Focal Points Blog

WikiLeaks: Diplomatic Communiques May Strike Deeper Chord Than Last Dump’s War Crimes

“3 million documents set to go online
Bombshell leak thought to include U.S. assessments of Gordon Brown
Secret talks on return of Lockerbie bomber to Libya may also be leaked
Allegations ‘include U.S. backing of Kurdish terrorists’
U.S. diplomats face being kicked out of countries in backlash
Corrupt politicians expected to be named and shamed”

. . . blairs the Daily Mail. By the time you read this, the dump may have begun. Nevertheless, I just wanted to pass along this sadly ironic Tweet from Open Left‘s Matt Stoller:

Wikileaks revelations that global elites gossip about each other will be more damaging than revelations of war crimes.

Every time WikiLeaks makes a document dump, we should all be allowed to stay home from work for a day to pore over and digest them.

Petraeus Played

PetraeusRemember when the United States was said to be in negotiations with the Taliban a few months ago? But, Gareth Porter at IPS News reminds us that “the Taliban leadership was firmly denying that they were negotiating with the Afghan government. During the three-day Muslim holiday that began Sep. 9, Mullah Omar had said the Taliban would ‘never accept’ the current government.” Furthermore, writes Porter:

On Sep. 29, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Majahid said Petraeus’s claim that the Taliban were negotiating with the Afghan government was “completely baseless”, and that the Taliban would not negotiate with “foreign invaders or their puppet government”.

As we now know, what happened was:

. . . a man claiming to be Mullah Mansour somehow persuaded U.S. officials, including Petraeus, to help him go to Kabul to talk with Karzai [as a replacement for] Mullah Baradar last March after Baradar was detained by Pakistani intelligence, according to a Taliban spokesman quoted in Newsweek.

It wasn’t long before he began to look like a ringer:

The first warning signal that the man was an imposter was that he gave Karzai regime officials terms for peace that bore no resemblance to the public posture of the Taliban. He suggested that the Taliban merely wanted to be allowed to return safely to Afghanistan, along with promises of jobs and the release of prisoners, according to the Times account. There were no demands for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces or for a change to the constitutional system.

Nevertheless . . .

. . . instead of finding the sudden disinterest in bargaining over those demands suspicious, Petraeus apparently approved giving the man a considerable amount of money to continue the talks.

How could he have been fooled with such ease?

That decision was evidently influenced by Petraeus’s strong desire to believe that the vast increase in targeted raids aimed at killing or capturing suspected Taliban officials that had begun in March had caused top Taliban officials to give up their fundamental peace demands — and that he was now on his way to repeating what was believed to be his success in Iraq.

Surge Afghanistan: The Sequel — Petraeus obviously hoped it would cement his reputation. (And pave the way for a presidential run? Gulp.) It may not be grounds for tendering his resignation. But, in the end, doesn’t this make Petraeus look even more ridiculous than McChrystal did for allowing a Rolling Stone reporter to record his and his inner staff’s indiscreet remarks?

As Chinese Laborers Follow Jobs to Africa, African Traders Flock to China

Mbeki JintaoI’ve long argued that one of China’s most important exports to the rest of the world is people. The numbers are staggering: hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of rural, often poor Chinese have left their homes in search of new opportunities. And that’s just accounting for those headed to Africa. As Chinese state-owned firms more heavily engage across the continent to exploit Africa’s abundance of natural resources, poor Chinese follow. Often, they find work building the highways, railroad, and electrical systems needed to move resources from their point of origin to port. And what’s more, the Chinese government is eager to see them leave, and never come home. According to Telegraph article from 2008, Beijing “officials want more of China’s surplus rural population of tens of millions of people to follow them, saying they will earn money and help the continent to develop.”

But just like power, population flows stream both ways. While numbers are difficult to come by, it has become clear that levels of immigration—legal and illegal—to China are on the rise. The heaviest flows at current seem to originate from points dotted around the region as laborers from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma increasingly look to China for new economic opportunities. But traders from Africa have also flocked there to exploit emerging markets for designer jeans, knock-off luxury items, and sports merchandise to feed China’s appetite for all things LeBron James. Needless to say, however, the transition has not been easy even as it grows larger.

The Christian Science Monitor looks at the experience of Africans, mostly Nigerians, who have migrated to China in search of work. For African migrants, life is predictably difficult.

Though the Chinese trade with the African immigrants, not everybody embraces them as neighbors. Some Chinese cite a language barrier with the English-speaking Africans. Some Africans in China on work visas said they feel they are perceived by the Chinese as violence-prone troublemakers. Still, because most Africans don’t speak much Mandarin or Cantonese they do not seem a threat to take jobs, and are just in China to buy goods to take back to their home country and sell.

Recently, however, social antagonism against African immigrants in China has provoked government action designed to coercively crack down on illegal residents in the country.

But since 2009, local police have begun to regularly raid buildings teeming with Africans as they look for those who have overstayed their visa. Those who are caught face stiff fines and interminable jail time. In July 2009, two Nigerians jumped to their deaths from a five-story building to evade police pursuit. Though such standoffs are rare, enraged Africans rallied outside the police station to protest the strong-arm tactics leading to the casualties.

These recent flashpoints hint at the larger troubles China currently experiences as it looks to integrate into the global economy. ‘“I wonder, if China wants to open up the market, why they don’t allow people to come?’ asks Stephen Kelvin, a polo shirts trader from Nigeria.” Good question.

In fact, the government in Beijing does allow migrant workers to enter the country, albeit on highly restrictive visas. A major policy initiative was launched in 2005 to allow workers into the country with a view to stimulating business both at home and abroad. But as the Monitor reports, the 2005 program has proved suboptimal in its results, and opened new opportunities for exploitation and grift.

Many Nigerians say few of them can get work visas renewed for longer than three months; some can only get a 30-day extension each time they seek to stay longer. Some African traders allege that they have become vulnerable to dishonest Chinese suppliers who would delay delivery beyond the Africans’ visa extension, forcing them to choose between losing business and becoming illegal. To remain legal, the only option is to submit their papers and keep their fingers crossed, many say.

As a result, policymakers in Beijing are mulling next steps forward, considering drafting “the country’s first immigration law, according to Zhuang Jijao, a researcher with the China Academy of Social Sciences.”

What that law might look like remains unclear. But what is certain is that Beijing needs to address what will undoubtedly be an intensifying surge of immigrant labor pouring into the country as China’s economic growth continues to swell. As Zhuang told last May, “judging from the history of Western developed countries, inward migration flows often reveal the appeal of a nation. But to have a stronger appeal and competitiveness in the global arena, a nation must properly resolve social and economic issues arising from immigration.”

In this sense, the immigration issue mirrors other aspects of the new reality facing rising China. Up until now, Beijing has enjoyed the luxuries of exploiting the international marketplace at little cost to itself, essentially having its cake and eating it too. Yet as China seems to be discovering perhaps sooner than it would have liked, with hegemony comes responsibility and new challenges. The realization, then, of Chinese ambitions will likely hinge on Beijing’s ability to negotiate the slippery slope of reconciling its realist priorities with the principles of the liberal world it ultimately seeks to lead.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

After Attacks on Iraqi Christians, Kurd Authorities Come Up Smelling a Little Too Rosy

Iraqi ChristiansHalloween brought new terror to Christian communities this year throughout Iraq. Since the slaughter began in Baghdad on October 31, Christians have been repeatedly targeted in killings throughout the country. Over the past two weeks, most of the violence has been concentrated in the north.

The Associated Press reports that

Two Iraqi Christian brothers were gunned down inside their vehicle workshop in the restive northern city of Mosul on Monday, police said. Saad Hanna, 43, and Waad Hanna, 40, were shot dead at around noon in the city, 350 kilometres north of Baghdad, the latest in a spate of attacks targeting the minority community in Iraq.

What the AFP does not mention is that these killings were accompanied by a third that same day in the city, when security forces found an elderly Christian woman strangled to death in her home. These murders are the latest in a string tracing back to

Earlier this month, [when] a series of bomb and mortar attacks targeted the homes and businesses of Christians in the capital Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 33 and drawing international condemnation. Those attacks came less than two weeks after 44 Christian worshippers, two priests and seven security personnel died in the seizure of a Baghdad cathedral by Islamist gunmen and the ensuing shootout when it was stormed by troops.

Of course, none of this is new. Beyond the headline-grabbing violence between Sunni and Shiite factions that has rent the country since 2003, Christian communities have suffered their share of sectarian targeting as well. The attacks have been a common feature of the urban landscape of the northern city of Mosul and its immediate environs—an early cradle of the Catholic faith—along the Nineveh plain.

At least on its face, the singling out of Christian communities in the north appears to be latest in a series of scare tactics employed by local extremists who have been gathering strength in recent months as American troops have withdrawn from major combat operations and handed security responsibilities to the Iraqi state.

Yet as I discovered while traveling through northern Iraq during a particularly acute period of Christian slayings, other explanations have been offered to account for the mayhem. Human Rights Watch sums it up best in a reported dating from late 2009:

Kurdish-dominated secu­rity forces were in charge of secu­rity in the area the attacks took place, [lead­ing some to sug­gest] that the mur­der cam­paign was designed to under­mine con­fi­dence in the cen­tral government’s secu­rity forces. From this per­spec­tive, the attacks cre­ated an oppor­tu­nity for the [Kur­dish author­i­ties] to appear benev­o­lent before the Chris­t­ian com­mu­nity and the world by sub­se­quently pro­vid­ing shel­ter, secu­rity, and finan­cial assis­tance to those who fled the attacks into Kur­dis­tan, strength­en­ing the Kur­dish hand in any upcom­ing ref­er­en­dum or election.

It’s far from clear whether these accusations have merit, though worth pointing out that The National Conversation reports today that

With attacks on their community continuing, Iraqi Christians in Baghdad are looking north to the Kurdish region, as they seek safety and an alternative to fleeing their country entirely… The Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd from the northern city of Sulemaniya, last week said that rather than fleeing overseas, Christians should move to the secure autonomously administered Kurdish areas until the situation elsewhere had stabilized. It is an offer that many Christians here are now seriously contemplating.

The paper goes on to observe that

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have already sought and found refuge in the Kurdish provinces. In Erbil, the Kurds’ administrative capital, the flourishing Ankawa neighborhood has been built up and populated by Christians, with the support of the Kurdish authorities. Even outside of Kurd-run areas, in Ninewah province, Kurds have helped to secure the Christian villages to the north and east of Mosul, the provincial capital. That help has not been uncontroversial, with some viewing it as part of a land grab by the Kurds in their long territorial dispute with the country’s Arabs.

Whether terrorist outfits or Kurdish political machinations are behind the slayings, the recent attacks against Iraqi Christian communities offer further evidence that—no matter the outcome of what happens Thursday when, barring any further delays, a new government finally takes shape in Baghdad—the country remains a fragile shell incapable of providing the basic security conditions that a strong society demands if it is to survive, let alone prosper.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

No Sykes-Picot, No Holocaust?

Lawrence of ArabiaAt War in Context, Paul Woodward excerpts a Daily Beast article by Michael Korda, whose biography of T.E. Lawrence, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, has just been released. You may be aware that when the British and French carved up the Ottoman Empire after World War I via the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it undermined the sovereignty for which Lawrence was asking the Arabs to fight. But you may not have known this:

Indeed, it is typical of Lawrence that he managed to get Prince Feisal, the leader of the Arab Revolt, and Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, to sit down together in January 1919 and sign an extraordinary agreement (largely drafted by Lawrence himself) that would have created a joint Arab-Jewish government in Palestine, with unlimited Jewish immigration. Feisal conceded that Palestine could contain 4 million to 5 million Jewish immigrants without harm to the rights or property of the Arab population, a number not greatly different from the number of Jews living in Israel today. Had Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George been willing to agree to Arab demands, an Arab-Jewish state might have existed that could have absorbed the bulk of the European Jews whom the Germans would slaughter between 1933 and 1945, as well as producing a state with advanced agriculture, industry, and education, in which Jews and Arabs might have proved that they could live together peacefully and productively.

Do Focal Points readers agree — no Sykes-Picot, no Holocaust? Let us know in the comments section.

Turning Stuxnet to More Constructive Ends

“The paternity of the worm is still in dispute, but in recent weeks officials from Israel have broken into wide smiles when asked whether Israel was behind the attack, or knew who was. American officials have suggested it originated abroad,” reported Sanger and Broad in the New York Times on November 18.

Coming from a state that refuses to come clean about its own nuclear weapons program — and largely in opposition to which Iran may be developing the capability to build one — this represents an intolerable level of smugness. However, in light of this:

Experts dissecting the computer worm suspected of being aimed at Iran’s nuclear program have determined that it was precisely calibrated in a way that could send nuclear centrifuges wildly out of control.

. . . can we sub-contract Israel’s techies to knock out the jaw-dropping (“My jaw just dropped”) 2,000 centrifuges that former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Siegfried Hecker, observed at a sophisticated North Korean uranium enrichment facility?

Pennsylvania Divests Itself of Companies Working With Iran, Sudan; Somehow Overlooks Israel

Pennsylvania, the home state of myself and frequent coauthor Kevin Funk, passed legislation (Act 44 of 2010) over the summer months that requires the state’s two largest pension funds and its treasury department to divest from investments in companies that have business in Sudan or Iran. We wrote an opinion piece in May, before the legislation (Senate Bill 928) was signed into law by Governor Ed Rendell on July 2nd, criticizing the measure.

However, we were unable to place it in any of the state’s leading daily papers (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Harrisburg Patriot-News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer). Nor, to my knowledge, was a principled, critical note heard from any other quarter.

The blackout on criticism of a ‘good divestment’ serves as an indication that local media can be at least as hostile to unwanted dissenting views as national media when it conflicts with agendas close to home. Certainly, there was no visible opposition from the politicians. Indeed, the bill “received overwhelming support in the Senate and unanimous support in the House of Representatives.” Pennsylvania is not alone — as we note in the piece, many other states have passed similar legislation.

The Inky (Philadelphia Inquirer) reports that:

Pennsylvania’s pension funds resisted past attempts to divest companies in Northern Ireland and South Africa amid concerns that politicizing the underfunded pension plans would hurt investment returns. ….

What made Harrisburg give in this time? “The different Jewish federations throughout the state” mobilized in support of the bill, said Matthew Handel, an executive at Shire Pharmaceuticals in suburban Philadelphia, who is chairman of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition.

The America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which calls itself “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” joined to back the bill, said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

The bill also got support, in its early stages, from members of the Darfur Coalition, a group of U.S. activists who oppose the national government in war-torn Sudan, Schatz added. She credited State Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) for bringing in the Darfur activists.

Why is Pennsylvania taking on the enemies of Israel, a foreign country?

….”here on the banks of the Susquehanna, we can leverage $400 million worth of investments in a way that supports our allies, for example Israel, and isolates our enemies.”….

[Rep. for Abington and Upper Dublin, Josh Shapiro, who sponsored a similar bill in the House] told me he agrees with remarks earlier this month in support of blockades against Israel’s enemies, by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.).

According to Schumer’s speech, Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian Gaza territory “makes sense,” so long as “people [are] not starving to death,” because it seeks “to strangle them economically” until they agree “that a path of living with Israel and the Jews is a better way to go than a path of total and obdurate confrontation.”

The supremely Orwellian character of ostentatiously moralizing in ways that are practically guaranteed to have no effect while simultaneously endorsing the odious doctrine of collective punishment and virtual enslavement reveals much about the nature of power in our society.

Our original opinion piece follows.

State Legislature Doublethink on Genocide Divestment

It’s not every day that one hears the words “moral and fiscally responsible” used in conjunction with the Pennsylvania state legislature. With Democratic Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia being paraphrased to that effect in reference to a bill he sponsored to “combat terrorism and genocide,” it merits attention.

The bill in question, “The Protecting Pennsylvania’s Investment Act” (SB 928), recently sailed through the Pennsylvania Senate. It would require divestment of the state’s two largest pension funds and its Treasury Department from companies doing substantial business in Sudan or Iran, and looks to have a clear legislative path forward.

The absurdity of the senate bill is indicated by the conditions that would deactivate the bill, amongst them a declaration by the federal government that genocide is no longer occurring in Sudan.

In fact, the applicability of the genocide label even during the height of the violence in the western Sudanese region of Darfur was doubted by many legal scholars, and Washington’s declaration was admitted to be made to appeal to domestic constituents instead of being an objective assessment of the violence in the region. While Darfur remains the sight of sporadic government violence and millions await a lasting peace that would permit them to return to their homes, virtually no one maintains that actual “genocide” is ongoing in Darfur. Thus, the criteria for satisfying the bill would appear to already be met, at least if one were to rely upon a source more reliable than the federal government.

Unfortunately, despite their loftiness, there is little prospect that Stack’s stated aims will be achieved. While divestment from businesses engaged in flagrantly immoral conduct should be encouraged, there are readily apparent motives beyond humanitarian goodwill in the work of the legislature. For starters, the choice of targets — Sudan and Iran — raises questions.

While we will focus on the case of the former, it is important to note that the Iranian regime, despite being a serious human rights abuser, is a questionable target for a divestment campaign. Washington’s wind-blowing aside, what is the actual evidence suggesting that Iran is a “state sponsor of terrorism”?

Sudan is a somewhat better choice for divestment given that the central government is behind one of the more sizeable bloodbaths of the past decade, in Darfur. However, there too, questions arise. In fact, Sudan is already under U.S. sanctions and so U.S. companies are not legally allowed to operate in the country.

Accordingly, divestment can only be from foreign companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges — that is, very indirect divestment. Though the divestment bill does laudably focus on divesting from military and oil operations, the fact that Sudan is already under U.S. sanctions means that Pennsylvania’s divestment would almost certainly be too inconsequential to make any difference. This is far different from the oft-cited case of the divestment campaign against South Africa, as U.S. companies operated freely under the Washington-allied apartheid regime and thus provided a direct link to the abuses that is simply missing in the Sudan case.

Further questions arise regarding the efficacy of the divestment bill. The Associated Press notes that 28 other U.S. states have already divested from either or both countries. And yet there has been no actual assertion of evidence that such divestment has positively affected the human rights situation in either country. One may further wonder how clearly Pennsylvania’s message to Sudan will come through since Washington has nurtured a close relationship with key intelligence figures in the Khartoum establishment as part of the supposed “War on Terror,” in fact the very same figures implicated in the violence in Darfur.

Assuming Senator Stack’s words are to be taken seriously, one might also ask why far more direct measures to “combat terrorism and genocide” are not contemplated. For several years, a grassroots movement has been building to divest from companies implicated in the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Israel is a far more logical target, both for practical efficacy — far more investments are likely to be connected to Israel than Sudan or Iran — and symbolically. Yet neither our State Legislature nor any other state has contemplated such a move.

While the divestment bills are unlikely to have much impact on Iran or Sudan, they do contribute to state propaganda. Moral pieties in the service of power are never a pretty thing to witness, no matter how petty and irrelevant. It is hard to avoid concluding that the current divestment bills under consideration are merely politically opportunistic measures, destined to be as ineffective as they are self-serving.

Kevin Funk and Steven Fake are the authors of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books) and graduates of the University of Pittsburgh. They maintain a website with their commentary at

Trying to Make Alarm About Overpopulation Politically Correct Again

Aging demographics ChinaIn a recent Focal Points post, Michael Busch notes that “the gradual transition of hegemony between the United States and China is currently being threatened by Washington’s insistence that Beijing dispense with its clever practice of currency manipulation, tinkering that has artificially driven down the price of Chinese money.” He then quotes Thomas P.M. Barnett writing for World Politics Review (can’t link — paywall).

China’s demographic clock is ticking like no other nation’s in human history. Already losing its cheap-labor advantage right now, China is set to stockpile elders from here on out at a pace never before witnessed. By 2050, it will have more non-working old people (400 million plus) than America’s total projected population (400 million). . . . That should explain what’s driving China’s seemingly selfish economic strategy. [It hopes that the] seemingly inexhaustible engine of [its] savings will be able to sustain . . . a rapidly aging East.

In the cover story of the November Foreign Policy, Phillip Longman writes about this “gray tsunami” that is engulfing not only China and the United States, but much of the world. He writes:

It’s true that the world’s population overall will increase by roughly one-third over the next 40 years. . . . driven not by birth rates, which have plummeted around the world, but primarily by an increase in the number of elderly people. . . . Then . . . humans will face the very real prospect that our numbers will fall as fast — if not faster — than the rate at which they once grew. . . . That might sound like an appealing prospect: less traffic, more room at the beach, easier college admissions. But be careful what you wish for.

To those of us who aren’t versed in the issue, it’s counterintuitive to wring our hands over a significant decrease in the world’s population. But if it’s our society’s wealth were concerned about, Longman explains that it depends on demographics.

At first, with fertility declining and the workforce aging, there are proportionately fewer children to raise and educate. This is good: It frees up female labor to join the formal economy and allows for greater investment in the education of each remaining child. All else being equal, both factors stimulate economic development. . . . Then, however, the outlook turns bleak. Over time, low birth rates lead not only to fewer children, but also to fewer working-age people just as the percentage of dependent elders explodes. This means that as population aging runs its course, it might well go from stimulating the economy to depressing it. Fewer young adults means fewer people needing to purchase new homes, new furniture, and the like, as well as fewer people likely to take entrepreneurial risks.

Longman writes: “a planet that grays indefinitely is clearly asking for trouble.” But, to this author, it seems that the planet, already overburdened, will find itself in an even worse fix if a higher birth rates accelerates the depletion of its resources.

To those of us who were first exposed to the overpopulation problem through the alarmism of the likes of Paul Ehrlich and his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, advocating a higher birthrate is putting the cart before the horse. Besides it pushes the issue of overpopulation even further out of the spotlight. Nor does it help that talk of curbing population has been given a bad name by those whose concerns about the planet’s “carrying capacity” mask a Malthusian inclination to cull the earthly herd. (I’ve just begun to read Edwin Black’s imposing 2003 work War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race.)

We need to find a way to present the low birth rate in a more positive light without coming across as a tool of the ruling class. Between those who still hold a torch for eugenics (some under the guise of genetics apparently) and evangelicals with their imperative to go forth and populate — especially since U.S. whites are due to be outnumbered by Latinos and European whites by Muslims — overpopulation has become a real political third rail.

Bottom line, though: a planet denuded of resources by billions more individuals than it was meant to hold is no good to anybody, rich or poor. More to come.

Which Knot Needs to Be Unraveled First — Israel-Palestine or Iran’s Nuclear Program?

This week’s award for most counterintuitive opinion piece goes to New York Times contributing writer Noah Feldman. The best-selling author, Harvard Law professor, and member of the group that wrote the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution, Feldman has never been one to shy away from controversy. Indeed, he has willingly waded into thickets of stormy debate on numerous occasions—usually on issues surrounding the role of religion in public life both at home and abroad.

Feldman’s latest piece in the Times magazine takes a look at what might reasonably be achieved by President Barack Obama during the remainder of his first term (and possibly a second), and finds little cause for hope on the domestic front given the conservative thumping handed out to Congressional Dems in the midterm elections earlier this month. It should come as no surprise then, that

Historically, presidents thwarted by the loss of a Congressional majority have turned their attention to foreign policy — no doubt the reason that Obama left for Asia within a few days of the election. The explanation for the shift in focus is constitutional as much as tactical. The founding fathers, convinced that diplomacy could not be conducted by committee, gave the executive substantial discretion in conducting foreign affairs. Although Congress can ask questions and conduct oversight hearings, a president who wants to have an impact internationally can act more or less on his own.

Even here, though, prospects for major achievements are on the foreign policy front are few and far between. (As a quick aside, it’s interesting to note that Iraq doesn’t show up on Feldman’s radar whatsoever as an issue to which the president should devote special attention.)

The Afghan war has its own internal timing; the United States’ relationship with China is too complex for major breakthroughs; and, as Obama discovered at the G-20 summit, divergent economic interests can make even allies reluctant to compromise. Thus far, the Obama administration’s chief foreign-policy achievement has simply been to remind the world that the United States can be cooperative.

So, scanning the entire menu of US international affairs, where does Feldman see the best possibilities for success? You got it: the Middle East peace process! “Can Obama succeed where so many others have not?” Feldman asks. You might think, given the discouraging signs thus far in renewed efforts at getting the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down and negotiate that the answer is a no brainer, with emphasis on the “no.” But Feldman sees a glimmer of hope.

To be sure, Feldman—a knowledgeable analyst of Middle Eastern affairs—isn’t sporting a new pair of rose-colored glasses. Significant roadblocks to a lasting peace surely remain:

Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not, of course, make things easy. No sooner had direct peace talks begun in September — itself a victory for the Obama team — than the Palestinian side discontinued them over Israel’s refusal to renew a 10-month partial ban on building in the West Bank. Earlier this month, Israel announced that more than a thousand new housing units would be built in the Har Homa suburb of Jerusalem — a community that is outside the West Bank according to Israel, but inside the West Bank to Palestinians and the international community.

But, as Feldman rightly points out, “neither side has given up on the talks, and the Obama administration has continued its behind-the-scenes efforts to restart them.”

So then, what does Feldman believe to be the most productive way forward? In order to make his case, he begins with the actors involved. On the Palestinian side, things are a mess:

The Palestinian Authority is congenitally weak. Hamas controls Gaza, which has a Palestinian population approaching that of the West Bank. Dealing with Israel can be seen as a last-ditch attempt by President Mahmoud Abbas to stave off a permanent split of Palestine into two different subcountries. Although they are not prepared to negotiate with Israel, senior Hamas leaders have implied that they would provisionally accept a Palestinian state reuniting Gaza and the West Bank with 1967 borders. Of course, their motivation is presumably that they believe that Hamas could then take power democratically — hardly a reassuring thought for Abbas or the Israelis.

On the Israeli side of the equation,

most of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government is profoundly skeptical of any territorial compromise; Netanyahu would not pay a domestic price if the negotiations fail. Why, then, has he not scuttled them outright? Many Israelis consider Iran’s nuclear capacity an existential threat. Yet both the Bush and Obama administrations have discouraged Israel from attacking Iran and starting a regional war. Netanyahu appears to believe that if he cooperates to some degree with the Obama administration’s request that he negotiate, he can — eventually — demand in return U.S. cooperation (or at least acquiescence) in an Israeli move against Iran. In the meantime, Netanyahu’s goal is to satisfy his coalition partners by showing resistance to the United States on settlement building without wholly alienating Obama. No doubt he hopes that Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives will protect him from any pressure brought to bear by Obama and keep up the drumbeat on the Iranian threat.

And then of course, there’s Hezbollah. Interestingly, Feldman notes that

At the moment, Hezbollah is especially nervous about its impending indictment by a United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Faced with a loss of credibility for killing Hariri, a Sunni who is widely seen as a martyr, Hezbollah hopes to discredit the tribunal. It has tried blaming Israel and hinting that its militia might take to the streets. Provoking an Israeli attack would be the riskiest strategy, but it cannot be ruled out. In both Israel and Lebanon, many people speak about such a war in terms of when, not if — and both Iran and Hezbollah might prefer it to occur according to their timing rather than Israel’s. Needless to say, such a war would be disastrous not only for Lebanese and Israelis, but also for Palestinians, whose hopes for a state of their own would be crushed if Israel were attacked by Iranian missiles lobbed on their behalf but without their consent.

Amidst this crazy quilt of power, interests, and worry, Feldman sees an interesting pattern emerge: all the involved parties are acting from a position of weakness. And “overlapping weakness,” Feldman asserts, “has been a good basis for peacemaking in the region ever since the Camp David accords.”

What Feldman doesn’t address—and what would have made for a more interesting, and ultimately more important contribution—is what role, if any, the president himself should play in these negotiations. Does Obama have enough political capital to personally direct traffic through these proceedings, or does his weakness at home allow Netanyahu a free pass to continue walking all over the White House? And what about Hillary Clinton? If the time is as ripe as Feldman believes, should Clinton be considering some shuttle diplomacy to rescue what have been disappointingly flaccid results from the previously unassailable uber-diplomat George Mitchell? On these basic tactical issues, Feldman is silent.

Instead, he concludes by charting the possibilities for numerous domino effects that might result from an Israeli-Palestinian deal, everything from the emergence of a more moderate Hamas, to an Israeli-led alliance of largely Arab states against Iran. His closing remarks suggest that Feldman, unsure how to tidily wrap-up his analysis, decided to run a Hail Mary pass of best case scenarios that appeal more to wishful thinking than sober reason.

This is especially the case with the respect to potential war with Tehran. Thus far, the push to bomb Iran is winning its race against the push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result, it may be worth asking if Feldman has his priorities, and timetable of possible futures, reversed. If Washington is suckered into attacking the Persian heartland, or if Israel itself marched to war against Iran, peace with the Palestinians will be the least of Middle East concerns.

On the other hand, if Iranian-US/Israeli tensions are quelled, Washington might be able to focus more of its attention on devising a solution to the Palestinian question. It wouldn’t be easy, let alone guaranteed. But if Feldman is correct to suggest that fears of a nuclear Iran contribute to the continuing mischief frustrating a lasting settlement, perhaps Obama should get serious about tackling Washington’s Iran problem before playing peace-monger with the Palestinians and Israelis.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

It’s a Shame Chalmers Johnson Did Not Live to See the U.S. Air Base on Okinawa Closed

Futenma, Okinawa(To left, U.S. air station Futenma in Okinawa.)

I contacted Chalmers Johnson last spring when we were putting together a coalition to oppose the relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa. Johnson, who died over the weekend, was best known for his book-length critiques of U.S. foreign policy (Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, Nemesis, and this year’s Dismantling the Empire). But he began his career of scholarship with books on China and Japan, and in 1999 published an edited collection called Okinawa: Cold War Island.

Johnson graciously arranged to send a signed copy of the book on Okinawa to a congressman heading to Japan. And he agreed to pen an op-ed to coincide with the massive protest against the base relocation that took place in Okinawa on April 25. In the piece that my colleague Emily Schwartz Greco ultimately placed with The Los Angeles Times, he wrote:

The U.S. has become obsessed with maintaining our empire of military bases, which we cannot afford and which an increasing number of so-called host countries no longer want. I would strongly suggest that the United States climb off its high horse, move the Futenma Marines back to a base in the United States (such as Camp Pendleton, near where I live) and thank the Okinawans for their 65 years of forbearance.

Johnson was a realist. “Unfortunately, I’m not very optimistic that either the Obama administration or the Japanese will do anything about closing Futenma,” he wrote to me at the time. As it turned out, he was right. The Obama administration put maximum pressure on the Japanese government to abide by an earlier agreement to build a replacement facility on Okinawa. As a result, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reversed his initial skeptical position on building a new base and then promptly resigned.

Two trends, however, may force both the United States and Japan to change their policy. In the United States, a veritable fever to cut the deficit has descended on Washington. The preliminary Deficit Commission report, released earlier this month, recommended a one-third cut in U.S. military bases overseas. Even conservatives such as Tom Coburn (R-OK) are willing to put the Pentagon budget on the chopping block.

Meanwhile, in Okinawa, two prominent figures are battling for the governorship of the island. Both incumbent Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and former Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha want Futenma closed and the replacement facility built somewhere other than the Okinawan prefecture. Iha, supported by the Social Democrats and Communists, has gone one step further: he doesn’t want the base in Japan at all. The election takes place next weekend. Given the sentiments of Okinawans – more than 80 percent oppose the current Tokyo-Washington relocation plan – the new governor of the island, whether Nakaima or Iha, will be a thorn in the side of the alliance.

Chalmers Johnson would no doubt have continued to be skeptical of change in the short term. No other Japanese prefecture is interested in another U.S. base. The Pentagon is pushing back against any substantial cuts and is not eager to reduce its overseas footprint. But, as I wrote back in spring for TomDispatch,

NIMBY movements may someday finally push the U.S. military out of Japan and off Okinawa. It’s not likely to be a smooth process, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. But the kanji is on the wall. Even if the Yankees don’t know what the Japanese characters mean, they can at least tell in which direction the exit arrow is pointing.

Chalmers Johnson explained the how and why of U.S. empire, and for that we all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. It is a shame that he did not live long enough to see that empire dismantled. But in the work we do toward that goal, we honor his name and his work.

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