Archive for the ‘Middle East’ category

The Fog Of Syria

April 8, 2017

President Trump ordered a military strike against a Syrian airbase in response to horrific pictures of a Syrian Government suspected Sarin gas attack on defenseless Syrian civilians. Initially most members of Congress welcomed the action and those who did not, kept quiet because the tide of public opinion was demanding some US response. Now as the dust is settling, other voices are being raised. Hmmm.

Supporters of President Trump’s actions (actually the specific plans are the product of the Defense Department, not the President) describe the airbase attack as proportional and an appropriate first step. Supporters are also quick to say they hope this action was not be lost on the North Koreans or the Chinese. No more President Obama – Mr Nice Guy – foreign policy, they say. Hmmm.

Other observers point out that the Sarin gas may have come from stock piles held by terrorists and were released when an errant bomb hit the stash. Possible, and an extremely important point if true. But, rebel held chemical weapons seems highly unlikely while Syria has already admitted to possessing chemical weapons in the past.

What’s next?

Bashar Assad’s opponents point out that innocent civilians are dying everyday when Syrian forces drop conventional barrel bombs. What is the difference (gas or bombs) for defenseless people?

This line of reasoning supports the US taking further steps, like disabling other airbases, establishing no fly zones, or even partitioning Syria thereby liberating areas for Assad opponents to set up government. Sound reasonable?

No sooner have such proposals been made than others point out that ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other similar groups make up some of those who think one of the partitioned Syrian areas would be just fine for their control. Is that what President Trump is thinking?

Yesterday, about 150 protesters blocked traffic in Philadelphia as a protest against President Trump’s Syrian airstrike. The protesters were against the use of force. I wonder what these people think about the nature of the Syrian civil war?

Former President Obama assessed the Syrian situation as one not amenable to western, non-Muslim intervention. Peace would return to the Middle East only when local leaders agreed to live together in harmony. Obama was willing to supply training and coordinating help but severely limited the direct US fighting involvement.

Under Obama, the US policy was still pregnant, but much less than obvious than a full fledged occupation.

Some foreign policy wonks describe the Syrian conflict as a proxy war for the Iranian-Saudi relationship. With Russia’s involvement, there is the possibility of a resumption of the old East-West proxy wars. And some only see the Syrian mess as a conflict between Sunni and Shiite or a battle waged by a greedy authoritarian family against a poor population. Hmmm.

Former President Obama’s strategy may have been wise but it did not “feel” good, it was not decisive in nature. President Trump’s quick and timely response feels better. Only time will reveal whether President Trump has acted wisely or whether his actions will help or hinder a resolution to the Syrian civil war.

Not much is clear in the Syrian fog of war.

Trump’s Syria

April 5, 2017

How many people do you know, besides yourself, who wished they could take back something they may have said in haste? Plenty I bet. Former President Obama is surely one of them too. His unfortunate “red line” warning is a good example.

Former President Obama was quite on the mark when he expressed outrage that anyone, and in particular, the Syrian Government would use chemical warfare, and use these outlawed weapons on its own people. Obama’s issuing of a warning he could not enforce was at its best like pulling for an inside straight. There was no way the treat would alter the behavior of a regime fighting for its life. At it worst, Obama’s red line reinforced the impression that the US would not act in any decisive manner to end the Syrian insurrection.

A lot has happened since the former President’s ill fated words. Russia’s entry into the conflict seems to have tilted power back into the Syrian Government’s hands. While needless deaths have continued, there seems to have been every indication that the civil war was heading to a conclusion. And then yesterday, Syria used chemical weapons again.

Pictures of the aftermath are horrific. Shown are defenseless civilians, including children, reacting to the painful and life threatening effects of these weapons (believed to be sarin gas). In what had already been documented as a war against humanity, a new outrageous chapter was opened.

President Trump now has the spotlight on him. What will the President do?

President Trump, in a pattern which seems genuinely him, immediately blamed someone else, this time President Obama. If President Trump really believes these words, America and Americans are really in trouble.

Lest we not forget, in another place on the globe, North Korea has continued to act provocatively on President Trump’s watch and other than words, the President has done nothing. Now President Trump has two failed States acting up and both apparently uninterested in making any deal with the great deal maker.

Syria sits in the middle of the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq opened Pandora’s Box, destabilizing the entire region. Thinking that an outside force, especial a non-Muslim force, can put Humpty Dumpty together again is wishful thinking.

North Korea, which lies snuggly against China’s northeast border, represents a different but equally dangerous challenge. Like President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Kim Jung Un is all about how to keep himself in power, and like Syria, North Korea cares little about the well being of its citizens. President Trump has said “all options are on the table” in response to North Korean provocations (striking the US west coast with a nuclear weapon). Does that sound like a red line?

Whether President Trump likes it or not, his Administration now owns North Korea and Syria. What ever goes right or wrong in either regime will be like fly paper. The great deal maker will not be able to get it off his hands.

Brexit Implications

March 30, 2017

Yesterday British Prime Minister Theresa May signed the official document triggering the European Union’s exit provision, Article 50. With that move Britain has begun its retreat from Europe opening the doors to an uncertain future.

From the British perspective, Brexit is about sovereignty and the ability to more effectively deal with non-British labor, (read to exclude those Britain decides it does not want). The measure passed narrowly but in a Democracy, an inch is as good as a mile.

From the EU perspective, Britain’s departure is unwelcome but not for a want for Briton in particular. The EU worries that Brexit is just the first shoe to drop and more are around the corner. Question, if the EU is so good why would countries want to get out?

In forming the EU, member countries traded some sovereignty for a large common market where trading rules were fixed and not subject to populous tariffs or other whims. Regrettably, the EU also formed a parliament and a wide range of bureaucratic branches fully committed to establishing regulation on all facets of commerce and life in general. Critics see the EU and its Directorates as needless expense supporting a gigantic jobs program.

One of the more troublesome outcomes has been how the EU deals with immigrants. Any immigrant who gains access to a EU member State, for example refugees fleeing war in central Africa, once these immigrants set foot in a member State, they are free to travel to any other State seeking work. And of course, while seeking work, the immigrants are qualified to receive welfare support. IMO, the EU’s inability to deal with this one issue, more than any other, tipped the British vote to leave the EU.

Reports indicate that France may want to follow Briton. France’s reasons center on right wing politics. Life will be better if France calls the shots, the right claims.

The danger embedded in Brexit requires one to check history and see what happened when there was less dependance among European Countries. World War I and II, and all the other wars leading up to world wars should be a sobering reflection. Remember, European Countries have both a long history and a sharp memory.

In addition, these countries are, in comparison to the US, relatively ethnically pure (not much diversity).  Germany tend to be german, France tends to be french, etc. (Ironically, this homogeneity is want makes Italy or Spain or France etc so nice to visit.)

Following World War II the western world was fortunate to have leaders who knew the old world order had to be changed. Within Europe, a series of government agreements, for example the EU (European Government and flag), the Euro (European wide common currency), and NATO (European wide military alliance which include the US). These agreements provided enough grit that the nationalistic urges to settle differences between members would give way to more rational solutions.

The EU common market represent one of the top three markets in the world. Within world currencies, the Euro is often viewed as second only to the US dollar. And visiting Europe with its advanced transportation network (and trouble free border crossing) is a preferred vacation destination. Brexit is a short sighted and most likely unwise move by Britain.

With the rise of China (wealth and military strength), the implosion of the Middle East, the economic stagnation of Japan, and nuclear uncertainty of Pakistan, India, and North Korea, world order is under pressure. Britain by itself provides no reassurance that the British can wield diplomatic or economic strength useful in hammering out a functioning world order better than Britain being an EU member in good standing. The odds are that Briton is on a slide to obscurity (nice place to visit, but….).

Brexit could not have come at a worse time given the naivety of the incoming Trump Administration. Can a “one off deal making” mentality summon up the strategic vision necessary to guide other countries towards a peaceful world order?

Beginning To Look Back

January 11, 2017

President Obama gave his farewell speech yesterday in Chicago. Pundits suggested President Obama wanted to write his “legacy” before the Trump Administration has a chance to eviscerate it. George W Bush, when asked in the ashes of his failed Presidency, what would his legacy be, replied to the effect, “don’t know. History will determine that and history takes a long time”. Hmmm.

Comparing the two men and their terms in office, President Obama would look hands down the more successful President. But with whom would you rather have a beer?

George W Bush, despite his wealth and familiarity with the moneyed class, seemed such an easy going person and a comfortable person to be around. Barack Obama could also at times display a friendly look but too frequently flashed a message of disdain or intellectual arrogance.

President Obama appeared not to suffer fools well. And in Washington there is no shortage of self centered, free loading, bureaucrats and legislators only too ready to claim something based on half truths or no truths at all.

President Bush was quite correct in saying history takes a long time before it renders a clear verdict. President Obama has much to be proud about but the repeal and replace of Obamacare may obscure his bold (but not bold enough) steps towards universal healthcare coverage. His efforts towards renewable energy and other quality of life issues may confront an unsympathetic Congress and Presidency once Donald Trump is inaugurated. Obama’s 8 year efforts around immigration reform, voting rights support, and inclusion will be an afterthought with the new Administration. What will remain in 8 years is open to question.

On the foreign stage, IMO, President Obama has diagnosed the Middle East (including Israel) correctly. One can argue whether the Arab world should offer the peace branch to Israel or Israel should initiate a sincere proposal first. But until the Arab world settles its power and Islamic sect differences, there is little reason to expect success. The next Administration is likely to take sides, picking which ever group seems most useful short term. Hmmm.

With respect to China and Russia, President Obama rowed against long held State Department views of a proper world order. China and Russia both have a different view, not surprisingly placing their country’s interest ahead of other countries including the US. President Obama diagnosed Asia and in particular China as the country to watch and to update US China foreign policy accordingly.

China is far wealthier and more populated than Russia. Maintaining government control requires meeting the economic needs of its 1+ billion head population.  Unfortunately it will not be easy task for China to continue spreading new wealth to Chinese peasants without 10% growth each year.  Authoritarian countries usually look for outsiders to blame when domestic policies falter.

A fair President Obama criticism might be that in all matters, his preference for “no drama” and “no theater” probably kept him from communicating effectively to the American people in terms they would understand. Whether the issue was healthcare where America spend twice as much as the modern world, and do not provide coverage to all Americans, or where America’s defense budget is 10 times as large as the next biggest spending country, or where America spends more per student on K-12 education than any other country, yet produces test score results in the middle of the pack, President Obama shunned any attempts to bring about change by dramatizing these facts.

President Obama will, however, be remembered from day 1 as a decent man with a smart and gracious wife who lead a White House life, with their children, which was above the fray but not aloof. President Obama’s few emotional occasions dealt with tragedies like the Newtown Elementary School shootings, not whether the Dow Jones Average reached a new high.

Strangely some of President Obama’s most vocal critics come from the African American community. And some of the unkindest words reference little or no progress in jobs and opportunities. Using a football analogy, offensive linemen can out block defensive linemen for just a few seconds creating an opening for a running back. If the back is not ready, or does not run through the opening quickly enough, the running back will be caught for no gain. I wonder why the African American community does not see the chance they had and squandered?

The next Administration will initially be graded in comparison to President Obama’s record. Soon however, Trump Administration policies and unforeseen world events will shape America’s history and the Obama comparisons will cease being relevant. Then historians will have their chance to cast a more informed light on legacy.

Leading From Behind – Year End

December 31, 2016

Every year has a beginning, and whatever has a beginning, has an end. Today is the last day of 20116, the year of the unthinkable. What will 2017 bring?

President Obama has tried his best to change several trajectories upon which the US has sailing when he became President in 2009. One of the more controversial was his “leading from behind” foreign policy.

After having inherited poorly thought through strategies, such as nation building in Afghanistan and regime change in Iraq, President Obama apparently concluded that, if given the chance, the State Department would employ military force in any and all foreign policy issues, and the Military (Defense Department) would gladly fight in any theater as the willing enforcer for State Department policy. After 8 years with President George W Bush, State and Defense thought there was not a world situation not amenable to the salvation of military force.

President Obama, on the other hand, could not find logical, fact based arguments supporting continued military investment in the Middle East and seriously questioned continuing any presence in Afghanistan. When the Arab Spring occurred, President Obama resisted intervention in Tunisia, Libya, and Syria.
Tunisia formed a new government with relatively minor collateral problems. Libya incurred NATO air intervention resulting in the capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi. The Libya regime change has been rocky and still pits rival tribes against each other, and each of them against ISIS-type insurgents. Syria regrettably disintegrated into an all out civil war and produced millions of displaced persons and civilian deaths. At this point it appears Bashar Assad will retain power and hopes for a Syrian regime change will evaporate.

President-elect Trump has voiced the idea of “Peace Through Strength”. No more leading from behind.  These are thinly disguised words harkening back to the Bush era where the neoconservative, chicken hawks gladly dispatch other American’s sons and daughters to armed conflicts.

These sweetly flavored words promise a peaceful American life by keeping the world’s thugs off our doorsteps. If the world were only that simple.

President Trump will experience the same “tell him what he wants to hear” briefings from the Intelligence Agencies and State Department. And as it should, the Defense Department will develop plans to achieve what it is asked.

President Obama learned to question toughly what each agency or department recommended. The open question is “WWDD”?

Insight Into Next Four Years?

December 29, 2016

President-elect Trump and many elected representatives in Congress have risen from their seats to denounce the US decision not to veto a 14-0 UN Security Counsel vote. The vote which condemned Israel’s current practice of building in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. President-elect Trump tweeted today that things would be different after January 20th. Hmmm.

A characteristic of recent GOP Congresses and George W Bush’s Administration has been their preference to see all issues as single component issues. Complex systems invariably gave way to much easier to communicate “black or white” perspectives. So, as the President-elect sees it, Israel is our best friend in the Middle East and America should be steadfast in recognizing that. Hmmm.

President-elect Trump has spoken out many times about the mistake the Iraq War was. I wonder whether the President-elect remembers that Israel was very vocal about Iraq regime change and urged the US to overthrow Saddam Hussein. From that and a host of other preconceived notions, America got the Iraq War and the huge failure in foreign policy it represents.

There are many other complex, systems specific issues that Congress will come across. In fact the number of single factor issues is vanishingly small. Healthcare (including Medicare and Medicaid), Roe v Wade, racial and gender discrimination, religious freedom, reducing poverty, and education to name a few.

Republican stated position have been simplistic and untested. Repeal and replace is easy to articulate, but to date, there have been no fiscally sound replacement proposals which do not put healthcare out of reach for millions of Americans. With the American public fairly evenly split on abortion, actions to severely restrict abortion access will have consequences. Like many other Republican advocacies, abortion restriction impacts the poor and poverty stricken the hardest. As a consequence, breaking the poverty cycle will become orders of magnitude harder. And so on.

So, the apparent rush to assuage Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hurt feelings completely overlooks the complexities of the Middle East, not to mention the unthinkable outcome of a single State, apartheid-like solution which Netanyahu seems heading towards.

One should not lose sight of the Arab convoluted situation. The Palestinians are dependent upon deep pockets in other Arab countries. Without this money, Hamas, Hezbollah, or even the Palestinian Government’s daily business could not exist long. The PLO’s resistance to negotiation can not be a stand along decision and must reflect outside demands. The Palestinian-Israeli situation is a complex issue.

Inherently a master deal maker must consider competing issues. For the President-elect, deal making is a highly developed skill. The issue that may escape the President-elect and for sure the GOP controlled Congress is what might follow an Israeli-Palestinian one State peace. What will a united Middle East (with all its oil) possessing nuclear capability do for national aspiration?

The next Administration’s Middle East policy needs to be complex enough that it foresees a pathway to Israeli-Palestinian peace.  Or, will this policy simply be standing by America’s friend?

What Does America’s Syrian Policy Really Mean?

September 29, 2016

With respect to foreign policy, political pundits are gnashing their teeth. Hawks and Trump supporters are calling President Obama a failed President and possessing no leadership. And any unbiased observer would call Secretary of State Kerry’s negotiations with Russia juvenile. Yet,everyday that passes means more deaths and destruction in Syria.

Republicans and Donald Trump blame ISIS and the Syrian insurgency upon President Obama’s feckless foreign policy. Had the US not pulled out of Iraq, the story goes, ISIS would never have formed. (At least Trump is honest enough to recognize that had George W Bush not invaded and occupied Iraq, the Syrian-Iraq power vacuum would not have arose.) But is the blame game useful?

Lost in the war of accusations is President Obama’s Syrian policy explanation. President Obama, and at least some of his advisers, are versed in 1600 years of Middle East history.  Obama and his advisors recognize that outside military force is akin to trying to shut off a boiling tea pot by taping up the kettle’s spout. This may work for a moment but the boiling water will continue to generate steam until the pot explodes.

President Obama’s Middle East policy calls for the leading Middle East countries to band together and solve these disputes politically. Said differently, until the wealth is shared far more equitably with the common person, those seeking power and wealth will find the populous only too ready to follow promises of a better way.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two big elephants in the room, would prefer peace but not at any expense which might destabilize their own worlds. So for the time being, Saudi Arabia and Iran see a small war as preferred.

So given this perspective, why should American lives be spent?

There are many American foreign policy experts who would prefer a limited but far stronger response than President Obama has authorized. Most of President Obama’s critics, however, are pure politicians who neither know what’s sensible or are ready to be held accountable when a more aggressive Syrian policy goes astray. What Americans hear or read about Syria is pure political mumbo-jumbo.

Hillary Clinton’s Syria strategy leans “forward” according to former NSA Director Michael Hayden, meaning she would support a greater but still limited US involvement. For example Clinton has backed designating “no fly” zones where the US would use its military to protect Syrians on the ground. At best, however, no fly zones would allow more time for the Syrian regime to make peace with the insurgents. At the present time, President Assad seems to have no such interest.

There is another, possibly more important, aspect to President Obama’s Middle East policy. While the GOP has been sleeping, the world has evolved and the Middle East is not the most important region. Far more interest needs to be shown to China and its world goals, and to Russia and what would it do if Putin died or his economic policies failed.

Russia and China are single party States and practices we take for granted like free speech, rule by law, and democratic principles do not apply the same in China and Russia. America’s Middle East foreign policy must consider future potential Russian or Chinese actions too.

The world conditions upon which America’s 21st century foreign policy must be build does not lend itself easily to 10 second sound bites. Great difficulty will face either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

One can be sure, however, that Trumps’s “one-off” proposals will lead no where, and his “I’m tough” style will not fly either. Of voters’ choices, Hillary Clinton brings depth and breadth of thinking which might have a chance.

Building a “wall” does not even make the radar screen on foreign policy.