Tag Archives: Middle East

Pulling Representative Heck Slowly Toward Understanding Foreign Policy

SpaghettiRepresentative Joe Heck (R-NV3) is confused about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.  “I don’t think we have a coherent foreign policy, and that’s part of the problem,” Heck said. “We have not exercised the level of leadership around the globe as we have over the past 20 years. … The world looks toward somebody to kind of set the example. And I don’t think we’ve been setting the example that we have set previously.” [LVRJ]

First there’s a big difference between something which is incoherent and something with which there is disagreement.  The limited engagement portion of what’s lumped together as Obama Doctrine isn’t too difficult to comprehend.  Unilateral force will be used if there is a direct threat to the United States.  That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.  If force is to be used, it should be in a very precise way.  [FP] Also not all that hard to understand.  In case Representative Heck is still confused, let’s apply some examples.

ISIL: A direct threat to Americans or American interests. IS attacks threatening Americans and American interests in Iraq, especially in the vicinity of Erbil in Kurdish controlled areas presented a direct threat to Americans in the region.  Response? Air strikes.  So far so good.  IS momentum in the area has been blunted and American lives and interests protected.  Humanitarian aid and the rearming of the Peshmerga forces associated with the mission was augmented by efforts from the British, the French, and the Germans.  Multilateral, targeted, minimal force applied to secure desired results.  What’s confusing about that?  But, what of indirect threats?

Libya:  What should be done in cases of threats to global security? Once again, we find the Administration employing a multilateral approach. In 2011 an effort by the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, and Great Britain (in a coalition ultimately including 19 nations)  coordinated a campaign of air strikes, naval blockades, no-fly zones, and logistical assistance to Libyan rebels. It worked.

Syria: The civil war in Syria presents a more complicated problem for nations which perceive the situation as a threat to global security.  The Assad government has close ties to Russia, and the rebel groups range from small inexperienced moderate elements, to criminal gangs, to extremist groups, to the really extremist groups like ISIS.  Coalitions, alliances, and coterminous realignments and the creation of new coalitions, make this a very fluid situation.  Problem One was to get the stockpiles of chemical weapons out of the game.  Mission accomplished. Last month a Danish ship delivered the last 600 metric tons of chemical weapons to a U.S. ship (Cape Ray) at an Italian port, where the chemicals will be destroyed. [CNN] Multilateral. Minimal use of force (a show of force at one point) with a maximum use of diplomacy, combined with a specifically focused mission.

Calls for arming the anti-Assad rebels is a simplistic response to a complicated problem.  In December 2013 the BBC published something of a roster of Syrian rebel forces for those wishing to keep track of the players.  There’s a coalition now called the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, the good news is that this is a relatively moderate group, but the bad news is that it is composed of some 30 different militias which retain their own operational independence, command structures, and agendas. In short it is a very loosely joined network of independent brigades. Then there is the Islamic Front, another coalition of about seven groups which wants to topple the Assad government and devise an Islamic state.  This is not to be confused with the Al Qaeda or jihadist groups, such as the Al Nusra Front, and the Islamic State.  But wait, we haven’t listed the independent groups such as the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, Asala wa al-Tanmiya Front, or the group often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the Durou al-Thawra Commission.

Now, just who is it that the U.S. might want to arm?  And by the way, Syria is about 64% Sunni, about 20% of whom are Kurds, Turkomans, Circassians, and Palestinians.  The Shia represent most of the other Muslims in Syria, and are divided into three groups: Twelvers, Ismailis, and Alawis.  And then there are the recently discovered by the foreign press —  Yazidis.

Now Representative Heck might want to ask himself: Does he prefer a policy which keeps U.S. interests in mind in Syria by making maximum use of diplomatic multilateral efforts and a minimal infusion of force; or would he prefer getting the U.S. mired in another swampy situation in the Middle East?

If one’s idea of a coherent foreign policy is one of moving in with a maximum use of unilateral force — and with minimal consideration of the consequences — then the Obama Administrations doctrine isn’t going to meet with one’s approval. And, that’s the question which needs to be answered by Representative Heck — If you don’t like a mission specific use of force, applied in conjunction with a multilateral diplomatic and military effort, then what do you want?

The bellicose blustering of the Bush Administration sounded coherent, but ultimately proved to produce incoherent results.  Witness our next example: Iraq.

Iraq: A nation created in the wake of World War I, with significant religious and political internal differences, formerly governed by an intransigent and despicable (albeit secular) dictator, crumbles after Sunni populations in the north and west perceive the Shiite government in the south (Baghdad/Basra) to be ignoring or damaging their interests. Kurdish populations in the northeast see the Shiite government as inimical to their interests, and the compliment is returned by the southern Shia.

The removal of ISF military leaders who are Sunni or former Baathists by the Maliki government creates a security force (army) of questionable utility.  The question is answered as the Iraqis try to form a new government in July-August 2014, and  ISIL moves from Syria into ‘friendly’ territory around Mosul.  ISIL (IS) attracts support from local Sunni groups alienated by the Maliki government, and radicals from surrounding territories.

The fractures in the Iraqi political system, fully identified in a policy review with General Odierno in 2010, are visible today. [FP]  Our goals as set forth in 2010-2011 are to (1) encourage reconciliation, (2) help develop a professional civil service, (3) promote a healthy relationship between the parliament and the executive, and (4) to support the reintegration of refugees and displaced persons.  [FP]

Recent actions by the Obama Administration have sought to get the Yazidis to safety (a multinational effort), re-arm and supply the Peshmerga (a multinational effort), and get the Maliki government in the rear view mirror in order to restore the government and the Iraq Security Force into working order.  Is this too complex for Representative Heck to ponder?

How about we set an example of using multinational cooperation to  diminish threats to global security by applying the least force appropriate in the most multilateral format possible?  Is that too difficult to understand?

Carry a Big Bull Horn and Do What With It?

But wait, Representative Heck’s apprehensions go even further:

“Heck said a lack of follow-through on U.S. threats makes America appear weak. He didn’t cite Syria, but President Bashar al-Assad suffered no serious repercussions for using chemical weapons against his own people.

“Our adversaries need to know that if they do X, then the U.S. is going to do Y,” Heck said. “And there has not been that consistency. That’s why you see actors, not only in the Middle East, but also Russia and China, push the limits.”  [LVRJ]

Breathe.  Did Representative Heck miss the part where the Danish ship met the U.S. ship in the Italian harbor — and Assad doesn’t have his chemical weapons anymore? The serious repercussion is that Assad can’t use his chemical weapons on his own people anymore because he doesn’t have them.  He’s down to barrel bombs.

Breathe, and let the breath condense on the crystal ball Representative Heck seems to have about the intentions and actions of foreign parties. If we tell people we’ll do Y if they do X — What are X and Y?

Let’s explore some of the implications of Representative Heck’s simple formula, in the application of the administration’s doctrine: Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.

Putin moves against Ukraine.  There is no direct threat to the United States therefore we will address the threat multilaterally and not necessarily with maximum (military) force.  Multilateral action is messy, can be slow, doesn’t make for dramatic headlines, and certainly isn’t conducive to the bellicose bluster approach. However, in this instance it’s a far better approach.

For example, the U.S. does about $160 million in trade with Ukraine, [Cen] by contrast Germany’s trade with Ukraine is estimated at $10 billion. [Siemens pdf] If economic interests are placed in the “threat” category then Germany has far more at stake in the problems between Ukraine and Russia than we do.  So do China, Belarus, Poland, Turkey, Italy, and Hungary. [Bloomberg]

But, but, but, sputter the critics, Putin moved into Crimea and we didn’t do anything.  Come to think of it, neither did the Ukrainians — possibly remembering Crimea was attached to Ukraine in 1954 as a matter of Soviet administrative convenience, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Crimea negotiated terms which allowed it to be an autonomous republic. [AJAM]

While the Russians (Putin) continue to threaten interference with Ukrainian sovereignty, the latest efforts have been rebuffed.  The Russians are putting out the story that the destruction of an armored column is a fantasy — the Ukrainians have another version of events, one in which they destroyed at least half of it. [HuffPo] Meanwhile, the notion of sending arms to Ukraine sounds a bit like carrying coal to Newcastle — at one point Ukraine exported arms to Russia, included in a total of $1.3 billion in arms sales each year. [Bloomberg]

Perhaps there’s not enough drama in the careful ratcheting up of economic sanctions to cool the blood of those who, like Representative Heck, are unable to comprehend the current foreign policy direction of the Obama Administration?  However, it’s not like the Russians didn’t get some warnings as the sanctions were slowly increased until they started to hurt Russians in their grocery stores. [USAT]  Yes, Mr. Putin, if you continue to threaten (X) Ukraine, the western nations will (Y) hit you in the grocery baskets.  Worse still for Mr. Putin’s plans, the Germans, who have taken their own economic interests into consideration during the maneuvering, are now taking a much stiffer stance. [NYT]

Now, what part of Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance. isn’t clear?

China? It’s difficult to tell what Representative Heck might be talking about, other than a generalized appeal to the old Yellow Peril line of jingoism.  However, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows we’re monitoring what is going on between the Philippines, Vietnam and the Chinese regarding the South China Sea. [Reuters] And, that’s what we’re doing — monitoring to see if there has been or will be a de-escalation of tempers in that region.  We will be working with Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China to resolve differences — meaning we will adopt the position that Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.

Perhaps Representative Heck does understand that the Obama Administration will meet indirect threats with multilateral efforts and not apply the use of maximum force in each instance — then what is the substance of his criticism?  We don’t “sound” strong enough? What does that mean? We don’t “look” strong enough? What does that mean?

Representative Heck may be indulging in theater criticism — should the President’s voice have been louder? Deeper? Should the wording of policy statements have been more aggressive? Should aggressively worded policy statements be issued no matter what our friends and allies may say?  He may assert he doesn’t agree with the foreign policy direction of the Obama Administration, but surely he can’t mean he doesn’t understand it.

Never one to be considered a softy, Gen. George Patton offered this pithy bit of advice on leadership:

“You young lieutenants have to realize that your platoon is like a piece of spaghetti. You can’t push it. You’ve got to get out in front and pull it.”

President Obama seems to have received and understood that message, Representative Heck must still be working on it. Pull too hard on spaghetti and it breaks.

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The Intractable Riddle: US Policy in the Middle East

Middle eastern foreign policy is the one topic assured to bring the house down around the ears, no matter what position may be taken.  The continued ill-will between the Palestinians and the Israelis is at once both one of the most complex and nuanced of conflicts, and one of the most blatantly bisected into warring quarters.   Sometimes we also forget that what is foreign policy for us, is someone else’s domestic policy.

Recommended Reading

Nahum Goldmann, “The Future of Israel,” Foreign Affairs, April 1970.  There is much to be extracted from this piece, even though it is framed in Cold War terms and assumes the polarization of the Soviet Union and the United States.  Among other insightful statements, Goldmann offers the prescient comment that gains secured by force of arms are, by their very nature, transient.

The domestic politics of Israel are summarized, albeit too briefly, in Brent Sasley’s “The Domestic Politics of Israeli Peacemaking,” Foreign Policy, July 22, 2013.  A piece in the Cyprus Mail, brings the problems into sharper focus:

“Recent statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggest that he is increasingly aware of the fundamental dilemma that Israel is bound to face: If it holds on to the occupied territories, it will be forced to choose between being a Jewish but non-democratic state and being a democratic state but seeing the Jews become a minority in their own land. It is unclear whether this dilemma is a pressing concern for the current government, but the fact that Netanyahu brought it up is quite significant.” [CM March 11, 2014]

On the other side of the border, Hamas won the 2006 elections in Gaza, but it’s hardly the only group in play.  The Jewish Policy Center has  thumb-nail sketches of the other players in the game as they were constituted as of May 2012.  Just as there are segments of Israeli politics which are incorporated into the mix of domestic/foreign politics, there are several groups which have adherents in Gaza who are not directly associated with Hamas.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad is once such group, supported by Iran, it is apolitical and primarily interested in armed resistance to Israel, [CFR]  The Al-Quds Brigade has also made its presence known in the recent conflicts with Israel, as the armed wing of the PIJ. [Al Arabiya] Efforts to negotiate any truce or even cease fire agreements has to acknowledge that the Azzeddine el-Kasam (armed wing of Hamas) may or may not be able to control the PIJ or coordinate with it.  In sum, there is no shortage of groups of varying physical capacities, membership, affiliation, and ideological strains in Gaza. Nor is one likely to find an undated  ‘scorecard’ which includes all the possible variations.*

Our Domestic Issues

The right wing talking point of the day is that Secretary of State John Kerry is “feckless.” This category would include almost anyone who (1) isn’t following the Israeli lead unconditionally, and (2) has the temerity to suggest that there are other players in the game who have some, even small, parts which might be inserted into the script.

Consider for a moment, the last cease fire negotiated, the one in which the Egyptian government (Muslim Brotherhood) was trusted by Hamas, and could assert pressure on the government in Gaza to accept terms.  Since the ouster of the government in September 2013, the now clearly anti-Hamas Egyptian government no longer has leverage in the situation in Gaza.  Israel, no doubt would prefer to have the military government of Egypt as the interlocutor, but this seems almost like wishful thinking for times now gone in the rubble of Egyptian politics.  Secretary Kerry suggested two other interlocutors — Qatar and Turkey — which now may have more leverage with Hamas, to the fury of the Israeli press. [Haaretz]

While the shuffling and realignment of Hamas and its allies plays out the role of the Palestinian Authority remains a problem. Does acknowledging Gazan/Hamas issues necessarily diminish the clout of the Palestinian Authority?  How can we keep Egypt engaged in the peace process while accepting that the Gazan/Hamas government doesn’t have much use for their services?

Is it enough to say that a cease fire — who’s even hoping for a truce now? — mentions “addressing security issues” as an umbrella for more specific discussions, or must the agreement include particular security issues to be resolved, or at least discussed? And, by whom?

Complicating the matter even more are the charges and counter-charges shedding  more heat than light on the subject.  Even a comparatively innocuous timeline of events in Gaza drew angry fire from commenters who decried its failure to include elements of the conflict going back to the foundation of the state of Israel, and the validation of Palestinian claims after World War I. [CNN]

At the very least we have a conflict in which Goldmann’s central question from 1970 (Is Israel a democracy with a Jewish minority, or a Jewish state without a democracy?) and his secondary question, (How does one disentangle a question in which there is no right or wrong, but two rights in conflict?) both remain unanswered.

See also: Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al Quds Brigades, Fatah, PFLP  Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, Popular Resistance Committees, Salafi-Jihadist (Jaish al-Islam) and Tawid wa al-Jihad.

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The Mythology of the Missing Apology and Diplomatic Matters

There’s no need to re-invent the wheel, and even less reason to re-write the well written.  J. Patrick Coolican’s masterful takedown of the Obama Apology Mythology in the Las Vegas (NV) Sun is a must read.  Less informative, but more sophomorically  amusing is the third comment down the page from a Tea Party “thinker” who has nothing on offer but ad hominem attacks on the Obama Administration and the President personally.   There are several other articles worth citing which offer cogent explications of various parts of the foreign policy story.

Before anyone starts rambling about why the American embassies and consulates aren’t better protected,  some attention should be paid to the reasons for that, one of which is:

‘Secretaries of State have had to beg for crumbs from Congress, which sees diplomacy as an easy thing to cut back — who lobbies for more money for diplomats? Military contractors have all the money. In addition, no president is criticized for gutting State, while taking even a nail file to Defense’s obese budget elicits slurs from the opposing party.”  [Salon]

There’s some additional commentary on the subject of the Libyan Gaffe   worth reading at The Nation, regarding the political ramifications of Governor Romney’s ill-timed remarks, and a perceptive piece from George Zornick about the intertwined relationship between Governor Romney’s foreign policy pronouncements and the right wing blogs.   Frank Rich explains how Governor Romney got out ahead of the facts.

The wretched hack piece of a film which launched the protests in the Middle East and northern Africa is very difficult to explain to citizens of nations wherein the media is controlled by government agencies.  It is equally hard to explain why “free speech” which denigrates and demeans another religion isn’t officially banned here to citizens of nations in which church/mosque/etc. and state are not separated.  Jack Balkin offers a summary of the legal reasons the wretched hack piece of a film is protected constitutionally.

Secretary of State Clinton reiterated this point in her remarks to U.S. – Morocco Strategic Dialogue:

“I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.”

If you agree that the attack on the consulate in Libya looked very different from the usual rock and bottle throwing flag burners in other hot spots, then the information in Hisham Matar’s contribution to the New Yorker will be instructive. Here’s a taste:

“It is thought to be the work of the same Salafi, ultra-religious groups who have perpetrated similar assaults in Benghazi. They are religious, authoritarian groups who justify their actions through very selective, corrupt, and ultimately self-serving interpretations of Islam. Under Qaddafi, they kept quiet. In the early days of the revolution some of them claimed that fighting Qaddafi was un-Islamic and conveniently issued a fatwa demanding full obedience to the ruler. This is Libya’s extreme right. And, while much is still uncertain, Tuesday’s attack appears to have been their attempt to escalate a strategy they have employed ever since the Libyan revolution overthrew Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship. They see in these days, in which the new Libya and its young institutions are still fragile, an opportunity to grab power. They want to exploit the impatient resentments of young people in particular in order to disrupt progress and the development of democratic institutions.”

Some attention should also be paid to the delicate work that is the essence of diplomacy.   The object of the game is to keep sovereign nations talking constructively with one another so as to promote their mutual interests, and — here’s the sticky part — address, so far as is practicable, their own agendas.

The Yosemite Sam version of diplomacy in which trade and security interests are promoted at gun point with all the sensitivity of a saltwater crocodile  isn’t often very helpful increasing bi-lateral trade and commerce. Characterizing diplomacy as “soft” (as opposed to rushing in guns blazing “hard”) is counterproductive to our own economic interests.  Likewise, when it does come to the classic definition of war — a failure of diplomacy — it’s always better to have friends, especially friends who are willing to foot part of the bills.   There’s one more step in this waltz.

President Obama was, for example, very cautious in his classification of Egypt — a nation not necessarily a friend, but not an enemy.  In a less complex world, or perhaps in one in which there are only two countries, the “friends and enemies” categorizations are possible.  Reality is another matter entirely.   There are friends, enemies, and nations which are both given a particular set of circumstances at a given point in time.  Think: Great Britain and the Falklands/Islas Malvinas (Argentina).    Think: China imports about $82 billion worth of U.S. goods annually.  Some further thought leads inevitably to the conclusion that some friendships are stronger than others, and some enemies can, at times, be very helpful. Think: Pakistan.

 

Therefore, diplomacy in the advancement of American interests requires patience, all too often not our best suit — we like our beer cold, our soup hot, and our aspirin to work within 15 minutes.  The patience involved is not only a matter of concern for Secretary Clinton engaging with the Moroccans at the moment, but also our patience with other countries, especially those which are experiencing internal instability.

Why, we wonder, can’t the citizens of Whateveria get their act together and form a government?  What’s so hard about having an election?  We’ve been having elections forever about everything; six year old first grade students hold up their hands to select either a Story Hour or Puzzle Time for Rainy Day Recess.  That’s the point.

We start practicing “elections,” and other rudimentary forms of democracy with children who are barely housebroken.  The losers in the Story Hour/Puzzle Time vote learn to “go along with the majority.”  Imagine the middle aged man voting in the first election of a lifetime in which the outcome was not already a forgone conclusion.  Imagine a nation in which people are trying to figure out what it means to form a “loyal opposition.”

We also tend to forget the patient long term efforts of diplomats and agencies which carefully tended organizations, in eastern Europe for example, which gradually consolidated sufficient political power to finally and  literally make The Wall fall down.

We imperil our own interests if we don’t recognize that most of the nations with whom we share this planet don’t fall neatly into Cold War Era categorizations of Friends or Enemies.  As tidy and convenient as those labels may be, the simplification is both seductive and counter-productive.  The paradigm is outdated. The classifications are too simplistic.  American interests are always better served when we put away our cartoon character persona’s, re-color our maps in something other than black and white, and approach discussions of foreign policy with the understanding that the ties binding us to each other on this planet are incredibly tangled.

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