Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Time to Sanction Israel

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on March 11, 2010

Just as Vice President Joe Biden spoke of a new round of peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced that it plans to build another 1600 housing units in East Jerusalem.  This is much more than an embarrassing diplomatic moment for the American second-in-command, who just before professed his love to the Jewish state in his meeting with Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu.  It is (and should be) the final nail in the coffin for the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.”  It may be time for the United States to seriously consider pushing its weight around in the Middle East, particularly against an Israeli ally that has become nothing but a hindrance to the peace process.

I was actually a little bit hopeful that the proximity talks would at least get both sides to discuss their grievances in a constructive manner.  The fact that the 22 nation Arab-League endorsed the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians was a step in the right direction, because if any peace agreement is to work, Arab Government’s need to be on board as well.  But this latest slap in the face only confirms the view that so many have held for the past few years; that Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of reconciling, even with a major power as a referee.  America’s role is the equivalent of a parent trying to keep two misbehaved children from killing each other.

So with this is mind, I have a new plan for Mideast peace, and it’s basically a two-step process:

Step 1:  Pursue rigorous nation building in the Palestinian Territories, namely the West Bank where the moderate Fatah is in control. The West Bank economy has already grown by 8 percent over the past year, giving Palestinians a much needed and much deserved spout of job opportunity.  The Fatah Party is demonstrating its sincerity in anti-corruption, cracking down on public officials who are both sympathetic to the rival Hamas movement and who are stealing money right under the government’s nose.  The integrity and transparency that Palestinians have been praying for may be finally blossoming into something real.  And with institutions adapting and maturing, the Palestinians could eventually work their way towards a state of their own, albeit unofficially.  Who knows…perhaps a stable and prosperous Palestinian entity will nudge the Israelis back to the negotiating table, thus making it official.

Step 2:  U.S. sanctions on Israel. Now I know this is controversial.  The powerful Israeli lobby in Washington would undoubtedly view this is action as an insult towards a trustworthy ally in an otherwise contentious and hostile region.  Some lobbies, like AIPAC, could show their displeasure by withdrawing their representatives from the United States and diverting more attention to Western Europe.  Israel may decide to purchase weapons elsewhere, like Russia or China, two powers that the U.S. would rather keep in check.  But the benefits of sanctions would be enormous to say the least.  With billions of dollars in cash and military hardware halted, and with the protective American umbrella lifted, Israel may have no choice but to actually cooperate.  The reason that Israel has not taken the United States seriously over the past year is because condemnations over settlement building are rarely taken to the next level.  We are too quick to give Israel the benefit of the doubt in all areas of Mideast policy.  Why not take Dr. Stephen Walt’s advice and start adopting an impartial stance?

Like any other party engaging in negotiations, the Israelis want to be in a position of strength relative to the Palestinians. With more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, with a siege in the Gaza Strip, and with troops ready at a moment’s notice, the Israelis may be trying to do everything possible before the U.S. really cracks down on settlement construction.

Whatever the case for settlement building is, it is clear that the Israeli Government is still viewing negotiation as a zero-sum game, with one side winning and the other losing.  This does not need to be. Both sides can claim victory within reasonable limits, but the United States needs to be willing to exert some control over the entire ordeal.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist and Amos Harel from Haaretz.com**


A Post About Genocide

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on March 10, 2010

These days, the White House’s docket is full of foreign-policy problems.  Iraq is creeping up on President Obama’s “to do list,” with Iraqi elections taking place on March 7 and U.S. troops withdrawing in mass this summer.  Afghanistan is priority number one for the Obama White House, with American and NATO troops wrapping up the biggest offensive in the country since 2001.  And of course, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling across the world to muster up support for a sanctions package aimed at Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

So with all of these concerns giving Obama’s main men and women headaches, it’s not shocking to hear that other problems, like genocide, are on the back-burner.  You hardly see news reports on U.S. efforts to combat genocide and the mass killing of civilians, apart from a few glimpses of Sudan.

But courtesy of human rights activists and well respected people inside Washington, the issue of genocide appears to be making a comeback.  Michael Abramowitz and Lawrence Woocher are two such individuals who are rejuvenating the entire debate, most recently in a web-exclusive article they both published at FP.com.

To sum up their findings, Abramowitz and Woocher are worried that the United States is not living up to their expectations when it comes to preventing large scale genocide.  The solution?  A brand new cabinet-level agency exclusively devoted to genocide should be placed within the National Security Council.

Preventing genocide and mass-killing before the problems surface is certainly a worthwhile goal. As the world’s last remaining superpower, the United States has a moral responsibility to make sure genocide (like the one that took place in Rwanda and the Congo, and the one currently taking place in Darfur) does not occur. And even if mass-killing does occur, the United States and its European allies should make sure that the violence does not spread to other areas, thereby destabilizing an entire region.

My only fear with creating an executive-level task force is the precedent it would create for the U.S.  With hundreds of thousands of American troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with thousands stationed in Europe and South Korea, does Washington have the resources needed to actually stop conflict before it happens? And what if a task force was created? Does this mean that the U.S. is required to stop each and every civilian conflict from breaking out? If so, that is a heck of a hill to climb, even with the world’s strongest and efficient military.

Tackling genocide is a complex problem. You cannot simply look at genocides as a universal problem, hoping that a single remedy will somehow tame the killing. While the mass slaughtering of civilians is especially gruesome, genocide does not start out in such a violent form. All conflicts stem from a specific grievance. The reason that Sudan has been in a civil war for close to fifty years is because of ethnic differences (of course, an autocrat as President does not help the situation either). Sometimes, genocide stems from the rise of a single leader, like Adolf Hitler in Germany or Pol-Pot in Cambodia, in which case regime-change may be the best option.

If indeed the President creates a genocidal task-force, I hope he understands that the U.S. cannot do everything. In some cases (when a conflict is already ongoing) making sure it doesn’t expand territorially is a better geopolitical strategy. In instances where genocide has yet to surface, the U.S. and its allies are right to step-in and negotiate between the parties. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t.

Idealism is great. Everyone in this world wants to prevent the mass killing of civilians before they happen, for the sake of both humanity and peace.  No one likes to witness bloody and horrendous pictures on television (remember the awful images of the Rwandan genocide in 1994?).  But we have to remember that idealism is not always achievable. Too much idealism often makes resentment more profound, and more often than not an intervening force has to take sides.  Sometimes, too much idealism can lead to costly mistakes (a.k.a. Iraq).

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Michael Abramowitz and Lawrence Woocher at FP.com**

Iraq’s Election Is Over, But Now for the Hard Part

Posted in Iraq by Dan on March 8, 2010

So the Iraqi election is over, and when all is said and done, it was a relatively significant accomplishment for democracy in the region.  Sure, the elections weren’t exactly perfect, but in a region where elections are usually for show, it is still a pretty great achievement.  Now for the hard part…picking a government that Iraq’s political leaders will accept and endorse.

First off, we won’t know the election results for quite some time, and speculating about the winner will only get hopes up (depending which side you are for). Early reporting on election results are often preliminary and unedited in all societies…remember that awful three month experience the United States faced in 2000? Truth be told, if the U.S. cannot accurately predict a close election, we should not expect the Iraqi media to do that much better. I mean c’mon, there were 6,100 candidates vying for over 300 seats, so early coverage should be taken with a grain of salt.

Optimism is profound right now. Iraqis are showing off their purple-fingers and are boasting about their country’s democratic successes. Insurgents only managed to kill 36 people across the country during Election Day, a tragic number, but still remarkably low when putting the attacks into context. Iraqis braved the violence, eager to make their voices heard through ballots instead of bullets.

But again, the real test will come after the election results are tallied. In the short term, who leads the government is a distant second to how the government is picked. Will months proceed without an Iraqi Government, like in 2005 when it took almost 6 months for the parties to agree on a Prime Minister? Or will Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds do some effective backroom dealing, dividing the spoils in a way that will provide Sunnis and Kurds with representation?

We don’t know yet. Too early to tell, but this is certainly a great first step.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist and Marc Lynch**

Final Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Iraqi Election

Posted in Iraq by Dan on March 6, 2010

Tomorrow, millions of Iraqis will stand in line to cast their vote.  And it’s a pretty significant one; the last time Iraq had a full parliamentary election was the year 2005 (and we all know how well that turned out).  Since that period, we have seen Iraq’s fair-share of troubles, including a vicious cycle of sectarian warfare, terrorism from Al’Qaeda, Iranian infiltration of Iraqi society, and a political cancer that I like to call corruption.

But just as we have witnessed failures over the past few years, Americans and Iraqis have also seen some successes.  Violence between Shias and Sunnis began to decrease in 2007, just as President Bush ordered tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops into Bagdad.  Al’Qaeda in Iraq is now reduced to a figment of what it once was in 2005 and 2006.  Foreign investment is starting to trickle into Iraq’s oil industry, and the Iraqi Government is finally reaching out to its Arab neighbors through business deals and security contracts.

This is why tomorrow’s election is so important.  It’s the cornerstone of the U.S. adventure (or misadventure) in Iraq, and it will surely be a test of how mature the country has become since Saddam’s ouster.

Yet just as the election will test Iraqi maturation, the contest will also determine whether or not America’s troop surge worked in its entirety.  Will the 2007 surge be regarded as one of Washington’s greatest foreign-policy achievements, or will it be construed as yet another example of American mismanagement?

People seem to forget what the main purpose of the U.S. surge was. It wasn’t designed to specifically root out every bad guy in Iraqi society, which would have been an impossible task anyway. The objective of the surge was much more limited and pragmatic.  The Bush/Gates/Petraeus team wanted to decrease the sectarian violence to a tolerable level, giving Iraqi politicians a brief, albeit peaceful, period to reconcile their differences.

The problem is that none of the issues between the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds have been resolved thus far. The Arab-Kurdish oil dispute is still ongoing, and could turn violent rather quickly when U.S. troops withdraw entirely. P.M. Maliki could continue to cement his firm control over Iraqi state institutions, leaving Sunnis in the dust. And of course there is always the possibility of Al’Qaeda relocating as Iraq disappears from America’s mind.

If the election is not at least somewhat successful, the U.S. may have gone through seven years of warfare for nothing; well, that is if you think replacing a Sunni dictatorship with a Shia one is an achievement.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist**

What Happened to Yemen?

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on March 4, 2010

Last week, the Pentagon unveiled its plan to send $150 million in direct military assistance to the Yemeni Government.  Most of this will be used to expand Yemen’s air-force, the branch of the Yemeni Military that has done the most work thus far against the country’s main enemies.  Yemeni warplanes have been particularly useful against the al-Houthi insurgency, a tribal group that has battled the state for close to six years (right now, Yemen and al-Houthi are at a much needed ceasefire).

From the Pentagon’s standpoint, the logic of this plan is pretty straightforward; give the Yemenis a few million dollars in exchange for a resurgent campaign against Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The problem with this line of thinking is its unwarranted optimism.  Will President Ali Abdullah Saleh actually find it in his interest to crack down on AQAP?   And with so much money is Saleh’s pocket, who is to say that the funds won’t be diverted to another conflict…say, to Yemen number one threat, the Shia rebellion?

Most of these questions remain unanswered, yet the Pentagon is still content with handing over hard-earned taxpayer dollars.  Unfortunately, this is the same exact policy that the United States endorsed before an American jetliner was almost brought down on Christmas Day by a Yemeni-based Al’Qaeda cell.

Before the attack was conducted, Yemen was viewed by the United States as a failed state on the Saudi Peninsula that could be largely contained through intelligence sharing and covert operations. The fact that the U.S. relied on drone-strikes over Yemeni territory time and again is a testament to how simplistic American policy towards the country was prior to last Christmas. The hope was that a few targeted strikes and a few well placed bombs could magically eviscerate Al’Qaeda from the scene. But as everyone now knows, such a limited approach failed to accomplish this goal.

Now, the U.S. and the international community is donating billions upon billions of dollars to President Saleh’s government, in the hopes that all of the funds will be used to curtail some of Yemen’s most serious problems. From the beginning, I applauded this effort. The War on Terrorism cannot be won by military force alone. Economic development, local government that is free and fair, the creation of jobs, and (above all) the rise of education are also required for the fight. But in a nation as decentralized, poor, and fragmented as Yemen, is this effort a lose-lose for Barack Obama?

President Saleh may seem sincere in his desire to start clamping-down on Islamic extremism, but appearing sincere is not the same thing as actually backing words with concrete action.

In the past, Yemen routinely partnered up with Sunni militants (like Al’Qaeda) against Shia groups that the state deemed an existential threat. The Saleh-AQ alliance was a mutually beneficial relationship; AQ fighters were promised immunity and the freedom to operate in exchange for killing Shia rebels along the Yemeni-Saudi border.  And from what I can gather, this alliance is still holding firm.  What on earth would prompt Saleh to suddenly alter this dynamic?

The first priority for Saleh is defeating the Houthi rebellion. The second concern is suppressing a secessionist movement in the south that is rapidly growing. Battling Al’Qaeda is a distant third. At this point in time, the Yemeni Government may not want to embroil itself in a third domestic struggle.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Hezbollah Ready to Lock and Load

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on March 1, 2010

I always find it fascinating when realistic scholars write articles in major publications, particularly when the article is based on a long-running problem of regional (or international) concern.  Equally fascinating is the tendency of some realists to water-down the significance and complexity of the problem, thereby making their judgments more reliable and their conclusions more logical and accepting to the public.

This isn’t a new phenomenon.  If you want to experience this trend in person, all you have to do is pick up a national newspaper- such as the New York Times or the Washington Post- and you will most-likely find such an article on the first page of the editorial section.  Or you could simply log on to the internet, do a simple Google search, and glance through a few news websites.

I mention this because I did the same exact thing a few days ago, eventually finding my way to a prominent source in the IR business today: foreignaffairs.com.

The topic that I was most drawn to was nothing other than a piece about the Hezbollah Movement in Lebanon, written by Steven Simon (a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Jonathan Stevenson (a Professor of Strategic Studies at the U.S. Naval War College).

Without going into specifics (and by the way, if you want the specifics, just click this link), Simon and Stevenson’s argument is a perfect example of the type of watered-down jargon that all too often categorizes the nation’s editorials.  The thesis went something like this; the U.S. should open dialogue with Hezbollah because they are 1) increasingly demonstrating their independence by distancing themselves from Iran and Syria, and 2) willing to trade their powerful guns for electoral support from the Lebanese population.

In other words, an American-led diplomatic campaign to demilitarize (or decommission) Hezbollah is easier than most people in the U.S. Government think.

Now down to the nitty-gritty.

There is no question that a decommissioning process would be beneficial for every party involved. For the United States, a peaceful Hezbollah would provide Washington with some more leverage over the Iranian nuclear issue; for Israel, security in its immediate neighborhood would be enhanced; and for Lebanon, the lingering cloud of armed conflict or civil war would evaporate rather quickly. Hezbollah would also have much to gain from successful negotiations.  By trading their weapons for ballots, Hezbollah would undoubtedly improve their national image both in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.

But despite all of these positive scenarios, we have to consider what Hezbollah would lose as a result. From the standpoint of cost-benefit analysis, demilitarization appears to have more immediate consequences for the Hezbollah movement than long-term gains.

Currently, Hezbollah has overwhelming control of Southern Lebanon. This is not only important from a geographical perspective, but from a strategic outlook as well. By residing so close to Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah possesses a sturdy check on Israeli power. Hezbollah rockets are relatively close to major Israeli cities, a reality that forces Israel to think twice before it engages in aggressive behavior.  Destroying or handing over these weapons would quickly eliminate the power of deterrence that Hezbollah wishes to portray to the Israelis.  In fact, passively giving weapons away could threaten Hezbollah’s entire existence.  Who is to say that the Israeli Government would not use the opportunity to deal a fatal blow to the Islamic organization?

Taking the past year into account, there is no evidence to my knowledge that supports the view that Hezbollah is willing to sacrifice guns for votes. Reality on the ground debunks the decommissioning argument. Weapons shipments from Iran and Syria continue to arm Hezbollah to the teeth, despite Simon and Stevenson’s claim that Hezbollah militants are distancing themselves from both states.  Some sources estimate that Hezbollah now has 3X as many rockets and missiles (with longer distances and smoother flight paths) than before the 2006 war with Israel.

And what about Israel’s recent assertion that Hezbollah is planting Syrian and Iranian-made bombs around the Israeli border (yes, this is a story…http://www.newmediajournal.us/terrorism/01122010.htm)?

Now just because Hezbollah is rearming does not necessarily mean it wants to strike Israel in the near future. Rockets, guns, and ammunition also provides Hezbollah with a significant political deterrent against rivals in the Lebanese Government. Without a viable weapons stockpile, I highly doubt that Hezbollah would have much of a say in Lebanon’s current parliament. We have to remember that it was Hezbollah’s overwhelming military superiority that gave them political opportunity in the first place (a.k.a. the takeover of Beirut).

But regardless of motivation, all of Hezbollah’s actions during the past year point more towards a path of confrontation than a period of enlightenment and rapprochement.

If we want to be purely optimistic, then I guess we can support the arguments of Simon and Stevenson (two highly intellectual people by the way). But if we want to remain practical, disarming Hezbollah is still a distant fantasy.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson at ForeignAffairs.com**