Posts tagged ‘israel’

January 6, 2012

Needed in Tehran – Some Common(s) Sense

In my post earlier today on Iranian sanctions, I mentioned that I wanted to talk a little more in-depth over just what that inflamed rhetoric coming out of Iran means as far as a US military response goes. Because both sides see it coming, and I know that the majority on each would prefer to stop all-out war from happening. There may be many individuals on the right drumming up cause for attack, pushing us to defend poor indefensible Israel. The Iranian people are bracing themselves for a coming war, already facing the effects of the sanctions that the regime has brought down upon the state.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric noted in my last post  takes several forms, but none come closer to setting off conflict than the Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait, as many people know, is the bottleneck through which 35% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments must pass. The first threat, several weeks ago, caused a 2% jump in oil prices, and came with a warning for the USS John C Stennis’ carry group to stay out of the area. This was met with a yawn by the US Navy. In a new effort to rattle the US, Iran has promised that it will be holding another set of exercises, this announcement only 10 days after its last set of war games and missile-tests in the area. It’s also likely these exercises will be around the same time as joint US-Israeli missile defense drills near the Strait.

All of this sabre-rattling is the quintessential sound and fury amounting to nothing. There’s a reason the open ocean is called “the global commons”. Because under international law and the law of nations, the high seas are for the use of all states. Period. There’s no ownership of the high seas, of which the Strait of Hormuz is definitely a part. And it’s a good thing. Iran should be glad that no one state has sole jurisdiction over the commons, though the US unquestionably dominates it for now. Why should they be glad? Because it allows for the very oil that they desperately need new customers for to be transport abroad. Because it means that they in turn have the right to patrol their territorial waters, though they tend to be a little fuzzy on just where that line is. And most importantly, they should be glad because it allows us to do things like save Iranian nationals when the Iranian navy can’t. The very carrier group that Iran warned has saved an Iranian fishing boat from a group of pirates; the CO of the Destroyer that actually did the rescuing is a woman. Danger Room has video. So that happened.

Under the same international law that would be broken if Iran actually closed the Strait, the United States was able to act against the pirates that held those Iranian fishermen. I was going to go on a long, chest-thumping rant about how our naval and air force capabilities would grind Iran’s forces into dust if they actually attempted to step to us, as it were, but you know what? It’s not worth it. The Islamic Republic needs to think twice and realize that the biggest chance of US conflict with Iran isn’t their navy shutting the Strait. It’s the fact that in the event of a mistake, an accidental firing upon of a US ship during an exercise or boarding say, then there’s no way to stop the tidal wave that would be coming, no dialogue, no release valve. In ‘learning’ from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has forgotten about the many, many other times we have waged “kinetic action” against a state. Landing ground forces is in no way a necessity for the United States; from our ships in the Fifth Fleet, which easily sailed through their first exercises, Tehran surely must realize we could rain down punishment upon Iran in whatever proportionate or disproportionate response we saw fit at the time. And there would be no way to put on the brakes.

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December 6, 2011

Saudi Arabia. Chill. You really don’t want nuclear weapons, promise

Saudi Arabia. You’re killing me here. We’re doing the best we can on Iran, really. Do you know all the various ways we’re trying to interrupt their quest for regional hegemony? Answer: no, you don’t, because even the American people don’t know the full scope. But I assure you, KSA, we’re doing the best we can.

You know what really doesn’t help though? Moves designed to get us to go further than we want to, faster than we want to. We get it. We get that you’re between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the potential of a nuclear Iran, with a nuclear Israel already playing in your neighborhood. Moves like this one:

Prince Turki said at the [Persian Gulf security] forum on Monday that an Iranian quest for nuclear weapons and Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal might force Saudi Arabia to follow suit. …

“It is our duty toward our nation and people to consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons,” Prince Turki was quoted as saying.

The Prince’s words are more likely designed to be a poke in the side of the United States to ensure that Iran has our full attention, rather than an actual announcement of intention to develop a nuclear capability. Saudi Arabia has expressed a clear desire for nuclear energy in the past, and the United States is more than fine with them developing power plants, but no grumblings about potential weaponization have followed previous pronouncements of moving forward with exploring nuclear processing.

While a Saudi regime in control of nuclear weapons might not cause the same amount of fear as Iran, it can be said that destabilization would still be in order in the region as a result of such an outcome. Who’s to say that other states in the region would be content with a Saudi nuclear umbrella, or that other states in the region wouldn’t then seek to pull their own version of revisionism.

Further, the United States can’t be seen playing favorites even more than it already has; the odds of Iran actually acceding to UN Security Council demands that it halt enrichment creep even closer to zero should Tehran come to believe that Riyadh has the support of the West in obtaining weapons. In fact, such a perception would only increase the Iranian drive to weaponize its uranium stores.

A quick statement should come from the State Department denying that Saudi Arabia is either seeking or needing nuclear weapons, if Secretary Clinton were to ask me. A nuclear Arabian Peninsula wouldn’t have the deterrent impact that they’re looking for, in terms of thwarting Iranian influence. The majority of the fear towards Iran is based in its potential to project military power across the Gulf, but nuclear weapons being held by Iran would only be useful as a deterrent for counterattack, not an excuse to launch full-scale attacks. It can also be noted that Iran’s hard-power capabilities are rather lackluster in nature; proclamations of advancing its abilities on the battlefield don’t translate into a sure victory against the combined conventional forces of the other Gulf states.

So, Saudi Arabia. Please. I’m going to call your bluff here and tell you that we’re doing our level best to ensure that you and your neighbors don’t have to worry about a modified Shahab-3 carrying a nuclear payload anytime soon. Until then, please find more constructive ways of helping us out in that regard.

October 31, 2011

U.S. pulls UNESCO funding, but soft power is for chumps anyway, right?

Immediately following this morning’s announcement that Palestine is now the newest official member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. State Department came out with an announcement of their own: United States funding would be cut to the organization. The $60M check that the U.S. had written up for the Paris-based organization is going right back into Hillary Clinton’s pockets.

The move isn’t much of a surprise for anyone who’s been watching the deliberations in the various organizations that fall under the United Nations’ umbrella. Aside from the General Assembly and Security Council, UNESCO has been the body on the receiving end of the strongest diplomatic push by Palestine for recognition. Lawmakers on the right in the U.S. have been calling for defunding of any U.N. body that allowed Palestine as a full member since early September, and they unfortunately have the right of it. Under a U.S. law passed in 1994, funding is to be withheld from any part of the U.N. system that allows Palestine as a full member, written in such clear language that it would be difficult for the Obama organization to circumvent it. The part of the law that concerns us has been helpfully posted by the NY Times here:

“(a) Prohibition.--No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or
any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized
agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the
same standing as member states.
“(b) Transfer or reprogramming.--Funds subject to the prohibition
contained in subsection (a) which would be available for the United
Nations or any specialized agency thereof (but for that prohibition) are
authorized to remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed
or transferred to any other account of the Department of State or the
Agency for International Development to carry out the general purposes
for which such funds were authorized.”

While the President’s hands were tied on this one, that doesn’t mean the international community has to like it. Even Israel didn’t really want Washington to cut off funding to Turtle Bay, as was pointed out by Zvika Kreiger in the Atlantic earlier this month.  The United States has been helping Israel gain membership and influence on several U.N. bodies, including the UN Development Programme, and has been pushing for an initiative through UNESCO launch education efforts on the effects of Holocaust in various member states. With U.S. funding cut off, that goal may be a little bit further out of reach.

The less awful news is that the funding that the $60M won’t be stricken from the State Department’s budget, and can be used at the Secretary’s discretion to fulfill the job of UNESCO. And the United States’ membership in UNESCO remains intact, unlike under President Reagan back in the 1980s. But the job of UNESCO isn’t easily done by one state, nor should it be. The $60M could be used for any number of cultural agenda pieces, meant to bridge the divides between perception of America and reality in states that are hostile towards our policies, but coming directly from the US, rather than through an international organization, propaganda is a word that you’re going to hear thrown around a lot. Furthermore, it’s harder to push what many states sees as an unpopular pro-American agenda without the finances to back up your goals. The cultural dialogue promoted by UNESCO forms a key part to the smart power equation championed by the Obama Administration and HRC in particular.

Nobody is saying that participation in UNESCO is vital to the United States’ strategic national security needs. What I am saying quite strongly though is that taking part in UNESCO to the full extent certainly makes things easier for the United States. For example, as UN Dispatch just posted, one of the programs indirectly stripped of funding is designed to raise literacy in Afghanistan, especially among police officers. No worries though, I’m sure that having illiterate Afghan military and civilians serves our overall strategic goals there, so long as Palestine isn’t recognized as a state by anyone.

Further, as several commentators, including Senator Timothy Wirth of the United Nations Foundation, pointed out, there’s a slippery slope involved. Should the law stand on the books in its present form, there is the real chance that Palestine continues its push, resulting in more U.S. withdrawal of funding from bodies in which membership more directly serves our interest. The World Intellectual Property Organization is next in the Palestinian’s sights, and as boring as I personally find IP issues, American companies love having an arena for redress with internet piracy on the rise. I guess Congress is pro-piracy now?

There’s a larger picture here than just UNESCO and what U.S. pulling funding means, and it concerns the overall standing of soft power in the Washington policy planning context. What it boils down to is that soft power is a stronger currency than many in Congress are willing to admit. Soft power doesn’t win wars, but it does prevent them, but it would seem that doesn’t make for as good a campaign slogan as “friend of Israel”, even when we’re really doing Israel no favors. In the complex world we reside in, withdrawing a tool from our diplomatic arsenal is handicapping United States success in nipping issues in the bud before kinetic action is even necessary. Recognition of this fact is crucial for America to prosper in this century, that our defense industry can and should remain strong while giving diplomacy its full range of options. One less microphone for the U.S. to share its vision of the world is one more potential flare-up that we’ll have to address with force in the future. Our annual $80M, 22% of UNESCO’s budget, could have bought us a lot of influence in the world. Instead, we have traded it away for a symbol that means less than nothing. That $60M saved can be re-appropriated in the next budget to buy a couple of missiles, though. I’m sure that will benefit us more in the long run.

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 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.