At a meeting between Bashar al-Assad and a Lebanese Hezbollah delegation in Damascus in April 2013, Assad assured his guests that "the Americans are pragmatic" and "won't fully commit" to a policy to put an end to his regime. They will, he claimed, eventually "side with the winner." Policy statements and recent revelations about the Obama administration's deliberative process on Syria raise the question: Is the United States proving Assad correct?
The U.S. State Department is currently grappling with the problem of the Geneva II peace conference scheduled for late November. For Geneva II to succeed, Washington must somehow find a way to make the conference a step toward the exit of Assad and his inner circle, but this intended result makes it highly unlikely Assad will participate to that end. As U.S. officials in Foggy Bottom contemplate this thorny puzzle, their bosses at the White House could help by reconsidering the public messaging of their Syria policy.
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For the first time in many years, Iranian leaders are declaring that they are ready to make a deal with the United States on the nuclear issue, leading some skeptics to question whether Tehran is serious this time or merely orchestrating a publicity blitz for newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani. Although it is never wise to take Iran's gestures at face value, several developments suggest a potentially unprecedented opportunity for diplomacy with Iran. Conciliatory statements from Iran's top leadership, including the Supreme Leader, combined with the nuclear portfolio's transfer from the defense establishment to the foreign ministry could signal a strategic shift in Iran.
This time there is one more important reason to take Iran's leaders seriously and include them in any negotiations aimed at seeking a political settlement to the Syrian conflict: Tehran appears willing to dispense eventually of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in exchange for some relief on the crippling U.S., EU, and U.N. sanctions. Tehran is signaling a willingness to jettison Assad -- who it now increasingly sees as a liability. By using Assad as a bargaining chip, the Iranians believe they will be under less pressure to make tortuous concessions on the nuclear program, such as capping enrichment at low percentages, because they would appear to have surrendered another one of their powerful weapons instead -- the Syrian leader.
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The United States government has had to make some tough calls on Egypt over the last few years. Did the events of January 25, 2011 constitute a revolution? Was the election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi to the presidency the beginning of a revolution of a different kind? Did General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's non-coup constitute the real revolution? These definitional questions were not merely academic. As the director for intelligence and research for the Middle East at the State Department over the last few years, I saw firsthand that the administration was preoccupied with such questions at the highest levels of government. Our inability to answer them even for ourselves has been crippling. The Hamlet complex has been stifling decisions, from Egypt to Syria to Iran, and now back to Egypt. In every case, actions not taken were merely deferred, only to be taken at a later time at the least propitious moment, when a Shakespearean denouement was all but inevitable.
The truth is that government analysts were caught flat-footed by the events in Tunisia and Egypt as they first unfolded. The magnitude and import of Tunisia eluded even the most astute among us. By the third day of events in Egypt in 2011, however, we were sure Hosni Mubarak was going to fall. Seeing, on live TV, the total lack of fear among protesters as they chased after and burnt police vans was sufficient to underline that something fundamental had changed. Those who discounted Tahrir Square as a genuine revolution argued for staying the course, out of loyalty to Mubarak and for safeguarding U.S. security interests from the unknown to follow should he be toppled. Values and accurate forecasting fortunately won the day, and Mubarak's denying the will of his people was decried.
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Relations between Bahrain and the United States reached a new level of volatility this week as the kingdom's cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to, as Information Minister Samira Rajab said, "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs." The Bahraini cabinet's endorsement of a proposal to stop Krajeski from "interfering in domestic affairs" and meeting government opponents is a significant move that should do more than raise eyebrows in Washington.
While U.S. diplomats have been repeatedly attacked by the pro-government media and by the country's parliament for being too close to the pro-democracy opposition, attacks which included personal threats, this is different. This wasn't a crackpot newspaper or a loose cannon member of parliament saying this, but rather the cabinet, which includes the prime minister and the crown crince. The crown prince was supposed to be Washington's friend -- the young western-educated heir to the throne, the reformer in the family, the guy of the future -- whom the U.S. government had banked on to champion democratic reform in Bahrain.
In the wake of reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used sarin, a chemical weapon, it appears that U.S. President Barack Obama is on the brink of providing the Syrian opposition with lethal weapons. But it certainly does not seem that the Obama administration pursued the full range of nonlethal options available, particularly those involving the international community. Here's an idea: To affect meaningful and decisive change in Syria, which is suffering from a humanitarian catastrophe, the international community should use all available diplomatic and economic leverage to choke off the arms, resources, and money flowing to the regime.
A new Human Rights First report reveals that at least a dozen countries -- including Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Angola, Georgia, Lebanon, Cyprus, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates -- are continuing to provide the Assad regime with weapons, fuel, military technology, and access to financial markets. The paper provides both a unique overview of Assad's third-party supporters and a roadmap the U.S. government can follow to crack down on them. The U.S. government should use diplomacy to try to influence the countries providing these resources as well as the countries allowing these resources to pass through their jurisdiction. In addition, the U.S. Treasury should use existing authority under the Syria sanctions regime to designate those entities continuing to support the Assad regime and block them from the U.S. marketplace.
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After 23 months of fighting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power is increasingly tenuous. Fearing its greatest ally could be ousted, Iran has reportedly begun forming large sectarian militias in Syria to bolster the regime in the short term, and also to preserve its influence should Assad be overthrown. With so much at stake, Iran will only continue to increase such efforts as the regime's position becomes more vulnerable. These militias pose a huge threat -- it is imperative that the United States and the international community try to prevent the formation of a Syrian style-Hezbollah by bringing Iran into peace mediations led by the U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
The United States has been understandably reluctant to agree to the idea of including Iran which was initially advocated by Brahimi's predecessor Kofi Annan. Washington believes Iran has played a destructive role in Syria and expects it to only pursue its own interests in negotiations, even if it comes at the expense of the Syrian people. However, continuing to exclude Iran is highly imprudent. The United States must consider whether it is better to try and incentivise Iran to use its influence productively in concert with international efforts to stabilize Syria, or exclude it from the peace process and risk a perpetuation of the current chaos.
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The brouhaha over Israel's recent settlement announcements faded as suddenly as it emerged. After the United Nations General Assembly vote on November 29, 2012 that granted Palestine non-member observer status, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized an aggressive push in and around East Jerusalem. Construction plans, some of which already were on the fast track, were further accelerated and thousands of new housing units were approved, both to deter the Palestinian leadership from taking further steps in the international arena and as an unsuccessful election gambit to shore up his right flank. Within weeks, the bureaucracy reverted to a plodding pace, partly because the brouhaha had served its purpose, partly because of the quick and relatively forceful international response.
International condemnations of Israeli settlement activity are often pro forma. Not this time. The United States and European Union have been sensitive to these particular plans for nearly a decade already because they are seen to pose potentially insurmountable obstacles to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The most provocative project in question -- a development in the area known as E-1, an approximately 4.5 square mile zone east of Jerusalem that stretches to the settlement of Maale Adumim -- would all but separate the putative Palestinian capital from its Arab hinterland and foreclose the possibility of suturing the West Bank's urban continuum.
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The Obama administration's opposition to yesterday's United Nations General Assembly vote on the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) bid for non-member observer state status once again places the United States outside the consensus of the vast majority of the international community. While the merits and usefulness of such a move by the PLO can be debated, the United States has once again made it clear that it lacks any new ideas as to how to move toward a just and lasting peace in the region and suggests that the administration is likely to continue to support blindly whatever the current Israeli government wants.
However, looking forward to his second term, President Barack Obama faces three basic options for dealing with the Palestine issue. Their outlines have not really changed since the most recent Israeli attacks on Gaza. The first is the tried and true method of simply ignoring Palestine and the Palestinians, while paying lip service to the "peace process" and attempting to extract unreciprocated Palestinian concessions to Israel. This approach was practiced during most of the administration of George W. Bush, and over the last two years by that of Obama. There are many pretexts for following this course of action today. These range from the persistent political divisions in Palestinian ranks and the feebleness of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, to the supposedly "terrorist" nature of the Hamas leadership in Gaza. They include as well the stubborn unwillingness of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to engage in serious negotiations to change the intolerable status quo of never-ending settlement growth and strict Israeli control over the millions of Palestinians who have lived under Israel military occupation for over 45 years. If, as clearly seems to be the case, the Israeli government is not fully willing to allow unfettered Palestinian self-determination, terminate its occupation, and remove its settlers, what is the point of "negotiations" for the Palestinians? Another reason for doing nothing is the unbroken record of failure of every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter in trying to stop the inexorable expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise. This vast endeavor now comprises nearly 600,000 colonists -- or about one in every 10 Israeli Jews, who live on stolen Palestinian land in a far-flung archipelago explicitly intended to make the creation of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state physically impossible, with majestic success thus far.
Governor Romney's foreign policy address to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) today focused almost exclusively on the broader Middle East region. The speech was predictably light on the policy details of what a Romney presidency would actually do differently and just as predictably heavy in its finger-wagging at President Barack Obama's supposed failure of leadership. True, the "Mitt hearts Israel" parts of the speech were even more to be expected: then again those barely belong in the category of "foreign" policy.
National security is unlikely to become a particularly challenging electoral issue for the president or a winning card for Governor Romney. If anything, Obama's circumspect attitude toward war is likely to play better than the flame-throwing Romney displayed today. And yet, the speech did tell us quite a bit about the tensions inherent in doing Republican foreign policy in the post-Bush era. If there is to be a Romney presidency then, based on this VMI speech, a number of those tensions will surface rather quickly -- here are five for starters:
After the recent unrest at embassies in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia and the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, there may be mounting pressure in upcoming weeks or months to permanently shut down embassies or rupture diplomatic relations. Already, there have been significant diplomatic staff withdrawals from many of the embassies. While the security situation may undoubtedly warrant temporary reductions in diplomatic presences overseas, countries should be extremely wary of using long-standing diplomatic sanctions as a way to condemn a regime's behavior or as a foreign policy tool of coercion. Historically, security reductions and closures in the name of security can lead to more entrenched policies of diplomatic disengagement. In light of recent events, policymakers should be cognizant of some of the dangers of diplomatic disengagement as they face decisions about if and when to resume normal embassy operations or shut embassy doors for the long haul.
Why is it crucial to remain diplomatically engaged particularly in the most dangerous parts of the world that may pose a security threat? Lost in the recent debate on embassy security is a clear articulation of the specific logic and empirical evidence to illustrate why a diplomatic presence is so important in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it quite simply in September 1949:
"We maintain diplomatic relations with other countries primarily because we are all on the same planet and must do business with each other. We do not establish an embassy in a foreign country to show approval of its government. We do so to have a channel through which to conduct essential government relations and to protect legitimate United States' interests."
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While most media attention focused on the cartoon bomb presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, something even more newsworthy passed almost without notice: Netanyahu made it clear that he has endorsed U.S. President Barack Obama's policy on Iran. By literally drawing a red line to show how far he could tolerate Iran's nuclear program, Netanyahu in effect approved of the international efforts led by the Obama administration to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In fact, while he would never admit it in the midst of a campaign, even Mitt Romney picked up on this view and has, in practice, endorsed Obama's approach. That sudden outbreak of unspoken consensus is the real story of the last week of diplomacy. The real question now is what can be done with the broad agreement that there is both time and space for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program that has created a new window of opportunity. And that depends on two big wildcards: what Netanyahu's red lines really are, and Iran's real intentions and capabilities.
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During the last 18 months, Syria's leadership class has made almost every mistake in the book. The regime has no respect for or indeed understanding of basic governing concepts except those defined by the use of force. Its heavy hand transformed disparate, limited, local acts of disobedience energized by economic discontent into a national, sectarian revolt against the ruling Ba'ath Party and increasingly against the minority Alawite community at the Party's center. In this context, the regime's efforts at political reform, while unprecedented, have been overwhelmed by an exploding but still manageable challenge to the regime itself, which now must reap the fruits of its own grievous shortcomings.
The shortcomings of the regime have been more than matched by those defining the opposition. Syria's political class has failed to cast off the burdens of its own history. The serial coups of the 40s and 50s and 60s highlighted the inability of Syria's political leadership to rule effectively. Today's "opposition" -- a description that suggests a clarity and unity of purpose that is all but entirely absent -- remains a factionalized, personality-driven, almost apolitical assembly of aspiring Peróns operating outside the growing circle of conflict in the country itself. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing of their sorry history.
A majority of Americans support President Barack Obama's approach of using sanctions and diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet, the lack of progress in recently resumed multilateral negotiations with Iran has given hawkish policymakers and pundits an opening to renew their calls for the United States to threaten a military strike against Iran. Sanctions and diplomacy alone will not convince "the mullahs," they say, absent the belief that the United States will attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Their argument is as alluringly simple as it is dangerously naïve. There is a decisive difference between leaving all options on the table while pursuing a permanent diplomatic resolution, as the President has, and actively threatening military action. Failing to comprehend this distinction, those pushing for a more bellicose posture actually strengthen the hand of the Iranian regime and reduce U.S. leverage in negotiations, thus making a permanent resolution to concerns over Tehran's nuclear program less likely.
Motivated by President Bashar al-Assad's terrible murder of civilians and (or) the strategic opportunity to undermine Iran's staunchest Arab ally, both conservative and liberal voices in the United States now favor military intervention in Syria. There is indeed a striking synergy between the United States' strategic and humanitarian goals in Syria, either of which could potentially motivate military action. But good intentions do not make good policy.
Deposing Assad, weakening Iran, and stopping government-sanctioned murder are all laudable objectives worthy of U.S. investment, but the proposition of using military force to achieve those goals must be weighed against the risks and costs of doing so. And perhaps the singular lesson of the last decade of foreign policy is that the unintended consequences of well-intentioned military action can be massive and outweigh the achievements of noble policy choices. The wisdom and justice of U.S. foreign policy decisions is a function of the consequences they produce, not the hopeful intentions with which they are initiated.
There are three basic problems with the proposals for military intervention in Syria.
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This week, a European diplomat exuberantly told The Washington Post's David Ignatius that Iran had "backed down" from its threat to pull out of talks scheduled to be held in Moscow if lower level talks did not take place first. The diplomat added, "the formula we have agreed [upon] is that they [Iran] will engage in the substance of our proposal. In turn we will think a bit about their ideas."
While it is unclear exactly how avoiding preparatory talks before Moscow represents a "diplomatic victory," as the diplomat said, it is natural for the West to strike a confident posture before the negotiations. However, if this show of confidence is really just arrogance -- as suggested by the notion that Western powers need only think "a bit" about Iran's objectives -- then the negotiations are very unlikely to succeed.
Recently, Iran's top negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said he is ready to engage with a proposal for Iran to ship out its stockpile of 20 percent uranium. Exporting this uranium would be a major concession that would eliminate Iran's potential shortcut for building a nuclear bomb. Substantially reducing Iran's capability to rapidly develop nuclear weapons in this way would also help diminish the risk of war, lower oil prices, and create time and space for a larger diplomatic agreement after the U.S. elections.
However, to win such a major concession, Western powers must be ready to offer something of strategic value in return. Iran has little incentive to offer concessions if they will only be met by more sanctions and economic hardship.
Despite the tentative and fragile ceasefire that appears to have now taken hold in Syria, skepticism and outright vitriol regarding the mission of United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan remains. This frustration is understandable as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has until now shown no signs of credible compromise and the human costs of conflict have continued to escalate. The odds against success remain high. Even as the Syrian regime has observed a cessation in hostilities, it has ignored agreements to redeploy troops and heavy weapons from population centers. However, even if the current iteration of the Annan mission fails, a sequential diplomatic approach remains the only avenue by which an international consensus might be reached; without such consensus there is simply no hope for a near-term resolution of the conflict through managed transition.
The ceasefire that is at the crux of current attention is not an end in and of itself. The six-point plan endorsed by the Arab League and the United Nations also seeks to establish a Syrian-led political process that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. While the terms of a transition are left unspecified, it should be clear to Russia and others that any credible managed transition will require the removal of Assad from power. There can be no stability in Syria if the regime remains fully intact. In light of the indispensability of Russia and China and their reservations about the consequences of a political transition, focus should now shift to fashioning a serious transition process that retains specific figures and institutions from the Assad regime while allowing for genuine political change to take root. If international consensus cannot be marshaled around such basic realities then Syria is destined to suffer from escalating and protracted conflict that is the sole alternative to a diplomatic resolution.
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As escalating numbers of Syrians flee across the Turkish border to escape President Bashar al-Assad's brutality, Turkey is stepping up diplomatic efforts to exert increased international pressure on the regime. While the international community is inclined to give Assad more time to implement Kofi Annan's peace plan, Turkey feels that the urgency of the situation demands immediate action. Tensions between Turkey and Syria have further escalated after shots fired across the border wounded four people in Turkey's Kilis refugee camp and Syrian forces and Free Syrian Army fighters clashed over control of a nearby border gate. On Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey would enact measures against the Assad regime if Damascus fails to abide by an April 10 deadline to cease violence. He did not outline what specific steps his government would take, but the likely scenario being floated by the press includes setting up a buffer zone along the border to protect refugees. No matter how Turkey responds to the Syrian crisis, however, it will not easily extract itself from the ongoing turmoil that the country is likely to experience in the months and years ahead. Syria's geopolitical proximity, its Kurdish minority, and the economic, cultural, and strategic cooperation between the two countries raise the stakes for Turkey in finding a swift and sustainable resolution to the Syrian crisis.
As the brutal crackdown in Syria turns one year old with little sign of a solution on the horizon, skeptics and defenders of invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine can agree: Syria has put the doctrine, which obligates states to be concerned about the welfare of those outside its borders, in crisis. Critics charge that it requires intervention on the Libyan precedent, exposing R2P as a crusading utopianism mandating perpetual war for peace. Supporters worry the doctrine will be made into a discredited farce if Bashar al-Assad is allowed to massacre innocents with impunity. In one colorful phrasing, "R2P, R.I.P."
Both are wrong. Military intervention in Syria would not only be a misapplication of R2P, but would radically weaken the doctrine's role in building both a better Middle East and a better world. Our responsibility to protect both Syrians and the R2P doctrine itself demands that we stay out of it.
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On January 6, 2011, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Sharm el Sheikh in an effort to resuscitate the flagging peace process. Egypt for many years played the role of regional protector of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which was extremely heavy on process while being ever-more transparently light on delivering peace. It is a role that the new Egypt is unlikely to volunteer for.
Almost exactly one year later, Jordan has gone some ways toward assuming that role by convening Israeli-Palestinian exploratory talks in Amman on Tuesday. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did not meet officially or publicly throughout 2011 at the Palestinian insistence that Israel first stop settlement activity. It took a considerable effort to make yesterday's meeting happen, given ongoing settlement construction, land seizures, and home demolitions. The meeting, hosted by Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on behalf of King Abdullah II, brought together Quartet envoys, Yizhak Molcho, legal adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, and the indefatigable chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, awkwardly pictured at the table's head as he presented positions on border and security (proposals well known to his interlocutors). Following the meeting, Judeh sought to manage expectations while announcing that a series of talks will follow. Preserving an old school peace process is going to be very hard work in the new realities of the Middle East.
In light of the resignation of the National Security Council's Dennis Ross, and as the international community waits for the United Nations to consider Palestine's road to formal statehood, we call upon the Obama administration and so-called Middle East experts advising the various presidential hopefuls to take some introspective "down time." The purpose is to reassess heretofore time-honored policies, practices, political campaign pronouncements, and come up with a realistic and viable way forward.
It is clear that Obama's efforts toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire have been nothing short of a failure. When tallying on to previous failed administration attempts, the cumulative effect has been a clear loss of strategic leverage. This loss is detrimental to the U.S. interest of securing two states living side by side in peace in the region, as well as influencing the likes of Syria and Iran at a critical time. This trend must be reversed and replaced by revitalized action on a critical U.S. national security issue.
Later this month, the representatives just elected by Tunisian voters will begin the task of designing a new political order for the country. If all goes well (though it may not) Egyptians and Libyans will follow suit by drafting new constitutions. It is still not inconceivable that other Arab societies will join them in an attempt to reinvent political systems on a more democratic basis. People in these societies are about to engage in an unprecedented process for them -- while they have all lived under constitutions before, those documents generally enabled authoritarian government. Now they want to write constitutions that will allow them to live democratically. As Americans, this seems to be a story we know well -- a people rises up, throws off oppression, and then deliberates carefully how to write a set of rules for a new republican order fit for a free people. Therefore, we will soon hear lots of well-meaning advice on how Arab societies should write their constitutions and what those constitutions should say.
We saw in Iraq how much U.S. understanding of the constitution drafting process was colored by the U.S. experience. Commentators rushed to speak about a "Philadelphia moment," recommended favorite clauses from the Bill of Rights, and even argued over judicial review by reference to Marbury vs. Madison or Roe vs. Wade. We should have learned our lesson: much of our advice will be bad and most will be irrelevant.
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Tehran initially viewed the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey with much enthusiasm. It has turned into a nightmare. Turkey's shift against the Assad regime in Syria, and its manifest ideological appeal in a changing Middle East, now has Iranian leaders viewing Ankara as a key part of a U.S. scheme with the Arab States in the Persian Gulf aimed directly at them.
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So the UNESCO's general conference has voted to admit Palestine as a member. The U.S. government has made good on its Congressionally-mandated commitment to withhold its dues payments to UNESCO. Israel has come up with a cute PR line (UNESCO is supposed to be about science, not science fiction), Europe is hopelessly split -- oh, and the Palestinian territories are still occupied.
Nevertheless, there are a few signposts for what might be coming down the pike worth paying attention to after today's vote:
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"People underestimate the fact that this relationship [with Israel] is anchored in mutual interest,'' an Egyptian diplomat told me last week when I asked about the deal that finally released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity. "Nobody has an interest in seeing it break down."
Those mutual interests have not been in great evidence since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. Months of crisis, from a cross-border Israeli raid which killed six Egyptian soldiers to the ransacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, have dominated the bilateral agenda. But Egypt's role in brokering the exchange of Shalit for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners demonstrated that fears of a major break between Egypt and Israel have been wildly overstated.
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Cynicism and skepticism always have their place, but today might just go down as an historic day on the Israeli-Palestinian front. No, there is no direct or quick fix move from the Palestinian application for U.N. membership to the actual realization of a Palestinian state (and certainly not when one factors in the Israeli response) but the Palestinian U.N. move does represent the most definitive break yet with the failed and structurally flawed strategies for advancing peace of many a year. Many Palestinians and others are now suggesting that the PLO leadership progress from the symbolism of September 23rd to a concerted struggle for their freedom centered on nonviolent resistance, diplomacy, and international legality, believing that this would finally deliver a breakthrough.
In its theatrics, today was rather predictable -- other than the Quartet statement of the afternoon, on which more in a moment. The speeches of Abbas and Netanyahu held few, if any, surprises. Abbas played to the Palestinian community at home and around the world, and to the rest of the international community.
Observers of Yemen are often asked why the revolution there has taken so long and why it has been so inconclusive. The more basic question -- never asked, though inextricably tied to this -- is why an uprising started in the first place.
When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and began to spread in the region, I did not think the conditions in Yemen were ripe for it. Indeed corruption, inequality, and the callous disregard for law were much worse in Yemen than any other country in the region. However, the conditions usually viewed as prerequisites for revolution -- a large and mobile middle class, a strong civil society, high literacy rate, and internet penetration -- are all non-existent. Yet the state does benefit from an historical accident, the adoption of a multi-party system in 1990 as part of the unity agreement between South and North Yemen. Twenty years of multi-party experience and the attendant mobilization skills of politicking made it possible for Yemeni activists to launch the revolution. Unfortunately, the absence of a broad middle class and a dynamic civil society has stunted the movement's momentum. The revolution has gradually transformed into what is largely an elitist struggle for power.
Is there anyone familiar with the history of the Israel-Palestine peace process who still believes that this Israeli government would defy the over half-a-million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- by far the most influential political force in Israel -- and their networks of supporters within Israel, and present Palestinians with a reasonable peace plan for a two-state solution that would be acceptable to even the most moderate and accommodating of Palestinian leaders?
Shelly Yachimovich, an Israeli Knesset Member who is a leading candidate for the Labor Party's leadership, recently declared that Israel's settlement project is "not a sin or a crime" since it was initiated by a Labor government, and therefore "a completely consensual move." Leaving aside the bizarre notion that the consensus of thieves legitimizes their theft, if these are the views of candidates for Labor Party leadership in today's Israel, what prospect can there possibly be for an acceptable peace accord to emerge from the peace process?
After serving nearly six years as the special advisor to the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I came home convinced of one thing, cognizant of another. The first was that a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not only in the vital security interests of Israel and the future state of Palestine, but also the United States. The second, initially noted two years ago by a former IDF Chief of Staff, was that, "The USSC, the IDF and the Palestinian Security Services were buying time, time for the politicians.... [A]nd they're wasting it." As we approach the United Nations General Assembly session in September, the first conviction remains immutable, while sadly, the reality of the general's observation appears not to have changed in the slightest.
T. E. Lawrence wrote in the aftermath of the First World War, "...[W]hen we achieved, and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew... We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly, and made their peace."
After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. continues to interpret the crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. Concerned about the risk of an emboldened al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. has offered tepid support for the aspirations of the country's majority, pinned its hopes on an atavistic autocrat, and opted to increase controversial drone attacks in some of the most unstable parts of the country.
This strategy is mistaken. It presupposes a narrow understanding of U.S. interests centered on counterterrorism, which I and others have argued against elsewhere. But it also assumes that working against the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Yemenis is, in fact, the best way to counter the threat of AQAP. Supporting the development of a democratically-constituted Yemen and offering support to its leaders as they build legitimate state institutions makes more sense. This Friday, the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, which is advocating for Saleh's immediate transfer of powers and the formation of a transitional council, has issued a call for a march in pursuit of a "Civil State." Yemenis from across ideological, occupational, generational, and class lines will gather around the country to demand a state accountable to its rights-bearing citizens. It will be the twenty-fifth Friday on which they have done so, camped out in the squares for the weeks in between.
Historical dates often emerge by sheer coincidence. In 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad formulated an operational goal for his tenure: by 2011 he wanted to build institutions that would justify the proclamation of a Palestinian state. This would not just have symbolic value, as PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat's statement in 1988, but would carry practical implications. Fayyad's efforts have commanded international admiration. The West Bank is indeed run in a way that meets many criteria for successful statehood. As opposed to the past, funds are used responsibly and accounting standards are transparent. The security forces -- originally trained by U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton -- are remarkably effective. Both the Palestinian population and the Israel Defense Forces rely on them more than ever. Hence, September 2011 began to crystallize as a realistic date for the founding of a Palestinian state.
Fayyad's 2011 deadline for the declaration of Palestinian statehood had acquired enormous importance, even though Fayyad never connected it to the bid for U.N. recognition. It has provided Palestinians with a political horizon and a strong motivation to try the route of peaceful resistance and reliance on the international community's support for the new state. The idea of turning to the U.N. for recognition of Palestine seems not to have been a long-term strategy; it emerged as an option faute de mieux, in the absence of negotiations, and without reasonable hope that Netanyahu has the will or the mandate for a meaningful Israeli compromise.
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