PUTINISM AND THE CRISIS IN UKRAINE: A COMMENT
"As the rivalry between Brussels and Moscow has intensified, the Kremlin has set itself against what it calls “western messianism”. It not only seeks to entrench the principle of a multipolar order, but one in which different value systems are equally legitimate. Over the past 10 years Vladimir Putin has wrapped Russia’s neo-feudal and increasingly predatory system in the mantle of Slavic and Orthodox values. This “civilisational project” has loose bounds. It encompasses compatriots wherever they might live. It applies to all those “whom Russia has influenced”. And it applies most emphatically to Russia’s self-designated sphere of privileged interests. The success of this project abroad is increasingly linked to the legitimacy of the system of governance at home.
Ukraine is both the pivot and Achilles heel of this entire construct. If Poles and Balts adopt EU norms and standards, that is their choice. But if Ukraine does so, it raises the possibility that Russia might one day do the same. The logic is not new. Many of Russia’s greatest reformers, from Alexander II to Mikhail Gorbachev, believed Russia would be imperilled if Ukrainians developed a political identity of their own. Mr Putin, so wrongly seen as Soviet by his western critics, has rejuvenated an older imperial mentality. The title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical, caught the mood: “Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia”....In fighting for Ukraine, after all, Mr Putin is fighting for himself.."
James Sherr, "Putin’s imperial project threatens European values." The Financial Times
. 28 January 2014, in www.ft.com
“Two objectives must be kept in balance when dealing with Russia: influencing Russian attitudes and affecting Russian calculations. Russia should be welcomed in institutions and agreements that foster cooperation….But Russia’s reform will be impeded, not helped, if the West turns a blind eye to its imperial pretensions. The independence of the republics that broke away from the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, must not tacitly downgraded by the West’s acquiescence to Russia’s desire for hegemony.
Ukraine can help Europe and the United States create a viable structure within which Russia can exist securely. Our destiny is to be neither a forgotten borderland nor a bridge between the so-called post-Soviet space of ‘managed democracy’ and the real democracies of the West. By strengthening our independence, we can shape Europe’s peace and unity as we roll back the crony capitalism and lawlessness that are now the norms of the post-Soviet world.”
Yulia Tymoshenko, “Containing Russia: the sources of Soviet Conduct.” Foreign Affairs
(May / June 2007), p. 81.
If as now seems likely (see Jack Stubbs dispatch in Reuters
to-day), there is a very good likelihood of the Yanukovich regime being forced from power, the question becomes who has lost out other than the embattled Ukrainian President and his clique? The answer of course is Grazhdanin Putin
. The volte-face
by Yanukovich last November on signing the customs union with the European Union was one of Putin's widely advertised diplomatic triumphs in anno domini
2013. To have that achievement undermined and lost is of course something akin to a slap in the face for the Russian President diplomatically speaking. However, that is not the least of the costs that Putin will endure if Yanukovich is ousted. The fall of a closely linked 'ally', in not only a neighboring, post-Soviet state, but one which is Slavic and predominately Pravoslavni
too boot, to mass demonstrations of 'people power', cannot but ring alarm bells for the Putin regime. As the ex-British Ambassador to Moskva
, Sir Roderic Lyne
recently noted in a paper published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs: "the bill will be high both in roubles and in reputation
" 2. With the cost in terms of lost prestige both domestically and internationally being heightened by the very recently renewed pressure exercised by Moskva
in a no doubt futile attempt to prop-up Yanukovich 3. In short, there is a very good likelihood that an example of regime change in Kyiv
will not only concentrate the minds of Russian officialdom wonderfully, but hopefully it will add pressure on the more enlighten members of the same (viz ex-Minister of Finance Kudrin
) to consider the need for immediate and concrete reforms before the entire edifice of the existing power structure in Russia starts to collapse of its own inefficiencies, corruption and criminality. As the history of Russia has demonstrated many times, Moskva only seriously engages in reform when it has been handed a major defeat in its foreign policy.
1. Jack Stubbs, "First stirrings of dissent in Ukraine's eastern heartlands." Reuters
. 31 January 2014, in www.reuters.com.
2. Sir Roderic Lyne, "The Blank Poster: Russia Heading Into 2014." The Royal Institute of International Affairs
. (December 2013), p. 6.
3. Roman Olearchyk and Neil Buckley "Moscow puts Ukraine bailout on hold until new cabinet is formed". The Financial Times
. 30 January 2014, in www.ft.com.
Kathrin Hille, Roman Olearchyk and Geoff Dyer, "Moscow urges Ukraine to suppress insurgency." The Financial Times
. 31 January 2014, in www.ft.com
. The latter story is of course indicative of the fact that Moskva feels deeply threatened by what is occurring in Ukraine.
THE NUCLEAR NEGOTIATIONS WITH PERSIA: THE POSSIBLE ENDGAME
"While our negotiators are working hard to get a final nuclear agreement with Iran that meets our requirements, we must be prepared for the possibility that negotiations will fail and the Iranians will then direct their efforts toward eroding sanctions and advancing their nuclear program. The opening created by President Hassan Rouhani’s overtures would close.
In this scenario, Iran would reject any extension of the current interim agreement, portray itself publicly as having been the reasonable side in the talks, reach out aggressively to governments and companies around the world to entice them to circumvent or ignore sanctions, and ramp up nuclear activities that have been frozen under the interim deal.
We should seek to head off this scenario by keeping the pressure on Iran to accept a final agreement along the lines of our proposal. That will involve three priorities: (1) continuing to urge governments and companies to enforce existing sanctions, (2) showing additional flexibility within the delegation’s existing instructions to avoid an Iranian narrative that we are the intransigent party, and (3) maintaining a strong consensus among the P5+1 governments and the broader international sanctions coalition that the rigorous measures necessary to make a deal acceptable to us are reasonable, fair and essential to a sound agreement.
At the same time, we need to prepare for the possibility that no agreement will be reached and Iran will attempt to turn that eventuality to their advantage. To thwart that attempt, we would have to ensure that Iran bears the onus for any breakdown of the talks. We would also want to work with Congress to adopt additional sanctions, urge key states (including Russia and China) to press Iran not to further advance its nuclear program, and convey a clear message to Iran that movement toward or across the nuclear threshold would be met by a firm international response that could involve much stronger sanctions and perhaps more coercive measures".
Robert Einhorn & Kenneth M. Pollack, "BIG BETS & BLACK SWANS - Memorandum to the President Iran Nuclear Talks Fail." The Brookings Institute
. 23 January 2014, in www.brookings.edu
"Iran [Persia] has long harbored ambitions to become the superpower of the Persian Gulf. That prospect is not as improbable today as in the past. In recent years, despite the severe constraints imposed by a chaotic internal situation, Iran has managed a complex and dangerous set of international relationships with boldness, sangfroid and a considerable measure of success."
Gary Sick,"Iran's Quest for Superpower Status." Foreign Affairs
. (Spring 1987): p. 697.
The Einhorn and Pollack memorandum highlights the fact that the nuclear negotiations with the regime in Persia might very well fail
. Either fail immediately or fail after a prolonged period of time. It would be of course be in the interest of the regime in Teheran, if a decision was made by the mad Mullahs to not come to an agreement to endeavor to allow the negotiations to be excessively prolonged and delayed. Hoping that by giving the appearance of being reasonable and moderate, that the world-wide consensus against the Persian programme will break-up. Indeed, as the almost giddy reception of the moderate-seeming Persian President Rouhani at the Davos Summit last week as noted by the Financial Times
commentator Gideon Rachman underlines 1. And as the always wise, Institute for Science and International Security
noted recently, the concrete provisions for any agreement which safeguards Western interest as it relates to non-proliferation call for a considerable degree of monitoring of Persian compliance:
"The above provisions collectively should represent a fundamental part of a final, comprehensive solution that can ensure that Iran will not obtain nuclear weapons. Once the necessary verification conditions are added, any Iranian attempt to seek nuclear weapons will be detected in a timely manner, providing enough time to allow an international response that would prevent Iran from succeeding in acquiring nuclear weapons. Critical to this approach is that the United States must remain ready for many years to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The duration of the provisions, namely twenty years, is viewed as a minimum amount of time to develop confidence that Iran can be treated in the same manner as other non-nuclear weapon states in good standing with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty 2."
One does not have to be as pessimistic as Matthew Kroenig about the outline of the proposed agreement to recognize that finalizing the same with the regime in Persia will not be easy 3. With that being said however, I do believe that there is a window open to negotiate and conclude a good agreement. As Gary Sick noted back in 1987, fundamentally, the foreign policy of the regime in Persia is determined by its domestic politics:
"The one cardinal rule the United State has learned or should have learned---from its eight years of experience with revolutionary Iran, is that Iranian foreign policy is produced and conditioned by the hard imperatives of domestic politics in Teheran 4."
Meaning that if the Western powers keep the pressure on, nay indeed increase the pressure of both diplomatic and economic sanctions then and only then will the regime of Mullahs knuckle under to the pressure. To believe as some appear to believe in Davos last wek, that this regime of fanatics will respond to the siren voices of sweet reason is (to quote Neville Chamberlain) 'the very mid-summer of madness'
1. Gideon Rachman, "Shinzo Abe and Hassan Rouhani delight Davos." The Financial Times
. 24 January 2014 in www.ft.com
2. "ISIS Report: Defining Iranian Nuclear Programs in a Comprehensive Solution under the Joint Plan of Action." Institute for Science and International Security
15 January 2014, in www.isis-online.org
3. Matthew Koenig, "Still Time to Attack Iran: the Illusion of a Comprehensive Nuclear Deal." Foreign Affairs
. 7 January 2014, in www.foreignaffairs.com
4. Sick, op. cit., p. 698.
WHY MARTIN WOLF IS 'FRIGHTENED' ABOUT THE WRONG THING
"Having heard prime minister Shinzo Abe twice already today I can only concur with Gideon Rachman’s assessment that he does not seem to regard conflict with China as unthinkable.
Maybe, that is realistic and maybe such realism will protect the world from such a calamity. But it frightens the wits out of me. I was particularly struck by the almost casual way in which Mr Abe cited the World War I precedent. I wish the US would step more decisively on this nonsense".
Martin Wolf, "Davos debate: On accidents and Abenomics [sic]." The Financial Times.
22 January 2014, in www.ft.com
It is with a degree of regret that one launches an attack on the very learned, intelligent and august Chief economics commentator of the Financial Times
, Mr. Martin Wolf. However, the fact is that his reaction to the quite moderate and extremely appropriate statement by the Japanese premier Shinzo Abe leaves a great deal to be desired. I for not cannot fathom how Mr. Wolf fails to understand that it is only via raising the bar to potential Chinese Aggression in the East China Sea against Japan that premier Abe is endeavoring to ward off the likelihood of military conflict between Japan and China. Indeed, it is due to the 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' mentality that many appeasers of the regime in Peking has brought us to precisely this pass. The regime in Peking, flush with lots of money and flush with domestic conflicts and reasons aplenty to make mischief if not worse abroad, needs to be told diplomatically but forcefully, again and again and again that the end-results of its aggressive tactics vis-`a-vis its neighbors will be armed conflict. An armed conflict which the PRC will inevitably lose. To my mind, it is better that the latter point is highlighted to Peking now
, rather than discovered post-facto ante bellum
. With all the 'lessons' of what caused the Great War buzzing in our heads these days, many of such lessons utter rubbish, I am surprised that Mr. Wolf does not remember that it was the chief failing of Sir Edward Grey to sufficiently warn Germany that is alleged to one of the chief 'lessons' of that conflict. But then again, perhaps I am not as easily 'frightened'
as Mr. Wolf is.
WHY SHINZO ABE IS WRONG ON THE HISTORY BUT RIGHT ON THE POLICIES
"Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared current tensions between China and Japan to rivalry between Britain and Germany on the eve of the first world war, but his top spokesman yesterday denied the leader meant war between Asia's two big powers was possible.
Sino-Japanese ties, long plagued by what Beijing sees as Japan's failure to atone for its occupation of parts of China in the 1930s and 1940s, have worsened due to a territorial row, Tokyo's mistrust of Beijing's military build-up and Abe's visit last month to a shrine that critics say glorifies Japan's wartime past.
Abe, speaking to international journalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said on Wednesday that China and Japan were in a "similar situation" to that of Britain and Germany before the first world war.
[Abe] stated that … military expansion in Asia must be curbed
Although the rivals then had strong trade ties, that did not prevent the outbreak of war in 1914, Abe said, adding that China's steady increase in military spending was a major source of instability in the region.
He also repeated Japan's call for a military hotline to avert an accidental conflict....
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Abe was evading Japan's "history of aggression" by comparing Sino-Japanese relations to those of the UK and Germany prior to the first world war. "There's no need to make an issue of the UK-Germany relationship," Gang said. "Such remarks by Japanese leaders are to evade the history of aggression, to confuse the audience."
In his address at the Davos forum, Abe called for military restraint in the region and took a veiled swipe at China's military build-up.
"We must … restrain military expansion in Asia, which could otherwise go unchecked," Abe said. "Military budgets should be made completely transparent and there should be public disclosure in a form that can be verified."
He added that disputes should be resolved through dialogue and the rule of law, and not through force and coercion. Abe did not single out China by name".
"Japan PM Abe compares China-Japan rivalry to pre-war UK-Germany ties." South China Morning Post
. 24 January 2014, in http://www.scmp.com/news
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
George Santayana. The Life of Reason
. Volume I, Chapter 12 (1905).
employed by Japanese premier Shinzo Abe at Davos
, Switzerland are, while not correct historically speaking are as per he context of Sino-Japanese relations spot on. As most of the more recent historiography of the origins of the Great War, such as Christopher Clark or Sean McMeekin clearly shows, it was the cockpit of the Balkans and the Austro-Russian rivalry therein, rather than the North Sea and the Anglo-German naval race which was the primary causation of the Great War 1. So for historical accuracy, we can say that the patrician Japanese premier has failed the test. However, as it concerns the current tensions in the Orient between Japan and China, then his remarks are completely on the mark. The fact of the matter is that it is the Peoples Republic revisionist views of the territorial status quo ante bellum
, which are the chief, nay the only real source of tension in the area, aside from the existence of North Korea. It is the singular unwillingness of the PRC to forswear the employment of force which is the culprit as per relations between Japan and China. And it is Peking's frequent testing of Japanese forces in the North China Seas, which is the real source of possible military conflict in the Orient. Sans Chinese truculent and militaristic behavior, only North Korea presents a source of danger in the region. As premier Abe correctly states:
"We must ... restrain military expansion in Asia, which could otherwise go unchecked 2."
And it is the regime in Peking which is the chief source of 'military expansion in Asia'
. Tensions in the Orient will only decline when the PRC either changes its policies voluntarily or by force majeure
1. Christopher Clark. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914
. (2103); Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War
. (2012); July 1914: Countdown to War.
(2013). For a review articles dealing with these books, see: R. J. W. Evans, "‘The Greatest Catastrophe the World Has Seen’". The New York Review of Books
. 6 February 2014, in www.nybooks.com
2. South China Morning Post
, op. cit. See also: Gideon Rachman, "Davos leaders: Shinzo Abe on WW1 parallels, economics and women at work." The Financial Times
. 22 January 2014, in www.ft.com
THE SITUATION IN UKRAINE: STILL 'NAS NE PODOLATY'?
"Ukrainian opposition leaders emerged from crisis talks with President Viktor Yanukovich on Wednesday saying he had failed to give concrete answers to their demands, and told their supporters on the streets to prepare for a police offensive.
Using emotional language following the deaths earlier in the day of at least three protesters - two of them from gunshot wounds - the three opposition leaders who met Yanukovich said they were ready to face police bullets.
Boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko told the thousands of protesters gathered on Kiev's Independence Square that during three hours of talks the president had given no clear response to their demands that the government be dismissed and sweeping anti-protest laws ditched.
"Today they (the police) are preparing to clear us out of the 'Maidan' (Independence Square)," Klitschko declared.
"We must do all we can to stop them clearing us out," he said.
He urged people to stay overnight and defend the square in central Kiev, and drew a roar of support from protesters when he declared: "If I have to go (on to the streets) under bullets, I shall go there under bullets.
"Tomorrow if the President does not respond ... then we will go on the offensive," he said.
Former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk echoed his words, and referred to the overnight shooting deaths which the opposition has blamed on police despite official denials. A third man died after plunging from the top of Dynamo football stadium while fighting with police....
The protesters, inflamed by news of the deaths, faced off again on Wednesday with riot police, whom they have battled near the government headquarters since Sunday night.
Though repelled by occasional forays of baton-wielding riot police, they have continued to return to the spot, setting tires ablaze and sending clouds of black smoke wafting into police lines.
Fifty people were detained overnight and 29 of them were officially charged with taking part in mass unrest, police said. A total of 167 police have been injured, officials said. There was no estimate of the number of civilians injured.
Ahead of the talks with Klitschko, Yatsenyuk and far-right nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok, Yanukovich issued a statement deploring the overnight loss of life.
Urging people not to heed the calls of "political radicals", Yanukovich said: "I am against bloodshed, against the use of force, against inciting enmity and violence."
But his prime minister, Mykola Azarov, took a tough public line before flying off to the economic forum in Davos, denouncing the protesters as "terrorists" and "criminals".
He blamed opposition leaders for inciting "criminal action" by backing the protests, which he said had destabilized Ukraine, a country of 46 million people."
Richard Balmforth and Pavel Polityuk. "Ukraine opposition say they'll brave bullets after talks with Yanukovich fail". Reuters.
22 January 2014, in www.reuters.com
"Razom Nas Bahato! Nas ne Podolaty!" ["Together, we are many! We cannot be defeated!"].
The slogan of the crowds in Kiev during the Orange Revolution of November 2004. Cited by Adrian Karatnycky."Ukraine's Orange Revolution." Foreign Affairs
. (March / April 2005): p. 35 and passim.
It is crunch time
in Kiev. Of that there is no doubt. At this juncture, either the ruling clique around Yanukovich keeps their nerves and employs brute and unmitigated force, resulting in (at the very least) hundreds of deaths and perhaps thousand of injured people or he will be ousted from power. There does not seem to be any alternative scenarios available herein. Judging from the recent dismissal of the Army chief and the cajoling (or should we say 'bending') of the leading oligarchs to take his side, Yanukovich seems prepared to employ force on a scale which one had hoped that European civilization would never again see 1. The other key variable is how will the masses of Ukrainian citizenry react to the recent events. Obviously, if the opposition can mobilize on a scale similar to that of November 2004, when millions of people protested in the streets of the country then it does not appear likely that Yanukovich's attempted auto-coup
will work. However, one should recall that in the case of the Orange Revolution, that Yanukovich was in favor of employing force to crush the demonstrations and was only stopped by the fact that elements of the security forces and the army made clear their determination to prevent such a scenario occurring 2. Whether after his more recent purges, the same scenario will play out is while likely (to my mind) not entirely certain. One can only hope that for the future of Ukraine and its people that history will indeed repeat itself.
1. On the recent dismissal of the Army chief. see: Leader, "Pulling Kiev back from the brink." The Financial Times
. 20 January 2014, in www.ft.com
. On the 'bending' of the Oligarchs in the past two months, see: Ievgen Vorobiov, "Ukraine’s Oligarchs Distance Themselves from the Protest Movement." The Bulletin of the Polish Institute of International Affairs
. 20 January 2014, in www.pism.pl
2. Karatnycky, op. cit., pp. 44-45.
A LOOK AT THE UPCOMING GENEVA CONFERENCE ON SYRIA
"The whole purpose of the conference is a negotiated agreement on political transition—the creation of a transitional governing body. Absent that, there is no reason to have this conference. The purpose is to implement Geneva I, which was signed on June 30, 2012. There is a range of ancillary issues that presumably could be discussed. From the point of view of Moscow, these ancillary issues—like a cease-fire, discussions about Syrian territorial integrity, sovereignty, and so forth—are the central issues. Moscow does not want the discussion to get very deeply into political transition, because it's that discussion and subject that puts its client somewhat at a disadvantage.
In other words, it does not want to discuss the turnover of the Assad regime.
That's correct. And it knows that its client does not want to discuss that subject. The Syrian information minister has made it very clear that the powers, the person, the prerogatives of President Bashar al-Assad will not be open for discussion at Geneva.
Who will represent the opposition? There are so many opposition groups.
Yes there are. According to the Friends of the Syrian People—particularly the core group of that collection of states, the so-called London Eleven—the opposition delegation will be led by the Syrian National Coalition, which at present is based in Istanbul. The delegation will also presumably contain people who are not members of that coalition.
What about the various Islamist groups and jihadist groups fighting in Syria?
There's a range of opinion within those groups as well. At the one end, you have this ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] organization and al-Qaeda affiliate, which is dead set against Geneva, against any coalition. ISIS is under some military pressure. The large town of Raqqa [in north central Syria] is the one sizeable area that ISIS took over, lock, stock, and barrel. It has been trying to impose their notion of governance on Raqqa, which is very primitive—the word "medieval" gives it too much credit. As a result, it's overreached, it's alienated a lot of people, so there is a sort of a combination of the more moderate Free Syrian Army elements and other Islamist elements that have banded together to try to push ISIS out of the picture.
My strong suspicion is that the Syrian National Coalition is trying to take into consideration the views of those Islamist groups that are at least committed to a Syrian solution of some kind. ISIS has a sort of universal al-Qaeda "set up an emirate that transcends national boundaries" approach. And ISIS has made it clear that its first priority is not to fight the regime, but to establish its form of governance in areas that it can dominate both inside Syria and in Iraq.
You wouldn't expect them to even want to come to Geneva.
The ISIS people would have absolutely nothing to do with Geneva at all. Some of the other non-al-Qaeda Islamist leaders have also expressed some hostility to the idea of negotiations at Geneva. And some of them have condemned the National Coalition for even considering this possibility.".
Former American State Department official Frederick Hof interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, "Looking Toward Geneva II on Syria." The Council on Foreign Relations
. 16 January 2014, in www.cfr.org
The upcoming conference on the ongoing Syrian civil war is of course the ultimate example of an 'unmitigated farce'
. Meaning that none of the interested parties who are fighting has any real interest in negotiating a nation-wide cease-fire and a real stoppage of the fighting that the poor people of Syria are having to contend with. The ruling Assad regime and its diplomatic backers: Moskva, Teheran and the Lebanese so-called 'Party of God' (Hezbollah) have no real interest in negotiating a true cease-fire. Nor does the armed militants and fanatics of the Islamists opposition want to negotiate a cease-fire. The former believe, correctly or not that it can, eventually defeat the rebels and the latter believes that the ongoing violence and chaos in Syria is the best means of spreading its peculiar form of ideological insanity. Indeed, as the usually anti-Assad Roula Khalaf has recently noted in the Financial Times
, Western officials, including intelligence officials have been speaking to their opposite numbers in the Assad regime 1. The topic of discussion being of course the terrorists and fanatics of the Islamist opposition. As Khalaf notes, it is quite possible that these pour parlers
are the beginning of a possible diplomatic rapprochement between Damascus and the Western Powers:
The conundrum for western governments is that they are forced to look at Syria increasingly through the prism of counter-terrorism. That has certainly been the priority of intelligence agencies – and a reason why, throughout 2013, they opposed military intervention. Their attitude has been that intervening can only raise the risk of a backlash against the west, even if governments involved would be fighting the same enemy as the al-Qaeda affiliates....But while rebels battle each other, and western governments grapple to reconcile counter-terrorism efforts with a broader political strategy, Mr Assad will be seeking to exploit the muddle. The regime’s psychology is such that any hint of reduced pressure is taken as a licence to pursue the merciless war. Its strategy in the peace talks will be to play for time, not plan for transition" 2
In short, at this juncture there is no reason to suppose that anything will come of the Geneva Conference other than the fact that the Assad regime will see it as another example of its return to international legitimacy. Given the character of the opposition, perhaps that is something to be expected if not necessarily to be supported at this point in time. Another result of the conference is the ever so greater marginalization of the 'official', Western-supported 'Syrian National Coalition'.
1. Roula Khalaf, "The costs of clandestine talks with Syria’s strongman." The Financial Times
. 17 January 2014, in www.ft.com
THE IRAQ & AFGHAN WARS IN LIGHT OF THE GATES MEMOIRS
"Among US public servants of his generation, Robert Gates is one of the few to command deep respect across the board. Though a registered Republican, and a Reagan-era hawk, the former defence secretary under George W Bush and Barack Obama may even be better liked by Democrats. Reticent, professional, discreet, bipartisan and diligent are all words that spring to mind. “Yoda” was his nickname among Obama’s people, in reference to the sapient Jedi knight in Star Wars....
As a journalist, I agree with what has been highlighted about this book in the US media. As a reviewer, considering Duty in its entirety, my takeaway is somewhat different from the headlines. The most striking aspect is how gently Gates dishes out his criticisms. Of the book’s more than 600 pages, perhaps only 10 would reflect badly on either president that he served as Pentagon chief.
Gates is disappointed at how calculating Obama can be. In one much-quoted passage, he expresses shock at the casual way in which both Obama and Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, admitted to having opposed Bush’s 2007 Iraq surge purely for electoral reasons. Gates was cajoled into service by Bush to oversee the surge in Iraq; he was retained by Obama to oversee the one in Afghanistan in 2009. You might dub him a surgeocrat. But kiss-and-tell memoirist would be taking it too far. Here is a passage that recurs many times in one form or another. “Although, as I’ve said, political considerations were far more a part of national security debates under Obama, time and again I saw him make a decision that was opposed by his political advisers”. Or this: “Fortunately, the rancor and bitterness of the Afghan debate in late 2009 did not spill over into other areas, and the team worked together better than most I had observed.”
In all, Gates has served eight presidents. Some of his observations reflect his deeply ingrained loyalty to the office of the US commander-in-chief – a chloroformic patriotism envelops much of the book. But there is no doubt that he left with a strong personal respect for Obama. After one of the few occasions when Gates and Obama lost their tempers – over a relatively modest dispute on the Pentagon budget – the president mollifies his Pentagon chief with the gift of a bottle of vodka. On it he attached a note apologising for having pushed Gates to drink. “Obama was civil in his impatience,” Gates writes, “never nasty, cutting, or personal....”
As Iraq descends into another civil war and Afghanistan disgorges yet another hegemon, Washington is squabbling over who to blame. “We entered both countries oblivious to how little we knew,” writes Gates. His book offers scant reassurance that anything fundamental has changed."
Edward Luce, "Review: ‘Duty’, by Robert Gates." The Financial Times
. 10 January 2014, in www.ft.com
"In the end, the battle for a secular, modernist order in the Arab world is an endeavor for the Arabs themselves. But power matters, and a great power's will and prestige can help tip the scales in favor of modernity and change....A successful war in Iraq would be true to this pattern. It would embolden those who wish for the Arab world deliverance from retrogression and political decay. Thus far, the United States has been simultaneously an agent of political reaction and a promoter of social revolution in the Arab-Muslim world. Its example has been nothing short of revolutionary, but from one end of the Arab world to the other, its power has inevitably been on the side of political reaction, and a stagnant status quo. A new war should come with the promise that the United States is now on the side of reform."
Fouad Ajami, "Iraq and the Arabs Future." Foreign Affairs
. (January/February 2003), pp. 3-4.
In light of the current Al Qaeda surge into Western Iraq, admittedly not likely to succeed for much longer as well as coming American / NATO withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, the Gates memoirs make for interesting reading. Not so much for the description of that staple of American political memoirs: political infighting among individuals who are serving in the same administration, as for the underlying rationale for the twin surges in 2007 and 2009 into Iraq and Afghanistan. Military campaigns which Gates, as Secretary of Defense, was in charge of. While at the time, the surges, particularly that into Iraq were hailed as being great successes and indeed almost providing a justification for the entire Iraq imbroglio, in view of current circumstances, this is difficult to take seriously. At the very best, the Iraqi surge in retrospect merely provided a Kissingerian 'decent interval'
for the eventual withdrawal of American troops from that country. Which having been completed in December 2011, Iraq has to some extent, albeit not entirely, become a Persian associate power if not ally. So much for the strategic, region-wide, game-changing results that the ouster of Saddam Hussein was supposed to usher in. Similarly, it is quite clear from Gates memoirs, that both the President and Vice-President were extremely reluctant if not in fact secretly opposed to the Afghan surge of 2009. And in light of the impending withdrawal of American & NATO combat troops from that country as well, at the end of the current year, with little real, structural improvement to be shown for the surge of American troops into that country, one is hard put to not classify the Afghanistan surge as merely a political fig leaf to adorn a policy which by the summer of 2009 had little sense to it. It is evident to my mind, that in retrospect, the Rumsfeld policy
of keeping a minimum amount of troops in Afghanistan, concentrating solely upon Al Qaeda was and is by far the very best policy. Historically, Afghanistan had no strategic importance by itself. Its sole importance has been its relations to other powers and countries. Sans
the terrorist outrage of the 11th of September 2001, it is doubtful that Afghanistan had any rationale to support employing American troops in the same. Which is not to say that perhaps the Americans should have not supported the 'Northern Alliance' in the years after 1995. But that would be merely as a spoiler operation to keep the Taliban regime on its feet. Similarly, from a purely machtpolitik
perspective, it is obvious that Iraq under Saddam Hussein, post-bellum
from 1991 onwards, was infinitely better than the current, Shiite, sectarian regime who has controlled the country in the past half dozen years. Under Saddam, Iraq was weak, but reliably anti-Persian, and anti-Islamist. Whose mere presence provided an extremely plausible rationale for an American presence in the regime and in the Gulf in particular. Something that one would be hard put to describe as being the case now. In short, the Gates memoirs highlight the fact that the most important military campaigns of his tenure were both in strategic terms ultimately worthless.
Whose only rationale was a sort of political expediency of the very worst kind. So much for the man who Senator John McCain has (accurately enough I believe having seen Secretary Gates up close myself recently) described as: 'one of the finest public servants I have ever known'
1. Paul Gregan, "McCain on Gates on McCain." The Financial Times
. 12 January 2014, in www.ft.com
. I myself had the opportunity of seeing Secretary Gates up close on the 25th of June at New York's Lotus Club
, where he was honored by a 'state dinner' and given membership of that august organization.
ARIEL SHARON, 1928-2014: REQUIESCAT IN PACE?
"Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday, was unquestionably a historic figure. He fought in all of Israel’s major wars – including the disastrous 1982 Lebanon invasion he essentially originated. He is also the principal architect of an Israeli settlement policy long designed to make the occupation of roughly half the West Bank and most of Arab east Jerusalem permanent. While all can agree – as no portrait of Sharon and his impressive but dynamic bulk neglects to point out – that he was “larger than life”, only within the solipsistic terms of debate of much of Israel’s political elite, and those who defer to it, can he be seen as a great statesman and master strategist....
He built the wall or “separation barrier” on yet more annexed territory, which according to UN figures means Palestinians have in total lost access to four-fifths of their ground water and two-thirds of their arable and grazing land. Only then did he pull out of Gaza, in which, unlike the West Bank, Israel has never had any ideological or emotional investment. A domestic bonus was that, by splitting the irredentist Likud, he conjured himself by magic into the off-centre of Israel’s political spectrum.
Internationally, he secured even more. President Bush, dutifully followed by Tony Blair, in April 2004 endorsed an Israeli letter that took the right of return of more than 4m Palestinian refugees off the negotiating table, and assigned to Israel the big blocs of West Bank settlements. By giving up Gaza, Israel enhanced its claim to the West Bank. Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s closest aide, crowed to Ha’aretz newspaper that “this whole package called a Palestinian state, with all it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda”. Current US efforts to rekindle negotiations that would give Palestinians a state notwithstanding, he may well be right.
Those who differ on this, and now acclaim Sharon as the lost Nixon/De Gaulle/Begin who could close a deal with the Palestinians, need to consider several things. Why, since Oslo, has the number of settlers been growing at more than three times the rate of the population increase in Israel proper (that is, inside the pre-1967 borders)? Why is the occupied land Israel holds and evidently intends to keep – about 54 per cent of the West Bank – identical in all essentials to the land set aside in Sharon’s 1982 map?
The strategic questions about Sharon the master strategist both go back to 1982. His blood-soaked invasion of Lebanon triggered the turn in international public opinion against Israel. That may have been made irreversible by the Sharon-championed colonisation of Palestinian land. Both legacies jeopardise Israel’s future. If strategy is in good part about the long term, then Sharon, like so many of his Arab opponents, was merely a clever tactician – too clever by half".
David Gardner, "A clever tactician who was too clever by half". The Financial Times
. 13 January 2014, in www.ft.com
"Israel's greatest problem is to find the means of being able to live with the Arabs. There are 2.5 million of us and 100 million of them. We can fight them, kill them, and they can kill us, but in the final analysis we will have to live with them....Occupation is not the final word."
Moshe Dayan then Israeli Defense Minister, 21st June 1969, quoted in Amos Perlmutter, "Unilateral withdrawal Israel's Security Option." Foreign Affairs
. (Fall 1985), p. 148.
As the usually bien pensant
Financial Times commentator David Gardner correctly notes, the late Israeli Prime Minister, was indeed in ways a 'clever tactician' and a subpar strategist. Which concretely means that all throughout his storied career, Sharon singularly failed to understand the true 'facts on the ground' stated so overtly by his predecessor as Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan
. Admittedly, Dayan for much of his own career, also failed to recognize and act upon his own prescient insight. The fact is, that regardless of its current, favorable security position, the Israeli state in the longue durée
, will be forced by circumstances to give in to its underlying geographical and demographic situation as reflected in the region where it is located. Certainly not to-day, nor to-morrow, nor five or ten years from now, but perhaps within twenty to thirty years from now, Israel will by the force de la chose
to moderate its current policies both as regards the rule over the Palestinians on the West Bank, as well as its own internal political structure as it involves Israel's self-definition as a 'Jewish State'. In that respect, for all his tactical brilliance, Sharon resembles nothing so much (in this respect only of course) as a Wehrmacht General
serving on the Eastern front during the Second World War, whose many victories could not prevent the eventual defeat of Germany by the Soviet Union 1.
1. For a similar view of Sharon's legacy, see: Hussein Ibish, "The Sharon Doctrine: The Mixed Legacy of an Israeli Unilateralist." Foreign Affairs
. 13 January 2014, in www.foreignaffairs.com
WESTERN POLICY IN SYRIA: THE END OF THE LINE?
"Given the mayhem in Syria, where death, destruction and displacement are routine, nothing shocks us any more. We’ve seen chemical weapons used, children tortured, refugees starved to death; we have watched the Syrian state collapse and neighbouring countries destabilised.
Few expect the disintegration to stop. Ask diplomats or analysts about Syria these days, and you are likely to hear predictions of several more years of war and fragmentation. And yet there are still moments in the crisis, which will soon enter its fourth year, that have so much destructive potential that they should shock us – and force us to recognise how badly adrift western policy on Syria has been.
A crucial moment came earlier this month when a collection of fighters known as the Islamic Front seized control of weapons depots and the headquarters belonging to rival rebels backed by an international coalition of western and Arab states.
The US and Britain promptly responded by suspending non-lethal aid to rebel-held northern Syria, amid concern that it would end up in radical hands, if it had not done so already. Selim Idriss, the western-backed chief rebel commander, and the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition group, tried to dress up the incident in less dramatic terms, claiming they had requested the Islamic Front’s help when their people were attacked by al-Qaeda groups.
In reality, though, the seizure of the equipment and headquarters was an attempted coup against the coalition. It was also the unravelling of the policy of western governments that have backed it. There is no denying today that whatever small influence the moderate rebels once had on the ground (and it was never much) is fast evaporating.
The moment is more disturbing when you take this into account: those who have facilitated the finance and arming of the Islamic Front are members of the same foreign alliance that backs the coalition: Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The three countries had been urged, time and again, by their western partners to channel funds and weapons only through Mr Idriss. They have never listened.
With a US-Russia sponsored peace conference on Syria planned in Switzerland in January, surely the illusion that any diplomatic progress can be achieved has been shattered – not that there was much hope to begin with. The idea of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian strongman, agreeing to hand power to a transitional authority (the basis of the peace conference) was never persuasive, especially when the momentum on the ground has been moving, even if only slightly, to his advantage.
On the other side, meanwhile, the most lethal actor among the rebels is now the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is the main al-Qaeda group. Its principal competitor is the Islamic Front, not Mr Idriss’s Free Syrian Army....
After many months of denial it is plainly clear to the coalition that the west can deliver nothing substantive on the military front and barely any coherence on the diplomatic front. Just like the coalition they back, the US and its western partners have very little influence over what happens in Syria."
Roula Khalaf,"The west’s policy on Syria has worked to Assad’s advantage." The Financial Times
. 29 December 2013, in www.ft.com
The above referenced article by Mme. Khalaf is significant not so much for what is says as the tone of the article itself and its underlying message: that Western policy in Syria has reached a cul de sac
. That any hopes, once so bright of ousting the Assad regime are no more. Given the fact that Mme. Khalaf was one of the most vociferous advocates of regime change in Syria, the fact that she has surrendered any hopes for the same is to my mind of true importance. As many reports in recent days have shown, the
'rebels' as such are for the most part made up of a odd mixture of thugs, gangsters, and Islamic fanatics of the Al Qaeda variety. Now, perhaps thankfully fighting it out among each other in portions of Northern Syria, where the supply lines into this miserable and unfortunate country are quite lucrative 1. Whatever may have been the case, circa the Summer of 2011, any thoughts now, and indeed one year ago or even two years ago of Western military intervention were and are a non-starter. And in all honesty, I fail to see any real public support for any policy of regime change, even in the Summer of 2011. Sans
such support, Western officialdom would hardly have dared at the time to proceed along these lines. Only if regime change in Syria had involved something along the lines of the very limited level of Western intervention in Libya, would Western opinion have been supportive or at least not have been categorically opposed. However, Syria was not and has never been Libya and a policy of regime change always would have required a much heavier degree of military intervention. And, given the state that Libya is in at the moment, one is rather skeptical that a quick strike policy of mere overthrow, without a long-term military presence would have lead to any real degree of stability in Syria. Just as the current chaos that is Libya clearly seems to indicate 2. Indeed, so far the best prophet as to events in the regime since 2011 is none other than that towering intellect, Vladimir Putin
. Sad but very true.
1. Joshua Landis, "The Battle between ISIS and Syria’s Rebel Militias." Syria Comment
. 4 January 2014, in www.syriacomment.com
2. Ajay Makan, Borzou Daragahi, "Libya militias defy Tripoli on oil trade." The Financial Times
. 7 January 2014, in www.ft.com
WHITHER AFGHANISTAN IN 2014?
"A new American intelligence assessment on the Afghan war predicts that the gains the United States and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops and continues bankrolling the impoverished nation, according to officials familiar with the report.
The National Intelligence Estimate, which includes input from the country’s 16 intelligence agencies, predicts that the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history, according to officials who have read the classified report or received briefings on its conclusions. The grim outlook is fueling a policy debate inside the Obama administration about the steps it should take over the next year as the U.S. military draws down its remaining troops.
The report predicts that Afghanistan would likely descend into chaos quickly if Washington and Kabul don’t sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014 — a precondition for the delivery of billions of dollars in aid that the United States and its allies have pledged to spend in Afghanistan over the coming years.
“In the absence of a continuing presence and continuing financial support,” the intelligence assessment “suggests the situation would deteriorate very rapidly,” said one U.S. official familiar with the report.
That conclusion is widely shared among U.S. officials working on Afghanistan, said the official, who was among five people familiar with the report who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to discuss the assessment.
Some officials have taken umbrage at the underlying pessimism in the report, arguing that it does not adequately reflect how strong Afghanistan’s security forces have become. One American official, who described the NIE as “more dark” than past intelligence assessments on the war, said there are too many uncertainties to make an educated prediction on how the conflict will unfold between now and 2017, chief among them the outcome of next year’s presidential election."
Ernesto Londoño, Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller, "Afghanistan gains will be lost quickly after drawdown, U.S. intelligence estimate warns". The Washington Post
. 28 December 2013, in www.washingtonpost.com
"Afghanistan on Monday rejected as baseless a U.S. intelligence forecast that the gains the United States and allies have made in the past three years will be significantly rolled back by 2017.
The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate also predicted that Afghanistan would fall into chaos if Washington and Kabul failed to sign a pact to keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014.
President Hamid Karzai's spokesman dismissed the U.S. forecast, reported by the Washington Post on the weekend, and suggested there was an ulterior motive for it.
"We strongly reject that as baseless as they have in the past been proved inaccurate," Faizi told Reuters.
Relations between Afghanistan and the United States have grown seriously strained recently by Karzai's refusal to sign the security pact that would permit some U.S. forces to stay.
U.S. officials have said that unless a deal is reached to keep perhaps 8,000 U.S. troops, the Taliban might stage a major comeback and al Qaeda could regain safe havens.
The pact must also be signed for the United States and its allies to provide billions more dollars in aid.
Without a deal, the United States could pull out all troops, the so-called zero option, leaving Afghan forces to battle the Taliban on their own".
Hamid Shalizi, "Afghanistan rejects grim U.S. intelligence forecast as baseless". Reuters
. 30 December 2013, in www.reuters.com
Ordinarily one would not disagree with the Afghan President Karzai's spokesman that the leak of the National Intelligence Estimate ) was for purposes of putting additional pressure on Karzai to sign the security pact which would provide the legal basis for an American and NATO presence in the country after the end of the current calendar year. However, given the jujitsu tactics and verbal pyrotechnics that the Afghan President is accustomed to treating his allies with, one is left to wonder if in fact that leak was for purposes of preparing the ground for an American scuttle
. Making it absolutely clear that upon the completion of the same, no one could claim ignorance of the fact that the current regime in power in Kabul will rapidly lose control of large portions of the country. My own surmise is that the releases purpose is a combination of the two. That on the one hand it clearly reminds Karzai, et. al., that sans
an agreement the Americans will probably (just as in the case of Iraq) withdraw almost all of their troops and advisors from this wretched nation tout de suite
. On the other hand, given the fact that the same American Administration will be in power circa 2015-2016, it behooves it to state clearly beforehand the outcome what will likely occur once the Americans vacate tutte quanti
from Afghanistan. Given the fact that the greatly improved performance of the Afghan army is highly dependent upon American air power, advisors and money, it is difficult to imagine how long this force will remain a coherent and unitary fighting force once cut off from American largess and support. Which is not to per se
agree with the argument that foresees an immediately collapse of the current arrangements governing the country and a Taliban victory. More likelier than not, there will be a prolonged period of civil war, akin to what occurred back in 1991-1994. An extremely unfortunate outcome, nay almost a tragedy. Particularly for the poor people of this miserable place on the map. However, whether this outcome is a dangerous one for world peace is another matter entirely. Only time and the immediate outcome of a new civil war in Afghanistan will show if that will be true or not.