Focal Points Blog

What a GOP Senate Means for Obama’s Foreign Policy


(Photo: Zach Frailey / Flickr)

Who ever heard of a flock of hawks?

After the sweeping Republican midterm victories, that’s what will descend on Washington come January for the 114th Congress. What does this mean for the future of the United States and its much debated role overseas?

Though a few new hawkish members may not alter the future of U.S. foreign policy alone, the musical chairs that will result as Republicans take control of the Senate could leave a noticeable imprint on Obama’s last two years in office.

Longtime GOP hawk John McCain, for example, will likely take over the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has said that he and Bob Corker, the incoming Foreign Relations chair, and Richard Burr, who will head the Select Committee on Intelligence, have plans to work “closely together on everything.”

In a few cases, that will complicate the president’s agenda. But in others—particularly on trade and on the war in Iraq and Syria—a GOP Senate could actually abet it. 

Iran Negotiations

Perhaps the most vulnerable Obama prerogative are the negotiations currently underway over Iran’s nuclear program. The putative deadline for a deal comes November 24th, a year after the interim agreement in 2013 temporarily eased economic sanctions against Iran’s uranium enrichment program while talks were underway about a final settlement. The talks are widely expected to receive an extension.

The prospects for a long-term settlement are a little more uncertain now. Republican senators, most of whom have expressed opposition to any deal that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, could make it difficult for Obama to permanently remove sanctions. As the Boston Globe notes, Iranian leaders are aware that Obama has a short time left in office, meaning any deal made by the White House could be short lived if Congress has anything to say about it. As a result, the Iranians “will be less likely to make concessions for a deal that could simply fall apart.”

Boots on the Ground

The Obama administration has already escalated its military intervention against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. With Republicans at the helm of key Senate committees, however, he can expect pressure to escalate the war much more dramatically.

We may be able to ‘contain’” the Islamic State, McCain said at a recent conference. “But to actually defeat ISIS is going to require more boots on the ground, more vigorous strikes, more special forces, further arming the Kurdish peshmerga forces, and creating a no-fly zone and buffer zone in Syria.”

After repeated assurances that he would not put boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria, Obama has already announced the deployment of 3,000 U.S. troops to Iraq. To continue on this path, the president has said that he will seek congressional approval—and lucky for him, a Republican-led Senate will be just the place to get it.

With Obama increasingly willing to throw U.S. troops back into the chaos— and with a hawkish congressional leadership egging him on—another drawn-out war in the Middle East suddenly seems more and more likely.

More Guns for Ukraine

Recent reports of unmarked convoys and a resurgence of violence in Ukraine have some experts, including U.S. General Philip Breedlove, ringing the bell on a Russian invasion of its neighbor.

Sightings of “Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems, and Russian combat troops,” threaten to reinvigorate the Senate hawks who have advocated supplying Ukraine’s government with more arms—a stance long supported by McCain. While Obama has avoided heavy involvement against Russia on the Ukrainian front—sticking to sanctions and nonlethal aid—the newly elected Congress may press for more.

Fast-Tracking Free Trade

Negotiations over two major free trade agreementsthe Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnershipare more likely to go forward now.

Though some Republicans are reluctant to cooperate with Obama, most support fast tracking the president’s trade promotion authority. This will give Obama the power to negotiate the pacts directly and present Congress with finished agreements for a direct vote without amendments. As John Hudson of Foreign Policy writes, this would allow Obama to wring “the most concessions from foreign governments” during the negotiation process, since “other countries won’t extend their best offer if they know Congress can later amend the deal in a thousand different ways.”

Critics, however, have charged that fast-track authority will also make it easier for the corporate lobbyists advising the negotiators to insert opaque provisions that could undermine labor and environmental protections.

The final years of Obama’s reign in the White House may not be dismally fated on all fronts. 2015 could yet see some significant developments—at least on issues where the White House and GOP are aligned.

The Islamic State’s Ongoing Program of Self-Sabotage

The Islamic State’s brutality consistently undermines its genuine contributions. Government building in Raqqa pictured. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons )

The Islamic State’s brutality consistently undermines its genuine contributions. Government building in Raqqa pictured. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons )

In the New York Times, Kareem Fahim writes about the American airstrikes on Syrian Islamic State capital Raqqa:

Food and fuel prices in Raqqa have soared, power blackouts have prevailed, and order is now threatened by a vacuum of any authority.

For all their violence and intolerance toward disbelievers, the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at least functioned as a government, providing basic services and some semblance of stability.

…  the American strikes had shaken “a sense of calm,” especially among conservative Sunni Muslims in northern Syria, who, despite their unease with the militants, had adapted, said Hassan Hassan, an analyst of Syria based in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

The rule of the Islamic State militants in Raqqa contrasted sharply with the chaos that had existed before, when there was “infighting between rebels, or shootings, or warlords controlling oil fields,” Mr. Hassan said.

… “People say ISIS is the first group that is able to take complaints seriously” — for instance, arbitrating old property or financial disputes, Mr. Hassan said. The group also won favor by occasionally punishing its own members, and even leaders, who had been accused of abuses, Mr. Hassan and residents said.

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Public and Private in Poland

As in the U.S., an overall lack of trust in political elites has prevented the formulation of new directions for Poland. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis / Flickr Commons)

As in the U.S., an overall lack of trust in political elites has prevented the formulation of new directions for Poland. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis / Flickr Commons)

Cross-posted from

Poles are happier than they’ve been in years. More than 80 percent report that they are “very happy” or “quite happy,” and that number has risen steadily since 2000. But happiness in Poland seems to derive largely from private life. There’s not a lot of volunteering, and even the rates of Church attendance have been going down. Although Poles still value democracy as a concept, they have very little trust in their politicians. They also have very little trust in each other. Only 12 percent believe that “most people are trustworthy,” which puts Poland near the bottom of the European rankings. These social attitudes also reflect an overall lack of tolerance toward minorities. For instance, only 9 percent of Poles think that homosexuals “ought to be able to arrange their lives in accordance with their own convictions.”
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Kobane: Hunger Strikes and Air Strikes


(Photo: John Feffer)

Moustafa Mohamad has been consuming nothing but Gatorade for more than two weeks as he stands at the traffic overpass at Dupont Circle and tries to get the attention of passersby, the news media, and the Washington powerbrokers. He is fasting for Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town near the Turkish border. Kurdish fighters and Free Syrian Army rebels are currently locked in a fight with the Islamic State over the fate of the town and the region.

It’s not an easy sell. Washington is certainly one of the most news-savvy cities in the country, but many pedestrians have no idea where Kobane is. They stare at the mannequin dressed in a red robe with the sign next to it, “ISIS Slave Sale: $500 for Kurdish Women.” Someone who obviously didn’t bother to read the many placards on display called the police to complain about a pro-ISIS demonstrator at Dupont Circle.

True, the allegiance of the factions fighting in Syria can be difficult to follow. Even the Obama administration has had a hard time deciding which groups to support and which ones to put on the terrorism list. But Kobane is more than just another town in the civil war in that benighted country. It is fast becoming a symbol of stubborn resistance to ISIS and its brutal policies.

If Kobane falls, it will not likely just be a territorial acquisition. The Kurds expect a scourge much like what has already befallen the Yazidis at the hands of ISIS: all men over the age of 10 killed and the women sold into slavery. UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura has compared the situation to Srebrenica—the town in Bosnia where Serbian paramilitaries slaughtered thousands of Muslim civilians—and has called on the international community to save Kobane.

Moustafa Mohamad decided he had to do something. Back in the early 1990s, Mohamad represented Kobane in the Syrian parliament. After becoming disillusioned with the possibilities of change, he went into exile in the United States. He has lived for 10 years in the Denver area.

When his hometown became the latest target of the Islamic State, Mohamad came to Washington to plead his case. He linked up with another exile, Kani Xulam, the director of the American Kurdish Information Network, who has been helping with logistics and also pressing for congressional support on Capitol Hill.

Their main ask is for a humanitarian corridor between Turkey and Kobane to save the civilians remaining in the town. Although press reports indicate a remaining civilian population only in the hundreds, Kani Xulam estimates that there are around 2,000 people who have remained to help the Syrian Kurdish fighters in the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that are defending the city.

The other two demands are more controversial. The first is that the United States should increase its support for the YPG. In mid-October, in addition to launching air strikes against Islamic State targets around Kobane, the administration began to drop arms and aid for the Kurdish fighters. Particularly with Samantha Powers at the UN, the administration is sensitive to anything resembling genocide happening on its watch. It doesn’t want Kobane to cast a shadow over the Obama years in the way that Srebenica or Kigali did for the Clinton era.

Advocates are also calling on Turkey to allow Kurds to cross the border to fight against the Islamic State. The most that Turkey has done is allow the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga to cross through Turkey to fight the Islamic State. But the Turkish government has been reluctant to allow its own Kurds to help the YPG in the belief that it works hand in hand with the Kurdish separatist movement PKK in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even went so far as to say, “To us, ISIS is the same as PKK.” Indeed, some reports suggest that Turkey might even support ISIS against the Kurds. More likely, Turkey is willing to adjust its strategy depending on how best to achieve its ultimate goal: dislodging Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

The Obama administration has just announced that it will send another 1,500 troops to Iraq to train Iraqis and Kurds. The United States is also planning to bring Syrian fighters to Saudi Arabia for training. But the United States also doesn’t want to strain relations with Turkey, a key ally. And it is fully aware of how wary the American public is of getting involved in yet another war in the region. So the Obama administration is desperate to find a balance: air strikes but no (or few) boots on the ground, attacks on ISIS but no inadvertent bolstering of the Assad regime, assembling a coalition of Arab states against ISIS but trying to prevent some of these states from funding extremist factions on the ground, and so on.

Meanwhile, Moustafa Mohamad maintains his vigil at Dupont Circle. If Kurdish fighters are successful, he will go back to visit Kobane. After all, he still has family there. For him the conflict is deeply personal, and he hopes, ultimately, to tilt the balance in the Obama administration—in favor of his home town.

For Unemployed Young Men, the Islamic State Provides More Than Just Jobs and Purpose

A government building in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr)

A government building in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr)

It’s often written that the Islamic State fills a need for young men adrift on the stagnant sea of the Middle-Eastern ― and world ― economy. It not only provides a paying job (and purpose in life), it offers a benefit that may be central to recruiting.

On October 28, Frontline ran a useful overview of the Islamic State titled The Rise of ISIS. It shows how the Islamic State developed as a reaction to oppression of the Sunnis by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia government in Iraq. Or, shall we say, in the time-dishonored tradition of many revolutions, an over-reaction ― a descent into an orgy of revenge that threatens the new government itself.
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Recreating Central Europe

The Parliament Building in Budapest. (Photo: ParisSharing / Flickr Commons)

The Parliament Building in Budapest. (Photo: ParisSharing / Flickr Commons)

Cross-posted from

In 1991, when they disbanded the Warsaw Pact, the countries of Central Europe officially declared their independence from the Soviet Union (though the breaking of the bond really took place two years earlier). This newfound independence did not, however, translate into a common voice or common position based on history and circumstance.

The region almost immediately broke into several rival camps. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary created the Visegrad group and positioned themselves as the most likely to succeed (as members of NATO and the European Union). Bulgaria and Romania scrambled to present themselves as second-tier candidates for European accession. The Baltic countries struggled to escape their post-Soviet identity. And Yugoslavia simply fell apart.
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How Does the World’s Leading Advocate of Air Power ― the U.S. ― Wind up Using the Wrong Planes?

Using a bomber such as the B-1 against the Islamic State endangers civilians even more than fighter attacks. (Photo: Christopher Ebdon / Flickr Commons)

Using a bomber such as the B-1 against the Islamic State endangers civilians even more than fighter attacks. (Photo: Christopher Ebdon / Flickr Commons)

In Harper’s, Andrew Cockburn writes:

President Obama’s war against the Islamic State will represent, by a rough count, the eighth time the U.S. air-power lobby has promised to crush a foe without setting boot or foot on the ground. Yet from World War II to Yemen, the record is clear: such promises have invariably been proven empty and worthless.

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The “Upright Men” of Burkina Faso Wish President Compaoré a Not-so-Fond Farewell

President Compaoré in happier times with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (Photo: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo / Flickr Commons)

President Compaoré in happier times with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (Photo: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo / Flickr Commons)

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

1. Burkina Faso – Land of Upright Men (and Women)

Its capitol, Ouagadougou, rocked with a week of large and militant demonstrations, Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta, is in the midst of major political turmoil that could spread to other West African countries. “Burkina Faso” translates from the local language as “Land of Upright Men.” What is known to date is that after a week of angry demonstrations in Ouagadougou in which the Parliament was stormed and set on fire, Blaise Compaoré, the country’s president for the past 27 years, the target of the demonstrators, was forced to resign and give up power.

Compaoréwas in the process of trying to amend the country’s constitution so that he could extend his rule and become, like his Cameroonian colleague, Paul Biya, another French puppet, president for life. This apparently was more than the country’s 17 million people – 60% of whom are under the age of 25 – could take.
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Poland: Land of Junk Contracts

Trade unionist Slawomir Rakowiecki says “Poland is an indisputable leader of the so-called junk contracts.” (Photo: John Feffer)

Trade unionist Slawomir Rakowiecki says “Poland is an indisputable leader of the so-called junk contracts.” (Photo: John Feffer)

Cross-posted from

The Poles call them umowa śmieciowa or “junk contracts.” If you’re young and lucky enough to have a job in Poland these days, it’s likely to be short-term and come without benefits. Ten percent of young people (up to the age of 25) are working in the black market, and another 25 percent have part-time or short-term work. Of the rest, most have job contracts that provide little in the way of security.

Meanwhile, the youth unemployment rate in Poland has averaged around 30 percent over the last 17 years. Though it’s dropped to around 23 percent in August, young people are happy to get any kind of job. A huge number have simply given up and taken advantage of the freedom to travel throughout the EU. More than two million Poles, many of them young, have left the country for better opportunities abroad.

Slawomir Rakowiecki has been a long-time trade unionist in Poland, part of the first generation of Solidarity activists. He has been involved in the union in Warsaw and at the provincial level (Mazowsze), and his focus has been the transportation sector. A nationwide railway strike last year and several other actions have boosted the unions‘ profile in this sector.
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So, Islamic State, You Want to Rule a Caliphate

The Islamic State’s financial model can only take it so far. Pictured: the government building in the Islamic State’s capital city, Raqqa. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons)

The Islamic State’s financial model can only take it so far. Pictured: the government building in the Islamic State’s capital city, Raqqa. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons)

In an invaluable article at the Barcelona Centre for World Affairs site titled How Long Will ISIS Last Economically?, Eckart Woertz delves into the Islamic State’s finances.

SIS is not a mere terror organization, but an insurgency that follows a classic “Clear, Hold, Build” strategy. The aim is state building as the very name ISIS suggests. However, holding territory implies provision of services to the governed population such as food, energy and water and possibly health and education. The longer it holds territory, ISIS needs to worry about much more than just funding military operations. It now rules over roughly 8 million people. It does not assume a veneer of statehood for nothing; at its home base in Al Raqqa it has interfered in school curriculums, repaired roads and launched a consumer protection authority for food standards.

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