Focal Points Blog

Readers’ Challenge: Was Gaza Flotilla Right to Refuse Gilad Schalit’s Father?

Haaretz reports:

A group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators sailing toward Gaza with humanitarian supplies on Thursday have refused a request by the father of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to deliver a package and letter to his son.

Activists rejected Noam Shalit’s offer to mediate on their behalf with the government, which has vowed to block the flotilla’s entry to Gaza, if they agreed to his request.

A forum of seven senior ministers decided on Wednesday that Israel would attempt to turn back the ‘Freedom Flotilla’, on course to enter a 20-mile Israeli-imposed exclusion zone off Gaza this weekend.

The government said it would allow the United Nations to transfer the flotilla’s humanitarian cargo to Gaza after security inspections at the Israeli port.

Do Focal Points readers think Noam Schalit, however quid-pro-quo, was trying to be genuinely helpful? Or was he being disingenuous and trying to make the demonstrators look self-serving? Should the demonstrators have refused him or not?

Readers’ Challenge: Have IR Deadlines Outlived Their Usefulness?

Day of the Deadlines, as well as timelines, in the world of international relations (at least in so far as they were brought to my attention) . First this: at IPS News, Gareth Porter writes about General McChrystal:

McChrystal’s shift in emphasis toward the targeted raids against the Taliban was undoubtedly accelerated by the message from the Barack Obama administration in March that he had to demonstrate progress in his counterinsurgency strategy by the end of December 2010 rather than the mid-2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

That earlier deadline, first reported by the Washington Post Mar. 31, was confirmed this month by U.S. Gen. Frederick Hodge, the director of operations for all of southern Afghanistan. “Our mission is to show irreversible momentum by the end of 2010 — that’s the clock I’m using,” Hodge told The Times of London.

Second, at Foreign Policy, Barbara Slavin writes about the Israel-Palestine peace process:

George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace, plans to set a deadline for an Israel-Palestinian agreement, applying lessons learned from his successful mediation in a previous conflict. [Asked] whether he intended to set a similar deadline for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Mitchell said that he would do so after indirect talks between the two sides progress to direct negotiations. … In his public remarks, the former Senate majority leader acknowledged widespread skepticism both in the region and in Washington that he can broker a deal between the center-right government of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.

So far, the skeptics would seem to have the better of the argument. . . . But Mitchell . . . noted that the Netanyahu government has endorsed the concept of an independent Palestinian state and agreed to freeze new housing construction on the West Bank for 10 months. The Palestinians, the envoy said, are working to stop attacks on Israel. . . . Mitchell omitted mention of the toughest issues impeding Israeli-Palestinian peace: the fate of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees.

Third, at Global Security Newswire (of which Focal Points is an unabashed fan), Elaine Grossman writes of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference yesterday:

“It is almost an impossible task,” said Zimbabwean Ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku, who chaired the conference’s committee on disarmament, describing his unsuccessful effort to obtain support from all of the accord’s 189 member nations for a draft joint statement about efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. . . . One central point of contention in Chidyausiku’s draft text pertains to whether the five nuclear powers recognized under the treaty — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — should be pressed to establish a set schedule for eliminating their atomic arms.

“The conference affirms that the final phase of the nuclear disarmament process and other related measures should be pursued within a legal framework with specified time lines,” reads a particularly controversial passage of the disarmament committee’s in-progress report. The reference to adhering to disarmament “time lines” has raised the ire of Washington and others. Representatives of a number of nations — including the United States, France and Russia — called yesterday for any timing imperative to be removed from the resolution.

“We remain resolute” in backing the draft’s “very mild language” regarding an initiative to draft time lines for disarmament, South Africa’s delegate to the disarmament committee said.

Then, with some poignancy, the delegate added: “Allow us to take something home.”

Some quick impressions . . . In the first instance, a timeline seems to have driven Gen. McChrystal to increased brutality. (Not that I’m advocating a longer timeline!) In the second, one can’t help but wonder if Mitchell is just reliving past glories (his success in Northern Ireland). In the third, as during the Bush administration, the United States seems to reflexively balk at measures initiated by other nations.

Getting down to basics, most humans resist pressure. Do Focal Points readers see an alternative to deadlines and timelines? After all, recent discoveries about the “emergent phenomena” of complexity science makes a mocker of them. (Kind of an abstract question, I know.) Or do you think they’re valid in one or all of the above instances?

Iran, Brazil, Turkey and the Ghost of Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston—twice England’s prime minister during the middle 1800s—once commented, “England has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” Watching the fallout over Brazil’s and Turkey’s recent diplomatic breakthrough on Iran brings Palmerston’s observation to mind: while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was hailing our “friends” support for tough sanctions aimed at Teheran, much of her supporting cast were busy hedging their bets and deciding that their interests just might lay elsewhere.

True, Russia and China signed on, but their endorsements were filled with ambiguity and diplomatic escape hatches.

As Clinton was dismissing the efforts of Brazil and Turkey, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said his country “expressed its welcome and appreciation for the diplomatic efforts of all parties.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman added that the agreement to send 58 percent of Iran’s nuclear fuel to Turkey for enrichment “will benefit the process of peacefully resolving the Iran nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for “urgent consultations with all interested parties, including Iran, to decide what to do next,” hardly a call to arms. His First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergi Ivanov, said that while his country was “supportive” of the U.S., it was drawing a “red line” at sanctions that were “suffocating” or would affect ordinary Iranians.

He then added a pinch of Palmerston: “We have a completely different position. We have a trading relationship, and the potential to develop it. We have energy interests, human interests, and tourism.”

The Russians also made it clear that they would be unhappy with unilateral sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. Such unilateral actions would be “of an extraterritorial nature beyond the agreed decision of the international community and contradicting the principle of the rule of international law, enshrined in the UN Charter,” according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The U.S. State Department’s claim that the “international community” is behind the U.S. is increasingly sounding like whistling past the graveyard.

Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna said the Brazil/Turkey/Iran deal was “a constructive move,” and pointed out that India has a “deep desire to have a friendly relationship” with Iran. He also pointed out that “The U.S. has its own foreign policy and India has its own.”

The Arab League’s General Secretary Amr Moussa said he hoped the agreement would “solve the current problem regarding the Iranian nuclear file.”

United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “We hope that this and other initiatives may open the door to a negotiated settlement.”

France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy, normally hawkish on Iran, called the deal a “positive step.”

Even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Supreme Commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis said the fuel swap deal was a “a potentially good development.”

This should hardly come as a surprise; just follow the ruble, the yuen, and the franc.

In his visit to Ankara earlier this month, Medvedev said, “Russia and Turkey are strategic partners, not only in words but genuinely.” That was certainly strange talk about a key member of NATO with which Moscow has gone to war in the past.

But with rubles at stake, who worries about history?

Medvedev and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed 17 agreements worth some $25 billion, including building four nuclear power plants. The two countries also discussed Russian participation in a Black Sea- Mediterranean pipeline that would make Ankara a player in the Central Asia energy game. The Turks also seem to be more favorably disposed toward Moscow’s South Stream natural gas pipeline to Europe.

And lastly, the Russian president said he would push to raise bilateral trade from $40 billion a year to $100 billion within five years.

If the U.S. thinks the Russians are going to have a falling out with the Turks over the Iran sanctions, then delusion is the order of the day in Washington.

And China? Brasilia’s number one trading partner, which loaned Petrobras $10 billion to develop Brazil’s huge South Atlantic subsalt oil deposits? And just signed an agreement with Brasilia to develop a joint defense industry (no doubt lured by the $20-plus billion that Brazil is handing out in defense contracts)? Will China go to the mat for the U.S. over the Iran sanctions? See “order of the day” above.

France appears to be playing the dog that didn’t bark. Might Gallic discreetness have anything to do with a $12 billion defense deal with Brazil for 50 helicopters and four Scorpene submarines? Could it be the $10.2 billion Brasilia is shelling out for 36 of France’s Rafale fighter jets? The Rafale is very a cute airplane, not terribly fast, that came in third in an open competition with fighters made by Boeing and Saab. But as Rhys Thompson of ISN Security Watch notes, “The Brazilian government reiterated that the final choice of a fighter jet would be based on political and strategic considerations and not primarily guided by technical aspects.” In short, we buy your cookies, you be nice to us in return (and maybe lower European Union tariffs for Brazilian agricultural goods).

As more and more countries line up behind the Turkish-Brazilian deal, it looks less and less likely that the Security Council will pass sanctions, in part because the deal is a good one and represents a sea change in international power relations. But also because countries like Russia, China, India, and France are also keeping Lord Palmerston’s dictum in mind.

Reader’s Challenge: ‘Ritual Nick’ — Preventive Measure or Cultural Relativism?

Earlier this month, as you no doubt have heard, the American Academy of Pediatrics moderated its policy on female circumcision. As a preventive measure to keep families from taking their daughters outside the country for full circumcision procedures, its committee on bioethics suggested that doctors perform a “ritual nick.” Right or wrong, it provides plenty of fodder for the hard right. For example, at Jihad Watch, blogger Marisol wrote:

This decision — to approve of the idea of a “ritualized nick” on a girl’s genitalia — is as pointless as it is dangerous. For those who insist on following prescribed degrees of mutilation, which are primarily enforced in Muslim countries, a token gesture will not be enough to keep them from traveling overseas or seeking a more severe form of the practice wherever they can. And the girl still suffers the trauma of a ritualized sexual assault — potentially twice, if, for example, the “nick” is the parents’ ruse to throw health care providers off the trail of further intended damage, or if they simply change their minds.

It’s probably academic since U.S. federal law prevents “any nonmedical procedure performed on the genitals” of females. But do Focal Points readers agree with Jihad Watch in this instance? Is this cultural relativism run amok? Or does the American Academy of Pediatrics have its heart in the right place?

Extreme Energy

If you can’t join us at IPS to see noted author and Hampshire College professor Michael Klare, whose latest book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet describes the geopolitics of the energy crisis, talk about the causes behind the Gulf oil spill, join us for the online webcast from 12-1:30.

http://www.ustream.tv/channel/the-perils-of-extreme-energy

Kyrgyzstan: Tinderboxes and Tangled Webs

For most Americans, Kyrgyzstan is the most unpronounceable of the six “stans” that constituted the former Soviet Union’s southern flank. It has little in the way of wealth or natural resources, but it has what every real estate agent looks for: location, location, location. Bordered by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and China, the mountainous nation is the U.S.’s wedge into Central Asia, and its umbilical cord to the war in Afghanistan.

Supporters of KyrgyzstanMuch of the oil and fuel that keep the U.S. war machine running comes through Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Air Base, a sprawling complex close to the country’s capital. In March of this year, 50,000 U.S. and NATO troops moved through the base. Indeed, without Manas, it is hard to conceive how the U.S. could support the current surge of troops into Southern Afghanistan.

Because Afghanistan is landlocked, the logistics of supplying fuel, food and weapons to U.S. troops is daunting. While it costs about $400,000 a year to support a soldier in Iraq, the price tag in Afghanistan is $1 million. According to U.S. Marine Gen, James T. Conway, gasoline costs $400 a gallon in Afghanistan.

It now appears that since 1991 the U.S. has been bribing Kyrgyz politicians through two shadowy companies, Mina Corp. Ltd and Red Star Enterprises, both registered in Britain and British-controlled Gibraltar. The latter is little more than a big rock and a tax dodge.

According to The New York Times, the ousted president skimmed as much as $8 million a month off the no-bid contracts. So far, the Obama administration is stonewalling the bribery charges, but the House National Security Oversight Subcommittee is sniffing around the issue.

But the U.S. is interested in more than fuel costs in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan borders China’s volatile Xingjian Autonomous Region, where local Uyghur anger at the growing influx of Han into the area has touched off several riots over the past few years. There is also a nascent Islamic resistance movement in parts of the region. If the U.S. wanted to stir up trouble for China in its restive west—and maybe peek into its military deployment in the area—Kyrgyzstan is the place to be.

So far, Beijing has been quiet on the recent revolution, merely commenting, “China hopes that relevant issues will be settled in a lawful way.” China is Kyrgyzstan’s number one trading partner, and it is clearly concerned about the quarter of a million Uyghurs residing in Kyrgyzstan.

There is certainly suspicion by the Russians that the U.S. would like to rope countries along its southern border into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a distrust for which one can hardly fault them. In spite of assurances given to the Russians that NATO would not expand into former Soviet states, or recruit ex-members of the Warsaw Pact, NATO now counts Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, the Czech Republic, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia among its members and was on the verge of recruiting Georgia before its 2008 war with Russia.

Following a February tour of Central Asia, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S.’s special representative to Afghanistan, proposed expanding NATO’s reach into the region as a foil to organizations like al-Qaeda. A recent NATO report calls for the Alliance to “help shape a more stable and peaceful international security environment,” the rationale for its current deployment in Afghanistan.

The U.S.’s sponsorship of the Islamic radicalism to destabilize Afghanistan in the 1980s is certainly in the back of the Russian’s mind, which is already concerned about Islamic extremism in places like Chechnya. The region has a number of Islamic groups in the wings, and if the Afghan War really does wind down, there will be plenty of battle-hardened recruits coming home to fill the ranks of those groups.

Most the nations in the region are tied together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose meeting this June in Tashkent will likely focus on the situation in Kyrgyzstan. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a military alliance that also includes a number of countries in the area, has been working to stabilize the situation. Kazakhstan currently chairs the OSCE and had already sent a representative to Bishkek.

If the current situation remains regional, then there are organizations in place that can play an important role in defusing the instability. But if Kyrgyzstan becomes a pawn on a larger board, then the “Great Game” will shift from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the rest of Central Asia, with all the pain and misery that follows in the wake of imperial maneuvering.

Worst Fears May be Realized In Iraq

In December, 2002, the talk of our holiday gathering was the looming possibility of the invasion of Iraq. The conversation was not just political — it was personal. For one of us, born in Baghdad, the faces of those back home were imagined and fears for their future gripped like a vise.

But it was not just the immediate future that cast the deepest shadows across their imagined faces. It was the fear that once Saddam fell, US strategy would never allow for a full Iraqi exit. Heated debates over if the invasion would occur ensued at that gathering in 2002, but no one could believe that the fears of continued occupation would ever be realized.

Now, in 2010, a drawdown of troops in the barely organized chaos of Iraq marches towards benchmark dates. But with the sharply decreased American media coverage of Iraq, much of the news has focused on random bombings around the country and partial coverage of the recent Iraqi elections. How many average Americans are aware that while troop numbers come down, contractor numbers go up? The number of troops in Iraq is supposed to go down by this August to 50,000 but with contractors the number would be 125,000. Can you imagine that candidate Obama would have campaigned on the promise of having 125,000 personnel in Iraq by the end of summer 2010? How many total U.S. personnel would be left by the end of 2011? Is the number by end of 2011 zero as promised, or 50,000 or more? Who is reporting about special operations in Iraq involving troops that are not Iraqi-based, but merely sweep in, do their work, and sweep out again?

In order to understand policy implications, Americans need information about the current status of Iraq, as well as the impact of policies as changes are anticipated. Should we keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq for an extended period to ensure security in Iraq? Should we withdraw as quickly as possible so that Iraqis fully determine the outcome of their country? Is our oil policy good for Iraq or good for America and the West or both? Do policies based on sectarian divisions in Iraq promote fairness — or rabid sectarianism? These are the kind of questions that many Iraqis are asking and Americans must openly discuss. Democracy in our country and in Iraq depends on information, and with that, open and honest discussions.

Much of the mainstream media coverage of the war in Iraq has focused on the impact on American military personnel. By withdrawing many of the journalists from Iraq, America’s mainstream media has turned their backs on Iraqis. With 2.5 million refugees outside the country, 2.0 million displaced in the country, and many of the country’s most educated professionals gone for good, Iraqis are determined, hopeful — but suffering and still in shock. As American policy shifts, Americans need information to debate and deliberate in order to steer a moral and humane course. Without it, hope is as fleeting today as it was in 2002.

Redshirts: To Thai Middle Class They’re Terrorists

BANGKOK — Nearly three days after the event, the country is still stunned by the military assault on the Redshirt encampment in the tourist center of this city.

Captured Redshirt leaders and militants are treated like POWs and the lower class Redshirt mass-base like an occupied country. No doubt about it, a state of civil war exists in this country, and civil wars are never pretty.

The last few weeks have hardened the Bangkok middle class in their view that the Redshirts are ‘terrorists’ in the pocket of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at the same time convincing the lower classes that their electoral majority counts for nothing.

Pro-Thaksin versus anti-Thaksin: this discourse actually veils what is–to borrow Mao’s words–a class war with Thai characteristics.

No doubt there will be stories told about the eight weeks of the ‘Bangkok Commune.’ As in all epic tragedies, truth will be entangled with myth. But of one thing there will be no doubt; that Prime Minister Abhisit’s decision to order the Thai military against civilian protesters can never be justified.

Reader Challenge: Does Afghanistan Spell the End of NATO as We Know It?

Is NATO’s Excellent Afghanistan Adventure a blessing in disguise? At Foreign Policy, Robert Haddick writes:

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chaired a commission charged with reviewing NATO’s “strategic concept.” . . . On May 17, Albright’s “Group of Experts” released its report. . . . The group’s conclusion? NATO should slim down, scale back, and pass the ball. . . . NATO needs better preparations against cyberattacks, ballistic missiles, and unconventional threats. [Meanwhile] NATO headquarters, with a bloated staff and far too many generals walking its halls, is itself due for slimming down.

But looming over the panel’s effort is . . . a review of lessons learned in Afghanistan [and] the report calls for guidelines on when and where the alliance will again operate outside its borders. . . . Those member states with detachments in Afghanistan will no doubt be eager to join the U.S. caravan that will begin departing in 2011 . . . crushing fiscal retrenchment and sour memories of Afghanistan will likely leave most member states . . . incapable of any significant military expeditions. . . .

After Afghanistan, NATO’s military character will shrink, making way for a more purely diplomatic role. The staff in Brussels — those who remain after the pink slips — will spend more time coordinating NGOs and contractors than directing tank brigades.

Still, do Focal Points readers think confining NATO to its own backyard and scaling back its mission could spell the beginning of its end? Or, as with corporations, might “downsizing” only serve to ensure NATO’s continuation?

Cheonan: Retaliate with Diplomacy

The South Korean government has released its report on the sinking of the Cheonan, the ship that went down in March in the Yellow Sea near the maritime border with North Korea. Not surprisingly, Seoul has fingered Pyongyang as the culprit. The evidence is rather strong.

First, the South Koreans have produced a fragment from a torpedo propeller. Second, there’s Korean lettering that matches the font used in another North Korean torpedo the South Koreans have. Third, the South Koreans have matched traces of propellant to an earlier North Korean torpedo.

There are some reports of other possible culprits, including friendly fire from either South Korea or the United States. While such speculation is interesting, it seems rather far-fetched. In this age of wiklleaks, it’s hard to imagine a cover-up of such friendly fire succeeding. And the evidence implicating other actors is circumstantial to say the least.

More germane is the backstory that Mike Chinoy provides over at Forbes. When South Korean president Lee Myung Bak took office, he backtracked on his predecessor’s pledge to work with North Korea to build confidence around the disputed maritime boundary.

The North was infuriated by what it saw as a deliberate belittling of accords signed by its all-powerful leader–what one western analyst described as “sticking a finger in Kim Jong Il’s eye.” So Pyongyang responded in a predictably belligerent fashion–by ratcheting up tensions in the disputed waters.

Fortunately, no one is calling for military retaliation against North Korea. Even the Heritage Foundation is going only so far as to recommend an economic cut-off, further isolation of North Korea, and a clear condemnation in the Security Council.

Other than express legitimate outrage, what would these stepped-up containment efforts achieve? About as much as Lee Myung Bak’s initial hard-line posture. The North Korean government doesn’t apologize when pushed up against the wall. And the North Korean people have not risen up against their rulers when pushed into starvation.

Joel Wit points out that diplomacy remains our most viable strategy: “In the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking, the United States and South Korea must recognize that a return to dialogue would serve our interests. It is the only realistic way to rein in North Korea’s objectionable activities.”

This is not a particularly palatable message right now in Seoul. And it probably won’t go down very well here in Washington. But after a couple months of denunciations and attempted arm-twisting, it would be best if the countries involved in the Six Party talks take this advice to heart. If we want to prevent any future Cheonans, we need to sit down with North Korea. The last thing we want is a country with nothing to lose and plenty of weapons to go out in a blaze of juche.*

*Juche: North Korea’s state ideology of self-reliance.

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