Focal Points Blog

Even Obama Wouldn’t Trade DADT and Dream Act for New START. Would He?

The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Global Security Newswire reports: “Key Senate leaders and the White House today appeared closer to striking a deal” to vote for New START before year’s end, “but only if Democrats are willing to drop or vote down legislation on immigration and permitting gays to serve openly in the military.”

President Obama wouldn’t agree to that, would he? Especially after he’s let the Republicans extort him to the tune of a commitment to spend $86.2 billion over the next decade on maintaining current operations of the nuclear weapons complex along with modernization of its stockpile and infrastructure. In fact, Republican may have held one gun too many to the administration’s head on New START. Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Wonk told GSN: “I don’t know if the White House is willing to accept such a trade.”

Meanwhile, the New START-has-no-clothes message has finally gone mainstream. In Overwrought on START,* posted at the centrist National Interest, Benjamin Friedman and Owen Cote first point out, as many have:

Administration officials like noting that New START’s eventual limit of 1550 deployed strategic warheads is 30 percent less than what the 2002 Moscow Treaty allowed. But that is an accounting trick. Under New START’s counting rules, all warheads assigned to each bomber count as one warhead.

Beyond that, Friedman and Cote may be the only mainstream writers to have noted the true extent to which the administration has gone to win Republican votes for ratification (emphasis added):

The problem is that the price is already too high. . . . By faking a drawdown [New START] keeps Americans from noticing that deterring our enemies requires nothing like the force structure we plan to retain. . . . A submarine only force would provide all the deterrence we need at far less cost. We don’t need Russia’s permission to give taxpayers that break.

Funny how, when it comes to nuclear weapons, deficit hawks go all deficit dove.

*Thanks to Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group for brining the National Interest piece to our attention.

Opposition to New START Pits Republicans Against Traditional Allies

Jon Kyl, Republican senatorsIt’s not just the Obama administration against which Republican senators under the guidance of Jon Kyl pit themselves when they oppose New START. In fact, perhaps bewitched by Tea Party-style incoherence, they’ve also placed themselves in the unlikely position of bucking the national defense establishment, to which traditionally they’ve been joined at the hip. New START, of course, enjoys the support of Secretary of Defense Gates and the Pentagon.

There’s no love lost on New START by this author, in part because its cuts are token, but, more to the point, because it’s come at too high a cost — a commitment to spend $86.2 billion on maintaining current operations of the nuclear weapons complex along with modernization of the stockpile and infrastructure. The Republicans and the Obama administration, in fact, are making it more and more difficult to pin the label “paranoid” on left-wing disarmament advocates who suspect New START is just a smokescreen that they’re both using to ensure that the nuclear weapons industry continues in perpetuity.

But, let’s view national security through the lens of conventional thinking and see how Republican opposition to New START looks. Oddly, Republicans have been less concerned about the actual numbers of deployed warheads reduced than with counting technicalities which they feel leaves Russia at an advantage. Aside from that, at first glance, opposition to New START is consistent with Republican values because it:

  • Demonstrates continued belief in the importance of nuclear weapons to national security.
  • In an effort to keep the Cold War view of Russia-United States relations alive, it stays Washington’s hand as it edges ever closer to the Russia “reset” button.

We didn’t include “because it stands in opposition to the Democrats” since the reflexive obstructionism with which Republicans in the House and Senate respond to Democrat’s initiatives is of comparatively recent vintage, dating back to the Gingrich revolution. About Republican opposition to New START Paul Krugman wrote: “if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it.” You’ve no doubt seen or heard many New START supporters make that argument. In that vein, what follows are responses to Republicans who operate under the assumption that they make up the national-security party.

If continuing without on-site inspection of Russian nuclear weapons, which expired with old START a year ago, is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then vote no on New START. Rebuffed on New START, Moscow might consider rescinding its support for the latest U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran and, as well, change its mind about that air defense system it had cancelled on behalf of U.S.-Russia relations. If that’s your idea of a sound national-security strategy, then, please, vote no. Both the Anti-Defamation League and the National Jewish Democratic Council favor ratification of New START for the same reason. If threatening Israeli national security is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then don’t hesitate to vote no.

Despite Republican objections to New START on the grounds that it impedes missile defense, the administration has not only inserted language into the treaty’s preamble to keep it from interfering with missile defense, but seeks $700 million more for missile defense in 2011. If using that as a pretext to oppose New START is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then vote no.

If a rebuffed Russia deciding to disallow U.S. and NATO from continuing to use its territory and airspace as a supply route to Afghanistan is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then vote no. If throwing away an opportunity to strengthen Russian President Medvedev’s hand at home at the expense of the more autocratic Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is your idea of a sound national-security strategy, then vote no.

Under the Nunn-Lugar Umbrella Agreement, the United States and Russia have agreed to continue the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program for decommissioning WMD from the former Soviet Union states while ratification of the New START Treaty is pursued. But Senator Lugar himself said that “it is unlikely that Moscow would sustain cooperative efforts indefinitely without the New START Treaty coming into force.” If endangering Nunn-Lugar is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then, by all means, vote no.

In the end, Republican strategy on New START may not turn out to be refusing to ratify New START, but, deficit hawks or no, extorting every last penny it can from the Obama administration for nuclear modernization before finally voting yes. We briefly interrupt this expose of the Republicans idea of a sound national-security policy to advise them that, if this is your idea of sound fiscal policy, then vote yes.

In the end, Republican balking at ratification of New START may be strictly in the service of helping to ensure a Republican victory in the next presidential election. They will then be free to engage in that other form of obstructionism so dear to them — an aversion to treaties in general. The ratification process for New START is yet more confirmation that the Republican party, as it’s currently constructed, is constitutionally incapable of conceding that the rival party has anything at all of merit to offer. Furthermore, when their actions run counter to not only the consensus view on national security, but their own, it’s apparent that what they once referred to as “creative destruction” has less to do with politics than with breaking toys. Clearly, calling in in the social sciences in an attempt to make sense of their behavior is a course of action that’s long overdue.

WikiLeaks IX: Wires Show U.S. Embassy Actually Got It Right on Honduras

Ousted Honduran President ZelayaWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the ninth in the series.

(Pictured: Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya)

Whoever’s behind the strategy of what WikiLeaks documents to drop, and when, has a keen sense of marketing. The information released thus far has provided nothing short of a fascinating, if sometimes downright trashy, tour through the nuts and bolts of American foreign policy practice. While very serious matters of international relations have been revealed so far, much of the dump seems designed to appeal to the Jersey Shore dimension of our imagination—which leaders have the most scandalous personal lives, which embassies generate the most consistently cutting, clever and humiliating analysis of foreign politicians, and the like.

Beyond all the sensationalist gossip that has come to dominate the headlines and is undoubtedly causing headaches within the White House, however, a number of leaked cables detail not only the professionalism and good judgment of American foreign service staff abroad, but offer real cliff-hangers that leave readers licking their chops for more.

One such document is a brilliant cable sent to Washington by the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The cable is dated July 24, 2009, right in the thick of the constitutional crisis that led to then-President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster by the Honduran military. As I argued repeatedly throughout the summer of last year, far from the leftist hero many—who had never followed Honduran politics before the coup—made him out to be, Zelaya is a despicable opportunist whose political loyalties extend only so far as himself. Still, while Zelaya undoubtedly pushed the envelope by seeking to reform the country’s constitution with no clear legal mandate, his removal by an even more contemptible cast of goons marked nothing less the lowest moment of Honduran politics in over a generation.

The embassy wire more or less confirms this analysis, acknowledging that all sides behaved badly. But what makes this a standout piece of diplomatic intelligence is its insistence on getting to the bottom of the legal dimensions of the situation—conclusions upon which to chart a responsible American foreign policy moving forward.

The cable lays out at length and with great care the various legal arguments put forth by coup supporters, including but not limited to accusations that Zelaya had failed to present the Congress with a budget, proposed illegal constitutional amendments of unreformable articles, illegally dismissed the head of the armed forces, and defied the judgment of an appeals court that demanded an end to Zelaya’s constitutional reform efforts. All of which may have been true. Only problem was, as the cable points out, “there was never any formal, public weighing of the evidence nor any semblance of due process.”

What follows is a breathlessly efficient rejection of the arguments put forward to justify Zelaya’s removal from office on the grounds that they are, well, nonsense and canards.

Article 239, which coup supporters began citing after the fact to justify Zelaya’s removal (it is nowhere mentioned in the voluminous judicial dossier against Zelaya), states that any official proposing to reform the constitutional prohibition against reelection of the president shall immediately cease to carry out their functions and be ineligible to hold public office for 10 years. Coup defenders have asserted that Zelaya therefore automatically ceased to be President when he proposed a constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution. ..

The Article 239 argument is flawed on multiple grounds:

– Although it was widely assumed that Zelaya’s reason for seeking to convoke a constituent assembly was to amend the constitution to allow for reelection, we are not aware that he ever actually stated so publicly;

– Article 239 does not stipulate who determines whether it has been violated or how, but it is reasonable to assume that it does not abrogate other guarantees of due process and the presumption of innocence;

– Article 94 states that no penalty shall be imposed without the accused having been heard and found guilty in a competent court;

– Many other Honduran officials, including presidents, going back to the first elected government under the 1982 Constitution, have proposed allowing presidential reelection, and they were never deemed to have been automatically removed from their positions as a result.

And here’s the real kicker:

It further warrants mention that Micheletti himself should be forced to resign following the logic of the 239 argument, since as President of Congress he considered legislation to have a fourth ballot box (“cuarta urna”) at the November elections to seek voter approval for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Any member of Congress who discussed the proposal should also be required to resign, and National Party presidential candidate Pepe Lobo, who endorsed the idea, should be ineligible to hold public office for 10 years.

But the cable’s obliteration of arguments in defense of the coup gets better still.

Regardless of the merits of Zelaya’s alleged constitutional violations, it is clear from even a cursory reading that his removal by military means was illegal, and even the most zealous of coup defenders have been unable to make convincing arguments to bridge the intellectual gulf between “Zelaya broke the law” to “therefore, he was packed off to Costa Rica by the military without a trial.”

– Although coup supporters allege the court issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya for disobeying its order to desist from the opinion poll, the warrant, made public days later, was for him to be arrested and brought before the competent authority, not removed from the county;

– Even if the court had ordered Zelaya to be removed from the country, that order would have been unconstitutional; Article 81 states that all Hondurans have the right to remain in the national territory, subject to certain narrow exceptions spelled out in Article 187, which may be invoked only by the President of the Republic with the agreement of the Council of Ministers; Article 102 states that no Honduran may be expatriated;

– The armed forces have no/no competency to execute judicial orders; originally, Article 272 said the armed forces had the responsibility to “maintain peace, public order and the ‘dominion’ of the constitution,” but that language was excised in 1998; under the current text, only the police are authorized to uphold the law and execute court orders (Art. 293);

– Accounts of Zelaya’s abduction by the military indicate he was never legally “served” with a warrant; the soldiers forced their way in by shooting out the locks and essentially kidnapped the President.

The Armed Forces’ ranking legal advisor, Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, acknowledged in an interview published in the Honduran press July 5 that the Honduran Armed Forces had broken the law in removing Zelaya from the country. That same day it was reported that the Public Ministry was investigating the actions of the Armed Forces in arresting and deporting Zelaya June 28 and that the Supreme Court had asked the Armed Forces to explain the circumstances that motivated his forcible exile.

As reported reftel, the legal adviser to the Supreme Court told Poloff that at least some justices on the Court consider Zelaya’s arrest and deportation by the military to have been illegal.

In sum? Zelaya may indeed have been the dangerous, self-interested jackass many suspected him to be all along, but the coup constituted nothing less than a naked, illegal power grab by the conservative Honduran elite.

And yet despite this incisive analysis, the United States hemmed and hawed throughout the summer as the crisis intensified, innocent people were murdered, and Honduran politics seemingly returned to the bad old days of death squads and dictators.

The biggest as yet unanswered mystery in all this is why Washington retreated from its initial, admirable condemnation of the coup in its immediate aftermath, to a wish-washy acceptance by the fall of last year that the preservation of Honduran democracy necessitated toleration of its own egregious violation. It’s not as if the State Department, the White House, and the CIA—all of whom received the embassy cable—were unaware of the facts on the ground. And still, as Robert Naiman argues, even a month after this cable was sent

The State Department, in its public pronouncements, pretended that the events of June 28 –in particular, “who did what to whom” and the constitutionality of these actions—were murky and needed further study by State Department lawyers, despite the fact that the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold Koh, knew exactly “who did what to whom” and that these actions were unconstitutional at least one month earlier. The State Department, to justify its delay in carrying out US law, invented a legal distinction between a “coup” and a “military coup,” claiming that the State Department’s lawyers had to determine whether a “military coup” took place, because only that determination would meet the legal threshold for the aid cutoff.

So what happened? Was the changing face of American policy on the crisis the result of Republican congressional pressure on the Obama White House, as some claim? Or did the State Department sacrifice its commitment to democracy on the altar of larger, regional stability considerations, as some others have suggested? Let’s hope that more documents emerge that shed light on these questions, and fill in the timeline gaps of perhaps the most important event in recent US-Latin American relations.

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.

WikiLeaks VIII — Congressman King: “Bring me the head of Julian Assange”

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eighth in the series.

Peter King has never been one to worry about looking foolish in public. From suggesting that there are “too many mosques in this country” to declaring that George W. Bush should be awarded a medal for authorizing torture, the Long Island Republican representative does not hesitate to play the jackass on our national stage.

But his public outrage against today’s WikiLeaks information dump, and its sponsor Julian Assange, reaches new heights of stupidity. Speaking on 1010 WINS on Sunday afternoon, King crazily asserted that the leaks are “is worse even than a physical attack on Americans, it’s worse than a military attack.”


According to CBS News,

King has written letters to both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for swift action to be taken against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

King wants Holder to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act and has also called on Clinton to determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

“By doing that we will be able to seize their funds and go after anyone who provides them with any help or contributions or assistance whatsoever,” King said.

In his letter to Clinton, King argues that

WikiLeaks presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States. I strongly urge you to work within the Administration to use every offensive capability of the US government to prevent further damaging releases by WikiLeaks.

King was at it again today, suggesting that the president isn’t “as upset as he should be.” The reason? Because Obama’s “political upbringing” renders him ideologically incapable of taking “action against someone who is the logical descendent” of Daniel Ellsburg.

Given his wildly inappropriate statement that the WikiLeaks revelations are worse than an attack on US soil, one wonders if King was speaking literally when he urges the White House “to take action” using “every offensive capability” to put a stop to the Assange’s activities. One might also wonder, what’s more dangerous to the American way of life: WikiLeaks, or the likes of Peter King?

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.

WikiLeaks VII: Our Man in Zimbabwe Flatters His Way up the Foreign-Service Ladder

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the seventh in the series.

While some of the WikiLeaks documents dropped thus far offer lively writing and candid assessments worthy of a gossip magazine, others prove excruciating in the extreme. Take the sole document leaked thus far from the US embassy in Zimbabwe, for example.

Writing during the summer of 2007, then-Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell jotted down some final thoughts on Zimbabwean politics before leaving his post. His cliché-ridden prose, dripping with patriotic commitment, is enough to set the teeth of even George W. Bush’s speech writers on edge. The cable, preposterously entitled “The End is Nigh,” begins with a neat summary of where things stood three years ago [spelling errors left intact — Ed.]:

My views can be stated simply as stay the course and prepare for change. Our policy is working and its helping to drive change here. What is required is simply the grit, determination and focus to see this through.

If only it were so simple! The key challenge, of course, that stands in the way is Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, a leader Dell paints as if pitching the super villain in a Hollywood script.

Rober Mugabe has survived so long because he is more clever and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe. To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactition and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalize the political dynamic and force everyone else to react to his agenda.

It may be worth pointing out that, with the exception of the “brilliant” part, it seems Dell’s description could have equally applied as much to then-president Bush as to Robert Mugabe. Nevertheless, Dell argues that like all action movie scoundrels, Mugabe suffers from several Achilles’ heels which will ultimately prove to be his undoing.

He is fundamentally hampered by several factors: his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand); and his essentially short-term tactical style.

With not a trace of irony, Dell follows up immediately with the observation that Mugabe’s supposed weakness—a short-term tactical style—has done a pretty good job of “keep[ing] him in power for 27 years.” Short-term indeed. Dell also ignores the fact that the president is hardly alone in believing himself untouchable. Apparently the ambassador is not familiar with power of a healthy cult of personality. More interesting still is Dell’s seeming blindness to the powerful residue of Mugabe’s past glories. He seems to take Mugabe’s self-regard as important to the president alone, when in fact history still impacts the decision-making of foreign leaders—especially in the Global South—well-aware of his position as a liberation hero of the decolonization period.

In any event, Dell casts about with assertions of Mugabe’s imminent demise–predictions that have proven to be flat-out wrong. Still, he does a good job of protecting his predictions against the possibility of failure by blaming the US allies on the ground in Zimbabwe.

Dell doesn’t mince words about the political opposition to Mugabe in the country. He arrogantly notes that

I leave convinced that had we had different partner we could have achieved more already. But you have to play the hand you’re dealt. The current leadership..will require massive hand holding and assistance should they ever come to power.

On the subject of the country’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangarai, Dell has this to say:

Tsvangarai is a brave, committed man and, by and large, a democrat…But Tsvangarai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him.

Whether Tsvanagarai is not readily open to advice generally, or just from the United States in particular, Dell doesn’t say. But he does find a cute, and actually appropriate, analogy to sum things up:

He is the indespensible element for opposition success, but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power. In short, he is a kind of Lech Walesa…Zimbabwe needs him, but should not rely on his executive abilities to lead the country’s recovery.

Of Dell’s other assessments, none are particularly interesting save one, but only for the reaction it provoked. Speaking of Zimbabwe’s Industry and Commerce Minister, Dell asserts that

Welshman Ncube has proven to be a deeply divisive and destructive player in the opposition ranks and the sooner he is pushed off the stage, the better. But he is useful to many, including the regime and South Africa, so is probably a cross to be borne for some time yet. The prospects for healing the rift within the MDC seem dim, which is a totally unnecessary self-inflicted wound on their part this time.

Not missing a beat to capitalize on the WikiLeaks scandal, Ncumbe fired back that Dell’s assessment constitutes nothing less than evidence that the United States intended to kill him. Speaking with New Zimbabwe

Ncube stormed: “I’m a politician and my future rests in the hands of voters who can vote for me, or choose not to vote for me. But when I lose an election, I don’t leave the stage but continue fighting over ideas. So if Dell is proposing that I be taken off stage, how do you do that without killing me?

He was seeking to determine on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe which leaders should lead the country and interfering so extensively and so deeply in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe that he had no problem recommending literally the assassination of leaders the Americans don’t like.”

Apparently, Ncumbe hasn’t considered the fact that if the United States was conspiring to kill anyone in Zimbabwe, it would likely be Robert Mugabe, not himself. But Dell clearly has other things on his mind besides murder, namely, promoting his own career. In a telling closing paragraph, he indignantly remarks that

The official media has had a field day recently whooping that “Dell leaves Zimbabwe a failed man”. That’s not quite how it looks from here. I believe that the firm U.S. stance, the willingness to speak out and stand up, have contributed to the accelerating pace of change. Mugabe and his henchman are like bullies everywhere: if they can intimidate you they will. But they’re not used to someone standing up to them and fighting back. It catches them off guard and that’s when they make mistakes.

In other words, Mugabe and his thugs weren’t prepared for the likes of Christopher Dell. Nor will they withstand the mighty powers of the United States, even as it stands alone while everyone wimps out.

We need to keep the pressure on in order to keep Mugabe off his game and on his back foot, relying on his own shortcomings to do him in. Equally important is an active U.S. leadership role in the international community. The UK is ham-strung by its colonial past and domestic politics, thus, letting them set the pace alone merely limits our effectiveness. The EU is divided between the hard north and its soft southern underbelly. The Africans are only now beginning to find their voice. Rock solid partners like Australia don’t pack enough punch to step out front and the UN is a non-player. Thus it falls to the U.S., once again, to take the lead, to say and do the hard things and to set the agenda.

Not only that

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ordinary Zimbabweans of all kinds have told me that our clear, forthright stance has given them hope and the courage to hang on. By this regime’s standards, acting in the interests of the people may indeed be considered a failure. But I believe that the opposite is true, and that we can be justifiably proud that in Zimbabwe we have helped advance…

…wait for it…

…the President’s freedom agenda. The people of this country know it and recognize it and that is the true touchstone of our success here.

It’s not clear whether the Bush, and then Obama, administration shared Dell’s assessment of his successes. He was immediately posted to Afghanistan following his assignment in Harare, and was later appointed to his current position as Ambassador to Kosovo.

Ultimately, the lone document released so far by WikiLeaks gives little more than the standard macho blather common during the George W. Bush years, and reveals little insight into the actual operations of American diplomacy in Zimbabwe. But there’s more to come. WikiLeaks has indicated that it has nearly 3,000 more cables related to Zimbabwe that will drop here and there over the coming weeks. This is certainly unpleasant news for some in Zimbabwe and possibly in the United States. Says one Mugabe ally, “You just don’t know what’s coming next. If these documents go back to 1980, it’s likely there would be something in there embarrassing for the [president’s] party.”

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.

WikiLeaks VI: U.S. Supporting Separatist Kurd Party Fighting Turkey?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the sixth in the series.

Already rocky relations between Washington and Ankara may get a whole lot rougher this coming week. As part of the massive WikiLeaks document dump set to drop this week, files will purportedly be released suggesting that the United States and Turkey have been active underminers of one another’s security.

The Wikileaks dump will supposedly demonstrate US support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a separatist organization that has been fighting the Turkish state for the past thirty years. The group has been classified a terrorist organization since the late 1970s, and the George W. Bush administration worked closely with Ankara to help Turkey root out PKK redoubts in northern Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration denies the claim as part of its blitzkrieg damage-control offensive.

Deborah Guido, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Ankara, told the Daily News that the US government’s policy “has never been nor will ever be in support of the PKK. Anything that implies otherwise is nonsense.”

Recalling that the United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization, Guido said: “Since 2007, our military cooperation with the Turkish government in fighting the PKK has shown results. The U.S. Treasury Department has also named top PKK figures as ‘drug kingpins’ in issuing further sanctions against the PKK…

“We are committed together with the Turkish government to fighting terrorism, whether from al-Qaeda or the PKK. My government remains firmly committed to supporting Turkey’s efforts to combat the PKK, which has for too long threatened Turkey and taken Turkish lives,” Guido said. “The United States is continuing all operational and informational support and, since the increase in PKK attacks, it has increased facilitation in various ways.”

For their part, the Turks aren’t themselves idle victims—if the leaked leaks prove accurate. The document dump will supposedly show that the United States had come to believe that Turkey was facilitating arms transfers across its borders into northern Iraq, weapons destined for use by al-Qaeda in Iraq against American forces.

But others aren’t so sure.

Pinar Tank, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said media reports about the WikiLeaks release suggested that Iraqi citizens residing in Turkey aided groups in Iraq with links to al-Qaeda.

“A U.S. military report charges Turkey with failing to control its borders,” Tank wrote in an e-mail to the Daily News. “While this may be the case, this cannot be equated with an official policy of aiding al-Qaeda.”

If preliminary reports concerning the contents of the latest Wikileaks dump prove accurate, the revelations couldn’t come at a worse time for the Obama administration. Beyond the increasing divide between the White House and Anakara on the appropriate approach to dealing with Iran, relations are suffering from the absence of a US ambassador to Turkey. The post has been vacant since July, and will likely remain empty well into 2012. Obama’s appointment, Frank Ricciardone, has been denied confirmation by antagonistic Republicans in the Senate. As the Daily News reports,

Obama nominated Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and the Philippines, for the Ankara post July 1. Ricciardone won the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s backing July 22. But on the last day before the Senate went to a summer recess in August, influential Republican Sen. Sam Brownback from Kansas formally put a hold on his nomination, saying: “I am not convinced Ambassador Ricciardone is the right ambassador for Turkey at this time – despite his extensive diplomatic experience.”

Brownback’s move effectively prevented a full Senate vote on Ricciardone’s nomination.

US presidents have the right to bypass the Senate and appoint senior administration officials at times of congressional recesses. This opportunity was expected to arise Nov. 2 when the United States held midterm congressional elections. But this year, the Senate has not gone to an official recess—for the first time in modern history—robbing Obama of the chance to appoint Ricciardone.

As Michael Werz notes, Brownback’s resistance to Ricciardone’s appointment may have less to do with Barack Obama and more to do with George W. Bush.

The continuing holdup of Ambassador-to-be Frank Ricciardone’s confirmation by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) is incurring considerable damage. Sen. Brownback’s reasons for doing so have the taste of payback because he is suggesting that Ricciardone “downplayed” the Bush administration’s pro-democracy efforts in Egypt during his time as ambassador in Cairo, and did not subscribe to working with Iraqi opposition groups before the U.S.-led invasion. Holding up a key ambassadorial appointment is yet another indicator that conservative leaders in Congress are tone deaf to the changed environment and the consequences of the Iraq invasion—some are still dancing the old polka to the new rhythm of a polyphonic world. (Ricciardone is not the only collateral damage of partisan politics. Robert Ford is being prevented from starting work in Syria and so is Matthew Bryza, the nominee for Azerbaijan.)

Regardless Brownback’s motivations, the failure to situate an ambassador in Anakara—stupid even during moments of political calm—will surely produce negative dividends for both sides as Wikileaks revelations continue surfacing over the coming weeks.

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.

WikiLeaks V: Spying on the UN — Et Tu, Obama Administration?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifth in the series.

As eye-opening revelations concerning international diplomacy begin to pour out from the Wikileaks document dump, it is increasingly clear that the administration of Barack Obama will have a massive public relations mess to clean up. The latest scandal: Hillary Clinton ordered American diplomats to spy on top officials in the United Nations, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

According to the Guardian, which received leaked documents directly from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange,

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”. A parallel intelligence directive sent to diplomats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi said biometric data included DNA, fingerprints and iris scans.

But it doesn’t stop there. Beyond these top-secret intelligence gathering operations, the State Department also

wanted credit card numbers, email addresses, phone, fax and pager numbers and even frequent-flyer account numbers for UN figures and “biographic and biometric information on UN Security Council permanent representatives”.

The Guardian goes on to report that

The operation targetted at the UN appears to have involved all of Washington’s main intelligence agencies. The CIA’s clandestine service, the US Secret Service and the FBI were included in the “reporting and collection needs” cable alongside the state department under the heading “collection requirements and tasking”.

Of course, spying is hardly a new phenomenon in Turtle Bay. The National Security Agency, among other groups, was caught spying on Security Council members in 2003, and was accused of tapping the phone of then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Still, this latest episode will surely complicate matters between the world body and an Obama administration eager to mend the strained relations engendered during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The leaked cables reveal a wide-range of US interest in UN matters.

Washington wanted intelligence on the contentious issue of the “relationship or funding between UN personnel and/or missions and terrorist organisations” and links between the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Middle East, and Hamas and Hezbollah. It also wanted to know about plans by UN special rapporteurs to press for potentially embarrassing investigations into the US treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, and “details of friction” between the agencies co-ordinating UN humanitarian operations, evidence of corruption inside UNAids, the joint UN programme on HIV, and in international health organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO). It even called for “biographic and biometric” information on Dr Margaret Chan, the director general of WHO, as well as details of her personality, role, effectiveness, management style and influence.

But cables reveal that the spying orders were not only issued for missions within the headquarters on Second Avenue. The Guardian reports further that

They are packed with detailed orders and while embassy staff are particularly encouraged to assist in compiling biographic information, the directive on the mineral and oil-rich Great Lakes region of Africa also requested detailed military intelligence, including weapons markings and plans of army bases. A directive on “Palestinian issues” sent to Cairo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus and Riyadh demanded the exact travel plans and vehicles used by leading members of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, without explaining why.

In one directive that would test the initiative, never mind moral and legal scruples, of any diplomat, Washington ordered staff in the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to obtain biometric information of leading figures in business, politics, intelligence, military, religion and in key ethnic groups.

The Obama administration seemingly wanted information on matters of less global strategic import as well. In one example,

a cable to the embassy in Sofia last June, five months before Clinton hosted Bulgaria‘s foreign minister in Washington, the first request was about government corruption and the links between organised crime groups and “government and foreign entities, drug and human trafficking, credit card fraud, and computer-related crimes, including child pornography”.

Washington also wanted to know about “corruption among senior officials, including off-budget financial flows in support of senior leaders … details about defence industry, including plans and efforts to co-operate with foreign nations and actors. Weapon system development programmes, firms and facilities. Types, production rates, and factory markings of major weapon systems”.

So far no comment has been issued from the Secretary-General’s office, nor any of the other agencies affected by US espionage.

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.

WikiLeaks IV: Getting Personal

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fourth in the series.

You’ve got to hand it to US diplomats: they keep things lively.

The Guardian reports this afternoon on some of the tastiest tidbits of American assessments of foreign leaders and regimes. Among other things, the paper reveals funny observations made about Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (“plays Robin to Putin’s Batman”), French president Nicholas Sarkozy (“thin-skinned” and possessed of an “authoritarian personal style”), Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe (“the crazy old man”), Libyan loony Muammar Gaddafi (“just strange”), and Yemeni President President Ali Abdullah Saleh (“dismissive, bored and impatient”).

Some of the other criticisms leveled against leaders are less news-worthy, including those concerning Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

A dispatch from Kabul reports the view that the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is “an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to report even the most bizarre stories or plots against him.”

Yeah, no kidding. We learned of Karzai’s paranoia months ago with the release of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, where US administration assessments of the Afghan leader’s fragile mental state were frank, and frankly startling if they prove accurate.

Similarly, no one will be surprised to learn what the American think of Italian misogynist-in-chief Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian prime minister is

“feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader”, according to Elizabeth Dibble, US charge d’affaires in Rome. Another report from Rome recorded the view that he was a “physically and politically weak” leader whose “frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest”.

Perhaps more strangely, however, is the news released by the New York Times that

American diplomats in Rome reported in 2009 on what their Italian contacts described as an extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and business magnate, including “lavish gifts,” lucrative energy contracts and a “shadowy” Russian-speaking Italian go-between. They wrote that Mr. Berlusconi “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin” in Europe. The diplomats also noted that while Mr. Putin enjoys supremacy over all other public figures in Russia, he is undermined by an unmanageable bureaucracy that often ignores his edicts.

And once again, the only figure escaping the Wikileaks revelations seemingly unscathed is Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who cables refer to as “elegant and charming,” though untrustworthy. That seems about right.

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.

WikiLeaks III: Documents May Alienate Yemen From Its Neighbors

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the third in the series.

The WikiLeaks drop of documents concerning ongoing US operations in Yemen offers a fascinating read. In particular, they shed light on interactions between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and General David Petraeus.

The report doesn’t get off to a particularly exciting start, detailing the haggling between the two men over the details of cooperation between Washington and Sanaa.

Saleh agreed to General Patraeus’ proposal to dedicate USD 45 million of 2010 security assistance funds to help establish and train a YSOF aviation regiment, allowing YSOF to focus on al-Qaeda targets and leaving Sa’ada air operations to the Yemeni Air Force. Without giving much detail, Saleh also requested that the U.S. equip and train three new Republican Guard brigades, totaling 9,000 soldiers. “Equipping these brigades would reflect upon our true partnership,” Saleh said. The General urged Saleh to focus first on the YSOF aviation regiment.


But things begin to get interesting shortly thereafter. Discussing airstrikes against al-Qaeda elements in his Yemen, Saleh

praised the December 17 and 24 strikes against AQAP but said that “mistakes were made” in the killing of civilians in Abyan. The General responded that the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site, prompting Saleh to plunge into a lengthy and confusing aside with Deputy Prime Minister Alimi and Minister of Defense Ali regarding the number of terrorists versus civilians killed in the strike. (Comment: Saleh’s conversation on the civilian casualties suggests he has not been well briefed by his advisors on the strike in Abyan, a site that the ROYG has been unable to access to determine with any certainty the level of collateral damage. End Comment.)

They really get going a paragraph later as Saleh promises to cover up American attacks in Yemen by claiming responsibility for the violence himself, and then laughing about it.

President Obama has approved providing U.S. intelligence in support of ROYG ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh. Saleh reacted coolly, however, to the General’s proposal to place USG personnel inside the area of operations armed with real-time, direct feed intelligence from U.S. ISR platforms overhead. “You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center,” Saleh responded. Any U.S. casualties in strikes against AQAP would harm future efforts, Saleh asserted. Saleh did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus’ proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, “out of sight,” and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available. Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are “not very accurate” and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just “lied” by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.

And that’s only the beginning.

Pointing to the ROYG’s problems in combating rampant drug and arms smuggling, Saleh told General Petraeus that U.S. maritime security assistance was insufficient to cover Yemen’s nearly 2,000 km of coastline. “Why not have Italy, Germany, Holland, Japan, Saudi, and the UAE each provide two patrol boats?” Saleh suggested. The General told Saleh that two fully-equipped 87-foot patrol boats destined for the Yemeni Coast Guard were under construction and would arrive in Yemen within a year. Saleh singled out smuggling from Djibouti as particularly troublesome, claiming that the ROYG had recently intercepted four containers of Djibouti-origin TNT. “Tell (Djiboutian President) Ismail Guelleh that I don’t care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen — provided it’s good whiskey ) but not drugs or weapons,” Saleh joked. Saleh said that smugglers of all stripes are bribing both Saudi and Yemeni border officials.

The WikiLeaks document will not exactly do wonders for Yemen’s relationship with its regional neighbors. Discussing prospects for multilateral cooperation between its Middle Eastern allies, the United States and the European Union (EU),

Saleh told the General that he welcomed PM Gordon Brown’s announcement of the London conference and said that the cooperation on Yemen between the U.S., EU, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would be benefitial [sp.]. Qatar should not be involved, however, because “they work with Iran.” In this regard, Saleh also identified Qatar as one of those nations working “against Yemen,” along with Iran, Libya, and Eritrea.

All this provides more evidence in support of Issandr El Amrani’s claim that the WikiLeaks scandal is more significant for the Arab world than it is for us here in the United States.

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.

WikiLeaks II: Saudi Arabia on Iran — “Cut off the head of the snake”

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the second in the series.

There’s already been quite a bit of response to WikiLeaks documents suggesting that Arab regimes tend to view the Iranian administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as nothing less than evil incarnate. This is nothing surprising, I suppose, though the degree to which initial reports of Saudi Arabia’s pressuring of Washington to bomb, bomb, bomb Iran have proved accurate is disheartening in the extreme.

The Los Angeles Times reports that

King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, were among the Arab leaders lobbying the U.S. for an attack on Iran. One Saudi official reminded Americans that the king had repeatedly asked them to “cut off the head of the snake” before it was too late.

“That program must be stopped,” one Nov. 4, 2009, cable quotes Khalifa as telling Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. “The danger of letting it go is greater than the danger of stopping it.”

While this sort of thing probably plays well with Sarah Palin and her ideological ilk, it’s discouraging just how far Arab leaders have gone to cheer on the burgeoning movement within the United States to take on Tehran.

In a May 2005 meeting, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed, deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, urged a U.S. general to use “ground forces” against Iran even though, another cable notes, the federation did not abide by U.S. requests to interdict suspicious shipments transiting from its shores to Iran. A February 2010 document attributes Bin Zayed’s “near-obsessive” arms buildup to his fears about Iran.

“I believe this guy is going to take us to war,” Mohamed bin Zayed told a U.S. delegation in April 2006 of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “It’s a matter of time. Personally, I cannot risk it with a guy like Ahmadinejad. He is young and aggressive.”

In December 2009, the crown prince told a U.S. official: “We know your priority is Al Qaeda, but don’t forget Iran. Al Qaeda is not going to get a nuclear bomb.”

It’s certainly true that these are hardly revelatory insights into Middle Eastern regional affairs, but the Times seems correct to note that what is surprising is the depth of Arab fear of Iranian intentions.

And it’s not just Arab leaders that are worried. Ahmadinejad has also squandered what had been a decent amount of support from Arab moderates throughout the region, but who increasingly “view Ahmadinejad’s administration as oppressive, unpopular, and undemocratic, much as they criticize many Arab governments.”

Interestingly, this same leaked cable observes that

all of the Arab media figures we spoke to emphasized that Arab criticism of Ahmadinejad has not necessarily led to increased support for US policy in the region. On the contrary, closer analysis suggests that Ahmadinejad’s eroding popularity in the Arab world has created a scenario in which any U.S. effort to engage the current Iranian government will be perceived by a wide spectrum of Arabs as accommodation with Ahmadinejad.


All of the Arab commentators and news media figures we spoke to agreed that the U.S. “played it right” throughout the post-election crisis by staying away from detailed public comments that could be perceived as interventionist. However, the Arab commentators were quick to distinguish between criticism of Ahmadinejad in the Arab street and support for U.S. policies. The Syrian media consultant said that the heated debates before the election, in which the three challengers — Mousavi, Karroubi, and Reza’i — publicly criticized Ahmadinejad for corruption and economic mismanagement, made it clear to Arabs that this election was about Iran, not the U.S. This distinction, coupled with the U.S.’ restraint in commenting on the election, provided an unprecedented window for Arab commentators to criticize Ahmadinejad without appearing to side with the U.S.

Still, the cable ends on a depressing note by highlighting the fact that dealing responsibly with Iran will only strain Washington’s relationship with the Arab Middle East.

Once the dust settles on Iran’s post-election crisis, Arabs will look to see if the U.S. deals with Ahmadinejad as it pursues its nuclear nonproliferation agenda despite the lingering questions over the legitimacy of his election. If the U.S. enters negotiations with Ahmadinejad’s government, moderate Arab observers may argue that the U.S., for the sake of its own national interest, has cut a deal at the expense of pro-democracy advocates — just as many in the Arab street believe the U.S. has done with a number of Arab regimes. Those Arabs who continue to support Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, may perceive negotiations as a personal victory for a humble leader who brought the U.S. to its knees through steadfast resistance. Thus, Ahmadinejad’s “fall from grace” in the Arab world may have created yet another obstacle to improved Arab perceptions of the U.S. — in which engagement with an Ahmadinejad-led government is now a potentially lose-lose scenario in which Arabs at both ends of the pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad spectrum will consider negotiations with Teheran an accommodation with the Iranian president.

Lose-lose indeed.

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.

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