Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Brazil is Cozying Up to Iran, but is this Actually Bad News for the U.S.?

Posted in South America/Central America/Western Hemisphere by Dan on November 30, 2009

Brazilian President Lula da Silva embraces Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

I am assuming that every reader out there is pretty much stuffed from the infamous turkey-fest that occurred a few days ago.  I certainly was, as I so blatantly found out after I found myself sitting on the couch for a good three-hours- stomach gorging out- after about four massive helpings.

I am also going to assume that family time took away from the usual habit of web-searching.  Holidays tend to bond relatives together, pushing aside the normal day-to-day business of news monitoring and blog posting (as it should).  So, with this being the case, you will have to forgive me for a few days of laziness on my part.  Coincidentally, I am also enjoying a nice break from college coursework, so the last thing I wanted to do was sacrifice eating, sleeping, and relaxation with political analysis J J.

But now that the break it over, it is time to once again get back on the grind until Christmas.

So…what has happened over the last few days?  Well, President Obama has finally decided to speak directly to the American people about his way forward in Afghanistan (slated for December 1).  The stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program appears to be going nowhere, as we probably all predicted.  Iraq’s national election is going to be delayed, possibly stalling the President’s withdrawal plans.  And the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is all but buried, thanks to Israeli settlement-expansion and Palestinian conditions.  Sounds like a typical few days in the world of politics, doesn’t it?

Not exactly.  There is one noteworthy event that occurred during the Thanksgiving holiday, and it actually happened right in our own backyard.

Websites and papers across the United States are reporting that Brazilian President Lula da Silva- typically referred to as a U.S. ally- decided to play host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the latest Brazilian state visit.  Taking cues from his political advisors- or perhaps from his own merit- Lula welcomed Ahmadinejad with a combination of praise, eagerness for constructive dialogue, and curiosity about future Brazilian-Iranian relations; all worries for Washington in numerous ways.

I am not sure what exactly conspired between Lula and Ahmadinejad during their state meeting.  Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear program had to be discussed between the two leaders.  Considering that a new U.N. sanctions push towards the Islamic Republic is all but evident, the hype surrounding Iran’s nuclear capability is hard to avoid.  Economic relations were also probably talked about in an extensive way.  Brazil seems intent on increasing cooperation within the developing world, thereby building a unified voice and a counter weighing force in the global community.  South American affairs may have also been on the agenda, particularly the political tensions between Venezuela and Columbia over U.S. air bases (Lula may have asked Ahmadinejad to press Chavez on the issue, although this is anyone’s guess).

All of this seems pretty benign to me.  So, why is the United States displeased over Brazil’s meeting with Tehran?  Perhaps Brazil’s support for Iran’s nuclear program could be a large piece of the puzzle.  In fact, this is more likely the entire piece of the puzzle.  In the past, Lula da Silva responded to U.S. sanctions with a rather surprising opposition.  Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Lula argued, Iran is allowed to construct nuclear plants and enrich uranium for peaceful energy purposes.  The Brazilian Government’s tone towards a new U.N. sanctions regime has continued down a similar vein, overwhelming lobbying against harsh penalties against the lifeblood of the Iranian economy (petroleum reserves).  In fact, there is ample evidence that indicates more countries from the developing world are starting to endorse the Brazilian position.

Understandably, this is potentially devastating for America’s anti-proliferation policy.  The west is devoted to keeping nuclear enrichment out of Iranian hands, and any outspoken power that disagrees publicly with this stance runs the risk of delegitimizing their efforts.  But we have to put Lula’s Iranian policy in perspective.

For one thing, Brazil- while a country with the largest economy in Latin America- is not a state with veto-wielding power at the U.N. Security Council.  Therefore, any Brazilian opposition to U.N.-based sanctions has nothing but a symbolic effect.  The U.N. Security Council will still have the capability of passing a new set of targeted measures against the Iranian economy (although sanctions will probably continue to fail).

Secondly, although Lula da Silva is one of the most politically popular figures in the international community, the “Six- Powers” are still hesitant to label him as a major power-broker on par with American and European officials.  Similarly, although Brazil possesses enormous diplomatic potential, it still lacks the administrative ability to make their opinions heard throughout the entire world (this may be changing, according to the latest special report from the Economist).

Do not get me wrong; Brazil has made tremendous improvements over the past decade in a large amount of economic, political, and social issues.  Much of this is rightly accredited to Lula da Silva and his knack for domestic reform.  But in reality, Brazilian backing for an Iranian nuclear capability is anything but an attention-grabbing headline.  If Brazil’s global stature was currently on par with China and Russia, Lula’s meeting with Ahmadinejad would certainly take a bigger place under the American radar.  Thankfully, this is anything but true in the current day.

Side Note:  The Iranian Government would see Brazil as a hypocrite if Lula failed to appease Tehran’s nuclear work.  Brazil was once interested in a nuclear weapons deterrent (until it abandoned its nuclear work in the 1970’s) and currently, the South American nation is still constructing civilian nuclear power plants throughout the entire country.  Brazil plans to construct and operate another eight plants by 2030.  With all of this in mind, the political fallout would be enormous if Brazil simply followed the path of the United States on the nuclear issue.  Iran would not only stamp Brazil as a two-faced American lackey, but would most likely act on its disgust by cutting off diplomatic relations.  Remember; Brazil is trying to become the spokesperson for the developing world.  What benefit would Brazil receive by alienating a growing Muslim power- and substantial oil producer- in the Middle East?

**Included under the comments section below is an assessment by Paul Bremer, the President of the Eurasia Group.  In his view, Lula da Silva may be going down the same economic path as Hugo Chavez, the most popular anti-American leader in Latin America.   This is just another example of how scholars are puzzled over Brazil’s recent behavior.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Sanctions Will Not Work on Iran

Posted in Iran by Dan on November 26, 2009

A new U.N. sanctions push is irrelevant at this point in the game

With an Iranian rejection over a new U.N. proposal imminent, the Security Council will be forced to yet again mull over a workable approach towards the nuclear stalemate.  Unfortunately, the United Nations- specifically the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany- continue to lobby for the same failed policy that sped up Iran’s nuclear capability in the first place: economic sanctions.

There is no doubt that economic penalties have worked remarkably well in the past, depending on the industries being targeted and the countries being penalized.  The Libyan case in 2004 is the most contemporary example of sanction accomplishments.  Faced with a poorly managed and inefficient economy, Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi abandoned his nuclear weapons program and renounced international terrorism in exchange for an improved economic relationship with western powers.  Fearing a substantial rise in the unemployment rate- in addition to other financial damage- Kaddafi found it in his best interest to cave-in to international demands.  Absent an effective sanctions campaign, such a dramatic shift in foreign-policy may not have occurred.

In this illustration, a nuclear aspirant was deterred from taking the next step, which would have inevitably destabilized a region that was already prone to Islamic violence and civil turbulence.

Ever since Libya decided to integrate itself within the international community, advocates of the sanctions regime have used the Libyan success story to promote similar measures on untrustworthy adversaries.  They claim that a sanctions package is THE peaceful alternative to military confrontation, not to mention its resounding status as a legitimate form of retaliation.  Those that advocate this type of punishment repeatedly argue that sanctions hit a state where it hurts (the wallet), thereby forcing them to change their hostile ways.  The Obama administration has been a vocal leader in this camp for the past few months.

With the positive aroma currently surrounding economic penalties, it is unavoidable that many countries around the world- not to mention the United States in particular- are trying to force the Libyan success-story onto the Iranian problem.  President Barack Obama and his European allies have said so themselves; labeling military action on Iranian nuclear facilities as an irrational option (and they are right), the only approach left on the table is a globally-enforced campaign directed at the Iranian economy.

The problem is that these same politicians fail to recognize that three rounds of sanctions since 2006 have yet to convince Tehran to abide by nuclear norms.  In fact, they have only strengthened Iranian resolve.  Nuclear inspectors have just discovered more operational centrifuges in Iran’s main nuclear-enrichment site (Natanz), and a new nuclear plant west of Tehran was just exposed by the IAEA this past October.

Let’s face it: a new set of sanctions will not work on Iran.  Even if the Security Council were to pass a new resolution, there is no evidence that Russia and China- two countries that possess extensive economic ties with Iran- will not renege on the agreement once they experience the negative side-effects of their decision.  At a time when Russian and Chinese leaders are doing everything they can to bolster their own economies, the last thing Moscow and Beijing would want to do is cut off a profitable trade route.

In addition, sanctions towards Iran’s petroleum industry will not have huge significance if the clerical leadership can find other sources of refined gasoline.  Hugo Chavez has already declared his willingness to ship 20,000 barrels per day of refined gasoline to the Islamic Republic in the event of “Yankee-led” sabotage.  Considering the fact that Iran and Venezuela have a common enemy- the “Great Satan”- it is hard to believe that a sanctions push will succeed in everything it seeks out to accomplish.

In international relations, people have a tendency to pick up and support what is hot in the policy realm.  For the last decade, sanctions and other forms of economic punishment have been the overarching fashion-trend.  But just because a policy has a lot of supporters does not automatically make this policy effective and worthwhile.  At one time, preventive warfare was a hot policy, and one the United States prematurely approved.  Look how that turned out.

Realistically and historically speaking, sanctions are least likely to succeed against distant economic partners.  Considering that the United States and Iran hardly trade in the first place, the effects of a new western sanctions push would be far more symbolic than strategic.  By this definition, Iran will find a way to weather the storm, as they have for the past three years.

Note:  This piece is an adaptive version of a new project I am working on, which is coincidently my undergraduate thesis.  I am now entering into the tedious journey of peer review editing, a most joyful experience!

-Daniel R. DePetris

Does the U.S. Even Understand What a Peace Process is?

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on November 22, 2009

Israeli bulldozers destroy another Palestinian home

Check out how ignorant and out of touch the United States is when Israeli-Palestinian peace is discussed during a press conference.


QUESTION: On the peace process, Israel has approved today the construction of 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem. How do you view this approval at this specific time?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think, Michel, you’ve heard us say many times that we believe that neither party should engage in any kind of actions that could unilaterally preempt or appear to preempt negotiations. And I think that we find the Jerusalem Planning Committee’s decision to move forward on the approval of the — approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem as dismaying. This is at a time when we’re working to re-launch negotiations, and we believe that these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed. So we object to this, and we object to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. And — just to repeat what we’ve said all along, our position on Jerusalem is clear. We believe that the – that Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties.

QUESTION: Can you tell us, did this come up in Ambassador Mitchell’s meetings in London yesterday? Apparently, we were told that he met an advisor to Netanyahu, asked them to not permit these new buildings, and then that request was flatly turned down.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Andy, I just don’t want to get into the substance of these negotiations. They’re sensitive. I think you’ve seen the Israeli — some Israeli press reports that did report that this was raised in the meetings. … But I don’t want to get into the substance of the discussions yesterday in London. …

QUESTION: How long is the U.S. going to continue to tolerate Israel’s violation of international law? I mean, soon it’s not even going to be possible — there’s not going to be any land left for the Palestinians to establish an independent state.

MR. KELLY: Well, again, this is a — we understand the Israeli point of view about Jerusalem. But we think that all sides right now, at this time when we’re expending such intense efforts to try and get the two sides to sit down, that we should refrain from these actions, like this decision to move forward on an approval process for more housing units in East Jerusalem.

QUESTION: But should U.S. inaction, or in response to Israel’s actions, then be interpreted as some sort of about-face in policy – the President turning his back on the promises he’s made to the Palestinians?

MR. KELLY: You’re — okay, you’re using language that I wouldn’t use. I mean, again, our focus is to get these negotiations started. We’re calling on both parties to refrain from actions, from – and from rhetoric that would impede this process. It’s a challenging time, and we just need to focus on what’s important here, and that’s —

QUESTION: Well, what actions (inaudible) the Palestinians taken recently that would impede progress?

MR. KELLY: Well, as I say, we would discourage all unilateral actions, and I think —

QUESTION: Fair enough. But the Palestinians —

MR. KELLY: We talked yesterday —

QUESTION: — don’t appear to be taking any unilateral actions. It seems to be (inaudible).

MR. KELLY: Well, we did talk yesterday about the – and I want to make sure I get my language right here – about the – discouraging any kind of unilateral appeal for United Nations Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That would fall in that category of unilateral actions.

QUESTION: Okay. So the Palestinian call for this, which was rejected by both the EU and yourself yesterday, you’re putting that on the same level as them building — as the Israelis building —

MR. KELLY: No, I’m not saying that. You just said that, Matt. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that —

QUESTION: Well, you’re saying you’re calling on both sides to stop doing these things.

MR. KELLY: We are.

QUESTION: Yeah. But the rhetoric from the —

MR. KELLY: I’m not saying they’re equivalent.

QUESTION: — Palestinians is not actually constructed in a —

MR. KELLY: I’m not saying they’re equivalent. I’m just saying that we — they — we have to treat these things as sensitive issues.

QUESTION: You said a little bit earlier that we understand the Israeli point of view on Jerusalem. Can you explain what you mean by that?

MR. KELLY: Well, you have to ask — I’m not going to stand up here and characterize the Israeli point of view on —

QUESTION: No. I’m just asking you, if you understand the Israeli point of view on Jerusalem, why are you saying that this is not a good thing?

MR. KELLY: I’m not saying we support the Israeli point of view. We understand it.

QUESTION: Right. And then, last one on this, you characterized this decision by the planning commission as dismaying.


QUESTION: You can’t come up with anything stronger than “dismaying”? I mean, this flies in the face of everything you’ve been talking about for months and months and months.

MR. KELLY: It’s dismaying.

QUESTION: Yeah, you can’t offer a condemnation of it or anything like that? (Laughter.) I mean, who is in charge of the language here.

MR. KELLY: I have said what I have said, Mr. Lee. . .

QUESTION: Would you say, though, that your own envoy has – does he have any leverage at this point, given the fact that the Israelis not only refuse, but blatantly have ignored his wishes on this?

MR. KELLY: Well, let’s take a step back and let’s also recognize that both sides agree on the goal, and that goal is a comprehensive peace. That goal is two states living side by side in peace and security and cooperation. So that is why we continue to be committed to this. That is why Special Envoy Mitchell meets with both sides at every opportunity, and why we are continuing to expend such efforts on this. So let’s remember that, that we do share a common goal.

QUESTION: Well, where’s Senator Mitchell today?

MR. KELLY: I believe Senator Mitchell is on his way back today.

QUESTION: Could you give us just a brief synopsis of the progress that Senator Mitchell has made in his months on the job?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think we have – we’ve gotten —

QUESTION: Yeah, maybe if the —

MR. KELLY: — both sides to agree on this goal. We have gotten both sides —

QUESTION: Ian, they agreed on the goal years ago. I mean, that’s not —

MR. KELLY: Well, I think that we – this government —

QUESTION: You mean you got the Israel Government to say, yes, we’re willing to accept a Palestinian state? You got Netanyahu to say that, and that’s his big accomplishment?

MR. KELLY: That is an accomplishment.

QUESTION: But previous Israeli administration – previous Israeli governments had agreed to that already.

MR. KELLY: Okay, all right.

QUESTION: So in other words, the bottom line is that, in the list of accomplishments that Mitchell has come up with or established since he started, is zero.

MR. KELLY: I wouldn’t say zero.

QUESTION: Well, then what would you say it is?

MR. KELLY: Well, I would say that we’ve gotten both sides to commit to this goal. They have – we have – we’ve had a intensive round or rounds of negotiations, the President brought the two leaders together in New York. Look —

QUESTION: But wait, hold on. You haven’t had any intense —

MR. KELLY: Obviously —

QUESTION: There haven’t been any negotiations.

MR. KELLY: Obviously, we’re not even in the red zone yet, okay.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. KELLY: I mean, we’re not — but it’s — we are less than a year into this Administration, and I think we’ve accomplished more over the last year than the previous administration did in eight years.

QUESTION: Well, I – really, because the previous administration actually had them sitting down talking to each other. You guys can’t even get that far.

MR. KELLY: All right … Give us a chance …

QUESTION: It seems Senator Mitchell is focusing in his meetings on the Israeli side. Is he — does he have any plans to talk with the Palestinians, or there is no need now for that?

MR. KELLY: Well, he, as I say, he had meetings yesterday with the Israelis. He’s coming back to the U.S. now. He always stands ready to talk to both sides. There are no plans at this moment to meet with the Palestinian side.


It is easy for me to sit here, type on this blog and say that this exchange was a pathetic excuse for a State Department press conference. But that is exactly what it was. Not one mention of HOW the Israelis are finding room to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (destroying Palestinian homes). Not one mention of how angry the U.S. Government is over Israeli defiance and their predisposition for intolerant behavior. Not one mention of Palestinian grievances…and, of course, not one mention of what is actually going on between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is hard for me to say- and it will be harder for Obama lovers to accept this fact- but Mr. Kelly deliberately lied to the Press Corps throughout that entire news conference.

“We’ve gotten both sides to commit to this goal.” I beg to differ. Can you honestly say that the Israeli Government is serious about a “comprehensive peace?” This is a laughable statement, and some reporters in the press corps actually did laugh. The Israelis have been extraordinarily difficult to deal with, and there is no evidence that they are willing to change their behavior for the good of a comprehensive peace plan. The Palestinians have shown the Israelis good faith consistently over the past two years, namely by significantly cracking-down on militant activity within the West Bank. The Israelis have not returned the favor in any substantial way. Settlement construction continues, and hundreds upon hundreds of roadblocks are still prevalent throughout the Palestinian Territories; a perfect microcosm of the humiliation surrounding the occupation.

Plus, it seems that Mr. Kelly has failed to recognize the motives behind the newly-approved settlement plan. It should be rather obvious that this action is direct retaliation for the Palestinian attempt of unilateral statehood. Mr. Netanyahu said so much himself, saying that the Israeli Government would respond with equal force in the event of a unilaterally-declared Palestinian state. Or perhaps this is Israel’s way of preventing the Palestinians from appealing to the U.N. Security Council in the first place. Either way, the United States has not publicly understood the full extent of the Israeli decision.

-Daniel R. DePetris

American Idiocy

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on November 19, 2009

Hillary Clinton demonstrates America's ignorance towards Afghanistan

With the question of whether to send an additional 40,000 American troops into Afghanistan continuing to loom over President Obama’s head, the conversation over U.S. strategy has shifted over the past few days to political issues.  Among the most frequently asked within the administration is whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a reliable ally in the fight against Taliban insurgents.

With government corruption and the lack of accountability a main recruiting tool for Taliban militants, the United States is seriously starting to wonder if more troops will solve the endemic problem associated with Afghanistan’s gross-mismanagement.  U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said something quite similar to the White House, sending a leaked cable to the President arguing that a sustained U.S. troop commitment would be useless without a clean Afghan authority that serves the basic needs of its people.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to back up Eikenberry’s remarks in her latest television tour this past Sunday, when she complained that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is not open-ended, and that Karzai would have to establish functional and effective institutions if he expects the United States to increase its commitment in both manpower and money.

Here are two controversial comments made by Mrs. Clinton regarding Afghanistan’s national government:

“I have made it clear that we’re not going to be providing any civilian aid to Afghanistan unless we have certification that if it goes into the Afghan government in any form, that we’re going to have ministries that we can hold accountable.”

“We are expecting there to be a major crimes tribunal, an anti-corruption commission established and functioning, because there does have to be actions by the government of Afghanistan against those who have taken advantage of the money that has poured into Afghanistan in the last eight years.”

Coming from an administration that has gambled its presidential legacy on the Afghan mission, these types of remarks seem to do more harm than good.  What President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s tone implies is that the United States will cease to help Karzai solidify control over Afghanistan if he happens to engage in another mistake.  This puts Karzai in a terribly difficult situation, where his political survival rests upon what the United States considers acceptable.

Regrettably, the White House rhetoric also gives the Taliban insurgency a valuable blueprint for sparking a complete American withdrawal.  By citing Karzai’s corruption problems, Washington has essentially provided the Taliban with a potential tool for success; continue delegitimizing the Afghan Government and the United States will lose both its patience and perseverance.

American frustration over the Afghan mission is palpable across the country.  After all, the United States has been in Afghanistan for the past eight years and has nothing to show for it, minus a few paved roads and the destruction of a few Al’Qaeda training camps.  But no one said this was going to be easy (expect maybe George W. Bush), especially when the United States Government decided to neglect Afghan society for the sake of a preventive Iraqi invasion.  Did people truly believe that this strategic blunder would not result in devastating consequences in the future?

Unfortunately, the U.S. Military is finally paying for its missteps eight years after the initial invasion.  Hostile comments from the White House only worsen the situation, prompting Karzai to question whether American leadership is once again floundering when “shit hits the fan.”

As Iraq has shown, a successful counterinsurgency operation contains the right combination of civilian and military power to offset gains made by insurgents.  “Winning the hearts and minds” of the indigenous population requires long-term devotion to ensure that American interests are being achieved and that America’s adversaries are losing sway.

Specific to Afghanistan, Americans must begin to respect the Afghan-way-of-doing-things, which inevitably requires an understanding of the tribal council system, a decentralized form of governance, and the numerous ethnic grievances that have persisted for centuries.  A top-down approach will simply not work, and the Afghan population may never accept western democracy.  This however does not mean that “Afghan democracy” cannot be accomplished.  At the grassroots level, democracy can flourish in Afghanistan, with a few minor tweaks that account for the needs and preferences of Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and the hundreds of other groups comprising Afghan society.

Complaining about Hamid Karzai’s performance does not help get any of these reforms get off the ground.  Yes, he is responsible for numerous corruption charges and the terrible mismanagement of American taxpayer dollars.  But pretending that he is the only antagonist fails to grasp the Afghan crisis in a reasonable fashion.

For the last eight years, the United States has been placing all of their eggs in one basket, hoping that a single authority can magically turn the billions of American dollars into a swath of reconstruction projects and development programs.  Maybe it is time to abandon this line of thinking, instead concentrating on a sustained counterinsurgency plan that addresses the real causes of the current conflict; a lack of “Afghanization.”

-Daniel R. DePetris

Palestinians Ask the U.N. for Help

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on November 16, 2009

Palestinians to unilaterally declare their own state, pending U.N. Security Council approval

For all of those Israelis who thought the peace-process was solely in their hands, I am afraid you are mistaken.  According to reports from a top negotiator of the conflict, the Palestinians are revamping efforts to form an independent state through unilateral action.  The Associated Press confirms this story, commenting that a Palestinian delegation is expected to approach the U.N. Security Council on the issue of an autonomous Palestine free from Israeli control.

Even by Mideast peace standards, this is an unprecedented move by the Palestinians.  For the first time since the inception of the Middle Eastern peace process  (approximately 18 years ago) the ruling Palestinian coalition has reached a boiling-point over Israeli settlements in the West Bank; so much so that they have decided to ask for international help in solving the statehood problem.

The move is a clear indication of Palestinian devotion to the two-state solution.  If Israelis refuse to recognize the approach, then the Palestinians seem intent on going it alone.

Undoubtedly, this is more than a tactical move by the Palestinians, who have come to be viewed by the international community as the “whipping-boy” of the Israeli intelligence apparatus.  The appeal also possesses an inherent symbolic effect, particularly against America’s policy in the Middle East…a policy that has been categorized by many Arabs as biased towards Jerusalem.

However dramatic the move is, I am not sure that appealing to the United Nations is the right step.  A U.N. denial could not only have lasting ramifications for the Palestinian leadership…it could also strike a blow to their credibility as a legitimate negotiating partner.  The bright side to this deal, of course, is an internationally recognized Palestinian state and a public rebuke of Israel’s forceful nature.

With all of this being said, I am rather puzzled as to why Mahmoud Abbas would even consider declaring a unified Palestinian state at this point. Palestinian politics is perhaps at the most fragmented point in its history. Not only is the political process divided between two distinct entities, but the Palestinian people remain divided between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This separation is not only due to geography; it also has something to do with intense Palestinian political loyalties.

From what I can gather, if you are a Palestinian who is semi-engaged in the political process, you are either a supporter of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party or an advocate of the Hamas movement. There does not appear to be any moderation between the two camps…a development that is conductive to arrogance, stalemate, and an unwillingness to compromise on key issues. Abbas’ American-trained forces are still battling Hamas militants in the West Bank, and Hamas militants are still viewing Fatah as a corrupt American puppet. As long as this is happening, there is no chance for a unified Palestinian state, regardless if Fayyad declares one or not.

In addition, there is no question that the U.S. Government is going to veto this Palestinian declaration at the U.N. Security Council. President Obama probably does not want to alienate and anger the Israeli Government any more than he has over the past nine months. Recognizing a unilaterally declared Palestinian state- without the approval of Israel- would only add insult to injury to the P.M. Netanyahu. Of course, depending on which side you are on, this could either be a refreshing change in the U.S.-Israeli relationship (one that emphasis equality in the Middle East peace process rather than American submission); or it could be a setback for U.S. interests in the Middle East. These days, I tend to think that more people would agree with the former rather than the latter.

-Daniel R. DePetris

So… Apparently the U.S. is Fighting Three Enemies in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on November 13, 2009


Americans across the country have come to expect a certain degree of pessimism with respect to the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan.  For the past two years, American and NATO casualties have risen exponentially from previous levels, just as Taliban insurgents to the south have revamped their efforts in the goal of destabilizing and delegitimizing President Hamid Karzai’s administration.

Counterterrorism officials within the U.S. Government have routinely complained of a lack of resources, manpower, and logistical support from European allies…all the while arguing for more troops on the ground in an attempt to contain the Taliban’s foothold in Afghan politics.  Calls related to these matters have become so significant over the past year that General Stanley A. McChrystal- the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan- publicly argued for an additional 40,000 American soldiers for enhanced counterinsurgency operations.

Of course, anyone who owns a television, a radio, or a computer fully understands what is going on within the U.S. Military establishment.  Americans have come to realize the long-term costs associated with war, whether in the deserts of Iraq or in the mountains of Afghanistan.  After all, this headline is not necessarily breaking news…General McChrystal’s assessment of the U.S. war effort has come to dominate the stories and discourse of the mainstream media.

What is relatively shocking is the type of discoveries the general makes in his 600+ page assessment.  Among other recommendations that McChrystal has made in the last few days, one has stood out as potentially devastating to counterinsurgent operations within Afghanistan.  Surprisingly, this is the same recommendation that has gotten little play in the national media.

According to U.S. military sources, branches of the Pakistani and Iranian intelligence services have been aiding the Taliban insurgency against coalition forces; placing yet another obstacle in the path of Afghan reconstruction.

In particular, the general points the finger at Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency as well as Iran’s Quds Force…an elite wing in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is comparable to America’s Central Intelligence Agency.

To some analysts, this discovery is not necessarily new.  Pakistan has had a long history of supporting the Afghan Taliban even before the September 11, 2001 attacks.  Eight years later, the ISI has continued to bankroll the organization (although at a much lower rate) while destroying the Taliban’s Pakistani branch at the same exact time.

The ISI-Taliban connection is especially worrisome to President Barack Obama, given that America’s war on Al’Qaeda has relied extensively on Pakistani cooperation.  Consider Washington’s use of predator drones against Al’Qaeda bases in Pakistan’s western frontier as an example.  Despite repeated civilian casualties, Islamabad has tolerated American strikes on its territory…even going a step further by using its own security services against militants in the Swat Valley and currently in South Waziristan.

Given that Pakistan is now implicated for endorsing Taliban activity within Afghanistan, will the United States respond with equal ferocity…possibly cutting off assistance to the Pakistani military?  Well, considering the fact that President Obama just signed an additional $7.5 billion in aid for the Pakistani Government for the next five years, I would have to say no.  While Pakistan’s Taliban support certainly undermines U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, Washington simply has no alternative other than showing its disapproval to the ISI.  Taking the next step and doing something belligerent towards the Pakistani Government would only hurt America’s campaign against Al’Qaeda in Southwest Asia; a region where a majority of Al’Qaeda leaders continue to reside and rally Sunni terrorist networks around the world.

Without a Pakistani military alliance, Al’Qaeda and the Taliban would certainly be more emboldened than they already are, not only threatening Afghanistan and Pakistan but possibly creating a new theatre for terrorism inside India (the Mumbai terror attacks last Fall serves as a graphic demonstration).

The White House must also recognize the hidden motivations behind the ISI’s support for Taliban insurgents.  Pakistani intelligence is not aiding the Taliban purely for the Taliban’s sake.  Rather, evidence indicates that the Taliban movement is Islamabad’s insurance card against Indian meddling within Afghanistan once American troops decide to withdraw from the country.  Whether logical or not, Pakistan continues to view India as its number one threat.  With this being the case, any action that would hinder Indian influence along its western border is  a priority for Islamabad.  As Pakistani officials have made clear in the past, a Taliban Government in Kabul would be viewed as a valuable deterrent against India’s ambitions.

While distressing, the United States should cool its jets for another reason: the ISI, while Pakistan’s primary intelligence service, is not controlled by the civilian government in Islamabad.  Pakistani politics is traditionally divided between civilian politicians and military commanders, making it extraordinarily difficult for the U.S. to accurately blame its main ally for Afghan instability.

Iran, however, is a whole different story.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made it clear in the past that they will do anything and everything in their power to bleed American forces on Muslim soil.  Just take Iraq as an example.

General David Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill that Iranian agents were training Iraqi Shia’s in the construction and use of roadside bombs…the IED’s that were the primary instigators of American coalition casualties during 2006.  There is a common assumption within the U.S. intelligence community that Iran is intent on flexing its muscles through Shia militias sympathetic to Iranian values.  With this policy highly successful in Iraq, it would only be natural for Tehran to adopt similar practices in Afghanistan, targeting U.S. troops in the hopes that Washington will remain distracted from a possible strike on its nuclear facilities.

What puzzles me is why Iran has chosen to align itself with the Taliban movement.  Historically, the Iranians and members of the Taliban were especially hostile towards one another.  During the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990’s, it was not uncommon for Iranian and Taliban soldiers to engage in violent border disputes.

Religiously and ideologically, the Islamic Republic and the Taliban Movement could not be more different.  Iran considers itself a Shia-indoctrinated nation, while Taliban militants are primarily advocates of a strict Sunni interpretation.  What is prompting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard into providing military assistance to Taliban fighters, the same Sunni extremists that were making the lives of Iranians miserable only eight years ago?

The only possible explanation I can gather is in the old adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Both the Iranians and the Taliban are fighting a common adversary- the United States- and both parties view themselves as the last bastion against western imperialism on Muslim land.  Add self-interest to the mix, and this conclusion gains considerable fruition.

Either that, or Tehran is so desperate for friends that they are willing to settle old scores.  This, too, is a viable rationalization.  Over the past few months, the Islamic Republic has been challenged externally- by the United Nation’s Security Council- and internally through Iranian dissident organizations.  With only one true ally (Bashar al-Assad’s Syria), Tehran has every incentive to gather friends in any way they can, even if this means reaching out to former enemies.

Whatever the reason, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan just got more problematic.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this blog


Vietnam and Afghanistan, Past and Present

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on November 10, 2009
Can the lessons from Vietnam apply to the war in Afghanistan?

Can the lessons of Vietnam apply to the war in Afghanistan?

If anyone happened to pick up the latest issue of Newsweek, I would guess that the first thing that jumped on people’s mind was the cover story.  Surprise Surprise, it was another in-depth comparison of Vietnam and Afghanistan by political journalists.

Yet for some reason, I could not help but turn the page directly to the story.  And much to my chagrin, the piece by Evan Thomas and John Barry was not a repeat of previous articles addressing the same mundane topics.  Rather, Mr. Barry and Mr. Thomas focused on the many lessons that the United States learned in its eight-year Vietnam struggle…and what- if any- can be applied to America’s current quandary in Afghanistan.

What a great piece! I not only applaud Mr. Thomas and Mr. Barry for their extensive research on the subject…I also applaud their willingness to report what many Americans do not want to hear; namely that President Obama will sow the seeds of his own destruction if he implements a middle ground to the war in Afghanistan. With the Taliban insurgency only growing stronger, and with Islamic jihadists in Pakistan continuing to wreak havoc on Islamabad’s civilian government, the Obama administration could very well be entering into THE crucial period among a wider war. I fear that Mr. Obama is currently engaging in the same debate that transformed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; debates that will inevitably result in a failed war policy (although Nixon was relatively successful in other areas).

While it is easy for me to say, politics and partisanship should never dictate what resources are provided to U.S. troops on the ground. Likewise, political bickering on Capitol Hill should never pressure a wartime President into acting prematurely. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is occurring in Washington today. Thanks to the atmosphere surrounding Washington, the President has been delaying his Afghan strategy review for over a month…depriving our military with a unified and coherent strategy for pacifying Afghanistan and eventually mitigating the influence of the Taliban.

I know most Americans will most likely hate what I am about to say, but President Bush- for all of his blunders, failures, and mismanagement- was relatively resilient during the Iraq War. In fact, he not only refused to limit his choices based on partisanship; he provided the generals on the ground with a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan (albeit a little too late). Compare and contrast that with Presidents Johnson and Obama, two men who refuse to enact tactics that are unpopular. The sad thing is that these same unpopular tactics may prove to be the decisive factor in the Afghan theater; much the same way as the unpopular surge turned the page in Iraq.

Certainly, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Barry are correct to distinguish Vietnam from Afghanistan. The Vietcong, although insurgents, were much more organized compared to the Taliban. Likewise, Vietnam and Afghanistan are very different, both historically and culturally. Yet, at this point in time- when the United States appears lost in a “war of necessity”- going back to the days of Vietnam may not be such a bad thing. Perhaps we will learn from our mistakes.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Another Setback for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on November 8, 2009
misplaced optimism-walt

Goodbye Mr. Abbas, you may be missed

For all of our Middle East watchers out there, I am sure you know by know that Mahmoud Abbas- the Palestinian President and leader of the globally recognized Fatah-Party- has decided not to run for re-election.  In his comments, he not only stressed his profound frustration with the White House over Israeli settlement policies…he also made it rather clear that the main reason for his departure was due to an Israeli unwillingness to constructively negotiate.

Some claim that Mr. Abbas’ resignation may pave the way for a new outlook on Mideast Peace.  This certainly is a worthwhile prospect…Abbas is widely unpopular among the Palestinian people and is most often referred to as a Washington-puppet.  Perhaps a new administration in charge will finally bridge the pervasive divide among Palestinians, thereby approaching Israel in a position of strength.

I have heard other arguments that Abbas’ departure really doesn’t matter all that much, for the 2010 Palestinain elections will probably not take place.

I, on the other hand, have a much more simplified analysis of the entire ordeal.

All in all, I truly believe this is a strategic political calculation on the part of Mr. Abbas. By announcing his resignation and basically blaming the Obama administration for the entire ordeal, what Abbas is essentially doing is diverting the attention away from himself and placing it on yet another American presidency. Granted, he may not be wrong in this regard; President Obama was rather forceful to the Isrealis on halting settlement construction during his Cairo speech, that is before he was coerced by P.M. Netanyahu during the U.N. General Assembly. For Abbas, indeed the entire Palestinian population, this dramatic 180-degree turn by the President is deeply frustrating for the prospects of their own independent state…away from Israeli control and Israeli supervision.

However, lets not forget that Abbas has not necessarily been successful himself. After all, a number of developments occurred on his watch; Hamas won the Palestinian Parliamentary Elections against a Fatah Party riddled by corruption and inadequacy in 2006; Hamas embarrassed the PA security force in the Gaza Strip in 2007; and the economic outlook remains rather bleak today (despite some successful projects).

And what about Abbas’ awful ratings in the West Bank generally? Perhaps Mr. Abbas is desperately trying to improve his unpopular image by engaging in a typical blame-game scenario…”it is the American administration, not my own ineffective rule, that has resulted in the current failings of a two-state solution.” This seems highly plausible, considering that the PA leader has been detaching himself from the United States ever since the Goldstone Report surfaced.

-Daniel R. DePetris

What To Expect In The Next Year

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on November 5, 2009


Over the past week, every IR scholar on this side of the horizon has been commenting on President Obama’s first-year in office.  For those who are unaware of the special anniversary, the so-called “candidate of hope” passed his first-test as Commander-in-Chief a couple of days ago; surviving the Washington “broo ha-ha” and the intense atmosphere of partisanship that has come to dominate the nation’s capitol.  And, taking some of this past year’s propositions into account, it appears that President Obama has passed challenge #1 with flying colors.  In fact, not only is he retaining the country’s (indeed, the world’s) popular support with an iron fist…he is doing so with a weak and fractured Republican Party bent on discrediting his administration at every turn.

Of course, the first test for a President is not necessarily a difficult one.  Even the most unpopular President in contemporary American history- George W. Bush- managed to survive his first year in the Oval Office with a 90 percent approval rating.  It is what comes next that is the hard part; actually implementing campaign promises and working for re-election at the same exact time.

From Iran to North Korea, from nuclear proliferation to the War in Iraq, and from the Afghan conflict to the dismal situation in Latin America, the second-year in power will undoubtedly be a crucial time for the Obama administration’s legacy…heck, even its survival.

For the Democrats who have been riding on the President’s coattails for the last 12 months, the rest of Obama’s first-term will be an opportunity to expand health-care coverage, withdraw troops from distant deserts, and strengthen America’s image to the world through unconditional diplomacy and “mutual respect.”  We may even see more U.S.-brokered talks with some of the world’s most brutal and authoritarian regimes.

For Republicans who have been gnashing their teeth and clamoring up the walls, Mr. Obama’s second-year will result in an enhanced effort by conservatives to re-take the U.S. Congress in the midterm elections.  Expect the Republican Party to remain defiant in the face of a Democratic administration, advocating the Bush tax-cuts, pushing for tougher penalties against Iran, and redoubling the U.S military effort in a war that has been fading away from the American conscience.

What does this mean for the ordinary American citizen who ventures to the polls every four-years?  Well, it is rather simple in my perspective; more tip-toeing over important foreign-policy issues that need to be confronted with the government’s full resources and the administration’s full concentration.

The nuclear stalemate between the Islamic Republic and the western community will continue to gain traction within the halls of Congress, absent Obama’s efforts at dialogue and despite the recent U.N.-approved nuclear enrichment deal.  Israel may even take matters into their own-hands.

Israel will continue to build settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank…the same land that the Palestinians view as crucial for a future state of their own.  As in the past, President Obama will cave-in to Israeli demands over settlement construction, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will inevitably be forced to accept a White House policy of “wait and see.”  Meanwhile, expect dramatic changes in the Palestinian leadership, with Hamas radicals in the Gaza Strip discrediting PA President Mahmoud Abbas.  It may not be illogical to expect a changing of the guard for Fatah, a movement that has been losing support among moderate Palestinians.  To summarize, the same Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Mr. Obama labeled as the most eminent obstacle to American power in the Middle East will be avoided by yet another American presidency.

Iraq is perhaps the one silver-lining in this whole list.  Thus far, the President has made it clear that he is willing to stick by his original plan, withdrawing the majority of American troops from Iraq by January of 2012.  Yet, even this policy is up in the air, with Iraqi violence once again returning and the Iraqi Parliament failing to resolve some key issues, thereby pitting sectarian groups against one another (oil revenue, the city of Kirkuk, the Kurdish question, etc.).

Hopefully, I am wrong with all of these predictions.  Perhaps I am just a pessimist, taking by skepticism about Obama to new heights.

However, this does not appear to be the case.  Some scholars- mostly hawkish in origin- tend to agree with this same premise.  President Obama could very well become the first sitting American President with a Nobel-Prize that is considered a sitting-duck ahead of the next November election.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Nuclear Inferno

Posted in Nuclear Proliferation by Dan on November 3, 2009

The main source of nuclear material for terrorist organizations is right in our line of sight: rogue states

Undoubtedly, the most horrific act of terrorism would involve a nuclear strike on an American city. Washington officials have been formulating defense policy on this belief since President Clinton’s administration in the 1990’s.  For years, U.S. planners have been doing everything in their power to come up with a viable long-term nuclear-defense strategy.  Crisis management and conflict resolution are two of the most effective tools in this area, both of which can be used to minimize the physical and psychological casualties associated with a nuclear attack.

Unfortunately, conflict resolution and crisis management may not be enough.  With the terrorist threat only increasing in significance, the widespread fear of a nuclear terrorist incident will only strengthen as more Americans worry about their personal safety.

Likewise, with all of the talk about “rogue states-” that unique club of countries that are both dangerous to international security and destabilizing to their respected regions- it is easy to get carried away about the state-nuclear terror connection. After all, one of the primary arguments for the U.S., Israeli and European Governments concerning Iran’s enrichment cycle is directly related to this analogy; with a nuclear-weapons capability, nations like Iran or Syria may find it useful to pass on their own nuclear technology to like-minded proxies (such as Hezbollah). In fact, for all of the bickering in the United States Congress about foreign-policy issues, the state-proxy nuclear relationship seems to be the only topic that cuts across partisan divides.

Therefore, concentrating solely on rogue states as the major source of nuclear technology for terrorist groups is an obvious exercise. But it is more than that…it is the only purveyor that the international community can pinpoint with complete confidence and accuracy.

Sure, terrorists can buy enriched uranium on the black-market, paying top-dollar to acquire some of the purist weapons-grade material science has to offer. But where would this weapons-grade material come from? Did it come from some kind of mysterious creature? How about from the soil? Of course not! It came from a legitimate nation that, for some reason or another, either decided to sell this information or get rid of it altogether.

This is why Iran and Pakistan worry me so much. One is on its way into the nuclear-club (if the United States does not do something concrete about the problem) and the other already boasts a 100-warhead arsenal.  If Pakistan was not the global home to all sorts of terrorists- and if the country’s civilian government was not already in a sorry-state of fragility and discontent- this may not be a problem. But, as we all know from recent Taliban attacks across the country, that statement is nothing but a delusional fantasy.

Likewise, I am not so convinced that states will exercise self-restraint with its nuclear resources at every possible turn. Generally, when a national economy starts going down the toilet, a state will try pretty much try anything to prevent an incoming tidal wave that will wipe out its political survival. Take North Korea, one of the poorest and most isolated countries on the face of the earth; the same country that has been selling nuclear secrets to other states for the past ten years.

Sure, Pakistan may not be as suicidal as North Korea. At least not when billions upon billions of American taxpayer dollars keep flowing in.  But, minus the growing U.S. financial safety-net, we have to wonder how responsible Pakistan would be with its own nuclear secrets.  Remember, in addition to an inefficient and depressed economy, Pakistan still has an axe to grind with India over Kashmiri territory.

-Daniel R. DePetris