Archive for September, 2011

September 29, 2011

IEDs and Cuba Libres, together at last according to Bachmann

I was trying to hold off on this until I finished my full upcoming post on the foreign policy weakness of the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates. I really was, but this can’t hold back anymore. The sheer stunning craziness forces me to speak. I have also come to realize that there are times on this blog for gravitas and intellectual rigor when covering a subject. This will be applied to the aforementioned post. There are also times for blatant mocking. This post is very, very much the latter.

I’m of course talking about Michele Bachmann. Of course. It turns out that unbeknownst to the United States writ-large, Cuba has been close to prompting another missile crisis for a plucky young team of mutants to solve. This time, the Soviets aren’t the ones that are putting up missile sites in Havana. It’s Hezbollah.

In her recent slams on Cuba, potentially a bid to help her win the Florida primary, Congresswoman Bachmann has decided to focus on Cuba’s alleged ties with the Lebanese terrorist organization cum political party. After asking her crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa why the United States would normalize trade with a country that sponsors terrorism, i.e. Cuba, she let this loose:

“Hezbollah has been potentially looking at wanting a part of missile sites in Iran,” she said, citing earlier her position on the House Intelligence Committee. “So of course when you’re 90 miles offshore from Florida, you don’t want to entertain the prospect of hosting bases or sites where Hezbollah can have training camps or perhaps have missile sites or weapons sites in Cuba. This would be foolish.”

So yes. Just a few problems there. First of all, this entire story was all based on one report, which was published in Italy’s Corriere della Sera at the end of August and was pushed on several conservative blogs. I managed to find the piece, and while I don’t speak Italian, and Google Translate doesn’t do the best job of unpacking everything, I’m not seeing any attributed quotes, or even unattributed quotes. It’s odd, because the newspaper has a sterling reputation, especially compared to other Italian newspapers, but the story is both brief and lacking in anything that makes it ring true.

In any case, the article speaks of a trio of Lebanese who have made their way to Cuba from Mexico to use it as a base for attacks against Israelis in Latin America and to meet with people of ill-repute to traffic weapons and smuggle people across borders. These three are to be joined by over twenty others to launch forward operations. There is some small air of truth in this, in that Hezbollah has been known to operate in some of the more lawless areas of South America, such as the Tri-Border Region, for smuggling and money laundering. But there’s nothing in this article that makes it seem like the story that is being pushed about Cuba has any backing to it. Nor does is mention anything about missiles or setting up training bases.

Not that that sort of thing matters to Congresswoman Bachmann. According the Wall Street Journal article linked, she’s using her time on the House Intelligence Committee, which she won after the 2010 midterms, to promote her experience with foreign policy. Okay, pause. Let’s say maybe, just maybe, that in her time on the House Intelligence Committee, she came across something to back up her statement about Hezbollah and Cuba. That would definitely qualify as something that the public doesn’t know then, and would have been revealed by Congresswoman Bachmann. How does leaking privileged information in speeches help your case? Answer: it doesn’t. At all.

More likely, as reported in this Politico piece, it was a case of Michele Bachmann skimming something put in front of her and then speaking on it publicly as she often does, leaving it for her aides to clean up. Good luck with this one guys. The Twitterverse and blogosphere are already having a good time with it, as evidenced by this tweet by IR scholar/part-time Anne-Marie Slaughter nemesis Dan Drezner:

 I have it on good authority that Hezbollah is in league with the Parti Quebecois #notreally #somethingforbachmanntocitenextweek

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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September 29, 2011

Venezuela is basically the Lady Gaga of the United Nations

Hear me out on the title. The day before yesterday ended the General Debate of the General Assembly this year. I wish I’d had more time to watch all of the speeches and critique them properly, but I can’t complain. At least I got to catch some. I know a few days ago, I half-jokingly lamented the lack of dictators this year to provide more…colorful moments. BUT WAIT.

Thankfully I had time to actually catch the Venezuela’s speech to the GA, always a crowd pleaser. Mr. Red Beret himself, President Hugo Chavez, was absent this year, due to his undergoing cancer treatment which, despite my opposition to almost all of his polices, I hope goes well. President Chavez’s illness didn’t mean that his speechwriters were unable find time to pen a marvel of a work for the Minister of People’s Power for Foreign Affairs Nicolás Maduro Moros. It was a doozy. Which leads me to make the analogy in the title, that Venezuela is basically the Lady Gaga of the United Nations.  I’ll explain after a bit, but first I want to cover just some of the things that Mr. Moros went over in his speech.

Once I realized I needed to write about this, the first words I put to paper were “Oh man, this is ridiculous”. So that I hope sets the tone for the rest of this. In one of his more sensible phrases, Mr. Moros insisted that the capitalist forces of the West are “marching towards ecocide”. From there he suggested that the West still follows the ideology of the conquistadors, incredulous that despite the energy crisis, the financial crisis, and food crisis, that capitalism continues to reign.

Mr. Moros then, like a high school senior giving a valedictorian speech, pulled out a quote from US scientist Linus Pauling:

“I believe that there is a greater power in the world than the evil power of military force, or nuclear bombs–there is the power of good, of morality, or humanitarianism. I believe in the power of the human spirit.”

Nothing wrong with that quote, per se. It just seemed like an odd choice. Or maybe not, because he continued on, saying it is “imperative to unleash a great counter political offense to prevent global war”. Venezuela called for the establishment of a broad peace-based alliance against war, saying that warmongers and especially the military-financial leadership must be vanquished. In a particularly fun point, he managed to call NATO “the military arm of the American empire”.

And here’s where it gets fun, and proves that someone at the Venezuelan mission has not done their homework. The Foreign Minister railed against NATO ‘violating’ the no-fly zone imposed in SC/Res/1973:

“What has become of the no-fly zone of 1973? How could NATO undertake more than 20,000 missions if there was a no-fly zone? Is this not a complete denial?”

So. I actually have read SC/Res/1973. And it clearly says that the no-fly zone does not apply to those Member States that are acting to enforce the no-fly zone. This being a Chapter VII resolution and all, acting under Article 42, this effectively means that so long as countries give the Sec-Gen a heads-up, they can fly as many sorties as they want to enforce the no-fly over Libya. The resolution also authorizes Member States to “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”. As anyone who actually pays attention to the UN knows, “all necessary measures” means military force. So while the argument could be made that NATO should technically be bombing the NTC forces attacking Sirte right now, Mr. Moros doesn’t quite manage to make a valid point.

Another buzz on the truth-meter is Mr. Moros’ claim that NATO introduced heavy weapons to Libya’s rebels. I have found absolutely no reporting of this anywhere except the hilariously anti-NATO Centre for Research on Globalization which I’m not even going to bother linking to. All of NATO’s actions, according to Venezuela, were “meant to prevent the Libyan government from protecting its sovereignty”. …Against its own people. I haven’t signed onto R2P in blood or anything, but I do believe that once you have to protect your sovereignty against your own citizens, something has gone horribly awry, especially when that protection involves lethal force and promise to hunt everyone down like rats.

The real crux of his argument about Libya is that the reason for the intervention was to recolonize Libya and take over its wealth. This stands out as insanely stupid on our part if that really was the plan. First of all, say we actually had invaded Iraq for its oil back in 2003. We have seen that it ends pretty poorly for everyone involved, so why would we attempt it a second time in Libya? Second, up until Gaddafi’s forces started marching their way east, Libya was back in the fold of the international community and especially well-loved by its neighbors to the south for its generosity. The West was getting Libyan oil just fine, until we sanctioned it. Logic doesn’t seem to apply during the speechwriting process in Caracas. All of this added up to the obvious conclusion that Syria is next on the West’s Regime Change Tour 2011. Luckily for Al-Bashar though, he has the full weight of Venezuela behind him.

The next part of his speech turn to Horn of Africa, which is, you know, a legitimate concern, being the most widespread famine in decades in the region. Unfortunately, this too turned into a case of West-bashing. Citing the ever reliable source Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) saying at the start of the Libyan intervention that the excursion would cost the US $500M in its first week Mr. Moros insisted that the amount spent in the first three weeks to massacre the Libyan people could have been used to prevent the deaths of dozens of hundreds of thousands in Horn of Africa. Again, I’m almost willing to give him a pass on what seems like a legitimate concern. He then called it part of a Malthusian policy to lower the world population as a conspiracy to raise revenue for capitalists. And we’re back on track with crazy.

The rest of his speech was devoted to railing against the United Nations system as a whole, including, but not limited to, the Secretary-General, the P-5 members of the Security Council, the Security Council itself, the Charter, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and I’m pretty sure he spoke out against the cafeteria at one point. Okay, not really on the last one, but I wouldn’t have been surprised by this point.

So after all of that, where does the Gaga analogy come in? Look at it this way. The UN General Assembly is a huge event, where the world comes together to talk about the issues it faces and celebrate its achievements and challenges ahead for the next year. And every year, there are certain countries that people look forward to hearing from, knowing that it may well top the spectacle of the previous year, and that’s really what they pay attention for. So too it is with the MTV Video Music Awards and basically every awards show in the industry.  It certainly was not for the tension of the “Best New Artist” that 12.4 million people tuned into the VMAs this year. No, the VMAs have become a showcase for the outrageous, and nobody represents that better than Lady Gaga. She’s the main event and has been for the last few years. Everyone wonders just what she’ll do and say on stage at her next appearance. It’s a pretty easy line to draw between her and Venezuela at this point, especially now that Qaddafi is out of power.

So I’ll rank this year’s performance as a “Bubble Dress” on the Gaga Crazy scale, far below the Meat Dress, but still more out there than what many others are doing at the same time. This year was no “The Devil Has Been Here”, but really, what is? And they say showmanship is dead.

September 27, 2011

The Puzzle of Pakistan, or Why I Just Can’t Wish FM Khar Success

I clearly haven’t been paying as much attention as I should to Pakistan. Clearly. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been surprised when I saw a woman take the rostrum at the General Assembly this afternoon. I immediately set about Googling her, to see just what I missed in the months since Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was appointed the youngest person and first female to hold the seat of Foreign Minister of Pakistan. What I discovered is that she’s 34 years old, only ten years older than I am, and has already managed to restart peace talks with India. Unfortunately, most of the rest of what came up was commentary on her wardrobe choices.

Those publications would do well to take her more seriously; she one of only two women to hold a seat in the Pakistani National Assembly that isn’t set aside specifically for women. Moreover, she has a tough job in front of her with US-Pakistani relations at a serious low and India as pervasive a threat in the Pakistani mindset as ever, but one that she seems willing to face head-on. In her speech to the General Assembly, she began by highlighting the fact that Pakistan will be seeking a seat on the UN Security Council next year, in the election that takes place during this session of the Assembly, filling the seat that Lebanon will be leaving vacant. Unspoken was the fact that India currently holds a seat on the SC, and so the two of them would be sharing the Horseshoe Table until 2013 when India’s term expires. The two countries have served on the Council three times since the founding of the UN, most recently in 1984.

Perhaps seeking to alleviate any concerns about this arrangement that fellow members of the Asian Group might have, Khar stressed that India and Pakistan are in the process of holding substantive dialogue, and expressed her hope that the talks will be “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”. That last phrase was more directed at India than any other state, an unspoken acknowledgement of the last interruption in talks, the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Whether she has the power to follow through and actually keep the Lakshar-e-Toiba in check is yet to be seen.

FM Khar then devoted a substantial chunk of her speech to the situation to Pakistan’s west, in Afghanistan, emphasizing that Pakistan is devoted to supporting peace and backs Afghan President Hamid Karzai and attempts at reconciliation with the Taliban. At the same time, Pakistan condemned the attack on the US Embassy in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. Here’s the thing about that, though. Just recently, outgoing US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen accused Pakistan of supporting the attack. The pushback by Pakistan has been forceful, but relations have turned almost glacial since then. FM Khar worked to defuse the situation saying that “perhaps understandable that there is a high level of anxiety and emotions”, stressing the need for the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan to “work closely and as responsible partners” and “not rush to judgement or question each other’s intentions”.

It’s not at all certain that the Foreign Minister has the power in the government to truly lead to a breakthrough in relations with the US. She did manage to cite some impressive figures in Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terrorism, saying that over 30,000 Pakistanis have died because of terrorism, fifteen times the number of Americans that died on September 11th. That might not be enough this time. Suspicion towards Pakistan is high and rising in the United States, the case certainly not helped by today’s New York Times article which ties the Pakistani Army with a 2007 border ambush on American and Afghan troops. This leaves, among other things, the prospect of the US supporting a Pakistani seat on the Security Council as shaky at best.

Pakistan is a puzzling case for US policy, in that we’ve clearly seen a situation where you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. After aid was cut off to Pakistan following the successful test of its nuclear weapons in the 1990s, we saw no alteration of its policy towards proliferation, towards combating terrorism, or supporting the Taliban. After aid was restored and boosted in 2002, we still have been on less than solid ground with both the military regime of Musharraf and the civilian governments that have followed. Pakistan’s policy in the last decade, as it was in the 1980s, is one where you never, ever find yourself holding a losing hand, and doing everything in your power to make sure that at the end of the game if you haven’t won, you at least haven’t lost. This is the case in Afghanistan, hedging against the US losing against the Taliban, and in dealing with India, making sure that despite talks its oldest foe does not think that it can trample Pakistan.

This sort of runaround makes sense in the short-term but is an abject disaster as a long-term strategy, which seems to be the case here. Rather than cutting ties with groups like the L-e-T and the Haqqani Network once and for all, the Pakistani government is still hedging its bets. While I like the new Foreign Minister, and wish Ms. Rabbani Khar well, the underlying fact is that until she and the rest of Prime Minister Gilani’s Cabinet prove that Pakistan has not only chosen a side but it’s one that does not act against the US’ interests, I can’t really bring myself to wish her success.

September 26, 2011

The Russian Shell Game Continues

I, like most of the Western world, woke up on Saturday to the news that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had proposed to United Russia that Vladmir Putin be the candidate in 2012. I believe this seven second YouTube clip from Aladdin accurately portrays my reaction.

Back when Putin first stepped down to become Prime Minister to make way for Medvedev, I don’t think there was a single person who knew anything about Russia who thought it would last. The facts pretty much spoke for themselves:

  • Putin had consolidated too much power in the Office of the President to be comfortable with being Prime Minister, even with the ability to basically run things from the Duma
  • With the phrasing of the Russian constitution that prohibits more than two consecutive terms, it was pretty much inevitable that Putin would return
  • United Russia has been busy fixing elections for itself at every level of government imaginable for years now, so the possibility of another candidate possibly winning the seat is enough of a fiction to make Putin’s return a sure thing

Even though Medvedev throughout the years has shown flashes of independence, notably this year calling for a prevention of “political stagnation” in Russia and a brief schism over Russia’s policy towards the Libyan intervention, it was never entirely sure if those moments were actual schisms with Putin that could lead to Medvedev taking on a stronger role in the partnership, or if they were showmanship to manage to effectively play both sides to the Russian people.

This move to switch roles between them seems to lend itself to the more cynical view. Which isn’t to say that it’s going over entirely smoothly. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has been forced to resign today, after publicly speaking out against Medvedev’s economic plans and airing his ire over being passed over for the Premiership under the Putin-Medvedev swap.

This is more likely to be a hiccup rather than a bellwether of anything to come in the next year. While some public dissension may spring up from time to time, there is little chance of anything welling up to the point of action being taken against United Russia. Too many alternate parties have been beaten down over the last decade, arrested at any and all attempts of mass rallies, starved of funding, and their supporters driven away from the ballot box or scared into voting for United Russia. Journalists and non-governmental organizations are harassed regularly, and it’s entirely likely that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be rebuffed entirely from having election observers on the ground in December’s parliamentary elections.

The idea that a government can have enough of any iron fist while still maintaining the facade of democracy most certainly took a shaking this year as the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa. While the Arab Spring analogy may look pleasant when prognosticating for Russia,  you have to realize that the Russians have gotten very, very good at this game. And unlike those states whose leaders have been toppled and besieged with protests, the Russian Federation has more than enough world power left to keep everyone very wary of being accused of interfering in their internal affairs, leaving them a free hand to do as they wish with their very unique version of democracy. And so the Russian Shell Game continues. Only in this version, Putin is under every shell, leaving everyone a winner in the eyes of the Kremlin.

September 26, 2011

Syria Business: Syria’s FM Blames Everyone but Al-Assad for Syria’s Problems

As I was writing the last post, I realized I have a free couple of minutes to tune into the livestream of the UN General Debate. And who should be speaking, but the Foreign Minister of Syria, Mr. Walid Al-Moualem. This being too good an opportunity to miss, I decided to listen in.

Rather than dodging the issue, FM Al-Moualem decided to tackle his country’s current issues head-on.

“There is no doubt that the positions of states are governed by geopolitical realities and constraints and demands stemming there from,” he began, speaking of Syria’s role in the balance of politics, being in the very heart of the Middle East. This was all well and good, until he began to speak of Syria’s historic support of resistance movements. I suppose that those movements only count outside of Syria’s borders.

He went on to talk about Syria’s having extended the hand of friendship to all states and how it builds relations on mutual respect and interest. Mr. Al-Moualem then pivoted to speak on the occupation of Iraq, which “dragged us into another battle”, where they faced the choice of “siege and isolation or submitting to dictates”. They clearly chose the former.

Having properly framed the strength and bravery of the Al-Assad government, Mr. Moualem spoke of the internal issues as having two sides. On the one, the country needs the people driven political, economic and social reforms that the citizens of Syria have been calling for, and that President Assad has apparently championed. However, “political circumstances” forced internal demands to take a backseat to other priorities. It would seem that the “overriding priority” was “facing external pressures” that were “at time tantamount to blatant conspiracies”. This was followed up with another declaration that armed groups are currently sabotaging the Syrian protests and sowing seeds of insecurity as a pretext for foreign intervention. In what may have been my favorite part of the speech, Mr. Al-Moualem declared that Syria takes very seriously its responsibility to protect its citizens, and has acted to guarantee their safety and security from international intervention.

Syria’s FM went on to say that after President Al-Assad declared his reform measures in June, he introduced all sorts of Acts, allowing political pluralism, laying the groundwork for free and open media, and the potential for a new Constitution. He went on to claim that opposition figures have come together with the government to examine this reform package. This confuses me, as I’m pretty sure the Syrian opposition was barely able to agree on naming themselves the Syrian National Council, let alone enough of a plan of action to be able to meet with the government and negotiate reforms.

He then started talking more about the “other side of the coin”, calling out countries that spoke out about Syria in the General Debate for promoting defiance and incitement. In a wonderful leap of logic, Syria “deeply regret[s] the surge in the activities of armed groups…, which have not waned and instead continued to spiral”, which were declared to be “in tandem with multiple economic sanctions”. So the Syrian government kills more people the more it’s sanctioned, serving almost as a cryptic warning to the West. As a side note, nobody is saying that there has been absolutely no violence incited by the opposition; it’s just that violence in Syria is being carried out by on a scale several magnitudes by the Syrian government and army against the people compared to the reverse. In any case, by targeting the Syrian economy with sanctions, Mr. Al-Moualem stated, the United States and European Union jeopardize the basic subsistence needs of the Syrian people, which cannot be reconciled with concerns for the rights of the Syrian people. Concerns for the rights of the Syrian people being of the utmost priority, of course.

Towards the end is where it got really interesting, as the claim was put forward that the Al-Assad government has opted for a secular route as located Syria is located in an area of many religions. While I agree that it is in the cradle of the major religions, and that the Syrian people as whole seem to steer away from secular conflict, I have to say that the fact that Syria helps fund Hezbollah really undercuts the statement as a whole. Mr. Al-Moualem followed up by railing against the “financing and arming of religious extremism”. Seriously? There is not a pot/kettle analogy strong enough to be used here. This religious extremism is meant to spread Western hegemony and Israel’s expansionist needs. And the train has gone off the rails. He concluded by saying that the Syrian people will reject any intervention, and “will not let you implement your plans and will foil your schemes”, and thanked those countries that have “stood by [his] people”. Here’s looking at you, Brazil. Well played.

During his speech, Mr. Al-Moualem tried to hide behind the UN Charter, specifically Chapter I, Article 2, Section 7:

 Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter

This is a pretty common line of attack in the protection of national sovereignty against the responsibility to protect. However, everyone seems to forget the second part of Article 2(7):

 but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.

The ball is quite clearly in the Security Council’s court as the arbiters of Chapter VII; it’s then imperative for the survival of the Syrian government that it continues its push to have the Libyan intervention viewed in a negative light by the current members of the Security Council. So long as the BRICS countries refuse to take action on Syria, the likelihood of Syria’s protests taking on a much more violent approach rises. I can only hope that in its example and in diplomatic pushes, that Turkey can convince some of its fellow middle/rising powers to take a much firmer stance on Syria.

September 26, 2011

The UN General Assembly…Abridged!: Or, Palestine, Palestine, Crazy, Hope, Palestine

So I may have overestimated the amount of time that my real-person job would cut into my blogging. It being the General Debate at the UN General Assembly, though, my loyal reader, singular, would not forgive me for not having at least something up. That, plus I realized that most bloggers DO have actual jobs and so excuses are for chumps, to use the common parlance.

General Debate in years past has often been better translated as “dictators give lengthy diatribes”. This year, though, has been different, though no less boring. The General Debate has, of course, been dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian debate, which despite the best efforts of the United States, has made its way to the horrendously carpeted floor of the General Assembly.

President Abbas received a hero’s welcome in Palestine after making what many called an historic speech. President Abbas theatrically waved about a copy of the official request for full membership that he earlier presented to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Theatricality aside, the members inside the General Assembly ate it up, offering President Abbas several standing ovations. This made for the rather awkward optics of seeing Ambassador Susan Rice and the rest of the United States delegation sitting sullenly while spontaneous cheers went up all around. I understand the United States’ position, even if I don’t agree with it fully, but from a purely international political point of view, stonewalling Abbas’ speech doesn’t particularly play well.

A few speakers later, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took the rostrum of the GA, and put on a show of his own. As President Abbas was speaking to the people at home, so too was PM Netanyahu. His speech was well-delivered and full of what were intended to be laugh lines and clearly impromptu drop-ins; never let it be said that Bibi doesn’t give an impressive speech in perfect English. But it clearly wasn’t one for the delegates in the room. Rather, it was written and delivered to his right-wing at home in Israel and to Congressional Republicans in the United States. And he gave them everything that they wanted and more. Which is to say he gave a full-throated push for security matters to come above all else when dealing with a solution to the Palestinian statehood issue and wanting to prevent the West Bank from becoming another Gaza, the sort of red-meat that has Republicans giving their own standing ovations.

Bibi challenged President Abbas to meet with him immediately, with no preconditions, on the sidelines of the UN, but this was an offer that was never meant to be taken; Palestine refuses to return to the negotiating table until Israel ceases constructing settlements in the West Bank. The point became moot when the Quartet, made up of the US, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations issued a statement on restarting peace talks. The statement went over like a lead balloon, however, with Egypt speaking in their first post-Mubarak appearance at the UN and utterly eviscerating the proposal’s lack of timelines and conditions to restart talks.

So your guess is as good as mine where this goes from here. The United Nations Security Council has Lebanon as its President this month, and upon receiving the Palestinian application on Friday, the Council was set to have initial discussion of it this afternoon. There was talk that the Quartet’s statement would put this discussion on hold, but with nobody seeming to be fans of it, it would seem that Lebanon has gone ahead and added “Admission of New Members” to the Council’s agenda for today. So I’m sure we’ll hear more about this later.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue wasn’t all that was discussed, however, and there were a few shining moments that cut through. The first was the first speech to the General Assembly by the newest addition to the United Nations, South Sudan, the 193rd member. President Salva Kiir, wearing his fetching black cowboy hat as ever, spoke of his gratitude to the international community, the need for stable security, and the need to diversify the oil-based economy of South Sudan. If President Kiir manages to pull this off, South Sudan could serve as a model to oil-rich countries across the globe. And to link back to earlier in this post, this year marked the first in over forty years where Mommar Qaddafi has not been the voice of Libya. Instead, Mahmoud Jibril, Chairman of the National Transitional Council, spoke to the body. Not only was this a victory for the beleaguered translators on the second floor, but a success for there being one less dictator in the halls of the UN.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad’s annual craziness at the GA, followed by the annual walk of any member-states who had stuck around thus far. Conspiracy theories abound as ever, including a fun little attack on the reality of September 11th. Mark Kornblau, USUN spokesman, put it as succinctly as possible in what may be the best press release ever:

Mr. Ahmadinejad had a chance to address his own people’s aspirations for freedom and dignity, but instead he again turned to abhorrent anti-Semitic slurs and despicable conspiracy theories.

Those were just the most entertaining parts that have gone on so far; many serious speeches and proposals for policies to uphold and fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and tap the potential of women were given among others. While more most certainly went on, I’ll leave some of the more choice tidbits for other posts, including one that I have queued up for right after this one goes live.

EDIT: Like I said, there’s an update to the UNSC Palestinian question. According to Dennis Fitz: “The UNSC met today & decided to meet again on Wed to decide whether to refer Palestine membership bid to admissions committee.” So there you go. There’s no veto on the Admissions Committee, but all 15 states have a representative on it. More information on Wednesday, but this means that tonight and tomorrow will be an all-out push by the Palestinians to get at least nine votes on the Council to be pledged to vote yes and by the US to get them to hold back. Either way, the move will fail even/especially if it moves out of the Admissions Committee, but it being via a failure to garner nine votes and a US veto are very different things indeed.

September 5, 2011

Re-Introduction to International Relations

I will be the first to admit that as an undergraduate, I hated studying IR theory. Absolutely hated it. Why on Earth would I care about contradictory, oft proven wrong on a case-by-case basis pieces of mental flotsam that purported to layout cleanly how the world works? For my part, I was always much more interested in “practical” international relations. History and current events were all that matters; that and the form and structure of various nation-states and international organizations, all of this was my bread and butter. Ignoring the “why”, I admit, was stupid, but I cared much, much more about the “what”.

That changed recently. Maybe it’s that I’ve matured as a thinker since taking my Intro to International Relations course with Professor Yael Aranoff over four years ago at MSU. Maybe it’s that the world has become more complicated and I’m realizing that I need to understand the underlying nature of it in order to impact it. Maybe it’s just the proliferation of IR wonks on my Twitter feed reached a tipping point and I’m inundated on a daily with enough articles to keep me reading for several consecutive decades and can watch them debate live on my netbook screen.

No matter what the reasoning, I find myself actually paying attention to the arguments that IR writers are making, and agreeing or disagreeing on various points. I’m finally taking it to heart. Reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s works on the evolving nature of sovereignty has given me a firmer grasp on my own thinking about the way the world does and should work.

For example, take this piece over the weekend in the Boston Globe by Thanassis Cambanis. The basic thesis is as follows:

Instead of a flurry of new thinking at the highest echelons of the foreign policy establishment, the major decisions of the past two administrations have been generated from the same tool kit of foreign policy ideas that have dominated the world for decades. Washington’s strategic debates – between neoconservatives and liberals, between interventionists and realists – are essentially struggles among ideas and strategies held over from the era when nation-states were the only significant actors on the world stage. As ideas, none of them were designed to deal effectively with a world in which states are grappling with powerful entities that operate beyond their control….

As yet, no major new theory has taken root in the most influential policy circles to explain how America should act in this kind of world, in which Wikileaks has made a mockery of the diplomatic pouch and Silicon Valley rivals Washington for cultural influence. But there are at least some signs that people in power are starting to try in earnest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has openly integrated the search for a new paradigm into her policy making. In universities, think tanks, and the government, thinkers trying to grapple with this fluid world structure are finally getting attention in the circles where their ideas could shape policy.

Though it comes on the heels of what’s likely to be an unstoppable deluge of articles and pontification on what lessons we must take away from 9/11, the whole thing is phenomenal. As much as I love and am a student of Great Power politics, his case is well-made that to focus solely on the interaction between states at this juncture in time is to ignore a whole plethora of issues that carry an aggregate weight at times greater than that of the state. Acting in concert, these non-state actors possess the power to affect sweeping changes that the current structure of policy-making just isn’t in a place to handle at this time.

There is no folder or file  buried in the State Department, no matter the efforts of Secretary Clinton, on what to do in the event of, say, a shift in the policy of BP to work in conjunction with the Iranian oil industry, as unlikely as it is. The mechanations of these actors will continue to bedevil policy makers until there is developed a way to intertwine them into policy-planning from the early stages.

The term “smart power”, a combination of Joseph Nye’s conception of hard and soft power, has been bandied about for the past several years as an alternative to the overreliance of the former on the part of the United States, something I wholeheartedly agree with. But the fact of the matter is that as good an idea as it is, it has yet to full take root anywhere but the State Department. The Administration has not set it at the forefront of its presentation of the way the US can and will operate around the world.

The signs all exist of it being implemented in fits and starts, as can be seen in the President’s now annual Nowruz address, wishing Persians a happy new year, with a laser focus on the Persians of Iran. This sort of activity takes little effort on the parts of the US Government, but manages to engender goodwill towards the Great Satan in the hearts and minds of the civilians of Iran. That isn’t to say that all of our conflicts with Iran will be solved by so simple a gesture, but as part of a toolkit that includes economic sanctions on the government of Iran and individuals in power, multilateral actions taken by the US and the United Nations Security Council, and other levers that can be pulled, the chances of successfully influencing events in Iran is far greater than a proxy bombing spree by Israel.

In response to Mr. Cambanis, Dan Drezner has one small critique when it comes to those that were highlighted as new and forward thinkers when it comes to foreign policy:

No offense to Joseph Nye, Michael Doyle, and Steve Walt — these are Great Men of international relations thought.  The notions that Cambanis lists here, however, are not “new” in any sense.  Which leads me to wonder whether Cambanis has defined the problem correctly.  Is it that international relations theory has gone stale… or is it simply that the wrong set of existing theories are in vogue today?

I’m prone to agree that no matter how good the ideas that Mr. Nye puts forth are, the authors themselves are not by any stretch of the imagination new. I most certainly read Nye, Doyle, and Walt as an undergrad, and undergrads will continue to read them for a long time hence. The more important part of the equation isn’t who puts forward the ideas, but whether they can be applicable in today’s world. In that instance, I think that Nye, Doyle, and Walt should continue to attempt to innovate, so long as they are prepared to no longer be the predominant voices in their field.

To directly answer Mr. Drezner’s question, I do believe that international relations theory has gone stale. There’s no two ways about that. When considering the best way to move forward with a new strategy, falling back simply on the broad strokes of “realism” and “liberalism” or rehashes of those concepts is simply impossible.

In my first post, I called myself a constructivist, but that’s merely because nothing else fits. In the search for a Grand Unified Theory of International Relations, nothing even comes close to being able to fully take into measure the complexities of the world today. In the old days, you knew who you were fighting, you were assured that the mistreatment of diplomats was anathema. The sort of relationships that existed during the Cold War between states can no longer be the baseline assumption. In a world where a group composed of no more than several hundred can bring the most powerful country, in terms of economic, military, and cultural strength, to its knees, it’s time to find a new theory.

I’ve mentioned Anne-Marie Slaughter several times, and I will readily admit that I have something of an intellectual crush on her. The ideas she puts forward about new ways of thinking of the relationship between the governed and the governing and the notion of sovereignty through that frame seems novel at times, but truly reflects the compact that the Framers of the Declaration and the Constitution sought to instill. Rather than being a unidirectional monopoly on the use of force, the ties that bind a state and its people should be seen as going two-ways, that the governed agree to follow the rules placed upon it by the state, while the state agrees to take care of those who reside within its borders. To me, that sort of thinking is precisely what is needed in moving forward towards something bigger and greater.

There are intellectual heavy-weights like Ms. Slaughter and Mr. Nye who are considering the new ways that the jigsaw puzzle of states, non-state actors, and individuals can be better aligned, people with a purpose who are attempting to form some sense of order out of the chaos that international relations has and always will be.

In my opinion, that has the be our new goal. Rather than attempting to completely delete the chaos of the world, as the state system has sought since the days of Westphalia, maybe the new way of thinking about the world is instead to determine the ways in which chaos can best be mitigated at times, harnessed and channeled in others.

We live in a time now where information is traded freely and serves as the currency in the world. The value of this currency has been deflating as we become more connected and access becomes easier but while states are left with precisely the same amount of data at a devalued rate, individuals are showered with more than they could have possibly hoped for three decades prior. With this glut of information comes the ability to act more decidedly based upon that knowledge and with that ability to act comes a very real increase in the amount of chaos in the world.

The governments of the world need to understand that the genie is out of the bottle in this instance. The only way to place it back is with massive amounts of force, as you can see in the attempts to suppress the wildfire of revolutions in the Middle East. The amount of force truly required, however, has been deemed unacceptable by the West and its allies, and more importantly by the people whom that force is being used against. The people of Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have managed to maintain the force and volumes of their protests for months despite a dedication to not intervene militarily by the West and hundreds to thousands gunned down by the regimes in those states.

Rather than attempting to quell this spread of information, the world needs to find ways to harness and direct it. As when we first learned as a people how to channel lightning itself into a useful purpose, so to we must discern how to do it with knowledge. Electricity remains dangerous but only to those that do not respect it.

The new conduits to harness this chaos that states build have to take into account one and only one basic fact in this world: information finds a way. As was said in the completely under appreciated film Serenity, you can’t stop the signal. You can do all you can to cut off ties and links that have been forged between individuals, but you will find that increasingly impossible as they become more and more adept at circumventing this. Video from Homs in Syria has spread across the world, graphic and brutal, increasing the isolation of Bashar’s government. Even the Great Firewall of China can’t stop all data from coming and going. Information will find a way.

While states will remain in control of their physical borders so long as they are able to hold them militarily and using their authority to use force, what crosses those borders is much harder to pin down. Unless your country is willing to completely sever ties with all around it, no flow of people or of products as in the case of North Korea, there will be what may seem as a chaotic element present within your borders.

These conduits have to be able to take the energy that comes from this spread of information and focus into ways that can be harnessed for the benefit of all instead of some. A state’s objective is no longer the control of information that’s released but what to do with it once it is dispersed among the masses. The results can be a net positive as is seen with the rise of microloan campaigns transferring capital from the developed to the developing world. Or they can be a net negative as is the case with protests that lead to wholesale slaughter of those in possession of this knowledge and attempt to spread it. The similarity exists in the root cause of both of these paths.

Only through developing conduits of channeling this information can states avoid the trap of falling back solely on hard power, their economic and military strength, to maintain control within their own borders and influence external events. As Wikileaks has shown us, even sensitive information cannot remain secret forever. I have no love for the group but they have made a very solid point when it comes to the ability of the non-state actor to acquire the self-same information that it was thought that only states have the ability to obtain through espionage networks and covert operations.

In creating a new strategic vision, the United States has to find the ability to harness the creative and at times chaotic energies of its people and those of non-state actors within its borders and around the world and form conduits towards them bettering the US’ stance globally. This should involve using what can be seen as an electronic akido to turn the efforts of others to constrain data to their citizens, pushing forward ideas and ideals considered improper, while at the same time promulgating information that enhances others views of the US. Rather than propaganda, this can be seen as the harnessing of forces already at work, such as the State Department insisting at the height of Iranian protests in 2009 that Twitter delay a scheduled maintenance to allow the Green Revolution to continue its coordination.

Now, this can’t be the only tier or the sole component of a US strategy. But to ignore it or leave it as secondary would be a foolish move that would deny the US the ability to have a far greater influence for far less blood and treasure.

So there you have it. My first attempt at the strategic thinking of the next generation. Whether the current great thinkers of the world will agree with me or whether I’ll be consigned to the review my thoughts and form a re-re-introduction to international relations will be seen in the future. But it definitely feels good to take a stab at it.

September 4, 2011

The Hague on both your houses

I swear, after an hour long discussion with an Israeli friend of mine about my last post, I promised to myself that I would avoid Israel/Palestinian issues vis a vis the UN for a good long time. That promise has now been broken. So, thanks, Turkey.

The gist of it is as follows, thanks to the Irish Times for condensing:

Turkey plans to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip at the International Court of Justice, dismissing a United Nations report that said it was legal.

Turkey will apply to the court at The Hague next week, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday. Mr Davutoglu’s comments came the day after Turkey suspended military agreements with Israel.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has said it will take action against Israel for refusing to apologise for the killing of nine of its citizens on a flotilla to Gaza last year. Israel says its soldiers acted in self-defence.

So this fight is going to the Hague. I haven’t even had the chance to read the complete report on the flotilla incident, but it comes across as extremely balanced, calling the blockade itself legal but the actions in this specific incident over the line. Pretty even handed for an organization that is known in right-wing circles as being amazingly anti-Zionist.

A longer piece from Bloomberg indicates that the Turks intend to seek damages from the ICJ and a lifting of the blockade as illegal. If Turkey is looking for speedy recourse, though, they’ve turned to the wrong forum. The ICJ has a rather lengthy backlog of cases to get through, including the most recent case to be listed, which may keep Thailand and Cambodia from launching an all-out war against each other.

I can see how and why Turkey is planning to take this to the ICJ, but it will be years before any sort of conclusion is reached. In the immediate term, it only amounts to antagonizing Israel even further when, let’s face it, they’re feeling pretty agonized.

September 4, 2011

The Palestinian Question

The biggest fight on floor of the UN General Assembly this September is without a doubt going to be the Palestinian push for unilateral recognition of statehood. The whole thing has been fascinating to watch from an international institution standpoint, awful to watch from a US policy-making standpoint.

As the weeks have gone on, and its become crystal clear that the US will veto any full admission to the United Nations, as is their prerogative under the combination Articles 4 and 27 of the UN Charter, the Palestinians have come up with a somewhat ingenious backup plan. Currently the Palestinian Liberation Organization is recognized in the UN as the sole legitimate authority of the Palestinian people, and holds the seat of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine, possessing the status of ‘observing non-member entity’. This is slightly below the place of the Vatican and formerly Switzerland, Japan and others, as an ‘observing non-member state’ and above other observers such as the European Union and other international organizations.

Should a full-bid for statehood fail at the hands of a US veto, originally consideration was given to taking up a Uniting for Peace resolution to override the Security Council when the UNSC is deadlocked. This would hold a particularly irony in the fact that the concept was first developed by the US in a time when it still controlled the GA. This was shot down by legal scholars who, accurately, stated that the matter of UN membership has a concrete mechanism built into the Charter.

What could be done instead would be to upgrade Palestine’s status from observer entity to that of an observer state. This would confer certain abilities that are currently outside the reach of their present status. Among these is the ability to join a multitude of UN bodies and treaties, as they can then point to their recognition as a state.

The real kicker  is the enhanced case it would give to push for an ability to bring Israeli citizens before the International Criminal Court. Under Article 14 of the Rome Statute, States party to the treaty may bring cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the Court forward. The key word there is “State”, something that the Palestinians have been lacking but may be able to argue for after September and allow them to sign the Rome Statute. This is Israel’s greatest fear in this situation; though they aren’t a party to the Court, they would be afraid to have officials travel anywhere save the United States and others who have thus far refused to sign on to the State. This fear may be somewhat misguided as we’ve seen somewhat lax enforcement of warrants issued by the ICC, but that’s for another post.

A friend who works on Israeli foreign policy did present me with an interesting point when it comes to other ramifications of a UN GA vote. Should Palestine become an independent state before having a true hold on their internal security, it could be even more of a disaster. Palestine’s greatest argument for independence in the past has been their status as the ‘Occupied Territories’, with the Israeli Defense Force providing a villain in the play. Should they become recognized as a state, this changes the dynamic considerably.

When the first missile flies between a Palestinian state and Israel, the Israelis can invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter. As Article 51 allows for actions to be taken in self-defense against the opposing state until the Security Council acts, and the US still has the ability to veto anything that comes before the Council, you could see a full on takedown of Palestine before it even gets its legs under it. That isn’t the wish of anyone but maybe the most hardcore of Israeli legislators as this scenario would not benefit any party. It would make the IDF look like bullies, again, and the Palestinians look incompetent, again, but Israel’s actions would be fully within the scope of international law.

This doomsday scenario aside, I find Israel’s reading of international law in this situation somewhat confusing and indeed hypocritical. The State of Israel is strongly objecting to the UN granting statehood to Palestine as a matter of not just policy but insisting that the power lies outside the scope of the UN Charter. Many other observers take the same stance, claiming that the UN General Assembly can’t create a state, including the Council on Foreign Relations’ Eliot Abrams:

That’s the rub, of course– it would. Indeed it might be even further away, if the main effect of their campaign were to delay serious negotiations and further alienate Israelis and Americans. For in the end, it isn’t just the UN Charter that tells us the General Assembly cannot create a Palestinian state. Reality teaches the same lesson.

That the PLO is following this path suggests a lack of interest in the genuine negotiations that are the only real path to statehood. This is not surprising at a moment when Palestinian attention is mostly focused on domestic politics–Fatah vs. Hamas–and the PLO’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has his sights set on retirement next year. It may yet be possible for the United States to come up with a form of words that brings the two parties to the negotiating table this summer and thereby allows Abbas to back away from the UN shenanigans. But this entire episode reveals a lack of Palestinian seriousness about negotiations and suggests that, while talks may commence and avoid the September UN confrontation, they will go nowhere. Like the talks the United States engineered in September 2010, such negotiations might start with hoopla and ceremony, but would most likely break down in the subsequent few months.

Correct me if I’m mistaking in remembering a little something called UN Resolution 181, which lay out the original boundaries for the Jewish State and Arab State as they are referred to. That resolution allowed for either the Jews or Arabs to sign onto the plan and have access to joining the UN, whether the other had approved or not. The Palestinians indeed did not accept the Resolution, leading to the civil war period that followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence. It’s within the UN’s power to, if not formally create a state, lay the groundwork to legitimacy that makes statehood possible.

The US is struggling frantically to delay the vote, pushing for renewed negotiations between Israel and Palestine rather than a unilateral push. The Quartet, never the greatest mechanism for moving peace forward, has yet to finalize their new peace plan, but is actually moving forward, something that has to be applauded. The Israelis have lent their support to a new draft but only silence has come from the Palestinians. A new set of concrete proposals designed to spur talks is something that has been lacking for far too long, but it may be too little too late.

The stalling tactics of the US are clearly doomed to fail. Even China has expressed its backing for the Palestinian cause. With the Quartet lacking a proper carrot or stick to bring both the Palestinians and the Israelis back to the table, the PLO’s diplomatic effort may be one of the best ways possible to convince the Likud government that negotiations are necessary, as Palestine will become a state one way or another. Bibi’s ministers have to realize that by not negotiating, they aren’t gaining leverage, they’re wasting opportunity to finally strike a deal.

The GA is going to overwhelmingly support either of the routes that Palestine takes towards upgrading their status whether a few Europeans can be peeled off or not, leaving the US in the dust. The United States has declared in the past that it is for a two-state solution but its actions heading into the General Assembly can’t be seen as those of an impartial negotiator and has the ability to hinder a US role moving forward.

Rather than wasting time and energy attempting to block the motion from passing, the United States should instead be working with both the Israelis and Palestinians bilaterally to help frame the terms of what the outcome will look like and mitigating any potential damage.

If Palestinian pride can be salvaged by abstaining in the General Assembly while still vetoing action in the Security Council, the United States should do so in an attempt to foster some semblance of goodwill to push Abbas and the PLO to act as a state should, cracking down further on militants within its supposed borders and putting the country back on track to holding general elections, currently scheduled for May 2012. A diplomatic victory such as the one in September has the ability to put Fatah even further ahead of Hamas in opinion polls in Palestine, as a June 2011 poll indicated a preference for Fatah’s policies in any unity government.

On the part of the Israelis, the US can privately guarantee that support for the Israeli right to exist and defend itself remains paramount in our policies, particularly against a Palestinian state provided Israel is not the aggressor. This can be coupled with the US pushing flexibility towards settlements in the West Bank being factored into any proposed land-swaps as part of the Quartet’s official plan, and acceding to the Israeli demand for control of security in any connection between Gaza and the West Bank.

What is currently being seen as a powerful defeat for the US can still be turned around into a beneficial arrangement for all parties. The General Assembly votes will be among the most closely watched to come out of the chamber in years and I know I’ll be on the edge of my seat.