Sunday, January 30, 2011

The New Meme for Neocons

I find it amusing, but hardly surprising, that the new neocon meme is that the American foreign policy objective of promoting democracy in the Middle East espoused during the Bush administration and epitomized by the invasion of Iraq is now resulting in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Aside from adjusting past events to conveniently constructed facts, this is patently absurd.  No one expected the change in Tunisia. No one expected the events in Egypt. Neither is tied to anything the US did or did not do.

It is not only the height of vanity to believe this, but profoundly stupid. However, that will not prevent the meme from spreading in the US and result in acceptance by a substanital component of a credulous public which thrives on Faux News, perpetual war and belief in fantasy.

Southern Sudan

The hard work now begins in Southern Sudan.  Almost 99% have voted for independence from Khartoum. In July, the world will inaugurate a new country but in the meantime the oil resources and transit agreements will need to be negotiated and that will not be easy.

An interesting note to all this is that demonstrations have been reported in Khartoum using Tunisia and Egypt as their inspiration, but have been controlled by the government. So far.


I hate predictions because they are invariably based on past events – and invariably wrong. Even stock traders hedge statements about the potential value of investments for investors by saying that past performance does not predict future performance. Having said that, I believe Mubarak will be out of office in a matter of days. Whether that produces a better or worse situation, both nationally or internationally, is anyone's guess.

The senior military officers of Egypt were in Washington last week. The army has taken over security and the police are off the streets. The army is very highly regarded in Egypt since the revolution in 1952 and for now hold all the cards. Will they be the broker for change or support Mubarak – who rose through the military establishment? The Muslim Brotherhood is the only organized political organization of the opposition, some factions of which are Islamisists of the Iranian kind. Will they end up running the country? Remember that the youth revolution against the Shah in Iran was secular and ended up being taken over by the religious extremists that have been running the country since then. Another Iran would be unacceptable to the West and particularly to the US and Israel. What happens then could be very, very bad for everyone. 

US foreign policy in the region – in Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen – will be the most affected. The US is blinkered in its policy of unlimited support of Israel regardless of what the Israeli's do or don't. But these revolutions have nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians and the risk is that US policy will be dictated, not by the underlying reasons behind the upheavals, but by Israeli views.

The problem with the changes that are coming in the Arab world is that it either will force a re-calibration of US policy in the Middle East or it will cement the relationship with Israel further. The first will be very hard and if Islamic regimes such as Iran's begin to spread, then Israel will say that peace is not justified. The peace treaty with Egypt and Jordan could be a victim of regime change and, if so, things could become extremely dangerous very fast. 

An Islamic government in Egypt similar to Iran's would further impact the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey as well.  As I have said before, as the US withdraws from Iraq, these countries will need to adjust to the new reality.  The Saudis will need to deal with Iran differently. Turkey will also need to adjust even though it is the only one of the three which does not need to worry about a popular revolution. Turkey has been attempting to assume a leadership role in the Middle East but has been stumbling since the whole game is new to them.  It is likely that the turmoil and new government in Egypt will present Turkey with a huge opportunity to assert a leadership role if it can handle its initiatives with more subtlety.

The West – not just the US – has propped up oppressive Arab regimes for decades. Climbing down from that support will not be easy nor appreciated locally by either side of the revolutions. Egypt is a dictatorship with 40 million people in poverty, no jobs and now is witnessing its youth in the streets. Egypt has been controlled by one person for than 30 years. The revolution is driven by these issues, so far. But, that could change. I have talked with one young Egyptian stuck here in Maseru (of all places) who is trying to get back to Cairo and join in the revolt. He is a professional, young and not poor. He wants Mubarak and the government out but also worries about who will take over in their place. The Egyptian elite has never understood or listened to the youth of the country and it is paying the price. But, anyone who pretends to predict the future in Egypt or the rest of the Arab world is a fool. The only thing that can be predicted is that it is changing. It is also where I am going next in less than a month so I’ll be closer to the action.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Maneuvering in Lebanon

Coat of arms of LebanonImage via Wikipedia
Apparently there is consternation in the west concerning the selection of the Hezbollah backed candidate, Najib Mikati, as Prime Minister of Lebanon. The Shiites basically selected a moderate millionaire with strong ties to Syria - something the Sunni's don't like.  But before the western press ties itself into knots of hysteria, it should be pointed out that the selection and appointment followed clear, democratic parliamentary procedures.  In other words, the system - supported by the US and Europe - worked.

More on the geo-politics later, but suffice it to say that the Saudi and Western plan for Lebanon is in shambles. That does not mean, however, that Iran and Syria have won and that particular marriage is not as strong as it seems.
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PLO Debacle

The revelation in more than 1600 documents that the PLO was conceding, well, everything to the Israeli’s in order to gain control of a “state” is the end of the PLO as it has been known – or perhaps it will vanish like the Cheshire cat without the smile.

It should have been clear to everyone by now that Israeli had no intention of granting concessions to the two state processes, but would continue illegally seizing land for housing and crushing the rights of Palestinians. It had even privately obtained the PLO acquiescence to the new “state” without an army, navy or other military. In other words – no sovereignty. A sham. A continuation in perpetuity of Israeli apartheid.

Here’s a thought for the religiously fanatical in Hamas and Iran – recognize Israeli. Hoist them on their own petard. Recognition would remove the excuse that the US relies on to support Israel - to its own detriment -and would focus attention exclusively over Israeli policy of preventing statehood for Palestinians – the largest group of stateless people in the world. Use your brains and change the parameters of the game. Take the high ground.

Busy Busy

Apologies for the light posting but I've been rearranging my working life and will be leaving Africa soon.

Posting resumes today.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Russia's Roosting Chickens

Official portrait of Vladimir PutinImage via Wikipedia
Much to my surprise, Brussels (but more likely Berlin) has been working tirelessly and quietly to remove the burden of Russian control over Europe’s (but actually Germany’s) severe dependence on gas from Siberia.

The European Union and Azerbaijan signed a deal Thursday in which Baku commits to supply Europe with "substantial volumes of gas," an agreement the EU said was an important step to reduce the bloc's dependence on deliveries from Russia.

Russia has used its energy resources as a weapon – not necessarily directly against Europe, but targeting Ukraine and Belarus. The strategy is aimed, and has largely succeeded, in assisting Moscow’s initial key foreign policy goals of regaining control of Ukraine and maintaining a thumb on Minsk. In doing so, however, Moscow alarmed Europe which needed to reduce gas imports from Russia before Russia began to use that same leverage to pressure the EU into ever more pro-Russian positions. The Kremlin’s energy gambit would allow it to loosen the support given by the EU to the Baltics, Poland and reduce other EU initiatives in the Caucuses and Central Asia. France, but not Germany, is immune to Russian pressure because of its huge nuclear energy facilities (a technology in which it is now the world leader).

The Russian move to bring Ukraine and the Caucuses back under its control was a key foreign policy goal of the Kremlin. The Russian Federation is a shell without Ukraine and the Caucuses is a buffer zone, like Belarus. The methods, however, were Putin’s. Without compunction, Putin’s Russia blatantly interfered in Ukrainian elections, invaded Georgia, signed virtually permanent military agreements with Armenia (outflanking Georgia and the West) and used disputes over gas pricing and transit fees with Ukraine to cut off gas supplies which happened to flow west. Europe, much to my surprise I admit, got the point and has started taking some action.

The faux democracy, single media environment of Russia built by Putin is now seeing some of its egg layers home to roost and one of them is named Nabucco.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

This Can't Be Good...

Lesson learned - if you are the leader of a country in turmoil, don't leave for a foreign trip if you expect to stay in power. 

Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon is now a caretaker courtesy of Hezbollah.  Hezbollah toppled the government over a long-running dispute linked to a U.N. probe into the 2005 assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri which is poised to indict several Hezbollah members for their involvement.  Hezbollah has been threatening that if Hariri did not disavow the investigation then they would take action. 

Syria is Hezbollah's main ally through which it receives money and other support from Iran.  Iran needs Hezbollah to keep its foot in the door in the Levant and to threaten Israel. The scene is about to become a lot more complex and dangerous.

What is Syria's interest here?  First and foremost, it sees Lebanon as Syrian - perhaps no longer physically, but certainly politically.  But Hezbollah, which has served Syrian interests, is dead in the water without Iran. Syria is going to have to make a choice between its interests and those of Hezbollah and Iran.

If Hezbollah succeeds in seizing control of the government, Syria may be faced with the unpalatable choice of reducing its support to Hezbollah by constricting its supplies or another Israeli assault which could easily suck in Damascus. From a geo-political standpoint, Syria should not want Iran to increase its footprint. Some sort of Syrian intervention is going to be necessary, but likely will not come until after the UN indictments. Then, Syria has its excuse.

Turkey may also become involved both to increase its influence at the expense of Iran and reduce tensions to avoid a military escalation. But it remains to be seen what influence Turkey can actually muster.

I find it hard to believe that Hezbollah is indulging in the type of power play that might result in a severe problem for itself and Syria. However, this is Lebanon where nothing is clear-cut.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Simplistic Thinking on Turkey and Armenia

Kars, a city in northeast Turkey and the capit...Image via Wikipedia
The normalization process between Turkey and Armenia has stalled – to put it mildly. But I don’t think the remarks here juxtaposing the peace sculpture (however ugly or not) erected in Kars in Eastern Turkey with the stalled effort (which was not conceived solely in Washington as is stated) at normalization between the two countries as representative of  foreign policy folly, as the author states. You need to go to the VOA web-site to read the entire article which clearly sets forth what happened and the diverse opinions involved as well as the election considerations at the time in Turkey.

Let’s get something straight here. The NK issue needs to be resolved to the satisfaction of both Baku and Yerevan. It is precisely the interference of those diaspora living comfortably in the West which constitutes the roadblock to any type of compromise. No one wants another war and it is unlikely to occur unless Russia allows it. Anyone who thinks that Moscow does not hold the key to a settlement (or anything else in the Caucuses) is a foreign policy naïf.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ankara's Dilemma

Iran is again in the news as Hillary Clinton, in Dubai on the first stop of a three-nation tour of the Persian Gulf, said the Arab world should act to sharpen enforcement of the sanctions and reject attempts to stoke Mideast tensions. She also said that if Iran succeeds in developing an atomic bomb, it will plunge the Mideast into a disastrous nuclear arms race, she said. "It is first and foremost in the interest of the region to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon." Yet last week, Israel's newly retired spy chief said he thinks Iran won't be able to build a nuclear bomb before 2015.

Yet, a week before the P5-1 talks begin in Istanbul (the 1 being Germany which is not a member of the UN Security Council) with Iran, the emphasis appears to be on the nuclear issue that has clearly subsided in light of the Israeli assessment which was surely known before Meir Dagan, the former Israeli Mossad chief who made the assessment made his statement.

The call for Arab support is nothing new and as the Wikileaks cables show, the drum beater in chief against Iran is Saudi Arabia. But let’s look at what is happening in the region and how the nuclear issue should be relegated to the back of the fridge for a while.

As I have said frequently, much to the boredom of my readers I’m sure, the US has not yet come to grips with the new geo-political reality of the world in which it cannot dictate policy very much to the key players any longer. This applies as much to global powers as it does to regional ones. We are back to the pre-World War I geo-political realities. We know who are the global powers. The regional ones include Turkey and wannabe Iran. There is no regional Arab power since Egypt gave up the mantle after 1973 (although that may be changing).

The general public in the US would likely be shocked to learn that Iran, although Muslim, is not Arab. They, in their usual geo-political vacuum existence and Faux News environment, probably also do not realize that Turkey, although Muslim, is not Arab. Few people understand (more than before, I think as a result of the Iraq fiasco) that Sunni Muslims are not exactly on the same side as Shiite Muslims. They probably do remember that Turkey turned down fearless leader Junior Bush in his invitation (more like a demand at the time) to join his adventure in Mesopotamia and therefore concluded that Turkey was “looking east” and away from the West. The foundation of Turkey’s opposition is forgotten, if it was ever mentioned. Turkey said that the invasion would destabilize the balance of power in the region and that they were not keen on that idea. They were right. And now it is a truly more difficult region to stabilize.

So what we have now is a realpolitik wake-up call. Iraq has largely, though not entirely, been handed to Iran and return of Moqtada al-Sadr, a pro-Iranian cleric with a private army, cements that in place. The removal of Iraq as an independent force in the region has provided Iran with the opening it needs to pursue a historic dream – the control of the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf if you happen to be in Saudi Arabia). That is why the Sunni Saudis are so alarmed. The US is withdrawing and the only game in town is Iran, it seems. Nuclear weapons are not the problem. With the US out, Iran has the most powerful conventional military in the region – except for Turkey. But Iran is a lot closer to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates than is Turkey.

The regional balance of power may be at a tipping point in favor of Iran, which makes Israeli policies of apartheid against Palestinians and exchanging Greece for Turkey as an ally even more stupid than they appear on the surface. The current Israeli government now faces the prospect of the EU treating East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state and having an EU presence at the demolitions of Palestinian homes, and intervention when peaceful protesters face arrest. All this follows the razing of the famous Shepherds Hotel in East Jerusalem to make way for 20 homes for Jewish settlers (a violation of international law).

The rivalries are just beginning as Turkey begins its reluctant maneuvering to offset Iran and represent all Muslims in the region. I say reluctant because Turkey has said that it will not act as a mediator between Iran and the West. Well, sorry boys. Turkey is going to find it impossible to play any other role. It’s what happens when you become a regional power.

Turkey will need to make decisions that it hates to make – about its neighbors, policies and actions that will not please everyone. The “zero problems” foreign policy only goes so far before national and regional interests force choices. How Turkey handles the upcoming talks with Iran will be a key example of how Turkey plans to exert its influence in Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Geo-politics is forcing Turkey into its natural place in the region as a counterbalance to a surging Persian Iran. It cannot afford to let the vacuum formed by the US withdrawal to result in Iran realizing its dream to control the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The US will have little influence after leaving Iraq and shows no prospect of dealing with Israeli policies that are self-defeating and which adversely affect US national interests. Iran will negotiate in Istanbul, but further sanctions will do nothing if the results are the status-quo and Iran knows it. It consistently keeps the nuclear issue at center stage because that takes the eyes of the West off the target – which should be prevention of the creation of a regional hegemon at the expense of the West and its fundamental interests. Iran cannot afford for anyone to decide to indulge in an air campaign against its conventional military – which is where its real power lies. Smoke and mirrors – Iran can afford to lose what it does not have.

Which brings us back to the Saudis – who will not be in Istanbul. But it is the Saudi who are most concerned about Iran – and not from the nuclear side of the issue, but the conventional and the shifting balance of power. What is Turkey going to do? It is not in its interests to allow Iran a free hand to establish itself as the sole regional power, able to influence the policies of Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. Turkey cannot simply sit at the negotiating table and play the neutral. It is not neutral and it is in Turkey’s national interests to position itself as the regional power at the expense of Iran.

Welcome to the world of realpolitik, Ankara.

South Sudan - So Far So Partly Good

Back at the end of September I posted that the world was not paying attention to what could turn into a vicious bloodbath starting this week. I was writing in reference to Sudan and the vote for or against secession in the south. So far I am glad to have been proved wrong and President Bashir has said that he will respect the results of the vote, now in its second day out of six. He also offered to assume all of Sudan’s debt after the referendum if the south secedes, saying that it would be unable to handle any debt in its current economic condition.

As everyone now knows, the violence in Sudan between the Muslim north and Christian south (and, more to the point, the racial differences between the north and south) has been going on for decades. The problem in the Darfur has been covered only recently. Fighting goes a long – a long way back and had only marginally to do with what has caught the attention of the media now – oil.

Although thankfully major violence appears to have been avoided at this point in time, it remains a serious and dangerous possibility. Reuters reported yesterday that 36 have died in clashes around the likely new border and claims that Khartoum is supplying arms to Arab Misseriya militias in the Abyei region – where the oil is.

The oil producing regions in the south do just that – produce. Khartoum control, because it has the infrastructure, refining and export. Agreements will need to be signed upon independence (and there is no question the south will become independent) that restructure the revenue sharing. Although so far the fighting has been somewhat confined, I don’t see a peaceful ending to this as a given and some sort of international intervention may be required.

Expect the Chinese to be a major player in the negotiations and outcome.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Estonia, the Euro, Russia

At midnight on December 31, Estonia entered the Eurozone. From an economic standpoint, this was probably a good idea. To get there, Estonia has suffered a depression (not as bad as Latvia but worse, if you can believe it, than Iceland), with unemployment hitting 18% and a weak currency. As usual, shopkeepers promised on their cash registers not to raise prices after the Euro becomes the currency – and they won’t. This is largely because they have already raised prices. The same thing happened when the Euro was originally introduced in Germany, France and Italy so it is nothing new. Failure to adopt the Euro would have further threatened the Kroon.

Perhaps, more important than the economics of the move, is the political statement that has been made. The Russian Federation has put pressure on the Baltics more or less relentlessly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow was not happy with NATO membership status of the three states, and only slightly less so when they joined the EU. The threat to Baltic autonomy increased as Russia became a democracy In name only and rumblings began of the ill treatment of former Russian/Soviet citizens living in the Baltics, including requirements to learn local languages, the removal of memorials celebrating the “liberation” of the Baltics from Nazi rule by the Soviet army (which then stayed as part of the ultimate allied deals) and bellicosity toward Russia, especially in Estonia.

Then, of course, Georgia’s invasion by Russia, looming on the horizon for months, took place. Despite Moscow’s propaganda and the stupidity of the Georgian government, tanks rolling across a foreign border alarmed everyone from Tallinn to Astana. But now, the political message has been sent to Moscow that the Baltics, at least Estonia, is an integral part of the EU, NATO and the West. Despite the problems with the Euro, the political statement is more important and will, hopefully, begin to affect the mentality of the Russian Federation for the better - much as the overthrow of the Soviet bloc regimes in Poland, Romania and East Germany did.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kurdish Independence

Flag of KurdistanImage via Wikipedia
What would happen if Iraq lost the Kurdish north? The region is already largely autonomous and is a major center of oil reserves. The conventional wisdom is that independence for “Kurdistan” would prompt a military response, sooner or later, from its neighbors – Iran and Turkey. But would it really?

Iran has its hands full with a poor economy, a hostile neighbor – Saudi Arabia – and an unstable Iraq which is proving harder for Iran to manipulate than it expected. It also has larger issues of concern such as a military attack by you-know-who. So, although there is a longstanding conflict that flares now and again between Kurdish nationalists in the northwest of the country and Tehran, it is exceedingly unlikely that Iran would invade northern Iraq if it became independent.

The question is really, what would Ankara do? I suspect that Ankara might welcome an independent Kurdish Republic for several reasons. First, the Kurds in northern Iraq are not actively hostile to Turkey. The PKK is not welcome as a strong presence and indeed is quite worrisome since any cross border attack against Turkish troops has the tendency to provoke a rapid, overwhelming response from Turkey.

An independent Kurdistan might actually gut the PKK movement – much like the establishment of a Palestinian state would seriously undermine Hamas and Hezbollah. Turkey would benefit in its poorest region, the southeast, and tensions would be reduced. Then, there is the oil. Turkey relies heavily on Russian energy supplies for its growing economy. An alternative source would be a welcome event for Turkish foreign policy advisors and would also allow Turkey to increase its influence south and east at the expense of Iran.

Unlikely as it may seem, an independent Kurdish state would not result in an upheaval. However, it is equally unlikely that Baghdad would appreciate the independence of a key part of the country. To avoid the possibility of such a move, I would expect the Iraqi leadership to continue the façade of an integrated nation while at the same time giving the Kurds as much autonomy, short of secession, as they want.

Iraq needs the oil as well.

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Saudi Authorties Arrest Israeli Vulture

Xanax (photograph)Image via Wikipedia
This is funny, in an eyebrow raising sort of way.  Someone needs to take some Xanax.
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Senator Graham's Verbal Incontinence

I don’t get to watch US television (probably keeps me from going over the top, actually) but the news wires carried the story that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., repeated on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday his hope that the United States can maintain at least two permanent air bases in Afghanistan.

This man – like so many of his Republican friends – enjoys war so long as someone else does the dying. The suggestion that the US should keep permanent military bases in a foreign country that no longer wants any foreigners present is about a dumb as it gets. The Pashtuns will keep attacking American bases. Karzai will continue to be mayor of Kabul, and then only barely, as he thumbs his nose at US demands to end corruption. The US will still have no coherent policy in Afghanistan because it forgot why it went there in the first place.

Graham and his perpetual war minions were wrong about Iraq. They are now wrong about Afghanistan and apparently don’t care about recent polls in the US which show massive opposition to continuing the war.

Maintaining a presence in Afghanistan until the military has achieved “victory” is simply stupid. The original objective was to assure that Islamic terrorists could no longer use the region called Afghanistan (it is not a country by any definition) as a base for training or launching attacks. Keeping boots on the ground that will be a continuous target will accomplish nothing.