character of both (the former Shia and the latter Sunni), there was nothing remarkable: just people going about normal life shopping, chatting, praying, strolling, and honking. What a change from 2004-2011, when I visited a couple of times per year. Adhamiyah during part of that time had to be surrounded with T-walls and checkpoints to protect its population from slaughter.

The Iraqi leadership: We of course only met a few people in high places, including the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of parliament, and one minister, in addition to a member of parliament and some of the prime minister’s staff. All are happy to see the Islamic State defeated on the battlefield and all are concerned not to allow it to revive. All are also looking to make cross-sectarian or cross-ethnic alliances in advance of next year’s May 12 election. None were waving sectarian or ethnic identity as their main calling card. This data suggests why (sorry for the size–Wordpress won’t scale it up):

In the general population, sectarian and ethnic identities are still terribly important. While Ayatollah Sistani’s call for volunteers roused some Sunnis to the cause of fighting ISIS, the Popular Mobilization Units he spawned are mostly aggressively Shia and believed to harbor political ambitions. Nor has the Kurdish retreat from pursuing independence reduced popular Kurdish enthusiasm for their own, independent state.

But the leadership has come to understand that gaining a majority in parliament and thereby control of the state requires, under the somewhat ramshackle 2005 constitution, coalitions. Besides, most Iraqis are looking for civil or secular technocrats to run the country. That reduces the relevance of ethnic and sectarian identity, of which Iraqis seem to have had their fill, at least as qualifications for governing.

None of this means the competition among the elite is finished, or even attenuated. To the contrary: all the main sectarian and ethnic blocks are fragmenting. The Kurds are no longer as united as once they were, among the Shia both the Dawa party and what used to be the Supreme Council are split, and there is no clearly dominant figure among the Sunnis. This should make cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian alliances a far more important factor than they have been in the past.

The other Middle Easterners: The mood among the other Middle Easterners attending this session of the Middle East Institute’s Dialogue was likewise more sanguine and friendly than I would have anticipated. All, like the Iraqis, are glad to see the Islamic State dealt defeat in Iraq and Syria, even if they anticipate that it will go underground and re-emerge as an insurgency. All disapproved but seemed more puzzled than angry about President Trump’s announcement on moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. All were happy to see Iraq in a better place.

There the commonalities seemed to end. The Iranians, who in the past have sometimes appeared irascible, were calm and analytical as well as concerned that their victory in Syria brought responsibilities they would rather avoid and anxious for a political solution in Yemen. They also seemed concerned that Iran’s effort to defend itself by supporting Shia proxy forces in the region was at its limit.

The Saudis and Emiratis were enthused about the new direction Riyadh is taking not only in Iraq but also in Yemen and in domestic Saudi policy. Others from Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) were more reflective and a bit unsure what to make of the “new” Saudi Arabia. Several were concerned that the war is not really over: an Israeli or American attack on the Iranians or Hizbollah there could renew hostilities, not to mention the risk of an American clash with the Russians.

Unfortunately there were neither Turks nor Kurds in these group discussions. Had there been, the atmosphere and substance would have been more contentious. The uncertainty about American policy towards the Syrian Kurds is still big: will the Americans restrain them from attacking inside Turkey, or helping the Kurdish insurgents there? Will the Americans try to take back the heavier weapons they provided? Will the Americans withdraw precipitously? There are a lot of known unknowns that could affect the situation in Syria dramatically.

The extra-regional great powers: While a Moscow-based participant was quick to suggest that Russia had defeated ISIS, the Russians and Chinese were concerned, not happy, that post-ISIS Syria is their responsibility. They want the US involved, for both political and financial reasons. The Americans are showing no such inclination. Their assumption is that the Astana/Sochi process run by the Russians with cooperation from Iran and Turkey has superseded the Geneva process run by the UN to resolve the political conflict in Syria. They see no reason beyond defeating ISIS and possibly countering Iran for the American presence in Syria.

Bottom line: Despite the war in Yemen and the uncertainties surrounding how the war is ending in Syria, there is more reason to be sanguine about the region than people in Washington perceive. The bad news is it may not last.

 

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The longer he lasts, the weaker we get

I spent yesterday getting home from Baghdad, so missed the opportunity to say anything quick and trenchant about the Administration’s National Security Strategy. The main takeaways are these:

  1. It is closer to establishment thinking than anticipated given the predilections of the President for upsetting the apple cart;
  2. Still, it is more hostile to China and less realistic about Russia than many of us might like;
  3. It bears little resemblance to what the President has been saying and doing.

He wasn’t even able to read from the Teleprompter “principled realism” and converted it to “our new strategy is based on a principle, realism.” Credit to @PeterBeinart for that observation.

As in most documents of this sort, what was left out is as interesting as what is included.

Everyone is noticing the absence of climate change, which the Administration continues to deny despite the obvious and devastating hurricanes that hit Texas and Puerto Rico this year as well as the current fires burning in California. Sure it could all be random variation, but we know that isn’t likely because of the long secular record scientists have been able to construct. The planet is detectably warming–witness the melting of sea ice in the Arctic–with serious implications for US national security, whether or not human activity is the cause. The Administration is ignoring the problem because it would cost more money than the Republicans want to spend and block the dismantling of Obama’s energy-related regulatory actions.

Other things missing, as Max Boot notes, are free trade, democracy promotion, and international  cooperation, in particular in the form of expanding the rules-based international order.

More immediately concerning in my view is any serious consideration to what happens after the defeat of the Islamic State. There is reference to helping fragile states to avoid threats to the US homeland, but that could mean simply strengthening their security forces and ignoring governance, economic and social issues that lie at the root of extremism. Dictatorship is no cure for what ails the weak states of the Middle East. It is what brought about the Islamic State and we won’t be able to eradicate it using only force.

But in the end, the main problem with this document is that it doesn’t jibe with what the President himself says and believes, as Max documents in some detail. Last week in Baghdad, I found this divergence between the Administration and the President the single biggest concern among Middle Easterners (including Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, and Emiratis). Their consternation about the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem was no greater. The world is used to clear US positions. Their absence creates an enormous vulnerability, one that even the Russians and Chinese find unsettling. When other countries cannot count on what the President says, they hedge in ways that weaken the US.

A well-crafted national security strategy won’t fix that problem. Nor will any amount of adult guidance from Generals McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly. The President can’t get it right even from a Teleprompter. He lacks the mental discipline and depth of experience to understand the implications outside the US of what he says and does not say. Even if the national security strategy were 100% on target, the longer this presidency lasts, the weaker the US will get.

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Peace picks November 27 – December 1

  1. Private Sector Engagement in Afghanistan | Monday, November 27 | 1:00 – 3:00 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | Private sector development in Afghanistan is a crucial topic for U.S engagement in the region. Between 2002 and 2010, about 57 billion US dollars of official development assistance (ODA) was disbursed to Afghanistan for purposes of reconstruction and development. More recently, the Trump administration committed to extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan into the foreseeable future. Military resources alone cannot achieve U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan: it is important to look at the role that the private sector plays in consolidating Afghanistan’s future prosperity and growth. Afghanistan is doing well in fiscal policy, inflation, access to credit, and some aspects of human capital investment (i.e., health expenditures and primary education expenditures). However, to promote private sector growth, Afghanistan needs to tackle political rights, fight corruption, uphold the rule of law, build effective governance, and reform business regulations, to name a few. Fostering a solid private sector in Afghanistan is important for long-term sustainable growth and improving the quality of life for its citizens. Leveraging the private sector to build a robust economic foundation in Afghanistan is a necessary and timely discussion. Panelists will include Gregory Huger of USAID, Mozhgan Wafiq of the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jeffrey Grieco of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, and Hussein Ali Mahrammi of Federation of Afghanistan’s Craftsmen and Traders. They will be joined by CSIS’s Romina Bandura, Earl Anthony Wayne, and Daniel F. Runde.
  2. What’s Next for Lebanon? | Wednesday, November 29 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Arab Center Washington DC (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Join us to discuss the implications of the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the increased belligerent rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia. This event will feature Joseph Bahout of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Joe Macaron of the Arab Center Washington DC, and Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute.
  3. Raqqa After the Islamic State: Governance Challenges in Post-ISIS Syria | Wednesday, November 29 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | With the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s hold on Syrian territory vastly diminished, the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) enters a new phase. The fall of Raqqa—the capital of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate—marked a powerful strategic and symbolic loss for the extremist group. Yet the success of the counter-ISIS campaign will ultimately be determined not by battlefield wins, but instead by what follows. Please join the U.S. Institute of Peace to discuss the complex governance challenges in Raqqa and how the United States and the international community can constructively address them. In a recent USIP Special Report, Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria, the Middle East and North Africa at the Institute, examines the critical governance challenges in Raqqa after the Islamic State. Her report highlights the ethnic, tribal, and strategic complexities that will affect this new phase. To sustain security in the territories freed from ISIS, a broad approach to stabilization will be vital. That approach will have to ensure effective and inclusive governance that is responsive to the needs of the local population. This event’s speakers include Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Nicholas A. Heras of the Center for a New American Security, Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and moderator Sarhang Hamasaeed of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
  4. A Coming Storm? Shaping a Balkan Future in an Era of Uncertainty | Wednesday, November 29 | 9:00 am – 6:15 | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Although the Western Balkan region has made significant progress in its efforts to integrate into the wider transatlantic community, inspired and guided by its commitment to eventual membership in the European Union (EU), NATO, and other global institutions, that progress is now at risk. The conference will seek to generate new ideas and policy-relevant proposals to craft a way forward for the Balkan region, firmly embedded within the transatlantic community. This conference will engage the highest levels of transatlantic decision-makers, bringing together over 100 participants, ranging from regional leaders to decision-makers from both sides of the Atlantic and top experts in the field, to spotlight what is at stake and spur support for a reenergized Balkans policy in the United States in partnership with the European Union. The all-day event will include five panels and a keynote address.
  5. How to Help Vulnerable States Prevent Their Own Crises | Thursday, November 30 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | The European Union recently has added a new priority to its foreign and defense policies: Help countries vulnerable to crisis build their resilience against catastrophic events, notably violent conflict, which has uprooted 65 million people worldwide. The EU’s shift is part of a growing global focus on the importance of preventing civil war and its devastation. The United Nations, World Bank and U.S. government are among the organizations taking up this agenda. On November 30, USIP gathers U.S., European and World Bank officials to discuss how governments and international organizations can better coordinate the implementation of this broad new approach to halting violent conflicts. The European Union issued its new framework for policy this year as the World Bank and United Nations are completing a broad study on ways to catalyze the international community to better prevent violent conflicts. Concurrently, the State Department and other U.S. agencies are reviewing the United States’ efforts to help states struggling for stability in the face of warfare. As governments and international organizations improve these strategies, where are the obstacles to better coordination? Christian Leffler of the European Union will open this discussion by laying out the new EU policy framework. Other speakers will include Nancy Lindborg of the US Institute of Peace, Franck Bosquet of the World Bank, Raphael Carland of the State Department, and moderator Joe Hewitt of the US Institute of Peace. 
  6. Public Opinion in a Conflicted Middle East | Thursday, November 30 | 12:00 – 1:30 | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Arab American Institute (AAI) are pleased to host James Zogby (AAI and Zogby Research Services) for the presentation of fresh polling results from across Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Turkey. The report examines opinions from 7,800 respondents about the U.S. and other regional states’ roles in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It also looks at Trump Administration policy, political Islam, prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Iran nuclear deal, and the region’s refugee crisis. Joining Dr. Zogby to discuss the poll findings will be Yousef Munayyer (MEI & U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights), Barbara Slavin (Atlantic Council; Al-Monitor), and Gönül Tol (MEI). MEI senior vice president Paul Salem will moderate the event. The poll and resulting report were commissioned by the Sir Bani Yas Forum, convened annually in the United Arab Emirates on the initiative of H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the U.A.E. Foreign Minister. The findings are being made available for use by the public.
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The Kingdom needs to cool it

Atheer Ahmed Kakan of the (Turkish) Anadolu Agency asked questions last week. I replied:

1. What do you think of Trump policy in the Middle East right now?

A: Trump policy in the Middle East seems calculated to push back hard on Iran, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but it is having perverse effects. The war in Yemen is going badly, the blockade of Qatar has driven Doha closer to Tehran and Ankara, and the forced resignation of Saad Hariri has united Lebanon against the Kingdom. Ironically, Trump has done nothing to push back against Iran or its proxies in Syria.

2. What do you have to say about Saudis new developments? Adopting “moderate version of Islam”? Attacking Iran publicly? Aligning with Israel against Iran? Re-engaging with Iraq?

A: No one I know would object to the Kingdom advocating for more moderate Islam. Re-engaging with Iraq is also a good idea. Mouthing off against Iran is not. I’m not sure how far the alignment with Israel is really going to go.

3. What do you think the consequences of Trump letting Saudis hand in the MidEast? Are we witnessing Saudi-Iranian war? New civil war in Lebanon? New opened war in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon beside Yemen?

A: I trust cooler heads will prevent some of those things from happening, but there are a lot of risks. The Kingdom needs to assess its own capabilities and align its actions with those. Hotheadedness doesn’t win wars, or peace.

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The Saudi auto-coup

Thirty-two year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has taken on a lot:

  • Domestic political and economic reforms, including partial privatization of Aramco, allowing women to drive, and shifting the economy away from oil and gas;
  • The war in Yemen against the Houthi takeover of part of the country, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and with sometimes reluctant support from the US;
  • A major diplomatic spat with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorists;
  • Removal of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri to protest Iran’s influence there;
  • Arrest of rival princes for corruption.

What could go wrong?

Each of these moves may have virtues. Certainly Saudi Arabia needs reforms to get it into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. The Houthis overreached and merit comeuppance. Qatar’s financial empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood has caused problems for Bahrain, Egypt and Syria. Iran-sponsored Hizbollah is an armed non-state actor within a state that merits opposition. Corruption is endemic in the Kingdom and needs countering.

But each also poses problems. The “Saudi Vision 2030” reforms that MbS has proposed are far-reaching, but implementation is likely to be problematic and lag. The war in Yemen is causing massive civilian suffering and political division. It will be difficult if not impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The blockade against Qatar has drive Doha in the direction of Ankara and Tehran, rather than bringing it back into the Gulf orbit. Hariri was a weak reed, but now there is none. Lebanese are united in wanting his return, which the State Department also supports. Countering corruption only among your political opponents is not a good way to clean up a system.

One other, less visible but important, initiative is the Saudi rapprochement with Israel, which shares the Kingdom’s hostility towards Iran. How far can this go? What are its implications for the geopolitics of the region?

But most of all: doing all these things at once, without ample consultation even within the royal family, is far from the Kingdom’s cautious tradition. A 32-year-old Crown Prince undertaking it amounts to an auto-coup: a takeover by someone already in power.

Some will argue that is the only way to get things done. The parallel to President Trump’s efforts to upset the apple cart in the US is obvious. It is no surprise that the White House (in the person of Jared Kushner) apparently encouraged the arrest of the royal opponents, and maybe even the resignation of Hariri, making the State Department statement against it moot. But how is Trump’s radical program working out in the US? The repudiation Trump suffered Tuesday in America’s equivalent of by elections was massive, even if concentrated in blue states (one-purple Virginia, New Jersey, and New York).

Of course there will be no voting in Saudi Arabia to test MbS’s initiatives. The consequences are likely to be less visible, at least initially, and possibly less peaceful, eventually. MbS has taken big risks for big gains. Pay day, if it happens, is still a long way off.

 

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